My girl Abby died. I wasn’t with her when it happened. I’m devastated.
I’d always said I’d never get a farm-bred collie. Especially not for living in the city. But I still remember the day I met her. After a few months deciding where to look for a puppy, narrowly avoiding a dodgy man with a springer pup who he was happy to just drop by with for a quick £350 and deciding I wasn’t in the position to look for a German shepherd like the family dog Mischa, I somehow found myself at a nearby farm looking at a border collie litter. I have no recollection of how I knew they were there.
It was late, the evening that I went to see her. The lady who had agreed to meet us walked us up to a dark stable and opened the door. A tumbling ball of black and white fur came bounding towards us. Plump and bold, I knelt to greet her and she was licking my face before I knew it.
“That one is taken already. It’s the wee runt that’s left.” She gestured to the dark behind the confident pup and I could just make out the outline of a teeny animal cowering in the shadows.
“Don’t worry if she’s not for you. She’s the smallest and the last.” I moved a little closer to get a better look and saw a tiny girl, almost completely black, smooth-coated and trembling while her sister gleefully ran circles around us.
I’d worked with dogs since I was fourteen. Nearly a decade by that stage. I’d even dedicated my University honours project to understanding them better. I knew all the warnings: make sure you see both parents; ask about socialisation; choose a breed that suits your lifestyle… I’d done none of these but I still heard my voice say “I’ll take her.”
I couldn’t stand the thought of her being left alone in the stable in the dark.
It was quick after that. I handed over the nominal fee of £100 for her because the farmer didn’t want the pups going for free but wasn’t interested in making lots of money. I sat on the floor and tried to coax her to me as I heard my Mum discuss with the farmer’s wife that the pups were a bit older because they’d been kept back for filming on the then children’s hit TV series Balamory. I was vaguely aware of older dogs on the farm somewhere. The parents possibly? I could hear them but not see them. At this point I was more interested in convincing this pup, my pup, to come and sit with me.
We made arrangements to collect her in the morning so I could go and purchase a bed, lead, bowls and puppy food. Essentials I’d left until I knew which pup I’d be bringing home. I’d eventually convinced her to come closer, close enough to see her light markings on her face, chest and belly and had her sitting beside me just before I had to leave again.
She came to me more willingly the next morning, trust already building from the night before. Little did I realise that from that day forward, everything I thought I knew about dogs was about to be challenged. The tiny little bundle of smooth black fur who sat whimpering in my arms in the fifteen minute car-ride back home was about to turn everything upside down.
Abby was not your ordinary dog. Granted, most dog owners will say the same. We all see our pets as individuals and rightly so. No two dogs, pets or animals are identical. They have different experiences and emotions which lead to different characters and unique personalities.
Abby’s experiences, whatever they had been, had led her to become an excitable but timid pup. Desperate to play and engage with other dogs and with people but unsure how to do so. At twelve weeks old she tended to get herself in tricky situations. Rushing in, scaring herself and barking suddenly. Her bark was much louder and bigger than one you’d expect from such a skinny wee thing. It startled people and had the desired result of causing them to back away. Abby was smart and quickly added this tool to her artillery. I would come to learn that this was an alarm bark and I’d hear it often.
With dogs though, she unfortunately took many of her cues from our older German shepherd who was suffering from extreme arthritis although we did not realise this at the time. Our soft hearted Mischa was unimpressed from the beginning and made her feelings about the pesky pup clear early on. Most of the time she wanted nothing to do with Abby and sent her away with low growls or sometimes snarls and snaps. On occasion, she would entertain a game of chase or tug of war until Abby inevitably pushed her luck and the game turned sour.
Their relationship was a difficult one. A heated pot always ready to boil over, mostly resulting in loud, ritualised aggression with dominating growls from Mischa and yelps from Abby. Abby had a terrible, naughty habit, while she was small enough to do so, of running underneath Mischa and nipping her. It was meant playfully but instead just annoyed our old girl who quickly became frustrated. Mischa would give chase much to Abby’s initial delight but the joy would quickly give way to panic and my pup would seek cover under the living room coffee table. Mischa couldn’t reach her there and would eventually give up. I still remember the day Abby learned that she was too big to hide under there, stunning herself as she caught the edge of the table. I was thankfully there to block the delighted Mischa and the telling off Abby received from her was nothing more than a deep growl.
As I write this I’m aware Mischa sounds like an awful grumpy dog. She wasn’t at all with people and when they had space to leave each other be, she even got on well with Abby. They just met at a time in Mischa’s life where her window for accepting a young pack member had all but closed. She’d lived with another dog, Cassie in the first half of her life but after Cassie passed, Mischa had been a lone canine in our home and wasn’t prepared for such a cheeky and somewhat rude character to join us. That coupled with a sudden increase in her pain levels thanks to arthritis made things difficult for Mischa to accept and I can’t blame her.
Their relationship ended badly. An argument turned fight resulting in an a torn shoulder, an emergency trip to the vets, stitches and the decision to keep the two dogs separate from then on. A complicated living arrangement for everyone which only eased when I moved out and took Abby with me.
The lasting effects for Abby were obvious. She took her lessons from Mischa and applied them to every dog she saw from then on. Assuming they were something to fear and exhibiting all the behaviours accordingly. She would lie down and refuse to move, carefully watching dogs that weren’t even aware of her existence yet. If they came too close she would react with growls, lunges and snaps.
I’d learn that these behaviours were Calming Signals. All dogs use them. Sometimes the meaning of the signals are obvious: moving away; freezing still; lying down; growling. Other times they are tiny, minute changes in body language like a lip lick or a yawn which, to the untrained eye seemingly mean nothing and go unnoticed. I would spend our life together learning how to read them and adjust my behaviour accordingly. Fine tuning my skills so I could spot the tiniest change in her facial expression or tension in her body. Abby was a sensitive dog, painfully aware of her surroundings and this made her a great teacher.
Life with her was a challenge and a new experience for me. Everything had to be thought about carefully. Walks each day were planned to avoid busy times with lots of people and other dogs. Visitors could only come over if Abby would settle in another room or on cool enough days, in the car. Other dogs were a no go. She had a small circle of human friends. A handful she accepted almost instantly, another couple she learned to trust after persistence on their part. I firmly believe she could have had more human companions but it would require people to work through the initial growling and snapping and spend time with Abby on her terms. This was too big an ask for most.
It could be exhausting and stressful. The majority of people didn’t understand our predicament which meant it could be quite lonely and they could be quite judgmental. At times I’d be out on walks and find myself challenged by strangers who merrily let their dog off lead to rush over to mine. I’d ask for help, for them to give us space and instead have them approach us, telling me that my girl would be fine with them, trapping us in a small space and then have Abby react, snap and desperately try to get out of the situation. On walks like this I felt like a failure. I hadn’t been able to protect Abby and this made me doubt myself and my ability with dogs many times over.
Many people suggested that I make a different plan, that I give her to someone else as life would surely be easier without her. I never gave up on her but instead learned more about ways I could make our life together better. I sought help from like-minded trainers to recondition her to people we passed in the street and in her later years, she was happy to walk by most people and even some dogs.
Our life together wasn’t all stress and worry. I often joked about her Jekyll & Hyde nature, reactive and defensive towards strangers but once she knew and trusted you, you’d struggle to meet a more affectionate animal. She’d greet us at the door with her tail wagging so enthusiastically it would wiggle her whole body. If you were lucky she’d jump up and wrap her paws around your waist in a bear hug, nestling her head against you and looking for a cuddle. She loved a massage and a head rub, often phasing out as if in a trance as she relaxed in to them. She learned quickly with an array of tricks to entertain us. Simple things from “sit” and “down” to “roll over”, “find”, “swap” and “tidy”. She loved hide & seek and would remember previous hiding places that the toy or person had been found in. She’d play fetch for hours, run across hillsides with glee and pay for it the next day as her old body reminded her she wasn’t a young pup. It still wouldn’t stop her the next time. She’d inevitably find every muddy puddle she could and run through them, maybe only regretting it later as she suffered the resulting bath. At Christmas she would have had many, often delicious smelling, presents under the tree which she wouldn’t touch until she was given them. Then and only then would she delight in tearing off the wrapping paper to play with the treat inside. She would tell us when bedtime was and demand that we go together. Never settling if one of us was up later than the other. Audibly grumbling at us if we stayed up too late. At night, when she was younger, she’d wait until the lights were out and she thought we were both asleep before going to her own bed. When she was older, she was determined to sleep in our room and if one of us wasn’t there, she’d sneak up on to the bed. I loved waking to find her beside me, often taking up more of the bed than me despite being less than half my size. In moments where she was very happy she would climb up close to us, give us a collie smile with her wrinkled lips, teeth bared and soft, blinking eyes, wiggling about until there was nothing we could do but stop whatever we were doing, laugh and give her the attention she desired.
Abby was my mirror, always reflecting back how I was feeling and reminding me to make changes that were better for both of us. She was patient with me and forgiving of the mistakes I made. Never holding the times I was frustrated and exhausted with our living situation against me. Always happy to be near me and reminding me to slow down and take a breath.
Last year she was diagnosed with severe arthritis and fusing of sections of her spinal cord. Painful ailments she’d likely been suffering from for many years but had masked for most of her life. We’d put her on painkillers and rest to help reduce and manage her pain. In the last couple of weeks she’d started to be slightly fussy with her food and trying to bury it before eating it a few hours later. She’d developed a very slight cough but nothing that had raised alarm until a couple of days after I’d left her with my parents. They’d arranged for a course of antibiotics which seemed to help at first until the medicine finished and the cough came back. I’d spoken to them the night before, discussing the next stage of treatment and deciding that she should visit the vets for some tests the next day.
She didn’t make the night.
I’m so incredibly sorry for the times doubted myself and wondered if I was best for her. For wondering if life would be easier without her. I now have my answer. While it may be simpler and less complicated, life is far emptier and lonelier without my shadow. And not the slightest bit easier.
While I grieve I try to remember the things I should be thankful for. That I spent the last year working from home with her reliably by my side or under my feet. That we’d arrived at a stage in her life where she was becoming more and more comfortable with people. That in the end she died relatively quickly and I’m told she was out in the garden just ten minutes before she passed away. That she wasn’t alone and had my parents by her side. That she died at home instead of scared in a sterile veterinary surgery. That she’s no longer in pain. That she’s no longer worried by scary things in her surroundings.
It will be a long time before I’m alright again. Abby’s passing has left huge holes in my life and my heart and I don’t know when they will heal. She has changed me for the better, making me more understanding and aware of dogs and their needs. She has been my best teacher, my loyal and loving friend and the most patient being I’ve ever spent time with. I have a lot to thank her for.