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    Borrowing Strangers' Dogs Helped Me Through Losing Mine

    I was halfway around the world when my rescue dog died, and making new fluffy friends helped me mourn her.

    When we met her, my dog’s name was Natasha. She was a timid little mutt, cowering underneath a desk. She’d been separated from the other dogs at the rescue centre – too frightened, or too fragile, or too fancy in her soul to fraternise with the other pups. She was, as she would later try to tell us, too human-like in her sensibilities. At the time, Natasha was 8 years old, we think. She had crooked, rotten teeth, a slipped disc in her spine, matted hair that had been shaved off rather severely, and a nervous temperament. To hold her that first day was to cradle a creature rigid with fear. We don’t know where she’d come from or why she’d been abandoned – over the years, I suspected that perhaps she belonged to a little old lady who died and left her alone. But that could be because it’s a more bearable backstory than anything else.

    It was 2010 and I was still living in Sydney, Australia, when my then-boyfriend and I met with Natasha’s guardian, a stern woman called Monika who prefers the canine species to humans and makes no secret of it. We were interrogated thoroughly about our lifestyle choices, personal habits, access to a garden, security of fencing, proximity to parkland, and general responsibility as people. I understood, of course. By this time, Monika had spent years picking up bedraggled, neglected dogs from death row at pounds around Sydney. She had seen the cruelty and carelessness of humans and she was reluctant to give any of her charges up to anybody unworthy. I respected that, and complied with her interrogation fully.

    When we were allowed to take Natasha home, we decided to rename her. A new life sometimes requires that. I don’t quite remember how it was decided, but it was decided: Lady Fluffington was her new name (with the silent middle name Beyoncé). She took her time to fit into the grandeur of that name, but she got there.

    It was probably three months before Lady Fluffington felt truly at home in our little place. She learned to eat and relax and look at us kind-of languidly when we called out “Lady”. She started to climb the stairs by herself, sleep on the bed, and run around at the park. She became a confident little thing (if anything, too confident; she once tried to challenge a horse), probably because we knew she’d had a rough life and wanted to make it up to her with treats and cuddles and whatever she wanted.

    Lady Fluffington was, unofficially, my emotional support dog. I have bipolar disorder and I swear to you, she could smell a depressive episode coming on. When I was feeling low, she somehow knew to curl up beside me and to stay by my side for as long as the depression lasted. She trotted along beside me wherever I went. She sat on the passenger seat of my car, strapped in with a seatbelt. She binge-watched Pretty Little Liars with me. She was my Patronus for six years and I couldn’t have adored her more if I tried. Dog people know what I’m talking about.

    When my boyfriend and I broke up, it was obvious who’d get custody of Lady Fluff. He was very gracious about letting her stay with me and I will always be grateful for that. I had, after all, convinced him to get a dog in the first place by sending him photographs of rescues every day until he relented. It was lucky she was with me, really, because she got me through that breakup. She listened to “Magic” by Coldplay on repeat for three months straight and didn’t complain once.

    But being single did something to me. I suddenly, ferociously wanted an adventure. My mama was born in England so I have a British passport and, back in Sydney, I could feel that thing taunting me. “Why don’t you move to London?” my mama said one evening, casually. “OK,” I said and made the immediate decision to do just that. Of course I wanted to take Lady with me – imagine the walks we could have in Hyde Park, the tea and scones we could eat for afternoon tea, the time we could spend cuddled by the fireplace! But the vet said she was too old and too frail, at the age of 14, to risk going on a plane. She wouldn’t survive the three months of quarantine. I was devastated about leaving Lady Fluffington, but I figured I wouldn’t be gone long and I knew my mama would give Lady the same level of care that I had given her. If anything, she’d give Lady all the love she couldn’t mail to me in London. They would keep each other company.

    And so I left. Lady moved in with my mama and her husband, where she soon got a kitten for a companion, whom she tolerated. They were a beautiful little family and I Skyped them regularly. I was homesick in London, in a very specific way: I missed Lady with a physical ache in my heart. I missed the sound of her little paws tottering along behind me. I missed her ridiculous bark. I missed being in her company all the time. It hurt.

    At some point, I started borrowing other people’s dogs. Strangers’ dogs. I signed up to an app called Borrow My Doggy, which matches dog owners with dog lovers. It’s like Tinder, but the objective is to find a dog to look after for a while. I met a delightful American couple who became my human friends. While they were at work or on holidays, I hung out with their dog, also called Lady. It made me miss mine more, but I couldn’t stay away. I’m a dog person; things are not quite right unless I have some sort of canine interaction. Hanging out with London Lady was cathartic but painful. We became friends, but my heart was always in Sydney, with my little one.

    I went back to Australia last Christmas to see my family. The reunion with Lady was very special. She was almost blind and mostly deaf by that time, so I had to get down on all fours and press my face against hers so that she could smell me. She recognized me and did the little tap dance she did when she was excited. She and I spent three weeks together like old times, snuggling and spooning on the sofa in my mama’s house. It was heaven. When I needed to return to London, I said a long goodbye to my littlest friend, telling her I would always love her and that I’d be back to see her soon.

    I never saw her again.

    Lady Fluffington died earlier this year. She was 14 years old. Her kidneys had failed and she was so frail my mama wouldn’t let me see her on Skype. Mama called me the night before Lady died to say that she was going to the vet to put her down the next day. I knew it was time and I didn’t want my baby girl to be in pain. At about 2:30 that next morning, she made one last wriggle up the bed, rested her little head on my mama’s shoulder, breathed, shook, and died peacefully with her little snout tucked into the nape of mama’s neck. That’s especially lovely, when you think about it, because most dogs have the instinct to separate themselves from the pack to die. Most dogs try to get away from their humans when they know they’re about to go. But not my Lady; she was affectionate till her very last breath.

    “It’s over,” my mama said over Skype that day. “She’s gone.” I was distraught. I’d had practice being without Lady – I was already 13,500km away from her. But knowing that she was gone and that I’d never hear her grumble or snort or sneeze or squeak again made me feel empty in a way I’d never felt before. It broke my heart. I couldn’t believe I’d been so selfish as to move away from her, and I wished more than anything that somehow I could have saved her.

    I grieved for her like she had been human. I grieved for her as fully and as desperately as I would any other death. I howled and sobbed myself to sleep, I cried in that way that empties your heart and makes your throat ache. I wandered the streets of London on my own, lost. I missed Lady’s presence so strongly, I went to Hamley’s to get a soft toy that best resembled her. I came home with a little white dog that had been put back on the wrong shelf – abandoned, like Lady had been. I held on to that little thing desperately and couldn’t sleep without it in my arms.

    Days became weeks and then months. I wrote to my grandma, who is the only other person I know who loves dogs as much as I do. I drank wine with friends and toasted Lady’s little life. I dreamt about her most nights and woke to remember that she was gone. Everyone suggested I spend time with other dogs – to move on – but I wasn’t ready. And then, one day, I was.

    I contacted my friends with the golden-haired dog called Lady. I took her to Hyde Park, where we sat for a few hours under a tree. I stroked her and talked to her. I threw a ball for her, which she ran after and then left in the grass. We hung out and it did my heart enormous good, just to be in the presence of a dog. I couldn’t bring myself to call her “Lady” so I said “munchkin” and “little friend” instead, in the right intonation so she knew I was talking to her. I tried meeting up with a puppy, too, but that wasn’t right. My Lady had been an elderly dog; the contrast with that frenzied little animal was too much for me. I needed the calm of an animal at least 8 years old because it’s what my heart had become accustomed to. And so I saw Lady sporadically, when I could bare it. She came to stay with me and slept on the bed, at my feet. She came to my office, a little café down the street from me. We went to the park and watched telly together. I felt at peace for the first time in months. She could never replace my Lady, and she belongs to someone else, but she did help to heal my broken heart.

    The thing about truly being a dog person is that your life is not complete without canine company of some sort. When Lady first died, I would stop little old ladies in the park to talk to their dogs. I would follow puppies around the park, sobbing beneath my sunglasses. I would visit rescue websites to browse photos of animals up for adoption. I spent time with strangers’ dogs to heal my grief and it worked – a little. No dog will ever mean as much to me as Lady Fluffington did. But I don’t know how to live without loving a dog, any dog, all dogs, so I have to find a way to have them in my life.

    If this whole thing sounds insane to you, that’s OK; you’re probably just a cat person or a psychopath. If it sounds perfectly normal, you’re a dog person and I’d probably like you. If you have a dog I could hang out with, get in touch.