My inadvertent love affair with wonky pets began with my first dog, Toby, a collie cross rescue who was only six months old but already had a pin in his leg, as a result of being hit by a car.
I’d just moved into my first house and I wanted a dog. Nothing fancy, just one who would chase after a ball and bring it back, and cuddle up next to me on the sofa on all the evenings I couldn’t go out because the interest rates were so high I barely had enough money to feed myself.
What I got was a neurotic shadow hound who couldn’t bear to be away from my side until the middle of the night when he would pad downstairs and have a shit in the kitchen.
This went on every night for many months.
His ball-gathering skills were no better.
If you threw anything for him, he would chase after it with gusto, but once collected, he’d just keep on running straight into the nearest patch of thick undergrowth into which he’d drop it before trotting happily back to me.
He frequently took off on his own when we were out for a walk and I soon learned that if I went straight home he’d be sitting on the step patiently waiting for my return as if nothing were amiss.
He was 17 when his legs gave out and we had to say goodbye.
By then, he’d seen the arrival of a wife, and two children and concluded that his work was done.
We had a break from dogs for a few years, although we did have small children. They’re not a bad substitute in some respects, although they rarely shit on the floor in the middle of the night.
We moved on to smaller pets.
Gerbils, budgies, and then rabbits.
Toffee and Scratchy lived together in a hutch in the garden.
One evening, Toffee ran into my son when he was trying to catch her and broke her arm.
The vet told us he could amputate but we opted to try and save the limb which, ironically, cost both an arm and a leg and, when it didn’t work, we had to pay twice as much to have the leg amputated.
Scratchy had troubles of his own and lost half of his nose due to a disease that I’m going to say was myxomatosis but that’s probably only because it’s the only rabbit disease I can name.
Scratchy was killed one day by a fox who’d got into the garden and then Toffee lived out her years alone but apparently no less content.
Daisy, our shortsighted Labrador, arrived just as my son was leaving school.
We’d been drawn to her sad-looking eyes but it hadn’t occurred to us that perhaps they were sad-looking because she couldn’t see out of them properly.
Revisiting my simple desire for a dog that would bring back a ball I now had one that couldn’t even see the ball let alone bring it back, but as disappointing as it was that we’d found ourselves with another wonky pet my relationship with her became all the closer for it.
It warms my heart when we arrive at the park where we often meet some dogs she knows and she stares up at me as if to say, “Well I can’t see them, are they here?”
Her reliance on me has made me realise how much I rely on her, providing as she does such a stoic model of resilience, determination, positivity, and an endless capacity for biscuits.
After our latest setback, when having suffered with a persistent limp for several months she was diagnosed with hip dysplasia, a twisted pelvis, shoulder, wrist, toe and spine problems, I found our bond becoming stronger still.
I began to notice even the smallest almost imperceptible changes in her demeanour, moving with the ebb of flow of the way she shifted her body or held her head.
The daily routine of putting ice on her damaged shoulder, the visits to the physio, and the exercises we do to strengthen her muscles where I try and get her to stand on an inflatable wobble cushion and she can’t work out what I want and so lifts her paw, spins around, sits down and lies prostrate in an impressive run through all of her tricks to find out what she needs to do to unlock the grain-free chicken treat I hold in my hand.
Her numerous challenges and all of those that came with her predecessors create a relationship that transcends the one I might have enjoyed with a dog who could chase after a ball and bring it back.
So this is what I’ve learned from taking care of wonky animals, and I’m pretty sure you can apply them to any relationship.
1. People who don’t understand why I would spend the same amount of money on an animal that I would spend on medical treatment for one of my children will never be my friends.
2. Trying to do something kind that comes from your heart, like saving a rabbit’s leg, is what counts regardless of whether the thing you did works out the way you intended in the end.
3. You feel the value of a relationship most when at least one of you is going through a tough time because emotional resilience is easy to find when you don’t need it and precious and hard-won when you do.
4. Taking care of another living thing, a dog, a rabbit, or a plant, reminds us we are not better than or more important than anything else. The world does not belong to us, we belong to the world.
5. Life is short and even shorter for animals. Toffee (the three-legged rabbit) liked to sit under the drooping apple tree and systematically chew the leaves from the low branches. I preferred to stand upright and pick the fruit, but, in essence, we were just the same, making the very best of what we had within reach. This is the basis for durable contentment.
6. A lot of joy comes from living in the moment rather than time-travelling between a past that has gone and a future that has not arrived, and if you want to know how to be in the moment, just spend time with a dog.
As I finish writing this, propped up in bed, Daisy is lying pushed up against me with her head resting in the crook of my elbow. It isn’t very comfortable and it’s extremely hard to type, but I can’t think of anywhere I’d rather be.