I can no longer recall the surname of my first proper boyfriend, but I can remember the name of the collie who lived opposite my childhood home. Her name was Peg, and she lived her entire life chained to a kennel. Even aged five, I was haunted by the sight of her. Whenever my mum walked the family dog, Pompey, Peg would bob on the end of her chain like a balloon, barking furiously. Pompey, an enormous golden retriever, would inevitably bound towards her, pulling my mum to the ground. It was daily chaos.
When I was big enough, I was allowed to walk Pompey on my own, after school.
He was incredibly lazy and would sit, refusing to budge until given a Rich Tea biscuit. As a child, I desperately wanted a pony and would sometimes secretly ride Pompey, something my mum did most evenings: as she stepped over his snoring blond bulk at the bottom of the stairs, arms full of laundry, he would stagger to his paws, meaning my mum inadvertently mounted him.
Pompey looms large in my memory as he was my safe place, a reassuring, smelly mound of unconditional love. Painfully shy as a child, I didn’t make friends easily. Older siblings scared me with their constant rows with my dad (he called my brothers ‘long-haired layabouts’). It was inevitable that, in later life, I would acquire more dogs as people fell by the wayside.
Of course, I wanted to rescue them, but the reality is they saved me: never cheating, never harbouring a negative thought, never slagging me off when I left a room. They see me at my worst, and only adoration shines in their big brown eyes.
Liz with Gracie (standing) and Mini Puppy, photographed in 2020 for YOU. The UK writer and columnist opens up about how important dogs are in her life
The death, in April, of my border collie Gracie reminded me of Peg, Pompey and all the dogs who have been part of my life. The response from readers who have got to know Gracie through my column over 14 years was overwhelming. I received more than 2,000 emails, people telling me how sorry they were; letting me know about their losses, too. A few of their stories are printed on the next page.
Losing Gracie caused me more pain than losing a parent. We slept together each night. We sat side by side on the sofa, Gracie letting out a groan of pleasure to be snuggled next to me. Unlike the men in my life, she never got on my nerves. Even the woman in the local dry cleaner – in her final years, Gracie was incontinent – was in tears when I told her I’d no longer be dropping off duvets on a weekly basis.
My life is now littered with the ghosts of fur babies. My dad adopted Pompey when he was two; his owners found him too large and unruly. Pompey was never neutered and escaped most days to cause mayhem on the council estate across a busy A-road. I lived in fear of him being squished.
My dad, an ex-Army officer, was affectionate with Pompey in a way he never was with his children. Even when Pompey bit him as he was changing a dressing, his admonishment was only, ‘Oh, my poor darling. Is it sore?’
After Pompey died – the first time I saw my dad cry – and I had left home for London, I spotted an ad in The Times. ‘Two-year- old black labrador in need of a home.’ My mum wasn’t keen but my dad’s eyes lit up. Labby – named after Nancy Mitford’s star of Love in a Cold Climate – was soon the love of my dad’s life. She was the most human dog I’ve ever known. She would sit next to my dad, and he would sling an arm around her, like a lover. I would go home every weekend, mainly to see Labby. ‘Where’s Labby?’ I would say, dropping laundry into my mum’s arms.
‘Out with your father.’
Liz at her Somerset home in 2010 with Gracie. Liz has opened up about the hardships of losing her
I didn’t get my own dog until I was in my 40s and had abandoned London for Somerset. Working crazy hours on newspapers, I hadn’t felt it fair to get a dog, and instead opted for cats.
That was the start of my obsession with animals: they made up for my lack of success with men, the absence of children. That first dog was Sam, a border collie, found during a storm on the side of a road in Exmoor. He was filthy, emaciated. I took him to a vet who couldn’t find a microchip and told me Sam had clearly been kept on a chain, as his neck was bald, his teeth mere stumps where he had been trying to chew his way free. The vet told me that it’s common for working dogs to be abandoned once they’re no longer useful.
Sam turned out to be something of a rogue. Naively, I thought sheepdogs were good with, um, sheep. But they are bred to herd and nip. As sheep got bigger over the centuries, the dogs were bred and trained to be more aggressive. It turned out Sam liked eating them. He disappeared and, after a frantic search, I found him trying to drown a sheep in the stream. He was never allowed out unsupervised again.
Pictured: Liz’s dad with Labby the black labrador. Liz says the dog – named after Nancy Mitford’s star of Love in a Cold Climate – was the love of her dad’s life
I’ve no idea how old he was when he died in 2017. He went into a gentle decline: it was heartbreaking to witness as he had once scaled six-foot walls with ease. He developed dementia, was almost deaf and blind, could no longer manage the stone steps to the basement kitchen. Instead, he would wait, paws paddling, for me to bring up his bowl.
He would panic if he couldn’t find me. A gentle tap on his bottom would reassure him, and his face would be washed with relief. I think losing my house that year was the final nail in his coffin. In the new rental, the floors were slippery, and he no longer knew his way around.
I had come to rely on his sturdy male energy, almost as if he was my husband. I felt he protected me: he could be ferocious when called for. I was convinced my farmhouse in Somerset was haunted as Sam would suddenly go berserk, hackles up, barking at a corridor and baring his teeth.
Collies aren’t like other dogs: they never get tired, think doing anything for a treat is beneath them but are incredibly loving. And they’re so intelligent! Mini Puppy, who was dumped at my gate only days after I got Gracie at two months old, in 2009 (I called her Mini, as she was the smaller of the two), loved to chase tractors and, optimistically, aeroplanes, so I was forced, at huge expense, to erect iron railings: the only thing she couldn’t jump. Thwarted, she moved a branch across a terrifying ravine above the stream bordering my garden and ran across it like a determined black and white member of Cirque du Soleil.
Liz only had Hilda, pictured, for three years. Hilda, AKA Perfect, for three years. She came across her in a kill pen in Romania in 2013 while on a story for The Mail on Sunday
Pictured: Missy (left) and Teddy together. Missy was adopted via the Wild at Heart Foundation in 2017
In June, Mini was diagnosed with thyroid cancer and was also found to have a huge tumour on her spleen. A four-hour operation and £8,000 later she is cancer-free and about to accompany me on a Mini break in Devon. Born in Wiccaweys, a charity exclusively for collies, Gracie had a pink tummy and pointy ears. I had no inkling that this is the more insane type of collie. She slept with me that first night and for the next 14 years.
Animals made up for my lack of success with men
An inveterate chewer, she could never be left alone; along she would trot, even to put out recycling. She could never be told off, even if she nipped a walker or punctured a cyclist’s tyre, as a stern look would elicit a stress wee. Without her, I feel as if I’ve lost a limb. There is no longer a nose sniffing my ear: ‘Gracie, what exactly is it about my ears?’
Then there was Hilda, who also went by the name of Perfect. She never answered to either, as she had no idea that she was supposed to be a pet. I came across her in a kill pen in Romania in 2013 while on a story for The Mail on Sunday. She was a tiny grey scrap, with blonde eyelashes, ears like a fox, tail like a beaver. She looked close to death, so I smuggled her out in a very expensive sweater and deposited her at a local vet, where she was placed on a drip and a heat pad.
Miraculously, she survived. Twenty-one days later, I picked her up at Dover, along with her passport: under breed, it simply said ‘Grey Fur’.
Hilda was no trouble once I got her back to my home in the Yorkshire Dales, apart from the fact she would carry baby rabbits, nearly the same size as she was, home from a walk.
Woe betide anyone who tried to wrestle one from her snout. I always fed her separately from the others (Sam, Gracie, Mini and, briefly, a very old, overweight, randy collie-cross called Jess: they all insisted on organic chicken from M&S) as, due to Hilda having no teeth, she had to suck everything, which took some time, so the others would circle.
One stormy night in 2015, I placed her and her bowl of pasta in the courtyard. A few minutes later, she had disappeared. I called Swaledale Mountain Rescue. ‘We usually only do humans,’ the man said. In the end a search party was gathered, and she was found two nights later. But I only had the gift of Hilda, AKA Perfect, for three years. Just one year later, on a bank holiday Monday (dogs always get sick on bank holidays), she started vomiting blood. A scan revealed a tumour in her stomach, which had burst. The cancer was doubtless due to the decade she had fended for herself on an Eastern European rubbish tip. I buried her in her Christmas tank top.
My latest (and still thriving) additions include Missy, adopted via the Wild at Heart Foundation in 2017. She had spent three years in a kennel. She is small for a collie, probably due to malnutrition as a puppy.
Sam, Liz’s beloved border collie, with some chickens. He had been found during a storm on the side of a road in Exmoor
She has a phobia about wheelbarrows, the hosepipe, running a bath, the kettle, the Hoover and small children.
Offered a treat, even a high-value sausage, she will eye you with a look that says, ‘Are you trying to poison me?’ She hates walks; she will sit, ramrod straight, until we turn for home, which is the only time she puts on a spurt. It took a year for her to wag her tail but even today she does it all wrong: pumping it up and down rather than side to side. She’s very licky.
And then there’s Teddy, who I’ve had for 18 months. He was in Lancram, the notorious Romanian kill pen. He’s about four and is enormous, like a bear. For the first ten months, he would refuse to come in to the house; I’d be stuck outside for hours, wailing, ‘Teddy, I’m on deadline!’ to no avail. Now, he’s almost normal, apart from an obsession with one particular squirrel.
After Gracie died, a friend sent a photo of me in the beautiful walled garden of the Yorkshire house I lost, surrounded by Sam, Gracie, Hilda and Leo the cat. All ghosts now. I replied, tearful: ‘I used to have a beautiful house, beautiful animals.’
‘All ephemeral in the end,’ she typed. ‘For all of us.’
RIP GRACIE: YOUR MESSAGES OF SUPPORT
I am so very sad to hear about Gracie. I also lost my 17-year-old Ted last Tuesday, so I know how you are feeling. It’s devastating to lose your best friend. What we must remember is we gave them the best life they could have had and we loved them completely. RIP Ted and Gracie Love Julia Hughes
You must be feeling simply ghastly following Gracie’s death. The grief comes in stultifying waves and one can’t even bear to remember the joy of past years, days, months. It does get a little easier but I can’t see why. You gave her so much of yourself and she died knowing the truth of her rescue. We lost our whippet, Nefertiti, last week and hopelessness seems to abound – even though she was 16. Dogs weave their way into every blood vessel and pore of our lives. Peter and I and the other dogs think of you in your sorrow. God bless you, Jill and Peter Newsom
Sending love – no words, only silent grieving, understanding and wishing a painful end to anyone who dares to utter the words ‘just a dog’. Janet Banks-Dutton
I am so sorry about Gracie. Having recently lost our gorgeous George, I understand how you are suffering. I cried for you and Gracie on reading your story today. The love of a dog surpasses any other. You are in my thoughts. Gracie always knew how much she was loved and how lucky she was to have you as her mummy. Lin Wilson
I always read your column – so sorry to hear about your lovely Gracie. We lost our lovely alsatian collie cross Sam a few weeks ago at 13 and a half. Feel your loss too. Lots of love, Pete and Pat Brown