A love letter to my heart dog

Nell was lovely, charming and extremely lovable… But if you shared a life with her, she was not an easy dog to love – she was intense, loud, exuberant, demanding, opinionated, short-tempered and persistent. She challenged me year after year to learn more about dogs and how they think because in many ways she the existing approaches in what you’d call “dog training” simply did not work as expected.

I will forever admire her zest for life – she was always ready for adventures and the ultimate hedonist whose first question was always “what’s in it for me?”. I will never forget how she made me stop in the middle of my vows because she wanted to go swimming during our outdoor wedding ceremony on Isle of Skye.

She was smart and quickly habituated to new puzzles and games – for 7 years I continuously looked for new ways to keep her mind busy, coming up with new games until the second last day of her life.

She challenged me to dig deep for empathy within myself because many of the character traits that made her so exasperating and challenging to live with were, in fact, similar to ones I did not like about in myself.  I understood that she was who she was, unashamedly and unapologetically, and that fundamentally there was nothing wrong with her – just like there was nothing wrong with me.

I understood that she was not giving me a hard time but instead she was having a hard time and my job as her guardian was to help her cope with life as well as possible.

We tend to call dogs like Nell needy, bossy and… spoiled. She certainly had strong views about many things, communicated loudly and assertively – and it annoyed us because her desires sometimes clashed with ours. That made me question: what rights should dogs have? Do I have the right to be annoyed that she’s asking to go out into the garden again for the 12th time the same night, when in reality I control absolutely everything in her life, for her entire life?

“You said it’s MY garden so why can’t I sit wherever I want?”

I started to think we should check our assumptions about what sharing our lives with another species should look like – a sentient being that did not get to choose to live with us, yet they were at our mercy for every minute of their lives from basic survival needs like food and toilet, to sense of safety and emotional connection. Thanks to her, I now believe we should strive to give dogs as much freedom to choose and control the outcomes in their lives as they can safely have and are capable of handling and that is ultimately in their best interest.

Thanks to Nell, I now think we have completely misunderstood unconditional love when it comes to dogs. Much of what we humans selfishly want to interpret as dogs’ unconditional love for us is more about learning to survive in a human world they don’t truly understand and often find terrifying; a world they didn’t choose to live in with strange creatures whose behaviour is often illogical and unpredictable.

Contrary to the typical perspective that dogs should respect us simply because we’re humans, I learned from Nell that it is actually me who needs to earn her respect first – she did not love anyone unconditionally.

Our relationship and bond was based on the mutual trust and understanding we built over thousands of interactions over the years where I showed up for her and demonstrated I was worth it. We learned how to communicate and negotiated compromises with the hundreds of deposits I made in her happiness bank account – in return she accepted me overruling her wishes about showers after muddy walks, and although sometimes the negotiations required additional cash payments, you couldn’t bribe her to do something if she really did not want to.

“This is insulting.”

She was a dog whose first question was always “what’s in it for me?” and if the offer was not good enough, it was rejected – something I learned to not take personally since it was a simple business transaction. I once tried a popular patience training game of putting treats on the paws of a dog lying down and asking them to wait: Nell humored me once, and on the second time she stood up the moment I put the food on her paws and walked out of the room without touching it. The next time she stood up when the treat touched her paw, and we never tried again.

For sure, Nell had a talent for making humans feel like they were special, and she used that talent skillfully over the years to get what she wanted (mostly, attention and rubs). I once watched her hustle her way through 8 people on the tube, moving on to the next person when one left without as much as lifting her furry bum off the floor. The process was the same I’d first observed her do in a busy Edinburgh park aged 3, watching passersby, waiting for eye contact and the smile that was cue to engage the charm maneuvers – if you’ve met Nell, you know what it looked like! On that day in the tube, her last hustle target was focused on reading a newspaper so I watched her touch the person’s bare leg very gently with her wet nose – VOILA, they lowered the newspaper and the required eye contact was established: “Hello! I don’t believe we’ve met… You owe me rubs.”

Ultimately, she was my teacher in learning what it means to love unconditionally.

I didn’t want a dog, and I certainly would not have chosen a dog like Nell. I’d had cats, and she was 300% DOG with ten exclamation marks – yet she quickly won me over and shaped the course of my life more than almost anything else. Time and time again, she was a mirror showing me my true self even if it wasn’t always something I wanted to see, and my muse in being better as a human being.

She gave me no choice but to learn to slow down and be present; that dog is always more important than computer; and to pay attention and enjoy my surroundings. She helped me learn to accept her just as she was – without judgment, without an agenda to change her – and the more I did so, the more deeply we connected.

The path we chose after her cancer diagnosis was my final bootcamp in learning the lessons of unconditional love. Every chemotherapy appointment required me to set aside my emotions to be her support and safe haven so that she could handle her own fears.

She required me to advocate for her needs even when I encountered skepticism or resistance, or at the very least was aware what I asked was unusual. Many of her needs for entertainment returned as a “side effect” of chemo with what I would guess was distracting herself during times of discomfort, and became a habit more generally – in many ways, it was also like her zest for life was even greater than before which created its own demands. She was… more than ever before, and yet needed my compassion and empathy even when I found myself exacerbated and exhausted.

I fought hard for her – not for my sake, because it would have been much easier to give up. I fought for her right to enjoy her life on her terms, whatever it meant and however much it inconvenienced me. Often, my reward for a day of fulfilling her ladyship’s needs for meals, engaging and varied walks, setting up brain games, researching supplements, ferrying her around to physio and generally being her garden door butler all day long was… an opportunity to give her more rubs and scratches.

She was not just a bit much, but a LOT much, and yet in her infinite imperfection she was worthy of love – despite her flaws, because she did not owe me anything.

That is the true lesson in unconditional love from my best friend and my heart dog. I think she loved me too – despite my irritating human flaws and shortcomings that her years of persistent, daily training attempts did not succeed in fixing.

The day she claimed ownership of my heart

I did not own her – if anything, she owned me from the day she claimed my heart with big furry paw marks. With hindsight, I think of it as a privilege to serve her – to have the opportunity to learn about life through her eyes and make the life she didn’t choose as amazing as I possibly could.

She was our bright North Star and we followed her to a life and lifestyle that made all of us happier than we could have ever expected. Yes, she was “just a dog”… but by listening to her we found our own way and we are forever grateful to her for that.

We miss her so much already but it was her time, and she has made space for a new teacher to join our lives with many more lessons that we can’t even yet imagine.

“Be More Nell”

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