Some mornings, after dreaming she is still alive, there is the sad sigh of realisation when I awake.
The biscuit-smell of her paws, the dark wet nose, big brown button-eyes and little bag-of-bones body – by the end riddled with warts and lumps – no, it’s never coming back.
Our gorgeous Jack Russell, Pepper, died eight weeks ago. Today would have been her sixteenth birthday. At 6am we got up and scattered her ashes at a rocky outcrop, nature reserve on one side, sea on the other. It was a gloomy morning, but the sun broke through the clouds – just for one celestial moment.
As everyone rightfully says, she lived a long, and mostly happy life: an impressive 112 in doggy years. And yet grief isn’t that clean; not a switch you can turn off, or an emotion to compartmentalise for a rainy Tuesday night on the sofa. It also goes way deeper than non-animal lovers would ever imagine.
“When are you getting another one?” asks everyone so kindly, so gently. But that doesn’t feel right, replacing one person – our daughter, as we called her – with another.
A good mate summed it up best recently. “If a friend’s child dies,” she said, “the last thing you would ask is: when are you going to have another one?”
It was another world when Pepper was born on August 16th 2004: no social media, smartphones or apps. But there was the internet, of course: and so one Sunday morning, a tad hungover after a friend’s wedding, my partner Russell and I found ourselves driving to a small terraced house in Southall, having responded to an online ad.
A middle-aged man in a vest grunted and pointed to his yard. “They’re in there,” he said, as we walked through the kitchen, where his wife was cooking, and tiny kids darted back and forth.
Beyond were two tiny puppies, the last of the litter. A smooth-haired white Jack Russell with a brown head was called Lucky, and cautiously wandered straight out to us for affection. Her sister, the runt, held back shyly. We chose the former, handed over the agreed £180 – and renamed her Pepper after the large brown ‘pepper spot’ on her back.
I was in my twenties, unused to responsibility. Freaking out at having this eight-week-old furry bundle to keep alive and healthy, the next day I bought every single book I could find on Jack Russells and dog behaviour. They proved as invaluable as the puppy training that came next, those basic instructions – sit, fetch, wait, responding to her name – that lend the novice much-needed starter-level confidence.
We soon learnt that Pepper was a gentle, sweet and intelligent soul, even when she was young: somehow she managed to be thoughtful, too, almost contemplative of life’s ups and downs. Every day she walked to my office, from Kentish Town to Highbury, where she would sit and stare at me from the sunniest spot in the room; she was the perfect distraction in meetings, interviews and photo shoots, too.
She was also more clingy than some. In the park, she stayed close, often in between my partner and I. “Run off,” we’d say, “go on, have a wander baby,” and she’d look at us, as if to ask, “why would I? I like it right here.”
Our favourite phrase that she understood? “Going home.” Uttered when we turned back mid-walk, she would scamper at twice the pace back to the house, treat-in-mind.
But there were some hair-raising moments, too. In Regent’s Park, she took fright at a rowdy beagle and sprinted across the main road – and subsequently three or four others – the mile and a half back to our flat. By the time she arrived there was a string of people chasing her, including a policeman on a bike. It was like something out of a sitcom.
And on a narrowboat she took a dislike to being on the water and, turning the boat around at Camden Lock, in full view of hundreds of gawping tourists, she decided to make a leap from deck onto shore – and missed. Landing in the water, the onlookers screamed and jeered as I leapt onto the bank and knelt down into the water to reach out for her with my arms. She doggy paddled towards me just moments away from the plunging horrors of the lock. Saved again.
A vicious attack
But there was a more serious incident to come. Having survived the odd scuffle, especially with Staffordshire Bull Terriers off-lead, or sometimes a Doberman, she was viciously attacked on one cold March evening, aged six.
We were walking up a hill overlooking the Kent coast when two huge Rottweilers came out of nowhere in a vast field rising up behind the sea – one took her neck, the other her leg, and the two animals pulled her like a rag doll. It was a bloodbath.
The resulting injuries were so bad that she lay dying on the vet’s table. I was told she’d have to be put down, although, if we were insured, the vet hospital would attempt ‘open heart surgery’ (almost impossible on a small Jack Russell). The chances of survival were minute – but miraculously, the operation was a success.
We reported this horrific ‘left for dead’ attack to the ‘dog division’ of Dover Council (shortly afterwards axed in the cuts). I emailed them photos of the owners and the dogs. Yet no-one – dog warden, insurance company, police, even the local paper – attempted to trace the rottweilers or owners. The vet bill was nearly £3000. Our insurance covered it, yet we still had to pay 10% for the privilege.
Miraculously, she made a full recovery, and went on to survive nearly another decade. But it left her and I emotionally scarred, and took a few years for us both to feel confident when we passed intimidating off-lead dogs.
Advice and other stories
Where does your dog sleep? New dog owners often ask me this. My advice is don’t let her think her bedroom is upstairs – or, to be precise, your bedroom – at least for the first few years (all our rules were relaxed in her dotage). For almost all her life Pepper slept in the living room. When she woke up, she’d trot upstairs and wait outside until we asked her in, sometimes signalling her arrival with what we called an ‘ostentatious yawn’.
Fledgling dog owners also always want to talk about diet. I can’t speak for big breeds, but a small Jack Russell won’t put up with the same bowl for more than a couple of days in a row. Or maybe that was just Pepper. So often over the years we would think we had a breakthrough, only for her to swiftly tire of whatever delight was put in front of her, from Lily’s Kitchen to, in recent months, the new wave of subscription-only brands like Pure.
But she never, ever turned her nose up at fresh meat. And why would she? Any part of the roast chicken (other than the bones), beef or fish – including fish skin – was devoured greedily.
And carrots! There was something about the crunch and juiciness that she loved. If not fresh, they had to be fridge-cold and then cut with a knife (I know, I know). She ate half one a day – and was all the better for it.
Some more advice? Brush their teeth. Back in 2004, it wasn’t really a thing. The vet lightly advised us that you could optionally do it now and again with a special meaty toothpaste. Pepper never quite took to the habit and, it has to be said, ended up with some later-years dental problems (and teeth removed). Although, as the vet reassured us, this happens to most long-living breeds.
There are so many articles on the joys of having a furry friend but what’s less discussed is the pain of losing a companion you’ve had for sixteen years. This is not to dissuade anyone from dog ownership: sorrow and loss are a part of all our lives, whether canine or human.
And yet the pictures and videos are hard to watch. Visceral, physical grief it is, at times: it somehow gets right to the very essence of your soul.
The greatest learning? Your dog may change unrecognisably in her last years, while still remaining the lovable, loving, puppy-like creature you have always known.
It’s tough when their little body starts to fail: the baggy benign tumour hanging off her chest, the sore marks, the cloudy eyes, the loss of hearing, the hesitation and declining confidence. With age she got more needy, more worried about us not being nearby. Her walks – and world – shrunk in ever-decreasing circles. And yet every day I would tell her I loved her more.
After her happy decade-and-a-half of beach and park walks, sunny spots and cuddles – not to mention reviewing hotels – for the last six months she went into an irreversible decline.
She started to have regular seizures. Even if your animal has never had one, it’s worth Googling what to do, as your first reaction may be hysterical. While the fits only last a few minutes, they seem to go on forever: and it’s important to stay calm otherwise it makes the situation worse.
Now on full-time medication, we knew we wouldn’t be able to risk leaving her with friends or family, as a fit is too harrowing for anyone to see and respond calmly to. We also couldn’t risk the chance of her passing away in anyone else’s charge. So that meant no foreign holidays (this was pre-Covid); and careful planning of every single day and hourly blocks.
Sleep tight, tiny angel
As 2020 arrived, it felt like this might be the year when it would be time to say goodbye: the hardest thing of all. We moved to a flat with a garden in 2019, and Pepper enjoyed dozing on the shingle for the last ten months of her life, quickly finding her little spot under a palm.
As well as the full-time epilepsy meds, in the last few weeks she was on antibiotics and tranquillisers for her other many ailments. And as is the case with older dogs and epilepsy, the fear of a brain tumour proved sadly correct: the violent fits took over, and her human-strength medication was unable to help. (Her last, fatal seizures unbelievably started on the day of my dad’s funeral, too; a whole other story).
It was a hot, airless Saturday afternoon when we found ourselves outside the emergency vet hospital. In late June, the country still in lockdown, there were no face-to-face appointments, and we could only get advice on a socially distanced phone call. With Pepper’s seizures in full force still after two days, and the meds not calming the situation at all, we were at a loss. After a long chat discussing options with the vet, we tearfully agreed it was time to let her go.
That last kiss and cuddle stays with you forever. Pepperdog, we will always love you. Run free.
After our final goodbye – and the intensity of those watchful big brown eyes for 16 years – we felt empty. Rudderless, we sloped off back home in the stifling heat, holding only her lead and collar. We lit candles, poured wine, and had an emotional vigil in the garden till midnight.
And now, nearly two months after her death? Of course you move on: and there’s even the unfamiliar, at times exhilarating, realisation that life no longer revolves around a four-legged companion, as it did for such a swathe of my adulthood, from late twenties to mid-forties. You can be devilishly irresponsible, if you wish.
There’s also the realisation that the unspoken, yet, constant communication you have with your dog – the way you somehow understand each other where words aren’t necessary – no longer has an outlet. And that’s a strange consideration.
Which is why, when I see another similar-looking Jack Russell in the park or pub, I feel a connection, a sense of ownership even.
In fact, I’ve become one of those annoying people who goes up to other dog owners and says, “I used to have one of them, too – but she passed away.” And yet that, for now, is enough.
There are more pictures from her life on her Instagram account @pepper_jackrussell