Never underestimate the amazing healing power of a game of fetch…
“Gavin – you’re good with dogs,” said Val.
“I like them. They like me. Simple, really.”
I was having a cuppa after taking some of the rescue dogs for their afternoon walk when she came over.
“I was wondering,” she began, then she shook her head.
“You can’t stop now.” I patted the chair next to mine and she sat down.
“There’s a dog at the Hornside branch.” Val’s eyes were full of sadness. “They’ve called her Bella which means beautiful in Italian but you wouldn’t think that to see her now. She’s a bag of bones.”
It was an all-too-familiar story.
“Once she knows she’s safe, she’ll soon put on weight,” I said.
“I’m not so sure. It’s been three days and she hasn’t eaten a thing. They’ve tried tempting her with toys, treats, you name it, but nothing’s working.” She paused. “You don’t have dogs, do you?”
“No,” I replied firmly. “Not since my wife died. It’s never felt like the right time. That’s why I work here as a volunteer – I can spend time with dogs without the grief. Why do you ask?”
“Bella needs more than the staff can give her. I’d take her home myself, but I have Pickles. I was hoping…”
I held up my hands.
“No – I don’t want another dog. They don’t last long enough.”
“It doesn’t have to be permanent,” she said quickly. “It would just be a couple of weeks or so, until she’s on the mend.
“Nobody’s going to rehome a dog who’s pining away to nothing. You did such a good job with Boxer.”
Boxer was a two-year-old mongrel with a lopsided smile and buckets of charm. When he’d arrived at the centre he was so scared, he growled at anyone who came near. He’d never even been on a lead.
I took him under my wing and inside three weeks, he’d not only learned to trust people, he’d been adopted. In two days his new family were taking him home.
“Have you tried introducing her to Pickles?” I suggested.
On hearing his name, Val’s spaniel, who’d been dozing, sprang to his feet and tried to jump onto my lap.
“Not now,” I chuckled. “Go fetch a toy.”
He ran to his basket, his tail wagging so hard his entire body wiggled.
Pickles loves life and above all, he loves to play. He’s helped lots of dogs come out of their shells.
“They’ve already tried introducing Bella to other dogs, but it didn’t work,” Val told me. “They’ve run out of ideas.”
Then she asked me to go and take a look.
“Please. No obligation.”
That’s the problem with women like Val. They make it very hard to say no.
She has these eyes, big and soft and brown. One look and I melt, like chocolate biscuits left on a sunny shelf.
“OK, I’ll go and see her – but only if you come too. And Pickles.”
Val was right about Bella. She wasn’t beautiful – not any more.
Beautiful I could resist.
Her bones stuck out so much her skin was taut, and she was covered in bald patches. Sores covered most of her back legs.
How anyone could let a dog get into that state, I had no idea.
I could see a bit of terrier and maybe some whippet, but it was hard to tell. She was in such a bad way.
When I opened her enclosure, she barely moved. A bowl of food lay untouched beside her.
Whatever had happened to her, it must have been bad.
It’s rare for dogs to refuse good food.
“Let’s see what she does if you let Pickles off his lead.”
The spaniel ran straight over, tail wagging. When Bella didn’t respond, he fetched his ball and dropped it at her feet, then barked. Come on, let’s play.
Bella took no notice. She just lay there. Eventually Pickles gave up and trotted back to Val.
That’s when I knew Bella was in serious trouble. So then I knelt down beside her.
“Poor Bella,” I said softly. “You need love, and plenty of it.”
As I looked into her eyes, I felt a connection with that little dog. I sensed she’d given up.
I sat there, talking softly, and stroking her head, for ages.
I was starting to think about giving up when she wagged her tail.
Well – it wasn’t much more than a twitch, but it was enough.
“I’ll do it,” I told Val. “I’ll take her home. But only until she’s on the mend, you understand.”
Stupidly, I thought Bella would be like all the other unhappy rescue dogs I’d helped in the past – that, given enough care and attention, she’d gradually improve – but I was wrong.
After three days, I was in despair. Bella was still refusing to eat.
I tried everything I could think of from fillet steak to smoked salmon.
She’d drink water, but water wouldn’t keep her alive. She was steadily fading away, and there was nothing I could do about it.
It reminded me of when my own dog died, only worse – there was nothing physically wrong with Bella.
She was neither old nor sick. She’d simply lost the will to live.
I sat there, surrounded by every kind of dog paraphernalia – toys galore, cushions, squeaky chickens, half a dozen balls and rubber bones, knowing that unless she ate something soon, she would die.
One night, it was too much for me to bear. I covered my face with my hands and I wept.
I cried for Bella, but most of all, I cried for my late wife.
It had been six years since I lost her. We’d taken early retirement and were looking forward to spending more time together.
Instead, within three months, she was gone.
If it wasn’t for my dog, I don’t know how I would have coped… but then Susie died too and I was alone.
I made a vow that day – no more dogs. I couldn’t stand any more pain.
As I let out another huge sob, something cold nudged my hand.
I looked up to see Bella standing in front of me, a ball in her mouth. She gave a feeble wag of her tail.
“You want to play? Now?”
She put the ball down, then backed away. She looked at the ball, then at me and back again, all the time wagging her stringy tail.
When I didn’t take the hint, she barked.
The sound shocked me back to life. I threw the ball across the room.
It was painful to watch Bella running on those skinny, weak little legs, but whenever I tried to stop the game, she wouldn’t let me.
It was ironic. I was meant to be helping her – and yet instead, she was helping me.
When finally I had no more tears left to cry, I wiped my eyes.
Immediately Bella dropped the ball and headed to her bowl.
She took three small mouthfuls of food, then limped back to her bed. Seconds later, she was fast asleep.
It was the turning point I’d been praying for.
After that, she improved so fast it was like a miracle.
When the two weeks were up, I took her to the rescue centre to show Val.
“Wow!” she cried. “Is that really the same dog?”
She stroked Bella, who lapped up the attention as though she’d never had a problem with people.
Pickles, who’d been snoozing under Val’s desk, came bounding over. Moments later, the two dogs were playing chase.
“Gavin Williams, you’re a miracle worker. She’ll soon find a home now.”
“Actually, she won’t.” I looked over at Bella. “If it’s OK, I’d like to keep her. We’ve become buddies.”
Val gave me a look.
“You said no more dogs. Ever.”
“I know, but…” I shrugged. “Bella changed my mind.”
Val smiled. “You also said you’d never date anyone ever again. Have you changed your mind about that too?”
I didn’t know what to say, so I pretended I’d forgotten an appointment and almost ran out of the room.
Val had invited me for dinner before, but I always said no.
A dog is one thing. Dating is something else entirely.
I avoided the centre for the next few days, blaming a cold. It seemed easier.
Once the paperwork was done, I was able to formally adopt Bella.
That night, she had most of my dinner. I reckoned she deserved it.
As I watched her eating, I thought about my old life.
My wife and I always had dogs. Whenever we lost one, she would smile through the tears.
“The pain’s worth it,” she’d say. “Dogs add so much love and joy to our lives.”
Within a week or two, we’d be down at the re-homing centre, giving another rescue dog a home.
Then I thought about Val.
She was warm, funny and kind with a smile that lit up her face. I wondered if I’d been too hasty, turning her away.
My wife wouldn’t have wanted me to be on my own, but there was nothing I could do about it now. Not after running out of the room like that.
On Saturday, after walking Bella, I made a casserole, big enough to last me for two meals, and put it in the oven.
I’d just sat down to read the paper when Bella grabbed my sleeve and tried to pull me to my feet.
“Not now, Bella. You’ve had a walk.”
When I refused to budge, she fetched her lead and dropped it at my feet.
“No,” I said more firmly, but she wouldn’t stop pestering me. Every time I tried to read the paper, she batted it away with her paw. I had no choice.
“OK. You can go and play in the back garden, but that’s all.”
Bella ran to the front door. She kept looking back at me, then at the door, wagging her tail.
“All right,” I said wearily. “We’ll go round the block but that’s all.”
But Bella had other ideas. She dragged me to the park – where we found Val sitting on a bench, with Pickles curled up at her feet.
She chuckled when she saw us. I couldn’t blame her. I’m six foot one and there I was, being pulled along by a small but very determined dog.
“What are you doing here?” I said as I plonked myself down on the opposite end of the bench. “I thought you and Pickles were evening walkers.”
“We are. A quick stroll first thing in the morning and a proper walk at eight at night. Regular as clockwork.” She nodded towards Pickles. “It was weird. He suddenly decided he wanted to go for a walk. He went and –”
“Sat by the front door until you gave in,” I finished the sentence for her. “Bella did the same to me. “
Val smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think they planned this.”
“It’s as if they wanted us to meet.” I turned to Val. “I’m sorry about the other day. I panicked. I didn’t even want to think about dating.”
“That’s OK, I understand. Nobody can ever replace your wife.”
She stood up as if to go. Bella barked.
“OK, Bella, I can take a hint.” I turned to Val. “I’ve got a casserole in the oven. Do you fancy coming round later?”
“This wouldn’t be a date, would it?” Val’s eyes were twinkling.
“It might. Let’s see how it goes.”
Then I reached for her hand, and we left the park together.
Enjoy a new doggy-themed story from our archives every Monday and Thursday during September. Look out for the next one!