A Dog Is For Life

Shutterstock © A gorgeous labrador to illustrate uplifting short story A Dog Is For Life


It seems that Milo would be a wonderful lifelong companion for someone – but sadly not for them…

It was ironic that they should hear the radio report today of all days.

“Almost a hundred puppies were handed in to our centres during the first week of January, all unwanted Christmas gifts,” a spokeswoman from a dog rescue charity was saying.

“People buy puppies as presents because they’re cute and cuddly, but the reality is that they’re also hard work.”

“Tell me about it,” Clare said. “A lot of hard work.”

Her husband Stephen was crouching on the floor beside Milo’s bed, stroking the Labrador’s head. Milo wagged his tail half-heartedly, more interested in gnawing on his bone. He was oblivious to the fact that he’d just eaten his last breakfast of kibble in the place he’d called home for the last year.

“And a puppy does not come with a gift receipt,” the woman on the radio continued. “You can’t just take him or her back to the shop, and that’s why so many of them end up with us – particularly during January.”

Clare switched off the radio. She could do without hearing this today.

Milo had arrived just in time for Christmas the previous year. Clare hadn’t been sure she wanted a dog, but Stephen had said, “Just for a year. Please, darling. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do.”

She had sighed. Twelve months. Then life would go back to normal.

When Milo had arrived, she’d fallen head over heels in love with his soft fur and tiny paws. The little fox-red Labrador was only eight weeks old, and had been nervous at first, whining at night.

He’d quickly grown in confidence, bouncing round the house, exploring. And, to Clare’s horror, gnawing one of the legs of the dining room table. They’d saved up for that table – but it was impossible to be cross when Milo looked up at her with his gorgeous brown eyes.

“Do you remember what a handful he was when he first arrived?” she said now. “You liked to chew anything and everything, didn’t you, Milo?”

Stephen stood up, tears in his eyes.

“I can’t do this.”

“It’s what we agreed,” she said calmly.

“Clare, I can’t.”

“Then I’ll take him. You stay here.”

In silence, they loaded up a bag with Milo’s things: his favourite toy; the piece of furry fabric that had come with him when he’d first arrived that bore the scent of his mother; his blanket.

Clare picked up Milo’s lead and he sprang to his feet, ever hopeful of a walk.

“Say goodbye,” she said, uncertain as to whether she was addressing the dog or her husband. But Stephen bit his lip, and left through the back door, hurrying down the garden path towards the sanctuary of his shed.

Milo followed her out to the car, and jumped obediently into the boot, still wagging his tail.

The centre was only a few miles away, but every set of traffic lights seemed to change to amber as she approached. Rather than speeding up to get through them, Clare found herself braking, wanting to prolong the last few minutes of their time together.

She wondered how Stephen was doing in his shed. He was taking this hard.

And she wasn’t finding it easy herself. She wiped her cheek, imagining herself giving Milo one last hug at the centre, before handing over his lead.

“We agreed we’d have you for a year,” she said to Milo, though she doubted he was listening. He usually fell asleep in the car. “And that year is up.”

She glanced at the satnav screen. Another six miles.

“And it’s been a fantastic year,” she continued. “Hasn’t it, Milo? Though you were hard work for the first few days.”

She thought back to that first week.

“It’ll be tough,” people had told her. “It’s like having a newborn baby.”

And they’d been right. Milo was tiny, which meant his bladder was also tiny. There’d been surprisingly few accidents on the carpet, but they’d had to get up several times during the night to take him outside for a wee.

Milo’s day started early, too. Despite the fact that it didn’t get light until eight, he’d be up at half four in the morning, demanding his breakfast. He loved attention; he loved having his tummy tickled and his ears stroked, and would play endless games of fetch with his squeaky pheasant.

Clare and Stephen functioned on autopilot, wandering round like zombies, too tired to hold a conversation with each other, just about managing to wash and dress themselves each morning.

The mail piled up unopened on the table in the hall. Phone calls went unanswered. They never forgot to feed Milo, but on at least two occasions, they missed lunch themselves.

He wasn’t allowed on the furniture, but he clearly hadn’t got that memo. However, he was a fast learner and soon understood that the sofa was not for him.

There was a loud yawn from the boot. Milo was such a good boy on journeys, but that hadn’t always been the case. They’d spent time playing in the car with him, showing him that it was nothing to be frightened of, letting him get used to it before they even backed out of the drive.
She recalled all the milestones. The first time he’d come when Stephen had called him. The first time he’d sat when they’d asked him to. The first time they’d visited a café; he had settled down on the mat they always carried for him and gnawed on his chew, while they had enjoyed their cappuccinos, bursting with pride at how well he was behaving.

Remember the first time we took you to the seaside?

She glanced in the rear view mirror, but Milo was lying down and she couldn’t see him. The tears began to roll down her cheeks, remembering how he’d loved running into the waves.

They were almost there. In just a few minutes, she’d be giving him up. Handing him over. Stephen had said he couldn’t do this, and now she wasn’t sure whether she could either.

“We have to give him up,” she said to herself. It had become something of a mantra, during the past week.

She indicated left and turned into the centre. She hoped there wouldn’t be a parking space, that she’d have an excuse to drive round the block, to put off that moment of saying goodbye for just a few minutes more. But there were plenty of empty spaces. She chose the one furthest away so they would have one last walk together, albeit a short one.

As she turned the engine off, Milo sat up expectantly, as he always did at the end of every journey, wondering what adventure was in store for him. A run on the beach? A walk through the woods?

She grabbed her bag from the front seat, walked round to the back of the car and opened the boot. Milo wagged his tail, looking up at her with his beautiful brown eyes.

Did dogs feel love? she wondered. Would he miss her? He had no idea that she’d be driving away without him today.

“OK,” she said, and Milo sprang obediently out of the car.

Considering she and Stephen were complete novices, they’d done a good job of training him. When he found his forever home, his new owner would be very lucky.

She grabbed his bag, closed the boot, and patted her pocket to ensure she had her tissues at the ready. Then holding Milo’s lead for one final time, she set off towards the centre, with him walking beside her on her left as usual.

The place was quiet. She couldn’t hear any barking. If it weren’t for the sign outside, no one would have guessed that this place was full of dogs just like Milo.

Her mouth was dry as she pressed the buzzer and waited to be let in. It was Susie who came to the door.

“How are you, Clare?” she said.

“Fine,” Clare lied. She reached down to pat Milo’s head. “You’re such a perfect boy, aren’t you?”

She took one of his treats from the pouch she always kept in her pocket, and gave it to him. For the past year, she hadn’t gone anywhere without it. Her pocket would feel empty without it.

Life would feel empty without Milo.

“Do you want to look round? Or have a cuppa?” Susie asked.

Clare shook her head.

I need to get back to Stephen. He’s taking it hard.

She pressed the end of Milo’s lead into Susie’s hand. “You’ll be OK, won’t you, boy?”

“Of course, he will,” said Susie. “We’ll take good care of him, I promise.”

“I brought his things. His squeaky pheasant – that’s his favourite toy. And his orange blanket – he always sleeps with it. You’ll let the new people know?”

She couldn’t bear it if Milo was deprived of his blanket.

“Of course,” said Susie. “Don’t worry.”

The time had come. Clare squatted down and put her arms around Milo, pulling him in for a hug. She felt a wet tongue in her ear.

“Bye, Milo,” she whispered into his. “Good luck.” She stood up.

“Thanks, Susie. I need to go.”

She hurried out of the door, without a backwards glance. She needed to get back in the car before she broke down completely. She understood why Stephen hadn’t felt able to come.

She turned out of the car park, but pulled over straight away and turned off the ignition. Tears were streaming down her face, and she couldn’t see to drive. She rummaged for the tissues.

“We knew from the outset it was just for a year,” she reminded herself.

She looked out of the window at the centre. Milo was somewhere in there. Was he settling in already?

She wiped her eyes, focusing her attention on the sign outside, reminding herself why they’d done this.

Guide Dogs’ Training Centre, it read.

For the past year, Milo had transformed their lives, but now, after his training, he was going to transform someone else’s. Somewhere out there, someone with a vision impairment would be the right match for Milo, and his incredible skills would give them the freedom to travel, to work, to go about those daily activities that most people, herself included, took for granted.

In a few weeks’ time, another Labrador would be arriving – a girl this time – and she and Stephen would be starting this wonderful journey all over again. A new puppy, a new beginning.

And in a few months’ time, she and Stephen hoped to return to the centre to see Milo graduate as a qualified guide dog. But right now, she needed to get back home to console her lovely husband, and thank him for persuading her to become a volunteer puppy raiser with him. Because it was the best thing they had ever done.

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Allison Hay

I joined the "My Weekly" team thirteen years ago and, more recently, "The People's Friend". I love the variety of topics we cover both online and in the magazines. I manage the digital content for the brands, sharing features and information on the website, social media and in our digital newsletters.