Your late 40s, the truism goes, are a dangerous age. Two years ago, I fell in love with someone who wasn’t my husband. But the unexpected love of my life is not a boy toy or a first love sought out on Facebook — she’s a 130-pound Great Pyrenean mountain dog.
I had no intentions of acquiring another pet; we were, as my husband puts it, “at peak animal,” with three horses, three cats, and a Border terrier (as well as three children). But we’d just moved into a large house when a friend noticed a dog on a local rescue center’s website; too vast and, at age seven, too old, apparently, for easy rehoming. Nobody wants a dog likely to need imminent veterinary care or worse (oversize dogs don’t tend to make old bones). Looking back, I’m not sure what made me agree to meet her. But we drove as a family to a small house, bursting with fostered dogs — and there she was: a subdued, white canine pony. They told us she loved children and cheese, ignored cats, and would “be no trouble.” I told myself it would be a decent thing to do.
I was so nervous awaiting our simple doggy home check that I was awake fretting at 3 a.m.: Should we have fenced the pond? Would my un-brushed hair suggest negligence on the canine grooming front? But in the event, the man from the charity pulled up, gazed at the land, and said, “I’m not sure why we’re doing this. Frankly, I’d like you to adopt me.”
A week later, I found myself driving home with a dog it had taken two of us twenty minutes to hoist into the back of my 4x4 (she is too old to jump). She cried the entire hour’s journey — a terrible, mournful sound — while I watched her in the mirror and thought: What on earth have I done? Later, I realized she had been fostered so many times she’d simply assumed she was being moved on again.
Routine and exercise, I’ve found, are the best way to settle an animal. We set about regular, frequent walks. But within days, BigDog was limping badly. I researched arthritis, joint problems, hip scores — then finally checked her feet. Her pads were pink silk — common among dogs that have been kept for breeding. We walked on grass until her feet toughened, and I nurtured dark thoughts about puppy farms.
The early weeks were not easy. She cried often, suffered bladder infections, ate sporadically. Our cats were black-eyed and outraged. Our children had no misgivings; they buried themselves in her soft fur, lay on her, told her things. Pyreneans love children; while any adult caller to our house gets a reception not dissimilar to The Revenant, a child can walk straight in and she will lower her head, instantly gentle and submissive. (This is peculiar to the breed.) And as the months went on, she cheered up and stopped crying in the car (we ordered a special ramp from Germany to help her in and out). The cats began to accompany us on walks. And I, unexpectedly, fell totally in love.
I love all my animals. But BigDog adores me in a way I was unprepared for. It is distracting, passionate, time-consuming. Most dogs will look away if you hold their gaze, but she just keeps looking, as if she wants to drink you in. At rest, she will lift her head to check my whereabouts, before grunting with approval. At night, she comes to each member of the family to have her huge, soft head stroked before taking herself to bed.
A year after she moved in, her tail began to wag (it broke my heart when I registered the delay). And she began to play, tossing toys deftly in the air and galloping up and down the hallway. We’ve learned when this happens to flatten swiftly against a wall. Lamps fly, rugs concertina, ornaments bounce off shelves. Larger than a Shetland pony, she has knocked both my husband and me clean off our feet (I did the promotional tour for my novel Me Before You with a busted ligament; he is currently wearing a knee brace after she welcomed him home too enthusiastically). Recently, she began to “talk” to us during supper. She lies on her side by the kitchen table and yowls and grunts, waiting for a response before she “speaks” again.*
The unexpected pleasure of taking on a rescue animal is in watching them open up, trust in their surroundings, and express happiness. I’m aware with every bounce through the woods, every tummy rub, that I have made her life infinitely better, and in a couple of tough years in which our family has negotiated serious illness, a child’s surgery, and the lumps and bumps of work, politics, and life, she in turn has been a constant source of joy and affection.
It’s not without its challenges. The carpet shampooer is in frequent use — her weak bladder means she needs walking every three hours. She disapproves fiercely of cyclists, scooters, and, once (to our utter mortification), a motorized wheelchair. She fosters irrational dislikes and has to be shut away to stop her “herding” of the odd guest. She has nearly dislocated my shoulder and requires regular specialist grooming and glucosamine for her joints, and if she sits on your lap, you have twenty minutes before your legs go numb and start falling off.
Like most Pyreneans, BigDog considers the leash an affront to her dignity and recall to be optional. Last summer, when my New York editor came to lunch, she simply disappeared halfway through pudding. I have no idea how something so large and white can vanish so effectively, but the meal was abandoned while we combed the surrounding countryside on foot, car, and quad-bike.
After two hours, I became quietly hysterical; it felt like when our son, at two, briefly disappeared in a supermarket. I paid a local taxi to take the editor back to London, explaining that I couldn’t go anywhere while BigDog was missing. We finally located her an hour afterward, exhausted, delighted, and inky black, having apparently been swimming in the county’s most brackish, foul-smelling ditch. I cried with relief (and then cried again when I saw the groomer’s bill).
My teenage children joke that I miss her more than them when I’m away. This is only funny because they miss her more than me too (they’ve set up an Instagram account devoted to her). Even my husband, not the most expressive of men, is putty around her, as I discovered when I overheard: “Do you not want your breakfast? No? Shall I grate some Parmesan on it?” (the dog in my new book, Still Me, has adopted this culinary habit).
She has inadvertently improved my writer’s back, as I’m forced to leave my desk at least four times a day; she’s brought me and my husband closer — we walk together at dawn. Even the mardiest teenager can’t help giggling at her fearful deference to our fierce, elderly rescue cat, or watching Madame Floof (as they call her) paddling her enormous feet through her dreams.
When we first brought BigDog home, we told the children that given her age she would be, at best, a four-year dog. I felt almost nonchalant saying it. Two years in, I become tearful if I think too hard about what that means and watch every limp, every exhausted flop, with concern.
But maybe the lesson we learn from animals is just this: love is fleeting, often unexpected, and to be relished when it comes. For now, a mournful-faced, oversize dog has taught me to live in the present and simply enjoy every day we have. What we as a family have learned from rescue dogs in particular is that it is in giving that you really do receive.
And if anyone is interested, Heathlands Animal Rescue currently needs a home for Glenda, an exceptionally gloomy-looking six-year-old Saint Bernard. I bet she’s marvelous.
*There is footage on my Instagram account, @jojomoyesofficial, if you want to watch her talk. It’s mostly BigDog.
A version of this story was originally published in The Times of London.
Still Me by Jojo Moyes is out now. She is the New York Times best-selling author of After You, Me Before You, The Horse Dancer, Paris for One and Other Stories, One Plus One, The Girl You Left Behind, The Last Letter From Your Lover, Silver Bay, and The Ship of Brides. She lives with her husband and three children in Essex, England.