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.