I'm taking a break from talking photography sessions this week on the blog, to give you a little part of my story, and the story of my own canine gang. Apologies if it's long. Grab a cuppa or a glass of wine (it's summer, so mine's a dry rosé, please), and settle down for what hopefully will be a story of hope and love. Because on the blog circle this week, we're talking mutts, so it's off to a protectora in Spain to see who we can meet.
Quick disclaimer: the majority of the photos in this post are cellphone snaps, taken to simply record a moment in time without any consideration for artistry! Don't panic, normal service will be resumed next week!
Shelter dogs have been part of my life for most of my years on this planet. We always had "a rescue" at home when I was growing up, and imagined my adulthood would be full of fabulous mutts and mongrels.
I was thrown a bit of a curve-ball later in life when, before I thought I was ready for the commitment of a dog, I happened by total chance to be present at the birth of a litter of Labrador puppies, and not just as a passive observer. No, dear reader, with an inexperienced dam who tried to bite down on the first two pups instead of cleaning them, and with the extensive experience of having once seen a litter of kittens born, I soon found myself up to the elbows in amniotic fluid and wriggly mewling blobs of deliciousness. Every new arrival saw me splitting the sac with my fingernails, releasing the tiny pup from within, and drying it off with a towel before presenting to Mum. The drama didnt stop with the dam's inexperienced chomping, however: the second pup was breach, and the fourth was so tired she didn't have the energy to latch on. We rubbed and cajoled and pleaded and, in the end, the Labrador spirit won out, and the little black nugget started to feed. By 1:30 am, we had eight healthy pups and a tired but content mum, and clothes that needed a good couple of washes before deciding they were probably well past their best anyhow.
After that induction of fire, we couldn't not have one of the puppies, right? So I spent the next eight weeks cramming as much knowledge as I possibly could before bringing home our beautiful Willow - that same black girl who was fading in front of our eyes but bravely hung on to her life. As circumstances played out - details for another time - five weeks later, we collected a yellow boy, Shadow, he of the breach birth!
And so began my love affair with the Labrador Retriever, with learning about dog training, gundog work and, later on, canine behaviour. Because, for all their total scrumptiousness, my twinnies are somewhat complicated dogs, and I put in hundreds, if not thousands of hours, trying to make their lives a little easier. When, a couple of years later, the madness descended once more and I started thinking of another puppy, I knew that I wanted to be certain of getting a behaviourally sound dog, as well as a physically healthy one. Difficult dogs are so rewarding, but can also be very draining at times. After researching for a long time, I decided on the perfect breeder for me, and some time later, chocolate Lab pup Luna (more commonly known as Squidge) came home. She was everything that her genetics and early upbringing predicted she would be. Cheeky, headstrong, smart, playful, gregarious and a total and utter dickwad. She's brilliant and still makes me laugh and groan every single day. One of life's natural comedians, and she thinks she is HYSTERICAL.
My life seemed set to be shared with Labs.
But this is a story about mutts, right? There I was with my gorgeous brood and I started thinking that, while my dogs were living their best life, there were so many others for whom life wasn't going according to plan, who had been abandoned, unwanted or with humans no longer able to care for them for any of a million reasons. That's when my husband and I started volunteering at the shelter, or protectora, near our Spanish getaway. At first, it was all about socialisation: these dogs were largely forgotten by everyone and had no human interaction, other than their food and water being topped up. A small Spanish refuge is not the same as the clinically clean rescues I was used to seeing in the UK. Conditions were overcrowded, kennels were makeshift at best, and there wasn't enough money for necessary food, let alone medication. There were dogs in there who had been born and lived their whole lives in there, dying of old age in the same kennel in which they had been born, without ever seeing the outside world. Many dogs who never had a chance of being homed due to institutionalisation, extreme fear, or medical issues. Even with the best intentions of the sparse volunteers, the inside of a Spanish shelter can be a very bleak place indeed.
Indeed, the first year that we volunteered at the shelter, adoptions were almost unheard of. It was during that time that we met Coixeta, ("cripple" in Catalan, pronounced "coy-shetta"), who had a severely injured front leg, which had been damaged, according to someone at the shelter, "at least five years ago". Without the necessary resources for medical attention, she lived each day in pain, the elbow dislocating each time she put any weight on it. Oh, the heartache I felt for that poor old lady. Five years, with no treatment, no pain management. How? I spent a lot of time with her and, day after day, this scared girl became more confident around me, until she would start pushing my hand to demand strokes.
My biggest concern was that winter was coming, I would be leaving to go back to Andorra, and I knew that the chances were this old lady wouldn't survive the cold months, with the winds and rain ripping through the kennels with no weatherproofing to speak of. Something had to be done to prevent this girl dying alone on the cold concrete floor of her kennel, and I didn't see anyone else stepping up to the plate. After all, if all the eminently adoptable dogs in the shelter weren't finding homes, then what chance did an old, peculiar-looking girl with a gammy leg have?
With the help of some amazingly kind-hearted strangers, and equally fabulous friends and family, it turned out she stood the best chance indeed. We raised money through a GoFundMe page to cover her medical care, even though at that point we weren't quite sure what those needs would be. We just knew they would be expensive! I knew that she wouldn't be able to live with us, because Willow and Shadow are, shall we say, total arsehats with unfamiliar dogs. It had taken months of very careful management before even puppy Squidge was accepted as a family member. But, we had to get Coixeta out of the kennel, and it suddenly seemed urgent. It had to be today, right now, this minute. So we set up a ground-floor bedroom, off our living room, to be her temporary home, with a baby gate so we could all see each other but keep her apart from the twins. The plan was to bring her home, then set about finding a foster home, and later an adoptive home, while we arranged whatever medical care she needed.
We were so nervous when we approached the management to say we wanted to adopt her. We worried they would refuse because it appeared the dogs were almost like some sort of sad hoarding case back then, with potential homes being dismissed for insignificant reasons. I'm delighted to say that in recent years, there has been a change of management and, whilst it's still a financial struggle, all the questionable management practices from years ago have gone. At the time though, we were concerned that, if they found out we had raised funds, they would be more interested in the money than Coixeta's best interests. We had discussions about what lengths we would be prepared to go to in order to secure her freedom. Happily, it didn't come to that and, within the day, we had brought her home and introduced her to the memory foam bed.
Seeing Coixeta's face as she navigated the sponginess of a soft bed was heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measure. She wasn't sure what to make of it. We took the Labs to the gate one at a time to see she was there, then, knowing what a big upheaval this was for her, we left her in peace to get accustomed to her surroundings while we went outside to enjoy a celebratory glass of cava and to toast new beginnings.
Five minutes later, my heart stopped dead as Coixeta appeared outside. There was only one word for it: fuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck! We were far enough from the house that there was no way of getting her back inside before the Labs got to her, so we watched with consternation as they ran over. Now, don't get me wrong, my twins are arseholes, but they're not dangerous dogs. They're all mouth and no trousers. They can be loud and shouty, and they can scuffle, but it's not real fighting. That's not the point, though, no-one should be in that situation: not them, not the other dogs, and not the guardians of any dogs who might be involved. It's just unpleasant, and so we do everything we can to prevent it from happening. Apparently, though, when the other dog in question has Podenco in them, even with only three functional legs, a baby gate is not enough of a barrier. Lesson learned.
So, there we were, mouths agape as Willow and Shadow ran to intercept.
"Hi!", said the newcomer's body language, "I'm Coixeta and it's just gosh-darned LOVELY to meet you all!".
The Labs stopped in their tracks. They looked bemused.
Furtive glances at each other. Shit, now what?
"Muuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuum!!!!!!", as they turned tail and ran back up to us, totally confused, poor things. Bears of little brain, my dickish twins.
But, that was it! No silliness, no posturing, just acceptance. Coixeta came over to join us, and we spent a lovely afternoon, chilling in the sunshine and imbibing maybe one too many glasses of the fizzy grape juice. Life was good!
Coixeta became Conchita - because who calls a dog "Cripple", for the love of all that is holy? - and we continued our plans for world domination, as she quickly settled into her new role of Queen of the Sofa. After any time outside, she would always sprint inside ahead of the other dogs to ensure she claimed her spot before they could get there!
With our return to Andorra looming, we knew that we had a job to get Conchita the medical treatment she needed, and to find her a new home before we went off to the mountains. It seemed obvious that a physically compromised dog would not be able to deal with the mountainous terrain, not to mention the snow and ice, of a ski resort in winter.
After discussions with our own lovely local vet (Mercé at Vet d'Ebre), we arranged for further consultations with specialists at a veterinary hospital in Barcelona, and after multiple meetings, we decided that the best path forwards for Conchita to live her best life was an amputation of the damaged limb. She had already effectively been living as a tripawd for many years, so the difference to her would be minimal, other than removing the pain that occurred every time she put weight on the leg, dislocating the elbow.
* Aside: I had planned a trip to the UK before the last-minute decision to break Conchita out of the shelter right-now-this-minute, and we took her for a biopsy on her elbow just before I left, as the vet wasn't sure if the mass had any cancerous quality to it. I was in a total state when I popped into the clinic to pick up her results immediately before driving to England. All I saw was the serious look on her face and heard the words "cancer", and "malignancy". My Spanish was really, really bad back then (it's only really bad now!), and I just zoned in on those words and that serious face. I cried all the way to my overnight stop in Clermont St Ferrand, eight hours' drive away. It was only once I got there that I opened the results and read the words: NO cancer. NO malignancy. Fucksake. I cried again, for a wholly different reason. And laughed that hysterical laugh of relief and self ridicule.
Her op went very smoothly, and she was soon back with us again, on a cocktail of drugs and with a horrific number of staples in her body, but fit and strong from the conditioning work we'd done before the surgery. In fact, she was a little too perky, as the very next day, she decided to follow me up the stairs when I popped up! We were both then stuck there until J returned home, as I couldn't risk her following me down again, and wasn't confident enough to carry her down with no-one else in the house, in case it all went wrong!
During this time, we were still looking for the perfect forever home for Conchita, since we were heading to the mountains and snow of Andorra imminently, and it was then that my own mother suggested she take her. Having recently lost her own ex-shelter dog Jemma to heart failure, this seemed like a perfect solution for everyone and, best of all for me, I'd be able to keep this special lady in my life! So, once she was healed up and signed off by the vets in Barcelona, we made the plans to drive her to the UK and her new life.
There were more tears, many, many more tears, as I drove away to head back home. Even knowing that Conchita would have the best life from hereon in, we had formed a very special bond since those first days in the kennel, and I was so incredibly sad to say goodbye - or even just au revoir.
Over the coming months, I kept in regular contact, seeing how she was settling in. She had good days and bad days. On the good days, she would go for walks in the local parks. On the bad days, she would jump onto the kitchen counter - yes, even with three legs - or dig through a door to try to escape. It seemed as if she was constantly searching for me, and was struggling to settle. She was better when my sister was around, and it became more obvious that she saw me in Rachel. But, it eventually became apparent that there was only one thing to do for this beautiful, complicated dog, and that was to bring her back to the family she had chosen to be hers. To us.
Her very last "new start" warranted a new name, and we settled on Juniper, or Ginny for short. The years that have followed since then have been fabulous. She has eaten the best foods, had all the medical care she has needed, she's learned to catch treats, has been on holidays, lounged in the sunshine, and been taught the joys of wallowing in muddy puddles by a certain chocolate Labrador. In short, she has lived her best life. I often think back to that scared and pain-ridden ghost of a dog we met back in 2017, and contrast that to the dog we see now. The vets guessed her age to be around thirteen when we first adopted her, and that was nearly five years ago.
She's a lot whiter in the face now, and the damage to her joints is catching up with her. But her spark for life, her playfulness and her joy are still strong.
Although she can't walk much these days, and might fall a little more often, she still tells us each and every day how much she loves to live. And, boy, does she love us! Despite her failing joints, she still runs up the garden steps to greet us when we get home. She's still in the jostling crowd of dogs by the door to give her welcome as we walk in the house. She still loves to sleep curled up next to us on the pillows. She will roll around on her back, groaning in joy as the itch gets scratched, and will still push our hands to demand more strokes if we stop before she's ready.
In short, this is a dog who has eventually learned what love is. And she loves to be loved.
And what about those mountains and snow, I hear you ask? Let me answer that with some photos:
Yes, I think we can say that she did just fine!
Wow. I hadn't meant for this to be a blog post all about Ginny. When I started, I had intended for it to be about ALL the dogs I've met in the shelter over the years, including those ones who have joined our gang, either on a part-time basis, or more permanently. Ginny's story seems to have taken over and I think I'll leave it there. The other stories, of which there are many, can wait for another day.
For now, as I sit cuddled up with my Miss Juniper Berry, Ginny Bear, Bat-eared Tripawd, Ginger Ninja and Queen of the Sofa, I can only tell you just how happy I am to have shared part of my life and hopefully the best years of hers with this magical girl. We may be on the last chapter of this particular tale, but I sure think it's been a happy one.
Want to capture beautiful memories to tell your dog's story?
You don't have to wait until the tale is played out. If you're interested in a photography session to capture the essence of your own best furry friend, drop me a line and we'll make it happen! I can't wait to meet you both and to capture those sweetest of memories for always.
Back in the madhouse
I think - just maybe - that the latest surgery on cocker spaniel Bella's bum might have actually worked! I've been very hesitant about saying that until now, because it's been so inflamed since she she went under the knife again, but regular cold laser treatments have reduced that significantly. There is still some sign of her prolapse, but it's receding day after day. Fingers crossed that it continues to improve and we can put this poor little girl's butt issues to rest.
In other news, we had an interesting time this weekend when we found a Podenco dog in a flower bed outside our garden in Spain. She was obviously in a very bad way, and seemed to be fading in front of our eyes. A trip to the emergency vet and a swathe of tests later, she was diagnosed with exhaustion and dehydration. Despite the fact her pads were a mess, worn to the flesh, she was obviously a well-cared for dog, so we took her back home, gave her food and water and a comfy place to sleep, and went to social media to get her picture shared. And it worked! The following morning, a friend of the owner had made contact. Apparently she had run off after a scent on a walk and had been missing a week! How she survived that long in the heat, I have no idea, and she clearly wouldn’t have managed much longer. But all’s well that ends well, and her owner was delighted to have her back home with her family. Don’t do it again, sweet Careta! Or, if you do, come straight here so we can get you back where you belong.
All around the blogosphere!
This week's topic in our blog circle is "mutts", and I'm sending you off next to catch up with the most fabulous Holly Cook: Seattle Dog Photographer, Holly Cook talks about Superhero Mutts.
Once you've finished her blog, click the link at the bottom to continue on in the circle, until you find yourself back here, where you belong.
Until next time, give your beloved furries a big hug in honour of the dogs around the world who don't have a loving family of their own. There is nothing better in life than this, so I wish you the purest of joys that is the love of a dog.