A letter to Toby: what I need to get off my chest about re-homing my dog

Dear Toby,

It’s been a physically and emotionally draining morning, hasn’t it? We had such a good run around the park where you had fun being chased by that little Bedlington Cross, before we collapsed into a heap and cried our eyes out into your fur. I told you that you were the best boy and I asked what on earth I would do without you. I turned to daddy and asked him if he had any tissues, and when he couldn’t find one, I asked you if I could dry my snotty nose on your fur. You responded by burping in my face and running off to sniff something disgusting, no doubt, and frollick in the grass. And that was your weird little way of making me smile, like how you always managed to do.

As much as I’d always wanted a dog of my own, you did kinda accidentally fall into our laps without us even looking, didn’t you? I found you at that farm, locked away in that cage with no love or attention. No one to pet you or cuddle you. You were a muscly boy, the product of your previous gun dog training. But when they’d decided you weren’t good enough for the task, you became an afterthought. Despite your muscly shoulders, I could see your rib cage and felt sad for you that you didn’t have any fat to keep you warm in that outdoor metal cage.

Less than a week later you were in my home. I just couldn’t leave you there, in that miserable place. I came to collect you and you HATED the car journey back to Cambridgeshire. You peed on the back seats of the car because you were so scared, and I felt awful that I couldn’t comfort you whilst I was driving. We finally got home and I asked you to wait at the door as I got myself inside and you stared up at me patiently with those soft puppy dog eyes that didn’t quite match your 20-month old hard, emotionless face.

Inside, you had a good sniff of everything, and you checked out the garden. You took some encouraging to go inside your comfortable cushioned bed, because you’d never had one before and didn’t quite understand it was yours. I thought you’d want some peace and quiet so I sat on the lounge floor and let you do your thing — but within seconds you’d crawled into my lap. And you aren’t a small dog, are you? 36kg of golden fur, plonked onto my crossed legs. And anytime you’d slip off, you’d crawl back on, desperately clinging on. Was this the first time you’d ever felt a soft human touch in your whole life?

The day after I collected you, it was my birthday. I’d taken the day off work to spend with you at home. I didn’t see anyone else that day. My husband was deployed to Sudan at the time and couldn’t call me until later on. My parents were away and my nan was working. I barely heard from anyone. I’d never felt more alone on a birthday. Except: you were here. You followed me everywhere. I put one of your beds upstairs so you could sleep near me. Your puppy dog eyes followed me every time I got up to get a drink or use the toilet or get my laptop. We went for a long walk in the fields around the village. You made my birthday happy, even though you didn’t realise it. It was just you and me, buddy.

But you were still scared, weren’t you? We’d have to quick march to get away from the village roads because you shuddered and tried to duck into the hedges every time a car passed us. You would be nervous of strangers and cower if someone approached us. A bin bag sat on the side of the road would be something to be terrified of. We worked through these things slowly, using distraction and praise to help you find your confidence.

And then, 6 weeks later, we drove together down to the squadron building on RAF Mildenhall close to midnight to wait for Steven to land. For the past week I’d been worried how you’d react to Steven. For two months it had been just me and you. Would you accept a strange man coming into our house and living with us?

Turns out, we needn’t have worried. The second Steven reached out to pet you, you adored him. You shuffled your booty into his legs and leaned into him, you wiggled with glee as he tickled under your ears. We all went home and you literally accepted this fact without any trouble.

For the next two years, we tried to incorporate you into our lives as much as possible, and our weekends became full of long walkies in the King’s Forest, or trips down to Aldeburgh so you could paddle in the sea, or bike rides in Thetford as you’d run and sprint alongside us.

One of my favourite trips was our week in Scotland. We took you with us (wasn’t that such a long drive?) up to Loch Lomond, then onto Oban, then Skye. We walked up Conic Hill and then that awful sheet rain hit us, remember? Me and Steven stopped to sort ourselves out in the horrible weather, whilst you bounded about, not a care in the world. After long days of exploring and walking, we’d head back to our log cabin by the side of the lake and you’d snuggle up into your bed, waiting for dinner time. You came with us to all of those pubs and laid down quietly whilst we ate our dinners. And everyone would want to come over to say hi to you, because you were such a handsome boy.

And this didn’t just happen in Scotland. Any time we were out in public, whether in town, or in the pub, or at festivals, we’d have strangers approach us — not because they wanted to talk to us, but because they wanted to pet you and talk about you. And you lapped it up (for the most part — remember back to when you hated strangers and wanted to get away?). Now, you can’t get enough of people and want all of the attention. You melt hearts everywhere.

I’m proud of how well you took to ‘home’ life. You’d never been inside a house before, you’d never even climbed stairs before. And yet you knew straight away that toileting was for outdoors. You never thought to chew anything that wasn’t yours. You never tried to jump on the bed or the sofa. You’d always be polite and not barge through doors ahead of people. You always waited patiently for your food to arrive — we’d put the bowl down and you’d stare at us waiting to be told it was “okay”. You never jumped up at me, or Steven, or anyone coming in our house. If the doorbell went, you automatically took yourself off to your bed to await further instructions. We didn’t have to train any of this. You just did it. Without being told. Even though you’d never been a pet or part of a household before. You mesmerised me.

I’m proud of how far you’ve come. From the point I picked you up in November 2016, where you were emotionless and robotic — a dog that’d had its soul beaten out of it — to the point we are at now where you are cheeky and full of character, we are so proud of you. It didn’t take you long to really develop your own personality and you have filled our lives with so much happiness just by being you.

But you still had your anxieties. Your confidence was still so low — it was always a work in progress. There were still so many things you had a fear of, that we were working through.

And then, inevitably, Steven’s orders came for us to move to the US. I instantly went into panic mode about how we’d keep up the same quality of life for you over there. Our life at that point was great, wasn’t it? We got to leave our front door without you being on a lead and straight away we’d be walking down trails and foot paths, well away from cars, so you can roam and prance around (oh I always saw those deer-like little hops you’d do when your nose picks up a whiff of something in the air). Or it’d be a five minute drive and we’d be in the countryside where we could literally walk for hours through random forests and fields, not anyone else in sight. I often forgot the lead, because we’d never need it. You even were happy to join us when we walked into town. We’d take it in turns to hold you as we popped into whatever shop/grocery store/bakery/wherever else we needed to go (or we’d take you in the shops with us — so many places are dog friendly now in Bury!). We’d walk you to the pub, where you’d chill at our feet until someone came over wanting to pet you and feed you doggy treats. Our life revolved around you and the outdoors.

I spoke to the spouses in New Jersey, our new ‘home’. “Ohh there’s loads of dog friendly places – yes if you drive to **insert place a three hour drive away** you can let the dog offlead.” Okay, but what about just a walk in day-to-day life? Like before you go to work? “Ohh well our dog is happy out in the back yard all day.”

Hmm. Is he? Maybe, if that’s all the dog has ever known. You would know better though, wouldn’t you mate? How could we go from daily hour+ long walks in forests and fields where you’d jump and sprint around, to just leaving you out in the garden all day with nothing but your own company? I know you’re a good, patient boy who can go without your daily walk if necessary (you were so patient every time I was sick or too unwell to take you out) — but this isn’t a good fit for you every day, is it?

I took to the internet to try and find dog-friendly places that would be acceptable for us to go to. So many outdoors places didn’t allow dogs, and anywhere that did had strict leash rules. This would be your new life — a life on a restriction. No more free roaming.

The spouses reassured me that there were dog parks near the base. But we’ve tried dog parks before, haven’t we? They were awful places where the dogs were out of control and would sprint like maniacs towards you. I could see it bring out all of your anxieties — your hackles would rise, you’d come over all growly. You’d lunge forward in defence. I could tell those places did not help your confidence fly. They made you a nervous wreck.

And, on top of this, there’s also the fact we’d have to get you to America in the first place. You, with your insecurities and anxieties. Yes, you adapted so well when we took you to random AirBnbs with us. But how would you understand being left at an airport and stuffed into a crate for 10 hours, being handled and pulled about by airport staff? You wouldn’t even be allowed a toy for company. Would you have coped with all this? Maybe, but I didn’t want to risk it when the reward for you would be so tiny, and already your quality of life would be diminishing significantly.

It was a constant back-and-forth conversation (that we kept putting off and off) about not bringing you with us to America. We didn’t once think about ‘life without you’ as a consequence — just focusing on how unhappy you’d be if we moved.

And then something happened. I visited my best friend, El, two months ago. You came with me and met Marley and Dorothy for the first time, and the three of you had fun sprinting around the garden together. During that weekend, El’s in-laws came over and met you. It didn’t take long before you were leaning up against their legs, wiggling your little butt whilst they petted you. They’d lost their dog last year, and had a dog-shaped hole in their lives. They lived in a place surrounded by lakes and fields. They only worked two days a week and so were at home a lot. And they were just such good dog people too. They wanted a dog to spoil, but in a fair way with boundaries and rules. And isn’t that just what you’re all about? Although your confidence has grown, you still always look to a human to tell you what is right and what is wrong, so those boundaries need to be there for your own security.

We all came to the decision that you’d move in with them when it came the time for us to move. And so we had two months left with you, to take you on as many lovely walks as possible. To cuddle you and smother your head with kisses.

In the week leading up to us taking you back to Doncaster, I packed up most of your things into a box. You didn’t seem bothered, and I’m surprised you didn’t even try and start pulling things out, like your toys. It’d be the kind of funny thing you’d do (like when I take all of your toys out of the lounge to tidy up, and one by one you’d bring them all back in).

The day came and we emptied our house of everything you. Your beds, your toys, your treats, your poo bags, your food bowls, your tennis balls, the Clicker we once brought thinking it’d be a good way to teach you some tricks, your blankets, the towels we’d use to dry you down after a bath, all of your grooming stuff and more. So. Much. Stuff. Who knew a pupper could have so many belongings? We took you up north and spent a final night with you at El’s. We went for a final walk, where we broke down in the middle of the park, in front of strangers. We cuddled you. We praised you for being such a good boy and providing us with so much love for the past few years. I kissed your big head constantly and wiped away that sticky sleep from your eyes one last time. We walked back to the house. And then we had to go, because it was too difficult to stay any longer after that final walk. El distracted you in the lounge when we left through the front door. I didn’t want your last memory of us being us walking away from you. I thought it might freak you out.

What you don’t know is that I got in my car and immediately wanted to jump back out and go cuddle you again. But I knew it’d be confusing for you to have such an influx of love and touch, only for me to immediately leave. I reversed down the driveway and managed to drive for about 10 metres before I had to pull over. And I cried. And Steven cried. We really, really ugly cried. You know the way I did a week ago in the middle of the lounge? Proper ugly crying with big tears and constant choking. You had no idea what was going on, and acted the same way you always did. You definitely weren’t one of those dogs that ‘feels’ human emotions and tries to make it better (y’know, like how dogs in the movies do when they lick away tears and put their paws around their human’s neck, but maybe dogs IRL don’t do that). We sat and cuddled last week (well, you did writh around a bit probably because I was making too much noise and disturbing you). Except this time, in the car, you weren’t there. I couldn’t cuddle you anymore. I couldn’t even cuddle my husband properly because we were seatbelted in and had a 3 hour drive home ahead of us. We had to go back to our house, your home, and try and figure out a way to live life without you. I stopped once more again to let out those emotions, and then we finally properly headed home.

Right now, everything is reminding me of you. Your faint smell is still on my clothing. I look out my window and see people walking their doggos and my heart breaks. The phone rings and I expect you to come investigate, because you still haven’t worked out what the sound is.

When we turned the TV off last night whilst trying to distract ourselves from our empty home, we expected you to pop up, ready to go into the garden because you know that sound of the TV powering down means time to go to bed.

I keep seeing shadows around the house, or things move in the corner of my eye. Normally that’d be you, but now it’s just my eyes playing tricks on me. I also keep hearing a huffing noise — y’know that sarky little noise you’d always make when you weren’t getting any attention — and think it’s you, but it’s just the boiler whirring.

Coming downstairs this morning was so hard. I was expecting your bed to be there, with you in it, looking up at me in exasperation of “urghhh do I really have to get up now?”. You loved your lay ins, didn’t you? Lazy little monster. It was an effort to get out of bed, have a stretch and go pee in the garden, wasn’t it? You’d quickly slip back into your bed after this annoyance and go back to sleep for another two hours whilst I did house work around you.

Your fur is still everywhere, on our clothing and the furniture. And it will be a long time before that isn’t a thing. We move house in two days and I literally cannot wait because this house reminds me of everything to do with you. Once we move onto base in preparation for heading to America, at least there won’t be that giant physical hole missing where your bed once was. Where your toys normally gathered. Where your food and water bowl sat.

Right now, sitting in this empty house alone, I am full of regrets. Wishing I’d taken you to some more exciting places to walk in our last months. Wishing I’d given you raw steak for every meal. Wishing I’d cuddled you more. The one thing I don’t regret is picking you up in the first place. You were in a miserable place and you were terrified of that lady who ‘owned’ you. I don’t regret our time together, and you’ve helped me just as much as I’ve helped you. And so, whilst I’m afraid I’ve let you down by not taking you with us, you need to know that I’ve always tried to do what’s best for you. I had to get you out of that cage back three years ago, I just couldn’t leave you there. And now you need to trust me that I’m doing this one final thing that is going to be best for you. It is heart-achingly destroying you not being here with me right now, but when I think of your future full of walks in the hills and all of the adventures you’ll have, knowing you’ll be spoiled with cuddles, I know it’s been the right choice.

El is looking after you until your new mummy and daddy return from their holiday. So you’re having a little holiday of your own, running about with Marley and Dotty, until you move house for a final time. I know you’ll be ok – you always were with that kind of thing. Life might be a little strange for the next month, but once you’re with your new parents, you’ll be living the best kind of life. The kind of life we just couldn’t have given you as an air force pupper. And whilst I won’t show up for the next few months because it’ll just be too hard and confusing for you (and me) whilst you’re settling in, every time I come back and visit El in the next few years, I get to come and see you too. We can cuddle for hours and go on walks and I’ll continue to be proud of the wonderful boy you’ve grown into, and will continue to grow into with your amazing new parents.

See, I’d never met my bestie’s in-laws up until two months ago, but in the short time we’ve known each other since then our absolute joint love for you has formed us into our own little weird family. Isn’t that mad? How you, you hairy little weirdo, have enabled absolute strangers to bond in such a crazy way.

See Toby, you are so special to me, and no matter where I’ll be in the world, you’ll always be my baby boy. My cuddle monster. My ginger weirdo. My little boo. My Toblerone. My best friend. You have my heart forever, and I feel so lucky and proud to share your amazingness with another family.

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