My dog Maisie bore a striking resemblance to Princess Diana. Looking across at her one evening, she shot me a look and I saw it. With those beseeching big eyes, she was a dead-ringer for the People’s Princess in that infamous “three of us in this marriage” interview. I ended up entering her into a lookalike competition for that year’s Pride. And she won, but only because a Scottish border terrier — apparently the spitting image of Jackie Collins — failed to show up.
Obviously, after I wrote about her for the Guardian, the locals in our trendy Crouch End park soon got wind of it. They would stop us to ask if Maisie was the “Princess Diana dog” and we would joke about her being harassed by the paparazzi. One humourless reader didn’t really get the joke. He wrote to the newspaper: “Bindel has gone too far this time. That dog looks nothing like Princess Diana!”
But like Diana, Maisie was heartbreakingly beautiful, a Spaniel-Collie cross with a long coat and soulful eyes. Her legs were slightly too short for her body, which made her all the more lovable. But before she came to us, someone had abandoned her. According to her profile on a rescue charity’s website, it said she would be put to sleep the following day unless she was claimed. We did. And we were besotted.
Her reputation — and her bark — soon preceded her. Our local park has a tennis court attached, and Maisie would gallop in and grab a ball, mid-serve. The Crouch End tennis gang were rarely amused. She even made a name for herself in media circles: if ever my partner Harriet or I were doing interviews, Maisie would inevitably bark her head off. Producers would have to decide whether to rerecord the segment or broadcast her voice on Radio 4 or Sky News.
Maisie brought us joy in private as well as in public. With us, she was sweet, cuddly and affectionate, though she barked at everyone else. And she was insecure. If Harriet and I were sitting together on the sofa, she would try to separate us with her paws. She had never got over whatever had happened to her in her former life. We supported her with her trauma, and she helped us when we needed comfort after a bad day. Harriet, a lawyer, and I both do work that takes us to very dark places, dealing with the detail of the worst excesses of men’s violence. It’s not uncommon for us to be talking about murder, prostitution and child sexual abuse before 8am. But having a creature who would greet us joyfully, blissfully unaware of the terrible things humans are capable of, was always incredibly therapeutic.
And we repaid that joy with love and attention and vast vast vets bills. I’ve never felt more middle-class than when I had to tell an editor that I couldn’t knock out a piece in the next hour because I had to take the dog to hydrotherapy. She had fortnightly appointments ever since she developed arthritis. She also had monthly vaccinations to keep the condition at bay, and check-ups for her kidney disease and pancreatitis. People without pets will howl at the expense, but I had always felt lucky we could afford this sort of care.
Never more so than when we decided we had to euthanise her. She could no longer bound on to the tennis courts to irritate the Wimbledon wannabes; she could no longer negotiate the four steps into the kitchen or out into the garden without help. She had gone off her food. Her kidney failure had progressed and the vet suggested a new course of treatment. “No,” I said. “It’s time for her to go”. My partner and I knew we would rather let her go a day too soon than a day too late. She was 16-and-a-half and it was just before Christmas.
I know people will call me a hypocrite for promoting the value of having a pet, particularly during a cost-of-living crisis. When people are using food banks to feed their children, isn’t it bad taste to be talking about pet food banks? I hear the criticism. And I have made similar arguments myself — railing against donkey sanctuaries getting more funding than domestic violence charities. And, yes, I do think we should prioritise humans. I spend a significant amount of my unpaid time and energy campaigning to keep women and children safe from male violence. But I also donate a fair bit every month to animal charities. I want women to live without male violence; I don’t want donkeys to suffer; I want people to be able to feed their pets. These things aren’t mutually exclusive.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about about people who had to give up their pets because they couldn’t afford basic vet treatment or decent food. I wept with owners who recounted the pain of rehoming their beloved companions, feeling angry that there was little help for them. Things have only got worse since then. Figures released last week by the Dog’s Trust reveal that a record number of people are being forced to give up their pets: the charity received more than 45,000 requests from owners about giving up their animals in 2023.
If I could have kept Maisie alive, fit and healthy forever I would have. But when the time came, the vet came to the house so that Maisie could die in her own bed, with us close by. She was given a sedative, fell into a deep sleep, and then a final injection stopped her heart. She was wrapped up in her favourite blanket and carried out in a wicker basket, while we sat inconsolable, looking at her bowls, her toys, her collar.
I cry about her every day and I have barely slept since she died. Christmas was especially hard: even the cat looked bereft. I would go out for walks on my own, feeling completely weird without a dog by my side. It was so odd to not hear her incessant barking when the doorbell rang. The house has lost its soul. While researching that piece two years ago, I also spoke to experts in bereavement counselling for pet owners. Some might think going to a therapist to get through the loss of a pet is a ridiculous self-indulgence when there’s so much human suffering in the world. But I know now that such loss can bring with it terrible grief, particularly when they have been so therapeutic, as Maisie was for me
Maybe it was the quietness of the holiday season, but I ended up looking at dogs on rescue centre websites — thinking that, in the future, we would probably get another. Yes, I felt guilt, but I figured there was no harm in looking. And then, of course, the inevitable happened. She was a cross between a springer spaniel and a French bulldog, nothing like Maisie. It was only a couple of days before I surreptitiously emailed the owner, asking for more details. It was a familiar story: family dog gets pregnant, six puppies are born, they all need rehoming.
We brought Ruby home on Sunday, a month after Maisie died. She is four-months-old, and full of energy. I can’t wait for her to start barking, demanding a walk first thing in the morning. I still feel Maisie’s loss like a hole in my heart. But I didn’t want to wait just for the sake of it. I’m a fairly anxious person, an insomniac, and the nature of my work leaves me with invasive thoughts. Being able to spend time with a furry bundle of happiness reduces my anxiety and makes me forget, albeit temporarily, the painful stories stored in my head. Maisie helped me keep doing the work that I do. Now, Ruby will take up the baton — and the tennis ball.