Six weeks old, a bundle of fur and small enough to fit inside my hands. That was the day I fell in love. The day I realised how deep and strong unconditional love can truly be.
I admit it wasn’t quite love at first sight. My family and I went to view a litter of six puppies and initially, we chose a different personality entirely. I, not even a teenager at this point, was given the responsibility and honour of choosing the new puppy after being devastated months before by the death of my first dog – Cassie. But, let’s take a step back, reading this I only want to break your heart once and talking about Cassie too may just push you over the edge.
My aim here is to prove to people, to anybody who cares to read this, why a dog isn’t just a dog. How one dog changed my life, saved my dads and made dozens of others so much better. I’m aiming for a kind of ‘Marley and Me’ vibe here.
As a family, we picked a dog. Not the same one we took home two weeks later. We bundled into the car to pick up the dog we’d so eagerly chosen just two weeks before, but once we arrived another dog caught our attention – Zena. Among all the busy puppies eagerly play fighting and scrambling around to stay on all four paws on the kitchen tiles this one puppy, my puppy, was lying still watching. Watching us. With her two front paws crossed over. That’s when we knew. Or, to be perfectly honest, that’s when my dad knew. He knew we hadn’t chosen that day, she had.
This teeny tiny puppy was about to change our lives and fill our hearts. It’s easy to forget, those who haven’t had a dog of their own, that though a dog (more specifically a German Shepherd) has a life expectancy of around ten years which is a relatively (and seemingly) small portion in a humans life – for the dog this is their entire lifetime. We watched this tiny pup turn into a massive German Shepherd swimming in the ocean and chasing chickens all the way to her struggling to jump into the car and grumbling because arthritis was eating away at her bones.
Right from the beginning, she was treated as part of the family, because that’s exactly what she was. Treated to countless teddies, shoe laces, and squeaky toys. Zena would playfully pull out hair bobbles with her teeth and untie shoe laces before the owner even knew what was happening.
A dog whose breed is stereotypically feared to be a ‘guard dog’, though that’s exactly what she was, she was also gentle and tender. I vividly recall having my massive shepherd climbing on top of me, wrestling me to the ground playfully but then slowly and gently pulling out my hair bobble with her canines, never once hurting me. This is a dog who would bark until you shouted back just so she could play fight. A dog who refused cuddles as a puppy because she didn’t want to sit still; yet would surround herself with teddies bigger than her entire body.
Quickly she grew… Grew into what can only be described as her ‘teenage years’. Long and floppy ears. Bushy tail and a cheeky head tilt. She was naughty. Not ‘wee everywhere and aggressive’ but cheeky. When arriving anywhere Zena would bark excitedly for ten minutes just so everyone would know she had arrived – for years this behavior attracted disapproving glances from hundreds of members of the public. Zena would pull hard on her lead until she was at the front of the group she was walking with, always wanting to lead the way and be centre of attention.
In the summer she would chase bees, swim in lakes following sticks and even enjoy our family water slide we did everything with her.
She was everything.
Days out would be planned around her participation. If dogs had to be kept on a lead then more often than not we’d find a different activity for the day ahead.
Zena turned six/seven and she finally began to calm down. This is when she really settled in, for my mother and sister this was when they finally got to see her deeper qualities, such as her protective nature.
If a man walked towards one of the female members of our family Zena was on high alert, if their face was hidden behind a hood she would bark aggressively. There was nowhere you’d be scared to go with a protective German Shepherd next to you.
However, she also had another side – a side which now liked cuddles. A side with a sense of humour too.
She would beg for the hose pipe to be turned on in the summer, filling up her paddling pool and settling down, then as everyone relaxed she would aim the pipe (inside her mouth) to an unsuspecting victim and aim the spray towards – drenching them. Also playing ‘hide and seek’ weekly with my dad on his building sites. Zena was also sensitive, both as an individual and towards others: a dog who would cry if you sniffed near her (thinking she smelt) but also a dog that would cover you in kisses after just one
Also playing ‘hide and seek’ weekly with my dad on his building sites. Zena was also sensitive, both as an individual and towards others: a dog who would cry if you sniffed near her (thinking she smelt) but also a dog that would cover you in kisses after just one teardrop.
When the teenage years arrived Zena had the tough task of getting used to boyfriends. This was particularly funny. When kissing a boy I found that Zena would hear everything ‘go quiet’ from my room and hurriedly run in, barking until the boy in question would stop and move away. However, later in her life Zena became particularly fond of my current boyfriend and would bark when I kissed him, becoming almost jealous and making him kiss her instead.
I could go on for thousands of words and share every little detail of my girl’s life with you but I know I would lose your interest so I’m honestly trying to cut down and keep this somewhere in between the minimum and maximum information.
A few years ago my dad suffered a serious accident. He fell on his building site from a height – breaking his back. The only other living thing around was our big baby. Nobody knows how long my dad was unconscious for when he fell but he woke up to kisses covering his face from Zena.
I won’t go into details and make this a story of recovery and some kind of ‘hero’ tale but my dad, and family, truly believe that on that day Zena’s sensitive nature and awareness woke up my dad. Worried she kissed him until he woke up.
While my dad was in hospital Zena wasn’t herself, she understood what was going on. She understood the seriousness. Unlike us, she had witnessed my dad in pain and suffering and she had done something about it. Waking him up meant he had the chance to call us and in turn, we had the chance to call 999. After this incident, Zena become far more sensitive to loud noises, as a family we felt this was because of the accident and the trauma of it.
Old age hit Zena at around eight years old, nearing nine. It wasn’t a sudden thing but a slow progression. Now I’m crying.
To me, this is when I really got to understand the depth of Zena’s understanding of the world. Aged seventeen I passed my driving test and this meant that for the first time ever I was able to take Zena out on my own to special places. Therefore, I had special one on one time with my baby. That’s exactly what she was to me, my baby.
As old age hit Zena could no longer jump full of vitality into a big Land Rover, instead she now had to be lifted (by myself) into my Corsa. She became grumpy with the discomfort she was in. She often smelt slightly. Irritable. Tired. And desperate for cuddles – very unlike her. Whether it was spooning or face to face cuddling Zena wanted contact. However, even while she was starting to feel her age she was always loving towards us, though admittedly had less patience with others. If ever I woke up in the night from a bad dream my big protective German Shepherd would be by my bed side, most likely having heard me stir in my sleep and wanting to check in.
She was eager to carry on as normal and for the most of it, she did just that.
As Zena grew older we found, as a family, that we were more protective of her. Other big dogs would have a go and we’d physically force ourselves between the dogs. Two dogs viciously attacked Zena just months before she passed away and the dog were met with a hard fight back – from me. Zena was too tired and old to fight for herself. But, once she saw the two dogs turning on me she got back onto her feet and fought back. I had watched my tiny puppy grow into an old lady. It was beautiful. I had watched her mature, grow and learn. Now older and calmer Zena welcomed human contact more, happily posing for ‘selfies’ and enjoying every bit of attention she could get while out in public – which was a lot and often, she was a beautiful dog in
Zena was too tired and old to fight for herself. But, once she saw the two dogs turning on me she got back onto her feet and fought back. I had watched my tiny puppy grow into an old lady. It was beautiful. I had watched her mature, grow and learn. Now older and calmer Zena welcomed human contact more, happily posing for ‘selfies’ and enjoying every bit of attention she could get while out in public – which was a lot and often, she was a beautiful dog in
I had watched my tiny puppy grow into an old lady. It was beautiful. I had watched her mature, grow and learn. Now older and calmer Zena welcomed human contact more, happily posing for ‘selfies’ and enjoying every bit of attention she could get while out in public – which was a lot and often, she was a beautiful dog in everybody’s eyes.
On the 9th of August 2015 Zena passed away peacefully. It was sudden. Though she had been poorly Zena never seemed to get worse, she was consistently old and a little under the weather. But she kept going and wasn’t in any constant pain.
Sadly, hell that word doesn’t even cover it. Heartbreakingly. It was a normal day.
We had a BBQ and Zena felt under the weather. I stayed with her all evening, helping her settle and get comfortable. It was nothing major and we weren’t even worried, she was just restless. The family went to sleep without a second thought, though she (as always) received many kisses goodnight. I was woken up early by my mother who was crying. I can honestly say I have never felt such pain before – physical or emotional. In the night Zena had peacefully passed away on her favorite duvet with her teddy bear.
The dog I had spent over half my life with had gone. I cried then and I still cry now six months later. I don’t think I will ever be able to look at her photo or talk about her without tears in my eyes. That isn’t a bad thing, I don’t regret anything.
There is a quote; ‘how lucky was I to have loved something so much that it made saying goodbye so hard’. That’s how I feel about Zena.
Zena is as important to me as my own mom and dad.
Zena will always be my baby, a baby so special I picked her.
Zena has never left my heart.
Zena is far more than ‘just a dog’, I don’t believe you can ever have ‘just a dog’.