y dog’s name is Bert. Also known as the “best boy in the world”. To wind my boyfriend up, sometimes I call the nearly-four-year-old creature who lives with us “my first-born son”. He is the apple of my eye; the best decision we ever made; the hairy love of my life. I am dangerously devoted to this dog, given his life expectancy, but what is love if not the loveliest risk we can take?
When I first saw Bert, I knew he had to be the third member of our family. I’d been scouring dog shelter websites for months, waiting to find my favourite breed, a shih tzu, to pop up. Bert’s predecessor – in another country, with a different boyfriend – was an elderly shih tzu named Lady (silent middle name Beyoncé) Fluffington. Since her departure from this world, I was obsessed with getting a dog like her, believing (accurately) that shih tzus are the maximum embodiment of cuteness.
My current (and hopefully permanent) boyfriend Jono was at work when I found Bert on the Battersea Dog’s Home website. He soon received 63 messages from me in a two-hour period, each more desperate than the last, imploring him to let us get this pup.
I made collages of the pictures online, slapped on some absolutely normal captions like “why won’t you love me?” and “come and get me, Jono” and printed them onto several A4 sheets of paper. When Jono got home from work, he encountered the printouts of our future dog’s face, stuck throughout our flat in every surprise location I could imagine, from the the bathroom mirror to slipped between our bed sheets and even on the inside of the toilet seat.
Prior to this moment, Jono had mistakenly believed my love of dogs was at a relatively normal level. The campaign for the adorable Battersea shih tzu had been a success. He agreed to visit Bert in Old Windsor, where the sweethearts at Battersea had been showing him the sort of affection he deserved.
Just days after we first met him, Bert came home with us, on two trains and a bus, and set about rubbing himself on all our furniture.
Dogs are not impeccably behaved the moment they move into their new digs. Bert had been confiscated from a hoarder and had a rough start to life. At Battersea, he had been treated for a skin infection, had rotting teeth removed and had his matted hair shaved. While he was settling in with us, he made the annoying decision to howl through the night, wee on our sofa and bite me several times.
At first, we thought: what have we done? Is this just how we live now, sitting on a wee-sodden couch, covered in little bite marks, trying to sleep through the sound of barking? Well, yes, it was, but only for a few months.
We just kept showing Bert – and each other – love and patience, love and patience, love and patience. We made him feel safe, we fed him, we brushed his biscuit-coloured coat, we gave him treats and took him for bracing walks on Hampstead Heath. Google told me to make a yelping sound when he hurt me, to teach him how to play gently. It worked.
He is now flawless (apart from the occasional snacking on fox poo, the loo rolls he’s torn apart and the rather crucial button he ate from our TV remote). He sleeps quietly at night, only ever wees on grass and closes his mouth so delicately over our fingers when we play games that you can barely feel it.
He also taught my boyfriend and I to love each other more. We are a family now. We take care of each other. Back in the Old Times when we were allowed to go to restaurants, we would lovingly speculate during date nights about what Bert might be doing without us at home. When we were out with our respective friends, we’d exchange countless texts about Bert’s wellbeing and cuteness.
When I catch Jono whispering to Bert, making special peanut butter dog treats or falling asleep with a snoring beast on his shoulder, I fall in love with him a little bit more. I’ve just written an entire book about how good dogs are and in my research for that, I’ve come to believe that we are our best selves around dogs. Gentle, enthusiastic, affectionate. Hopeful, playful, kind. Active, responsible, loving. Living with my boyfriend and my dog through hideous times (depression, anxiety, insomnia, health problems, a global pandemic), I’ve felt safe and loved, as they have.
We all have different versions of ourselves and just want to find someone who loves as many of our different incarnations as possible. I love Jono the baker, the gardener, the friend, the son, the brother. I love pub-going Jono, TV watching Jono, cricket loving Jono. I love vegetarian Jono, climate activist Jono, dancing in the kitchen Jono. But really, if I’m honest, I might just love dog person Jono the most. And nearly as much as I love Bert.