PUBLISHED: 22:04 GMT, 30 November 2012 | UPDATED: 01:59 GMT, 1 December 2012
Boris’s great head was heavy in my lap; his breath was shallow and laboured. Tears blurred my eyes as I soothed him with words of comfort, hummed to him and stroked his silky ears.
Boris was dying, but shortly before he slipped from coma into everlasting sleep, his knowing brown eyes rolled open and he searched my face for reassurance that I would not leave him.
Perhaps it is fanciful to imagine that a dog would understand exactly what I was thinking, but in that instant I felt there was a communion of feelings between the two of us. Boris knew precisely how much I loved him and I knew irrefutably that he loved me back.
So I sat with my adored Great Dane all that summer day in the painful certainty that it would be his last, and when he briefly proffered a paw for me to hold I knew that gesture — familiar yet heartbreaking — was his final farewell.
I held Boris’s paw. He looked intently at me once more with his soulful eyes. I fought to suppress a sob and although grief was almost choking me, I wanted his last memory of this life to be a peaceful one. I tried to sing his signature tune, You’re My Favourite Waste of Time, the song I always used to croon to him. But silent tears stifled me.
Boris died on August 17. He was young for a Great Dane — just six — and his life had been cruelly cut short after he had struggled for years with pain in his hips and joints. He came from good stock; none of his siblings had problems. Poor Boris was just unlucky.
My husband Ashley and I had tried — goodness knows, we had — to help him. He had undergone several operations. He’d even had bespoke calipers and custom-made doggy boots, flown all the way from Denver in the U.S., to aid his mobility and make him more comfortable.
Nothing was too much trouble for our Boris, no expense was too high. He was a family member and I’d have walked barefoot over hot coals if it had meant he would have been spared some of the pain, which also affected his poor toes.
But despite our efforts, he had to have two of them amputated. And as he neared the end, his joints were swollen. He was miserable with pain. I knew there was no more we could do for him except let him slip peacefully away. Actually, I think he was ready to die.
Yet when he went, I was inconsolable — and the sense of loss and devastation I felt was familiar to me. You see, I’m ridiculously soppy about dogs, and Great Danes are my particular passion. I’ve had a succession of them beginning with Harley, a blue, that we bought in 2001.
Digby, (black) joined us a year later as a companion for Harley, then two years on came Dylan, another blue.
All three have now died, so Boris has joined his three beloved predecessors: their ashes are all displayed in engraved urns in my office. I’m not morbid about them; on the contrary. They’re there to remind me of my happiest times; of how my faithful Danes, my loyal protectors and constant companions, have brought laughter, chaos, companionship and pleasure into my life; how they’ve enriched it beyond measure.
When Boris, a Harlequin Dane, was ill and dying, I wasn’t the only one in the household who grieved. Bertie, my other Dane — now just two years old — was also bereft. The loss of his mentor and ‘top dog’ made him refuse to eat. He diminished before our eyes.
Ashley quietly noted how he sickened and pined for Boris. Secretly he made plans. And the day after Boris died, a puppy named Hugo, another Harlequin Dane and a new companion for Bertie, bounced into our lives and helped relieve our pain.
All my Great Danes have left their pawprints on my heart. And Boris will always have a cherished place in my memory. I will not say he was a favourite — that would be invidious — but we did share a special connection.
Boris was one hell of a dog. I rather think he chose me than the other way round. When I went to look at his litter of puppies, he was the one staring at me with his forget-me-not blue eyes. (All Harlequin puppies have such blue eyes, which then turn brown.) From that moment, I was smitten.
As a puppy, he was a bundle of mischief. He chewed everything, indiscriminately. Skirting boards, windowsills, furniture; even one of my legs: all of them still bear the imprint of his gnawing teeth.
The leg got chewed when Boris had a spat with Digby and I was in the way of the altercation. (It’s still scarred, but thankfully my career modelling for Pretty Polly tights was long over!)
Boris teethed indiscriminately and thoroughly enjoyed a pair of my Gucci boots. I’d splashed out on them — a rare extravagance — only to discover the heel of one of them abandoned carelessly on the floor. Bits of toe, a zip, a strand of leather: I followed the trail of destruction on to Boris’ bed where he was gnawing thoughtfully through a sole.
My smart, leather-bound Mulberry diary was another casualty of his teething. I managed to wrest a few drool-flecked pages from his slobbery jaws and dry them out, before the whole book was demolished.
But telling him off would have been quite futile. Boris was only obeying an instinct — as he was whenever an unsuspecting visitor dared to come on to his territory before being formally introduced to him.
One icy winter day, I realised quite how ferociously he was prepared to protect me. I was in my kitchen humming away to a Billy Joel song on the radio, when I heard a thin falsetto wail. I turned the radio down and heard it more distinctly: a definite scream of, ‘Help!’
It was only then that I noticed both Boris and Bertie were conspicuously absent. Cautiously, I walked round to the back of the house, following the cries.
There I found my two dogs standing guard at the bottom of a ladder, baring their teeth and snarling ferociously at a huddled figure, perched perilously on the gable of the roof, shaking with fear and cold.
The poor chap being held hostage by my Great Danes was a roofer. Ashley had asked him to quote to replace some tiles and gutters, but he had forgotten to inform me, with the inevitable consequence that Boris and his sidekick had regarded him as an uninvited intruder.
Every time he’d tried to descend his ladder, they’d chased him back on to the roof where he’d waited, clinging in terror to the chimney pot, for three hours.
I dispatched my boys to their bedroom — yes, I confess my spoilt dogs have their own sleeping quarters with a 10ft mattress, fleecy blankets and pillows — and coaxed the hapless workman down.
Installed in my kitchen with a hot drink, I persuaded him to ‘meet and greet’ the dogs: after all, if he was going to work on the house, it was vital they formed a cordial relationship. Reluctantly, he agreed to see them, and within five minutes, Boris was sprawling across his knees — all 15 stone of him — and lapping tea from his mug, while Bertie licked his bald head and ears and rearranged his glasses.
The bonding process over, we all escorted the roofer back to his truck, where Boris was intent on giving his new friend a jovial send-off. He leapt towards him, his powerful tail thrashing, and in the ensuing melee there was a howl — from the roofer, not the dogs — and the poor chap dropped to his knees, doubled over in pain.
Boris’s lashing tail, it emerged, had almost whipped off the poor bloke’s manhood, and as he lay writhing on the driveway, Bertie compounded the insult by trying to mount him.
I clutched my head and apologised. It was all I could do. ‘They only want to play,’ I said lamely, as I helped the workman to his feet and hoisted him into his van.
Safely inside his cab, he recovered his breath and had just wound the window down to wave goodbye when a rogue globule of dog slobber landed splat on his face. He grimaced, wiped his face with the sleeve of his donkey jacket, and drove off.
I fully expected him not to return: he’d been terrorised, stranded on a rooftop, half frozen, almost castrated then spat upon. But against the odds, he came back, and I’m pleased to say we’re great pals now.
A degree of physical robustness is needed when you own Great Danes: their sheer size and energy makes life that little bit more hazardous. Dylan (my late blue Dane) once dragged me down my local High Street while we were filming a programme about dog training called ‘It’s Me Or the Dog’. He wasn’t an A-grade pupil.
Then Bertie, who even as a puppy weighed 14 stone, put paid to my TV assignment to take part in Dancing On Ice when he playfully hurled himself at me in greeting. The next thing I knew, I was executing an aerial somersault, bouncing with a thud on to my coccyx, which X-rays showed was fractured, then cracking my head on the driveway.
So I’ve survived whiplash, concussion, the wholesale destruction of my possessions — and also public ignominy. I refer to the day when Digby disrupted a decorous alfresco lunch Ashley and I were enjoying in the café at Kenwood House in Hampstead.
I’d secured his lead under my chair and was sipping a Bloody Mary, when all of a sudden there was an unearthly screech of metal on concrete as my Dane set off in pursuit of another dog, dragging me on my chair like Ben Hur in his chariot. My drink splashed all over me, my sandwich leapt skywards, the table up-turned and diners scattered.
Digby was deaf to my commands to stop. But I suffered the indignity with relative equanimity because I’ve loved all my Danes unconditionally.
Each one, in turn, has understood me: they knew when to share my joy and when comfort was needed. Equally, I believe, any one of them would have fought to the death if they thought I was threatened or in danger.
Although, of course, Ashley has always regarded the dogs as ours, they become mine whenever they leave something unmentionable on the floor. It’s funny, too, that whenever they’re guilty of some misdemeanor they also revert to being my ‘bloody dogs’.
They’re not child substitutes, as some people suggest. We’ve had our children, and between us have ten grandchildren, whom we love to bits.
But my relationship with my dogs is sometimes more fulfilling than those I have with some adults.
Boris was not only devoted to me, he was also rather moral and judgmental if he felt someone was muscling in on my relationship with Ashley.
If a dog could exude an aura of disapproval, Boris achieved it whenever Ashley and I had private tango lessons at home with our male dancing teacher.
Boris would supervise each tutorial from the sofa, and the atmosphere was always chilliest when the teacher cut in between Ashley and me, to demonstrate a specific step.
Whenever I was ‘in hold’ with the dance teacher, Boris made it clear he disapproved of such intimacy. He’d leap to his feet, lift his lip fractionally and emit a low, insistent growl of warning. ‘Just watch your step, buddy,’ I imagined him thinking. ‘An inch closer and you’re dead meat’.
He saw it as his duty to be vigilant; to protect, to supervise, to approve.
He’d glance across at Ashley as if to say, ‘Are you sure about this, Boss?’
As soon as I was released and returned to Ashley’s arms, however, Boris would resume his place on the sofa and continue a more relaxed surveillance.
I called Boris my Fur Baby — as I do all my dogs — and to me he was almost human. The fact that he could not speak was of little consequence. I always knew exactly what he was thinking.
I’d dance with my Danes, too: Boris would waltz on his hind legs, his huge paws on my shoulders. His greetings were always appropriate to my mood. If I was unhappy he sensed it. He’d nuzzle and ‘kiss’ me, his silky chops licking my face.
At other times he was boisterous and excitable; a hurtling, unstoppable force. I remember him barrelling into the kitchen to greet my dad, Den, leaping up on his lap, sending his cuppa into orbit and dousing him with scalding hot tea. Poor old Dad disappeared under a mass of flailing legs.
Yet Boris could be proper, formal and perfectly composed, when circumstances demanded it. When my Dad died, aged 86, in February this year, he sensed my pain; actually he helped me through it.
When I woke in the early hours and lay sleepless with sadness, I’d wander down to Boris’s bed and sit alongside him.
Quietly he’d give me his paw — he understood my mood and knew the time was not right for riotous greetings — and I’d nestle up next to him. Boris knew I needed him; for weeks he did not leave my side. He’d gently lick my face, put a wet nose on to my cheek or nestle his face into my neck.
He took his duty of care seriously: he knew precisely when to be decorous and gentle and when he could play.
And when he died he put his trust in me. I believe he knew I loved him so much I would not allow him to suffer any longer.
So he rested his paw in my hand; I felt his pulse slow and stop and I kissed his noble head for the last time.
In six short years, Boris had become my loyal companion, my protector; my solace, support and faithful pal.
I think he knew me as much as anyone, and when I reflect on our relationship I don’t believe I owned him at all — actually, in our house, my darling Boris was the master.
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