Tickle came into my life in early 2007, a young collie x girl who had narrowly escaped death in Ireland.
She was owned by a family who had got her as a puppy for their daughter. Unfortunately, the daughter soon lost interest and Tickle was dumped in the backyard. She was never walked and got little attention - other than from the next door neighbour, a lovely lady who felt very sorry for Tickle. She used to talk to Tickle over the fence; give her titbits.
One day, this lovely lady popped her head over the fence and saw that Tickle was missing. "She's run away," said her owners. When Tickle didn't reappear, this kind person went looking for her and found her in the local pound - one with a terrible reputation. Few got out alive.
"Oh, her owners are going to be so pleased!" she told them.
"I don't think so," said the pound. "They surrendered her here yesterday".
And then this incredibly kind woman paid the release fee, got Tickle out and found her a space with the wonderful West Cork Animal Rescue, who contacted the rescue I had just started running here in the UK.
This is Tickle the day she arrived with us on Feburary 20th 2007. A pretty, timid girlie.
She grew in confidence hugely over the next 10 days or so and we found what we hoped would be the perfect home for her - a young family from Somerset who came to see her and fell in love. As I put her into their car, I warned them: "She is a bit of an escape artist... please be careful getting in and out of cars/opening doors etc, particularly to begin with."
Four hours later I got a call to say she had run away. Lulled into a false sense of security because Tickle had sat quietly on their lap all the way home, they didn't have hold of her when they parked up outside their house and opened the car door. Tickle had simply been biding her time, waiting for the opportunity. She leapt from the back seat, out through the driver's door and legged it. She was now loose, panicked, in Misdomer Norton, a town through which lorries thundered.
I leapt in the car with Boz, my retriever x boy who she loved, and drove the three hours down there. I caught a single glimpse of her and called her name. But by now she was terrified. She was too far away to realise it was me and she turned and ran.
I walked until it was dark, then drove home in tears.
The next day, a Thursday, she was spotted four miles away, thankfully in a more rural area. I drove down again, put up posters, talked to someone who had spotted her, but she was nowhere to be seen.
The next three days, we were filming at Cruft's in Birmingham for the film that became Pedigree Dogs Exposed. It was agony knowing she was still on the run. But then on the Sunday morning there was a call. Tickle had been spotted back in Midsomer Norton late the previous night outside the fish and chip shop. She'd taken some food off someone who recognised her from the posters, but ran off when they tried to grab her, very nearly under the wheels of a big truck. Then later, she'd been spotted outside her new family's house, from where she'd gone missing. As soon as they called her, though, she ran off again.
I had no choice but to stay at Crufts to film Best in Show on the Sunday evening. We left as soon as possible afterwards and drove home to drop off the kit. I then jumped back into the car and drove down to Somerset. I took her friend Boz with me and arrived about 1am. I parked up outside the house where her new family lived and took the advice of an expert who had advised to sprinkle my pee round the car and just wait. I don't think I've ever felt so ridiculous but I did as instructed, then opened the boot of the car, got in the back with Boz, wrapped myself up in a warm duvet and settled down for what I thought would be a long and probably fruitless night. By then, I wasn't even sure if I had much of a connection with her. After all, she'd only been with us 10 days and had been missing for five.
But it turns out that Tickle had been waiting for me. I saw a shadow come round the back of the car. I held my breath. Then she appeared.
"Tickle?" I whispered and she jumped into the car, rolling all over me and Boz and squealing with delight. I hugged her and cried with relief.
The noise had woken up her new family. We went in for a warming cup of coffee. I sat on the floor and an exhausted Tickle fell asleep on my legs. After a while they said: "Well thank you very much... we'll let you know how she gets on."
I looked at Tickle and then back at them. "I'm sorry," I told them. "But she's coming home with me."
I got home just before dawn. As I walked down the side of the house, Jon poked his head out of the bedroom window and said simply: "She's earned her place here."
And here she stayed, part of the team of assorted waifs and strays.
Lots of diving.
She was very proud the day she caught this rabbit and brought it back to me.
Not long after she came back to us, Tickle ran over a jetty on the bank of fast-running river, dropped a leg between one of the slats and screamed. She was on the opposite bank from Jon and me and she sat there holding the leg up, crying for help. There was no bridge for a quarter of a mile. Jon offered to run round, but she suddenly slid into the river and swam across the strong current holding her injured leg above the water. Jon hauled her out, carried the sodden Tickle in his arms and we drove to the vets.
As soon as we got there, Tickle stopped crying. She was completely silent as the vet nurse manipulated her leg and said she didn't think it was broken. "Come back tomorrow if she's no better," she said. But as soon as we left, she started to whimper again. We took her back. An x-ray revealed the fracture. That was my Tickle. Strangers were not permitted to see any weakness.
She was a nightmare patient; hated the splint, and broke several of them. Eventually we found a neat solution - a cut-down child's welly wedged on the end of it. She loved the Hotterdog fleece she's wearing in this picture - worn because she had to have a mild tranquilliser to keep her a bit calmer- one that reduces body temperature a bit. Well, that was our excuse.
I am not entirely sure why she's wearing it in this one, though.
And probably the less said about the elf hat, the better.
For seven years, Tickle has been at my side, her ears always attuned to the slightest clink of the car keys. She demanded to come everywhere with me and she'd curl up on the front seat of the car besides me. When the weather permitted, she was happy to sit in the car for hours waiting for me.
When it wasn't possible for her to come with me, she'd sneak upstairs and lie on the bed in the spare room waiting for me to return. She was rarely very affectionate with anyone else, never felt the need to impress strangers... but she did love a cuddle with my Jon...
Not always displaying the greatest modesty...
She hated my flatcoat Maisie, though, and the two had the occasional scrap. Tickle looked unashamedly thrilled when we lost Maisie to cancer in 2012. Tickle was one of the smallest here but became the matriarch; even our Big Jake minded his Ps and Qs with her.
She has also been my rescue's "stooge" dog - coming with me to assess many a dog over the years. She always got it exactly right; able to walk into just about any situation, her reaction always telling me so much about the other dog. And she was also always with me on middle-of-the-night mercy dashes - an enormously calming influence on a new, stressed dog.
One morning a month ago, I noticed a swelling on the left side of Tickle's mouth. I thought she'd been stung and gave her an anti-histamine. But it didn't go down. The oedema began to spread until my pretty girl's head was distorted into a puffy balloon. The vets were puzzled - particularly as she was clearly so well in herself - exercising, swimming, playing and eating normally. Her bloods were normal too. This is Tickle last Sunday, with the gang on Salisbury Plain. Other than the oedema on her face, you wouldn't think there was anything wrong.
Tickle is vet-phobic - she never got over that visit with her broken leg - so I have taken the conservative route. First antihistamine; then a diuretic; then antibiotics and finally, three days ago, steroids.
On Friday night, although she seemed comfortable, she was breathing faster. I put it down to the steroids but that was when I began to feel the first knot of worry in my gut. I lay awake listening to her breathing.
Yesterday late morning, we went for a long walk on Salisbury Plain - as we do every day. She ran and swam and leapt into the water after biscuits - a favourite game. But as the walk progressed she began to gag in an attempt to clear her throat. It got more frequent. It didn't seem to bother her much, but I called our vet Edward and drove to the surgery.
It was time to x-ray her chest. Tickle didn't want to go in and once through the door kept making eye contact with me, begging to leave. I so wished I could have done because I knew she was in trouble and I would so loved to have just turned round and taken her home.
But I couldn't. And she trusted me. So she followed me into the prep room (it was out of hours and Edward knows me well). She was quiet and learned into me as Edward slipped a needle into her leg to sedate her for the x-ray. After a few moments, she slumped into my arms.
The first x-ray showed some lung oedema, but nothing remarkable - until Edward spotted that it looked like her heart was pushed up from its usual place. Two more x-rays - including a dorsal view - confirmed it. There was a large mass that had pushed her heart over to the right side of her chest.
Now it could have been benign - and I will always be a bit haunted by the thought that it was. After all, she seemed so well in herself. But I simply couldn't put Tickle, who hated the vet so much and was always bereft if she wasn't with me, through such a huge op without better odds.
She was already asleep. And so I kissed her head and let her go.
Today every cell in my body is heavy with loss - the horrible, pitting grief that all of us who love dogs know so well. I hate that she isn't at my feet; hate that there was one less dog bowl in the line-up this morning; hate that when I went down to the Plain this afternoon, she wasn't on the front seat beside me.
But I know this will pass. And then I will take comfort from the fact that Tickle lived her life as a dog should. She ran and swam and played and barked and was loved unencumbered by a flat face, or an overlong back, or wrinkles or hopelessly-short legs.
Tickle was still wet and muddy from the Plain when she died. I don't think you can ask for much more.
Other than a few more years.
Related post: And Tickle came home