All the animals we’ve loved

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In a shady corner of a local park, a clutch of small stone markers lie almost forgotten.  Sheltered by elderly sycamores, adorned by moss, framed by shrubs and wildflowers, the markers show the signs of age.  Some are weather-beaten and eroded, others tilt in the ground.  But these markers were placed here carefully and deliberately, to remember the lives of more than 200 companions.  This is the pet cemetery; a quiet, moving place, that seems cut off from the frivolity of the rest of the park.  A sad place, but also a special one, where the love of so many people for their companions converges.

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There are heroes here.  An Alsatian who detected land mines in Italy in WWII and another dog that was a Dunkirk veteran.   Trixie Fox was rescued from the Normandy beaches, so it seems she was also a veteran, though her war record has been lost to time.  But this isn’t just a place for war heroes, it’s a place for those creatures that become the small heroes of our lives.  Our ‘faithful friends’, ‘loving protectors’ and ‘little pals’.  There’s something poignant about reading their names – Laddie, Bop, Bushy, Scrappie, Billy Boy – and trying to imagine the proud and playful creatures that inhabited them.  They are mainly cats and dogs, but there is also a fawn named Bambi and a tortoise called Monty.  But it’s little Bop who always brings a lump to my throat – he seems to have only lived for a year, but is still remembered here.

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The burial of pets has ancient roots.  Animals were entombed and mummified in ancient Egypt.  Hundreds of dogs were buried at Ashkelon in Israel in about the 5th Century BC.  But it was in the 19th century that pet cemeteries became popular.  There are pet cemeteries in Hyde Park, London, Hartsdale, New York and Paris, France that were begun in the 1800s.  Ours was opened in 1948 and was in use until the 1980s when no space remained.

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I have loved and lost many animal companions.  There’s something particularly distressing about losing an animal which not everyone understands.  Perhaps it’s because they don’t belong to us, but we’re entrusted to care for them for the briefest of times.  Because they trust and stay faithful to us in a relationship that must, at times, be difficult for them to understand.  Because our relationship with them is intimate, constant and usually simple.

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The animals buried here are long gone.  If anything haunts this place, it’s only the tender memories of those they left behind.  Still, sometimes I imagine the pet cemetery when the park has emptied of people.  I see the spirits of dogs and cats peeping out from the bushes in which they’ve been resting.  Out they come, playful and energetic, pouring into the footpaths and fields of the park, leaving only silvery streaks of fur and ethereal yips in their wake.

What my dog teaches me

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The world is a different place when you have a dog.  Strangers approach to talk.  People greet you and smile.  Walks are punctuated by stops for conversation and new encounters.  A whole community of fellow dog lovers opens up and welcomes you in.  You are no longer invisible to, or isolated from, your fellow humans.  The presence of the dog draws you together, a reason, or an excuse, for contact.

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Dogs have always guided us.  In mythology, they are liminal creatures, guarding the threshold to the home or the borders to other worlds.  Hecate is accompanied by dogs as she escorts us on our journey from this world to the next.   Dogs represent companionship and loyalty, but they are also the untamed, howling creatures that attend the fearsome wild hunt as it tears across the countryside.

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I’m a different person when I’m with my dog.  Up at dawn, into the still-slumbering world, I’m able to see the town as it’s tinged with sunrise and hear the morning calls of the birds.  I rediscover my neighbourhood, walking streets and open spaces I haven’t frequented for years.  I fully experience the changing of the seasons, as darkness gives way to light, flowers begin to pepper bare grass and barren branches burst into blossom.  My favourite beauty spots are seen anew, through the eyes and nose of my puppy, as he discovers grass, beach, sea for the first time.

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My dog lives fully and in the moment.  When he wakes, he is completely awake and excited to meet the day.  He is curious about every sound, every smell, every view.  He greets places we visit every day with the same enthusiasm as if he’d never been there before.  Everything is a potential toy, whether it’s a ball or an old sock.  My dog is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover.  Every person, and every dog, is a potential friend, including those that I would be tempted to avoid.  He doesn’t know what a grudge is, greeting everyone in the same excited way, even if they’ve ignored or snarled at him before.  Every morning and every time I return home, it’s obvious how happy he is to see me.  And when he finally gives in to sleep, he surrenders to it entirely, twitching and mewling and barking through his dreams.

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When I’m with my dog, I don’t worry about the usual things that concern me.  When I’m with my dog, I don’t dwell or plan, or become anxious.  When I’m with my dog, I’m focused on nothing but him and the environment we’re in, watching him play, or sniff, or discover new things.  Being with my dog is like a walking meditation, when the world becomes clearer and more present.

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Since our dog came to live with us, seven months ago, he’s given me the gift of acceptance.  He dispels the need to be more, do more, have more.  Since he came, I’ve changed almost without noticing.  I’m content simply to be with him, to experience life with him.  He helps me to value simple pleasures.  No matter how tired or pressured I am, I’m forced out of bed, or off the couch and out into the world.  My dog refreshes me, giving me a break from the person I sometimes have to be.  He encourages me to do more than exist every day.

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To live like a dog is to start each day enthusiastically and with curiosity.   To find pleasure and excitement in every simple thing, whether or not you’ve done and seen them before.  To accept and embrace friends and strangers alike, without pre-judgement.  To live with a dog is to walk alongside a creature who can teach you to recognise that life, at its simplest, is about being where you are and cherishing it.