"Free To Good Home –" the ad said.
"Jack Russell/Maltese terrier. Slightly energetic – (I loved this, the way they'd tried to downplay what was obviously a crazy personality) but still full of love. Likes the beach, sitting on the heating vent in winter and licking feet. Also likes walks, lamb chops and chatting to other dogs. Looking for loving new home."
I looked at this ad, and the pixelated photo with it, and contemplated the idea. For the past three months we had endured fertility tests in an attempt to start IVF, but I was ready to pull out early. It was demoralising, frightening, and unexpectedly lonely. For months I had sat in clinic waiting rooms while RR was at work and for months I had quietly watched other couples hold hands while I sat on my own. It wasn't his fault: I had told him he didn't need to miss work. But a part of me wished I'd been more selfish. There is nothing sadder than sitting in a fertility clinic looking at a poster of a happy family when you're all on your own.
A few months later, after a gruelling work trip to New York, a bad publishing deal, some pummeling deadlines and a traumatic house move, I waved the white flag. "Let's get a dog instead?" I quietly suggested. So we bought Coco home.
Now I don't know why the previous owners called her Coco since she doesn't look anything like Ms Gabrielle Chanel. (More like Courtney Love on a bad peroxide day!) Nor does she act like her; with hauteur and smoothed-down sophistication. In fact, she's as mad as the Mad Hatter. Maybe more so. But it seemed like fate that she came along. I was writing a book about Chanel at the time. What were the odds of finding a dog with the same name?
I remember she looked at me as we drove up the mountain, wagging her tail in a courageous way. I remember thinking how brave she was, getting into a car with a stranger, and how well she faced uncertainty. I thought: I could learn a lesson or two from you little girl.
Then reality hit. And our home exploded. For the first few months Coco wrecked havoc on our lives. She chewed through iPods, iPhones, new shoes, new gardening gloves (see image above) and even my manuscript notes. I punished her, then cuddled her with guilt. It was clear I had no idea how to be a good mother.
But we persevered. We bought her a playmate – a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, which we called Cooper, after an Adelaide beer. (Don't ask.) She loved him at first lick. Then we bought her toys to keep her bright mind occupied. We encouraged her to dig outside (rather than in our shoe cupboards), and, after failing at Dog Training Group (we were the bottom of the class), worked out our own Coco Education Classes. It was a long, slow road.
But even though I adored her (they both sleep in our bed), I never really felt that rush of protective love some people have for their children and pets. I was too scared I guess. I still wasn't sure she'd stay, you see. I wasn't even sure where we'd be in two years.
Then, at 9AM this morning, barely coherent from lack of sleep, I looked up "chocolate and dogs" on the Internet. "CHOCOLATE TOXICITY," it said in big letters, and I felt the alarm bells go.
"Dogs that accidentally eat chocolate can become excited and hyperactive and then very thirsty. Vomiting and diarrhoea soon follow. The effect on the heart is dire. Death is possible, especially with exercise. Many pet owners assume their pet is unaffected as the signs of sickness may not be seen for several hours. Death can follow the next day."
Within two minutes, I had the leads, Cooper in his car harness and a sickly Coco in my arms and we were racing down the road to Moss, our lovely vet. He ushered us all into the surgery (Cooper stood on the table too) and calmly checked her heart, her eyes, and her stomach. When he said that she must have vomited most of the poison up, I gave a little murmur of thanks. And then I burst into tears.
That's the thing with dogs. You can hold them at arm's length but they'll still somehow sneak their way into your hearts. I had always looked after Coco. Walked her. Fed her. And ensured she was okay. But I'd never really cared for her. It was difficult loving a dog that was so naughty. And maybe I wasn't quite willing to remove the guard from around my heart?
But then she almost died. She ate some chocolate licorice and almost died. Driving down to the vets, sobbing "I'm sorry, I'm sorry" as she lay sadly on the seat beside me, I realised she had been the strong one all along. She had brought us all together and made us laugh. She had saved me from my loneliness and infertility. And she hadn't wanted anything in return but love.
So this is a tribute to Miss Coco. She may be naughty, and she may not look anything like Miss Gabrielle Chanel, but she's very much a dog with a heart.