In January 2010 I was idly browsing through the ads for pet dogs on Gumtree when I spotted a very poor quality picture of a mainly white dog with some black markings.  The dog was sitting looking up at someone just out of shot, as if obedient to them, (Knowing Tilly now, I suspect treats may have been involved). 

The description in the ad was somewhat less than detailed.  She was described as being a mix between a Bearded Collie and an Irish Wolf Hound, and the people that had her, wanted rid of her for free.  That, and a contact number was about it.  Even in the blurry shot on the ad she looked like a beautiful dog, and I was intrigued.  It had been around ten years since our last dog had died (aged 17), but at the time, my wife was nursing her elderly mother, and with a Wolf Hound in the mix I presumed that this would be a very large dog, so I didn’t mention it, thinking that someone would soon take on a dog like that.  Shortly after, the ad disappeared, so I thought that she had gone to a new home.  I have to admit that I felt a little deflated when the ad was taken down.

A month or so later, I noticed the ad was back on Gumtree again, with the same lack of details, and the same contact number.  After a little persuasion from me, we went to see her in Lisburn after work on a Friday evening in February.  I had bought a small packet of treats with me to help make friends with the dog. 

Despite having arranged a time to see the dog, we had to wait for the couple who owned her to arrive.  The house they were in must have been a rental, and they didn’t look like they had much cash to spare.  They had one child, a toddler, who seemed to use the collie sized dog as a climbing frame.  The poor dog, while looking very unhappy, with her tail firmly between her legs, took the child’s treatment of her without protest.  There was obviously another child on the way fairly imminently as well.  The dog’s name was Tilly.

We took Tilly for a short walk around the block, and she seemed as confused by her new companions as we were with her owners.  They didn’t seem interested in where she was going, or if she would be safe after their parting.  We were in their house for only the briefest of time before they brought out a small bag of food saying, “You’ll need this.”  We hadn't even agreed to tale her at that stage! The visit was so rushed we don’t even know Tilly’s exact age, but reckon that she was one year old or less when she came to live with us.  The one year estimate is the one we use.  And so, despite some reservations from my wife, because she would then be looking after her Mum, me, and now a dog as well, we took Tilly home. 

Tilly was filthy, so we put her in the boot for the journey along with the equally filthy carpet cutting that we were given as her bed.  She threw up on the way home which wasn't the best start in the world but we put it down to nerves. The small carrier bag we were given with her food was the cheapest generic brand available.  She came with no food bowls, and even more surprisingly, no toys.  Day one saw Tilly get some decent food, bowls for it (because she was somewhat larger than the Jack Russell sized dog that we used to have), a new collar, a kennel for when we had to leave her at home, and a comfortable bed.  She also got a damned good bath!  

The first few nights were a nightmare.  We tried to get Tilly to settle in her bed downstairs, but she cried incessantly and would not sleep.  She ended up in our room, but for the first three or four nights still would not settle so we got little sleep too.  It quickly became apparent that Tilly had not been walked much.  She was madly keen to walk, but at first, even after short walks the pads of her paws were red and sore looking.  It took a while for them to harden up, yet despite this, Tilly pulled on her lead like a train.  With better food, she also put on three or four kilos in the first month we had her, and with this, as her energy increased, she pulled even harder!  It got to the point where my wife could not walk her because of this.  Of course, we tried all sorts of things to train her relax a bit.  Amongst other things, we held treats in our hands to keep her close and tried several harnesses and other devices designed to make unruly dogs calm down.  Her newfound freedom was stronger than all of these.  To put her pulling in context, Tilly pulled so hard that the cartilage in my left knee eventually split while walking her.  Damn that was sore, and it took a small keyhole operation to fix it!

She also seems to have had a very deprived puppyhood.  In the first few days that she was with us, we tried playing with her in our back garden (it is well sealed in because we knew that we would get another dog at some stage).  But when we would throw her nice shiny new ball, she just stood there.  She caught onto this game quickly but doesn’t seem to have had much play time in her previous home.

Tilly also tried to walk on water.  While charging round our garden a few days after coming to stay she tried to run across our pond.  Admittedly there was a lot of weed on the pond, but I don’t think she had come across deepish water before.  In Tilly’s long coat, it took a long time to clean the duckweed off her.  The look of surprise on her face as she sank would almost have been worth the hassle of the cleaning.   Needless to say, she did not make that mistake again.

When we first got her Tilly only knew how to get attention by creating havoc.  She would not wait to be given treats by hand, instead as soon as they were out of the packet she would have her paws up on the worktop and would simply try to take them.  This type of behaviour did pass in time.  She would also steal things and chew them up before running around madly, or if in the garden she would dig relentlessly.  Throughout all the years we have lived with her, she still reverts to this latter behaviour on occasion.  Although she was so inexperienced when she came to us, she is bright, loving, and full of fun.  Fortunately, she was house trained, so at least we didn’t have to go through that.

When we began to trust her enough to let her off on walks, she often got into trouble.  On one occasion at a green space near us, we let her off to run with other dogs.  Immediately her head was down and she was off at 100mph, but within seconds she had misjudged the space required to get past a concrete post that prevented cars from getting onto the grass, causing a four or five inch gash on her left, rear hip.  Stitches were required, a recurring theme in Tilly’s early life, as she quickly became an intricate part of our vet’s retirement plan. 

She has a very strong hunting instinct, and in her early years had an incredible turn of speed (about as fast as a Whippet!).  At one point on the coastal path near us she used to run up a steep hill and then come charging back down again.  The only apparent reason for climbing the hill was the extra speed she gained coming down again.  When her hunting mist descended, and she charged off chasing rabbits or squirrels or whatever small furry animal she had detected, she often got into trouble then too.  We let her loose in a field in Crawfordsburn Country Park, and she charged off into the bushes.  We could hear her charging round for a while, then nothing.  Generally, it was at this point where she would start to respond to our calls again, but this time there was nothing.  After many calls, we went looking for her, eventually finding a very groggy, disoriented dog lying in the grass beside a low hanging branch.  She must have crashed into it and knocked herself out.  This is not the only time she did this. 

Eventually, despite many attempts to train her and attempts to calm her down, we had to buy an 8m long lead and we never let her loose again unless it was under very, very controlled conditions.  She would have killed herself, and the vet’s fees would have bankrupted us.  We also never let her loose in the countryside because I have no doubt that although she would not have attacked livestock, her chasing behaviour would have been likely to get her shot.

We had only one weekend when she arrived to try to acclimatise her.  On the following Monday, we had to go to work.  On our return, we found Tilly sitting waiting for us by the gate, but on the outside, not the sealed off back garden side.  I searched for gaps in the fence but found nothing.  Over the next few weeks our neighbours often found her sitting outside the gate like this and put her back in.  In minutes she would be out again.  For a long time nobody knew how she got there.  Eventually we found that she was simply jumping the gate from a standing / sitting start.  The gate was about 5 ½ feet high!  Once over, she would sniff where the car had been and then since she didn’t know where we were, she would simply sit and wait for our return.  Heart breaking or what?  I had to go around the whole garden putting up a sturdy trellis to make the fence higher by another two feet or so.  After this, on one occasion when we got back from work, we found a dead blackbird deposited carefully on our back doorstep, an offering from Tilly towards the family’s larder.  I have heard of cats doing this, but it must be pretty unusual amongst dogs.  

Like most pets, Tilly quickly became part of the family.  She loved her walks, and we discovered that she loved larger balls, particularly rugby balls; presumably because they bounce in random directions.   She has chewed a dozen or so to bits during her life.  Any toy that squeaks would also be a firm favourite, although they never lasted long during her younger years.  She also loves lying upside down, and particularly in the mornings after getting fed, will sit in this position for an hour or more getting her tummy tickled.

Or, after a mad chase through the under growth, she might end up like this (see below).  She was a great seed distributor!

If she was one year old when she first enslaved her two humans, then she is over fourteen now.  A good age for a largish dog.  She is a bit arthritic, and a month or so ago, Tilly had what we presumed was a chest infection.  It knocked her for six.  She wheezed and coughed, lost her appetite and for perhaps the first time in her life didn’t even want to walk.  We tried every type of dog food, feeding her tiny morsels at a time from the end of a spoon.  Throughout her life, she loved getting little bits of salmon when we cooked it, so we cooked some just for her and gave her this with a little boiled rice. Fortunately, she did eat that.  Surprisingly frozen salmon fillets with boiled rice are cheaper than dog food, and they are low fat because they are wild salmon.  For ease, we then switched to giving her tins of tuna in spring water until she started to eat properly again.  But, while ill she went lame in one fore leg.  This happened very suddenly.  Initially the vet told us this was another example of her arthritis, but it did not respond to treatment so they x-rayed her.

Our poor, lovely mutt has been diagnosed with a cancerous lump in her chest.  It has spread to her lungs and is putting pressure on her heart.  Although the vet cannot see the link, the presumption is that this is also responsible for the lameness.  She still eats well, and still wants to walk, but limps badly and after a very short distance wants to sit and recover.  She is still happy, rolling in the grass and on our carpets.  There is an obvious joy for her in this, and she still loves to be petted.  She is also eating heartily again.  A couple of days ago, the vet put her on steroids.   They seem to be helping with the lameness, so our old friend has used yet another of her numerous lives.  If a cat has nine, Tilly must have that number squared.  

Thankfully, for the moment she seems contented.  She wants walks again, although they are much shorter and slower and she is still inquisitive and seems happy.  There will be an awful reckoning coming though, and that decision is not one either of us is looking forward to.  The pet owners out there will understand this.  Those who have never had pets may not, and although the timing of this responsibility is difficult, we owe it to Tilly to get it right.  We love that old mutt; she is a big part of us.


 Tilly, a day or two ago



  1. Tilly looks [and sounds] like a beauty. You have my deepest sympathies at the diagnosis. I went through that little nightmare eleven years ago when our Rough Collie developed a tumor. We were told 'maybe nine months' and for those months we spoiled her rotten. She loved every moment and was apparently as healthy as ever. Suddenly, at nine month [almost to the day] she deteriorated and I took the decision. It was a horrible day I wish I could forget, but it was the right thing to do. Ironically it is the ultimate sign of love.

  2. Thanks Grandad. Look after your Penny. I'm sure you feel exactly the same way about her. The decision will be tough, but having Tilly with us is still a joy.


  3. Ian, I felt quite emotional reading Tilly's story. We're animal lovers too and have always had rescue cats. They're simply part of the family, never pets and it's incredibly painful to lose them, but genuinely good for the soul to have their company. You guys were made for each other - almost Karma eh?

  4. Hi Geoff, Thanks for your kind comments. I bet you weren't as emotional as I was when writing that piece! :-) Unfortunately since writing it, Tilly has spent one more day (last Tuesday) at the vets. They drained fluid from her leg and injected steroids directly into it. They also told us that if this didn't work, that there was little else that they could do for her. It's now Thursday and so far the results do not look promising. Her leg is swollen and painful again, and she is walking even less. She just about makes it out the door and then immediately sits in the grass. The vet did say that the steroids would take a few days to work but increasingly, I'm not convinced that they are doing any good.

    Despite this she is still eating well, and often has a roll on the carpet afterwards, and still loves getting petted so she still seems happy when she doesn't have to put weight on that leg. She is growing more clingy though, Perhaps it is the pain in her leg, or perhaps she knows her own condition. Knowing when to make the call is difficult because of the contradiction between her pain and her simple pleasures. I need to get past that feeling of treachery to do what is best for her, and by the look of things that will have to be soon.

    1. Ian, we understand the turmoil exactly, having gone through a virtually identical scenario 3 years ago with our 18 year old rescue cat. We made the call, stayed with him to the end and cried like babies - absolutely no shame in that. It's the price we pay for love. All the very best from the other side of the world 🌹


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