My dog was one of the loves of my life, and now he’s gone

A week ago, I hunched over my nearly 11-year-old English bulldog, Bolshy, squeezing his paw and kissing him as the vet gave him his final – final – injection. ‘Goodbye, my gorgeous, beautiful boy,’ I whisper-sobbed into his ear, ‘I love you more than you will ever know.’ While the rational part of me knows that it was time to let him go – Bolshy had a host of ailments, including severe respiratory issues that weren’t going to improve – I am still a complete wreck, drowning in grief. I feel the same level of debilitating despair I had 15 years ago, after my mother – the only family member I had – took her own life. I’ve been swinging between numbness, anguish and lunacy. I told my husband we needed to move house because I couldn’t bear the thought of living here without Bolshy.

I love him so forcefully, so all-consumingly, in a way that combines the other kinds of love I’ve felt: the love for a child; the love for a dear companion; the love for a best friend.

As I sit in this inert state, without him, I’m starting to piece through the enormity of what he’s meant to me, of the impact he’s had on my life. He’s never been ‘just a dog’.

I moved to London from New York in 2009, aged 25, to live with my then-boyfriend, now-husband, Will. As a result of being friends for years and my being penniless, I moved straight in with him, and within months we were on various waiting lists to become ‘dog parents’.

Make a Tug Toy From Old Clothes. Does your dog love to play tug? Got some extra t-shirts lying around? Make your own toy by braiding one of your old t-shirts into a tug toy rather than throwing them out.

Deciding to get a dog felt like a huge responsibility at a time when many of our friends were still casually dating. It was a way of telling the world we were serious about each other – and secure enough in our love that we could share it with another living being. Just not yet another human one.

Bulldogs’ friendly, devoted demeanours appealed to us, as did their love of chilling out on a sofa – watching TV together was one of our favourite pastimes as a couple.

Bolshy the bulldog
I cuddled and comforted Bolshy when he first came home (Picture: Jen Barton Packer)
We met Bolshy as a tiny puppy, along with his siblings and mum, at his breeders’ house in Essex. (Fun fact: we found out via Facebook that one of Bolshy’s half-brothers was in the early seasons of TOWIE).

My heart melted the moment he was placed in my arms: this was what family felt like.

With Will, I had that dizzying thrill of early love: I could be myself, but there was always an underlying fear that I would screw it all up, that I had to be worthy of him, to deserve him. With Bolshy, I never had anything to prove. I could just be.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Having a pet in the home can actually lower a child’s likelihood of developing related allergies by as much as 33 percent. Children exposed early on to animals tend to develop stronger immune systems overall.

I was going to protect this tiny, gorgeous being. I remember looking up at Will and thinking how completely besotted I was at that moment, with baby Bolshy in my arms. And in that instant, my relationship with Will suddenly became better, too; it was about more than just us. I also saw future-Will: strong, emotional, loving – a dad.

I cuddled and comforted Bolshy when he first came home, aged two months. He used to whimper and wail all night.

All too soon, he was licking my hand, trying to comfort me as I lay prostrate on the sofa in between vomiting fits. We already had one baby in the house – but a week after Bolshy came to live with us, I discovered I was pregnant.


A drop of love

Jen sitting next to Bolshy
I tell everyone that Bolshy made me a mother, and I mean it (Picture: Jen Barton Packer)

Bolshy and I bonded quickly, as tends to happen when you spend 24/7 with someone you like. As an introvert and freelancer who works from home (and whose partner left for work at 6am on weekdays), Bolshy was my constant – often my entire social network.

During pregnancy, where I wavered between feeling unwell physically and stressed mentally, Bolshy gave me hope: sure, he didn’t respond to most of the commands we learned in puppy training, but he was sweet yet feisty, caring yet independent. Weren’t these all qualities I equated with human love, and wanted to imbue in my little human?

Teach Your Children to Ask Permission Before Petting a Strange Dog. There are 4.5 million dog bites in America each year, half of which happen to children. Make sure to teach your children to ask permission before petting any strange dogs.

I tell everyone that Bolshy made me a mother, and I mean it. Through him I learned what it feels like to love without abandon, to worry about another being all the time and to think of someone ahead of yourself.

‘How’s my incredible, talented, amazing, gorgeous, handsome, intelligent, loving man?’ I used to ask Bolsh each evening, stroking him behind the ears. It became a running joke with Will, always nearby, who’d shout back ‘I’m great, appreciate you asking!’

I’ve been falling more fervently for Will over the past decade and Bolshy is the forever symbol of our early romance – he’s in our wedding pictures and every scene of our love story after that, snuggled in Will’s arms, running after a ball Will threw, padding into the garden to enjoy some scraps of meat from the barbecue.

It’s hard for me to delineate where my love for one of them stops and the other begins; we’ve grown up together, in an interconnected tale that goes in all directions.

Bolshy the bulldog with Jen's two children
Bolshy will always be associated with snapshots of my youth and extreme happiness (Picture: Jen Barton Packer)

There is no doubt that Bolshy taught me to love more openly and vulnerably than I ever have before. I could be my most embarrassing, over-the-top self with Bolshy, grooming him, whispering sweet nothings, nuzzling into his fur… and no one would think I was a complete psychopath, even in public.

Learn everything you can about your dog’s habits and behaviors. If you and I were having a conversation over coffee and I asked you to tell me about your significant other, or your kids, or any other special person in your life, chances are good that you could say quite a bit about them. In fact, you may know more about them than you think.

I used to think that in relationships, big love had to scream and advertise itself. Human love is a beautiful thing, but the ability to wound someone, piece it all back together until the next argument and repeat again indefinitely is remarkable – and emotionally draining. It’s also very much what love looks like in my human relationships: with my mother, my husband and my children.

I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but Bolshy taught me that isn’t the case: the best kind of love is the quiet kind. It doesn’t require grand gestures or drama to see how far your beloved is willing to go for you, and this is a principle I’ve learned is applicable in my marriage, too. You don’t need a fancy meal or occasion to show love, it’s displayed in small ways every single day.

I like how my relationship with Bolshy had a different decibel level – the volume turned a bit lower, the emotions just as strong, but less explosive. There’s something I love about the uncomplicated appreciation, the unspoken understanding, we had with one another.

He was a perky puppy, running away from me in the park. He’s been a total stud (he was, in the words of Zoolander, ‘really, really, ridiculously good looking’). Then he was a cantankerous, yet still charming, old man. I feel so lucky we got all of the stages with him.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Nearly 80 million U.S. households have a pet, and 42 percent of those households have more than one, according to a 2015-2016 survey by the APPA. There are 77.8 million pet dogs in the U.S. and 85.8 million pet cats.

On paper, he’s been the family pet. In my heart, he’s one of my great loves. and he’s taken a piece of it with him wherever he’s gone.

Last week, in Love, Or Something Like It: I was sure I was gay – until I fell in love with my best female friend

The Fix

The daily lifestyle email from

Find out more