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My beloved Buddy: Leona O'Neill's moving lament for her loyal labrador

The death of a much loved dog is devastating, as writer Leona O'Neill found recently when her beautiful chocolate Labrador Buddy died. Here, Leona, who lives in Londonderry with husband Brendan, and children Daniel (15), Caolan (14), Finn (10) and Maoliosa (8), writes about the joy-filled years her family had with Buddy and why the family has decided to welcome a new four-legged friend into their home

Loyal friend: Leona O’Neill with her chocolate Labrador Buddy
Loyal friend: Leona O’Neill with her chocolate Labrador Buddy

I had grown up with dogs in our house and always loved the dynamic they brought to the family. They were cute and crazy and could always be depended on for a big furry hug or to make you laugh when things weren't going so well.

In teenage years they were a salvation, giving you an excuse to go for a walk and clear the head. They'd sit and listen to your woes, didn't judge you and were always there giving you their paw and a flash of their big gentle eyes, reminding you that there is so much good and softness in the world.

When we moved from Belfast to Derry 14 years ago, I knew I wanted our children to have the same experience. Three months after moving into our new home we ventured to Downpatrick to see a breeder of chocolate Labradors. As we walked across the farmyard, this ball of brown fluff bounded towards us, all tiny paws, big brown eyes and pink tongue flapping out the side of his mouth. He ran circles around our feet and yelped at us in that way puppies who haven't found their bark do.

"He's feisty, this one," said the breeder. "He'll keep you on your toes."

We laughed as we walked to the car with him in our arms. We called him Buddy. He was another level of cuteness. It turned out he got car sick and I arrived back at our house covered in puppy puke.

Our kids loved him immediately. The teenagers were just toddlers back then and ran around the garden with him ceaselessly, him running rings around their little feet, tripping them up, all tumbling together on the grass.

They grew up together, those toddlers and that little dog. By the time our third son and first daughter arrived, our Buddy had grown into a loyal protector of the house and of the children.

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He was there when we navigated the dark days after my father died and we had no words. You don't need any with a dog. He would just come in and sit with me, put his head on my lap and be there like a big living, breathing, comforting hot water bottle. He knew we needed comfort and he did that job so well, like only dogs do.

He was fiercely protective of his home and would bark if anyone so much as dared to step foot on our driveway. He'd stand up on the front door, as tall as a man, when the postman arrived, acting all fierce, barking like a dog possessed. But if we opened the door he'd have licked him to death. His bark was most definitely worse than his bite.

And it was his bark that chased away burglars. During a spate of robberies in our street, several homes in our small cul-de-sac were broken into - except ours. Buddy had woken the whole house up at 3am when they had come into our garden. They didn't stay long.

His protective instincts weren't always completely on point. For four nights he woke us up barking at 4am. The husband ventured down the stairs ready to confront an intruder. Every night he came back to bed reporting nothing or no one in the garden. On the fourth night I went down, confident that it wasn't a burglar. What the husband had, in his sleepy state, failed to notice was that Buddy was in fact barking at his own reflection in the patio doors. Blackout blinds were purchased and the barking stopped.

Buddy was a force of nature. He was not your lay in front of the fire type of dog. He was a running through streams, galloping up fields, knee deep in muck kind of guy. The first time we took him to the beach and let him off the lead he swam out into the water until he was a only a dot on the horizon while we all stood on the shore panicking, shouting at him to come back.

After a time, and after we had all aged 10 years, he swam back and energetically shook off the ocean all over us.

New arrival: Cujo who’s helping to mend hearts in the O’Neill home
New arrival: Cujo who’s helping to mend hearts in the O’Neill home

He was a big foodie. He ate his dinner like it was a race against time and would growl at anyone who came near his food. His mother and father were both hunting dogs and, although he was in an urban setting, he would satisfy his instincts by hunting down and eating blue bottles, mice and at times any winged insect or beast that dared enter his domain.

He'd also eat other people's dinner straight off their plates before they could get to it and on more than one occasion devoured a full cake in seconds. He once had to be chased around the garden after commandeering a fresh from the oven Sunday ham. Buddy didn't care what anyone thought when it came to food. It was his and that was that.

He hated going to the vet. He wasn't keen on injections and held a grudge. The road to the vet is also the road to the beach and the nervous barking would start when we took the turn off to the surgery instead of staying on track to the beach and it wouldn't stop until we were on the road back home again. He often had to be sedated for blood tests or to be examined. It was a stressful experience for everyone involved.

So when he was diagnosed with diabetes last year and needed daily injections, it wasn't fun. He got grumpy and would express his displeasure at his new health condition by growling as we administered his medication. It didn't matter, we loved him and wanted him to be well.

I knew something was badly wrong after Christmas when he went off his food. I dropped a freshly toasted and buttered scone on the floor and, despite constantly rebelling against his strict diet, he just sauntered past it instead of jumping on it like a lion upon prey as he normally would.

He started to lose weight and sleep more and looked like an old man when he got up from his bed. At 14 years old we knew he was perhaps coming to the end of his journey, but we didn't want to accept that that might happen any time soon.

He got worse and lost weight dramatically in a matter of weeks. We took him to the vet and he didn't bark or complain, just sat there docile like all the other dogs in the waiting room. It wasn't him.

The vet did a scan and discovered that he had cancer and was very ill. She asked my husband if he wanted to have him put to sleep that day, but he couldn't do it. Buddy had been his shadow for 14 years. Their bond was something special and he couldn't bring himself to say goodbye yet.

He brought him home, carrying him into our home like he did when he was just a little pup and put him in his comfy bed in the corner of the kitchen. We knew the time was coming but we wanted to hold on to him for another while. We Googled treatments and asked for advice, for anyone to help us.

Meanwhile, Buddy got worse and worse and we resigned ourselves to the fact that it was selfish of us to keep him with us, even though it was so, so hard to let go.

The appointment was made for 10am on Tuesday. We didn't tell the children - they wouldn't have understood what was to happen and would have asked us not to do it. It was a hard enough, heartbreaking task. They came in and said their goodbyes as usual and off they went to school.

I said a tearful goodbye to our most loyal friend before we took him one last time on the road to the beach, before turning off.

I told him that he was a good boy and that he looked after our family very well. I told him that he was loved. I couldn't face seeing the very end. I just couldn't do it.

My husband took our beloved Buddy into the room, he held him in his arms and told him how much we all loved him, told him how good a boy he was while the vet administered the injection. Our Buddy, tired from battling illness, simply fell asleep in his arms. The last thing he saw was my husband's face. The last thing he heard was that he was the best boy ever.

We were devastated and we were heartbroken. We felt so much guilt that we had to put him to sleep. It went against everything we felt. But when we looked at him so sick, so thin and so in pain it was the only thing we could have done.

We cried and we hugged and we reminisced about the mad things he would do. The time he escaped from our back garden and ate the neighbours' award winning flowers. The time he ate an ice-cream cone in one gulp after taking it from some woman's hand in Donegal when it strayed too close to his mouth. How he had boundless, crazy energy.

The time the husband spent two hours putting Christmas lights up on the living room window and went outside to view his work and watched Buddy jump up to greet him, get tangled and pull the whole thing down and run it through the house like some manner of deranged reindeer. About how he adored being in the countryside and feeling the wind in his fur. We talked about just how stunningly beautiful and brilliant a dog he was.

The husband vowed that he would never get another dog again, that no one could live up to the legendary Buddy and I agreed. But a few days after Buddy died and in the midst of our grief my friend sent me a link to some Labrador pups for sale in Strabane because she said one reminded her of our 'Budster'.

New arrival: Cujo who’s helping to mend hearts in the O’Neill home
New arrival: Cujo who’s helping to mend hearts in the O’Neill home

I opened the link and there was this little black Labrador puppy. I closed the link as I did not want to be reminded of him. I sent the husband the link and he said we should take a quick run down, just to look at them.

So last week we found ourselves in a yard full of cute little yappy dogs again. When I saw my husband with a little black lab up in his arms, the pup licking his face, the husband nuzzling into his fur, laughing again, I knew then that he was going home with us and we would be starting this beautiful, joy filled, mad journey once more.

Our children, so sad at Buddy's passing, were surprised when they came home from school to find this bundle of fur and energy galloping down the hallway to greet them, just like Buddy did all those years ago. They have since been distracted by looking after this little one. They are laughing again, running around with him at their feet, excited for the times ahead with the puppy we have called Cujo.

He has settled right into the family like he has always been here. On his first night in his new home he climbed up on the sofa beside me as I worked, nestled in beside me and fell asleep. This is our new thing.

We don't know what adventures await us with our new pooch. I do know he has huge paws to fill. But so far he has done a fantastic job of peddling advanced cuteness and mending broken hearts and that is enough for now.

Belfast Telegraph


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