There have been times since the break-up when I’ve felt so low I’ve opened a bottle of Shiraz and spent the whole night flicking through my mobile-phone photos of the two of us: the sunsets we watched; the meals we shared. I’d remember long walks on the beach and longer mornings in bed. How you’d crawl up over the duvet and wake me by licking my head.
Leaving the boyfriend was surprisingly easy but oh, the agony of losing the dog! My sweet double doodle (that’s a labra-doodle, goldendoodle cross). ‘Yes, she is pretty isn’t she?’ I’d say to the strangers who accosted us. ‘She’s 18 months old and she’s called Stringerbelle after the crack dealer in The Wire.’
Pope Francis’s concern that couples are substituting pets for children is well founded. The fallout is custody battles fought over animals. When Kate Moss left her husband Jamie Hince, they didn’t squabble over the small things (the house, the money) but over Archie, their Staffordshire bull terrier cross. In George Best’s messy divorce from his wife Alex, the biggest row was about the red setters Red and Rua. (She won custody, he got visitation rights.) Will Carling resorted to an out-of-court settlement over Labrador Biff.
I left the dog with the boy. This turned out to be a mistake. I was cast as a reckless mother who’d abandoned her offspring to go out and get drunk (guilty). By the time I’d sobered up, the ex had assumed full custody of Stringerbelle. Now he believes she is his.
The little black bear I carried home, her wet nose pressed in the nook of my arm — she was suddenly gone. When we got her, I made the same bad joke for weeks: we’d been sold a pup. She had spent her first night in my bed, which is where she continued to sleep, although she grew to be 4ft 1in.
We spent hungover mornings in the park and afternoons napping, her velvet body snuggled into me, while I pulled her rabbit ears and squashed her fat paws. I would Skype her when I was away for work. I carried her down escalators so her tail didn’t get stuck, even though she weighed 21kg.
Today I am granted occasional access. Like a divorced parent, I take Stringerbelle on sad trips to the park and we share a McDonald’s on the bench with the weekend dads. Other days I wake up miserable. I find myself petting dogs in the street. I well up in the supermarket over Pedigree Chum.
For a while, Stringerbelle offered a convenient excuse to keep talking to the ex-boyfriend. We called one another to ask how she was, and sent messages: ‘Stringerbelle asked me to tell you she’s missing you.’ ‘She asked me to tell you the same.’ I found myself starting to pick up the dog in ever more casually provocative outfits. Soon I was sauntering to Balham for a walk in the park in an off-the-shoulder cocktail dress.
The dog did not in the end help love re-blossom. Instead she became a weapon for a passive-aggressive friendship. ‘Stringerbelle says it’s a shame you couldn’t be a bit less selfish or it might have worked out.’
I got over him, but I still want 50-50 custody of the dog and so we are locked in a power struggle. We argue on WhatsApp into the night. I take the dog for the weekend and ‘forget’ to answer my telephone when he comes to collect her. He sends me an email with the subject heading: ‘Stealing the dog.’ We threaten legal action which neither of us can afford.
A San Diego couple spent $150,000 fighting over their rescued pointer-greyhound cross Gigi. A video of ‘A Day in the Life of Gigi’ was played in court. Her owner, Linda, argued she was Gigi’s ‘mommy’, presenting in evidence a birthday card addressed to her as such. She won custody.
In the most traumatic cases, they put the dog in the dock. Pooches are placed in the middle of the courtroom and directed to go to the parent they like most. Litigants are now required to wash their hands before the process because, in the past, parties have cheated by smearing themselves in dog food.
These days we both try to buy Stringerbelle’s love. At my house alone she has a slide, a paddling pool and a ball pit. Now she swans between steak dinners, treats, tummy rubs, new toys and days out; I consider dog yoga classes (doga). She stays over and spreads out in the middle of my bed, leaving me teetering on the edge. I love her so much that I don’t even care this means I’ll probably never have sex again. Every time she leaves, I shovel Bonios into her mouth whispering: ‘Don’t forget, Mummy loves you best.’
‘How long are you going to keep this up?’ my friend asks. ‘I guess you’ll have to let him keep her.’ I know what you’re thinking: she must be mad.
I think of my little one, her face a snarly smile when she sees me. And I know I had a lucky escape. If this is the pain of doggie divorce, just imagine the real thing.