The Puppy That Came for Christmas

How a Dog Brought One Family the Gift of Joy

Megan Rix - Author

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ISBN 9780452297487 | 256 pages | 25 Oct 2011 | Plume | 8.26 x 5.23in | 18 - AND UP
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Marley, Oogy, Huck-and now, Traffy, the "forever dog" that changed one couple's life.

All Megan Rix ever wanted was a baby. Yet, month after month, Megan's dreams were dashed. Would her life ever feel complete?

Megan and her husband, Ian, found a surprising answer when they began training golden retriever pups to become service dogs for people with disabilities. But opening their homes and hearts up to Emma, and then Freddy-only to have each move on after six months-eventually took its own toll. Megan and Ian didn't know if they could continue. Then, one Christmas, little Traffy came along ... and stayed. An instant U.K. bestseller, The Puppy That Came for Christmas is a heartwarming and inspirational story that will captivate dog lovers everywhere.


I crouched down beside the traveling crate and watched the two beautiful creamy-colored golden-retriever/ Labrador-cross puppies snuggled up together, nose to tail in a ball, fast asleep. Six-and-a-half weeks old, just left Mum, and in a few moments I’d be taking one of them home.

Three months before, I’d never even thought about having a dog. But then, two years ago, I hadn’t imagined I’d meet Ian that May, get engaged in Paris on his birthday (in August), and married on Waikiki Beach on my birthday (the following March). Two years ago, I was a determinedly single woman who hadn’t thought much about fertility treatment or IVF, although at forty-three perhaps it was inevitable I’d have to if I wanted children. But it had all happened, and now here I was: about to take a new puppy life into my hands. Was I ready for this?

“Of course you are—or at least you’ll have to be,” I’d murmured as I looked myself in the eyes in the mirror, grabbed the car keys and hurried out of the door, heart thumping, to go and pick the puppy up.

As I looked down at the puppies, I had no idea that, however unprepared Ian and I were for the joys, challenges and downright disruptions of puppy parent life, it would be nothing compared with how unprepared we’d be to relinquish our beloved puppy when she passed on to the next stage of her training to become a Helper Dog for disabled people. The sun streamed into the crate and shone on the little dogs’ fur. One of them whimpered; its back leg jerked, it gave itself a little scratch, and settled down again, asleep all the while. I had never seen anything so beautiful or so vulnerable.

“So sweet,” I whispered.

Jamie, who ran the Helper Dogs center, nodded and whispered back in his gentle Scottish burr: “Yours is the little girl at the back. What do you think of the name Emma for her?”

“Emma,” I repeated. “Lovely.” Any name at all, in fact, would be lovely.

I took a deep breath and reached down to pick up the tiny warm bundle . . .

Before we were married, Ian was my best friend and always able to make me laugh—although considering we met on a stand-up comedy course that was hardly surprising. In fact, it was only luck that we ended up on the course at the same time. I should have started earlier, but I’d been asked to do some research and writing overseas, and had written three children’s books in three different countries. Ian, though usually far more punctual than me, had also failed to attend the course at his first attempt due to overload at work, at a bank in the city. As part of our homework, the tutor told us to go out to comedy shows, to sensitize our ears to how to deliver a joke. I didn’t like the idea of late-night gigs and the last tube home, so I arranged a class trip on a Sunday afternoon to see some stand-up in North London. I got terribly lost on the way and turned up late, all of a fluster. The pub was almost empty, voices and footsteps descending to the venue below, but there Ian was, the only one who had waited, obviously delighted to see me and not at all in a panic. He bought me a drink and we went downstairs.

After the show, Ian and I were left to talk together. His Stockport accent reminded me of good times spent as a student in Manchester, and we found we’d both worked with people with severe learning difficulties. Our friends seemed to melt away and time slipped by until we, alone now, decided to go to another comedy club up the road. Ian offered to drive us in his car. I thought he said he had a Jeep, so I was surprised when he held the passenger door open on a brand-new convertible BMW. He’d actually been trying to say he had GPS navigation, to reassure me we wouldn’t get lost, and I’d misheard in the hubbub of the bar. We arrived in good time, and in fine style with the roof down, but the misunderstanding—and his concern for my well-being—made me realize how caring and lovely he was. From that evening on we were on the phone or meeting up just about every day.

Ian’s most common material for his comedy sketches was his family. He’d had a terrible childhood, he’d say, leaning on the mic with a small, wry smile, and then relate some awful, but awfully funny, incident. There was the time he fell out of the backseat of the car and his dad carried on driving because no one had noticed. The time he was going on a school trip and the minibus drove past his mum lying drunk on the pavement. How he and his sister loved Coronation Street because they knew when they heard the theme it would be safe to go home—Mum and Dad would have stopped fighting and gone off to work. For a long time I thought he was exaggerating—surely nobody’s parents could be that bad. I didn’t realize he was deliberately underplaying what he’d experienced.

Right the way through the course, I was still insisting to my friends that Ian and I were strictly platonic, but deep down I knew very quickly that we were soul mates. Whenever we went to see comedy, he’d do something nice for me—give me his coat when I was cold, buy me some flowers, or insist that he take me for a bite to eat before dropping me off at my flat. He was also an amazing cook. One day, when I was out on a course, he based himself for the afternoon at my flat, planning to take in a football game at my local pub later, as we were going to see some comedy together that evening. He’d been telling me all week about the crunch fixture that weekend—he was a huge Manchester United fan—but when I got home there was a pork and cider casserole steaming on the dinner table. He’d gone to the shops instead of the pub, bought a slow cooker and the ingredients and then stayed in all afternoon cooking.

Going from being friends to falling in love was only the smallest of steps.

Soon after the course finished, he asked me to go to the Dublin Writers Festival with him, and after that the Z4 frequently found itself parked outside my flat. Then, after a while, Ian would often leave me the car even when he was at home in the East Midlands, as he was worried about my old banger falling apart driving up the motorway to see him. Even my mum loved the BMW. I’d take her out into the countryside for a pub lunch, talking about Ian all the time. She didn’t usually want me to put the top down because it played havoc with her hair. I’d got used to having haystack hair—it was worth it in my opinion.

Mum cried when I told her Ian and I were getting married.

“We probably won’t be having kids,” I said. We’d talked about it and thought it best not to, as we were both nearly forty (OK, let’s not pretend, I was distinctly north of forty). “And he wants to have a wedding where it’s just the two of us. We’re thinking maybe of Hawaii.”

I didn’t tell her about Ian’s particular reasons for wanting a small wedding, but Mum didn’t mind. The important thing was that I’d found someone special. We weren’t exactly young lovebirds, but I think that for her that made it even more precious.

Despite what I’d told my mum about not getting pregnant, and quashing her grandmotherly hopes in the process, by the time we got engaged I’d started to think—or maybe obsess would be a better word—about what a great dad Ian would make. He is so loving and kind and patient that any child would be lucky to have him for a father. We decided we’d let nature take its course. If I got pregnant, good. And if I didn’t, we said that’d be fine too, though in my heart of hearts I yearned for a baby.

We flew to Waikiki in March, where the hotel beauty salon put my hair up, threading tropical fl owers through the locks, and carefully covered my sunburn, where I’d got carried away snorkeling with turtles the day before, with cooling makeup. Ian helped me into my wedding dress— we’d both put on a bit of weight so our wedding clothes were a bit of a squeeze—I grabbed my colorful bouquet and we were off. Our photographer met us in the lobby and took us outside for extra photos while we waited for the vicar. Then we walked down to the beach and were officially wed. It was sunny, but with a few spits of rain. In one of the photos, I’m resting my head against Ian’s chest and we are both looking as happy as can be; behind us, a rainbow arches across the sky.

Having a baby now would be the icing on the cake. When we got back to England, I spoke to my doctor and we went for a check-up. There wasn’t anything wrong with either of us, he said.

“It’ll just take a little time.”

I started to take my temperature and chart my cycle. Poor Ian was expected to perform as and when required, wear loose boxers, not cycle too much and eat all the right foods.

Months passed, and I didn’t get pregnant. We arranged to see a consultant at the hospital.

Ian drove me to the appointment, my haystack hair blowing in the wind, still newlyweds unburdened by cares. We left devastated. Having children was not going to be as easy as we’d hoped or expected. The blood tests I’d been given on day three of my cycle to check my hormones had not shown the results the consultants had hoped for. The levels just weren’t right and they were causing my ovulation to be inhibited. It was hard to concentrate on the doctor’s words. I listened in a daze of shocked misery. Perhaps, at my age, I should have been more prepared for disappointment, but being told you may not be able to have a baby isn’t like, say, having your book rejected; it’s a shock of such cataclysmic proportions that nothing can prepare you for it.

Our best hope was a drug called Clomid, which would increase my ovulation and—we all hoped—my fertility. It would be a year’s course of drugs, with monthly screenings and blood tests at the hospital.

“The tests can vary slightly month by month,” the nurse said, trying to console me.

We didn’t have to decide there and then, but we both felt so heartbroken by this setback that I said on the spot I’d submit to the regime.

We drove home determined we’d beat the lengthening odds.

I thought about eggs, cycles, scans and pills constantly, which left me listless and unable to concentrate on my work. Ian shuttled to and from London on the train, and I moped around the house until, one night, he came through the door, still radiating the unexpected cold of the early September evening, and said: “Work’s asked me to do two weeks in Japan, with a few days’ stop-off at the offi ce in Hong Kong on the way. Wanna come?”

Do fleas want to bite, or fish swim? Just because I was now a married woman didn’t mean I wanted to stop exploring.

It was in Japan that my conversion to dog lover began.

While Ian was working in the day, I battled jetlag by throwing myself into the frenetic stream of existence that is Tokyo. Traveling on the metro every day, I visited the teeming shopping area of Shibuya, the sprawling temple at Asakusa and the Tokyo Tower. I marveled at the costumes of the Harajuku teenagers, took photographs of some shy trainee sumo wrestlers outside the Sumo Wrestling Arena and had my first taste of a kabuki show—as translated by a sweet eighty-year-old Japanese lady sitting next to me.

Toward the end of the week, exhausted, I visited the island of Odaiba, just off Tokyo, for some relaxation, and experienced a traditional Japanese spa. Men and women were strictly segregated, given kimonos and fl ip-fl ops before a careful washing ritual, supervised by a matronly figure, and nude bathing in the single-sex area. It was heaven. I even forgave them for saying I needed an extra-large kimono.

“You have to give it a try,” I told Ian, and so the following Saturday we set off .

Strolling from the ferry terminal, we’d only gone a short way, and were nowhere near the spa, when we saw a long, snaking queue of people patiently waiting outside a shop. Above the entrance was a picture of a dog wearing a hat, and in the window lots of pictures of small, adorably cute pooches. Gradually, we realized we’d stumbled across a rent-a-dog shop—somewhere you could hire a dog to walk, pet and play with. An hour of fun, relaxation and stress relief with a lovable mutt, with none of the long-term hassles of owning one.

“Do we want to wait?”

We looked at each other, grinned and took our place in the queue of Japanese adults and children, all waiting with barely suppressed excitement to spend some time with a puppy. There was plenty of time to look at the pictures of the available dogs as we slowly edged around the corner and into the shop, but for me there was no contest: a longeared, short-legged, caramel-coated, big-eyed pooch stared beseechingly at me from his photo through the glass. Written above his photo was his name, but although we’d learned to speak quite a lot of Japanese before we’d arrived we weren’t able to read it. Finally, when it was our turn, we pointed to his picture and were told by the beaming kennel maid that his name was Goro. But unfortunately we couldn’t have Goro yet: all the dogs were out, and our names were added to the list for the second shift of dog walking.

“Come back in an hour; he will be waiting,” she said. Then, seeing our indecision: “Go and eat something,” and we obediently trotted over to a nearby café. I ate udon, and Ian ordered noodles too, but just stirred them around awkwardly in his bowl with his chopsticks. The hour dragged by.

When we returned, the beaming kennel maid gave us all the kit, essentials that a dog like Goro might need: a poo bag, along with strict instructions that it must be used, and a little shovel for picking up the deposit; a bottle of water and a bowl; and a small, garish bag of treats emblazoned with katakana characters. If Goro got tired, we were told in Japanese and broken English, we were to carry him.

“You must not scold him.”

Scold? Ian and I looked at each other. The possibility hadn’t even entered our heads.

“And you bring him back.” She pointed at her watch.

We promised we wouldn’t be late, and after paying a hefty deposit (though there was no danger of any dognapping: there were no cars on the island and the ferry was the only way off it) Goro finally made his entrance. We were just as awestruck and excited as all the Japanese people we’d

“He’s so small.”

“And so cute.”

“His eyes . . .”

“His coat’s so soft . . .”

Goro nonchalantly looked gorgeous. We were just two more of the many people who came to the island and fell in love with him and his friends at the dog-hire shop every week.

Outside the shop, we looked at each other: what on earth were we meant to do now? All we’d seen of the island was the beach where we’d got off the ferry, the dog-hire place, the restaurant and the shops adjoining it—plus what we thought might possibly be a rent-a-cat place. Although we hadn’t seen anyone walking about with a cat, anything seemed possible. We headed to the beach, nodding and smiling to other dog hirers we passed, proud, like them, of our new “dog owner” status. At this point Goro, who had seen it all before and knew far more than us about what was supposed to happen during an hour’s hire, decided he’d had enough of walking. We tried tempting him to budge with some of his treats, but he was having none of it. In his eyes it was very clear: there was no bad feeling—he simply didn’t feel like walking anymore and therefore he wasn’t going to.

“Come on, Goro.”

Goro stayed where he was.

“You try.”

I held on to the lead.

“Come on, Goro. Come on, there’s a good boy.”

Goro looked at me with his beautiful melting-chocolate brown eyes. I crouched down and he waddled over to me.

“Are you tired out?” I said, stroking him.

That he really seemed to enjoy. His head came up for more and I swear he had a smile on his face.

“Would you like to be carried?” I said, and lifted him into my arms. Goro was the perfect dog for carrying.

He snuggled into me and didn’t wriggle at all—apart from when he tried to give my ear a lick.

“What shall we do now?” I said.

“Pub?” The Englishman’s unfailing antenna for the hostelry had located one a little farther down the beach. As we sat down outside, people at the other tables made appreciative noises and smiled at Goro, who accepted his due and sat on the tabletop, soaking up the attention while eating the tiny pieces of chicken we off ered him.

All too soon our hour was up and we watched him walk back through the partition to his kennel with regret. If we had a dog, I said, maybe he’d be like Goro. Ian, though, couldn’t see himself owning such a little dog: he wanted something bigger and “more manly.” And, anyway, having a dog would be such a tie—we’d never have been able to come to Japan if we’d had a dog at home. Now wasn’t the time, but maybe one day. Maybe one day we’d have a dog like Goro.

By the middle of the next week, Ian’s business in Japan was done and it was time for him to fly home. I, however, had bought a round-the-world ticket and was taking an extended holiday. My flight left almost a day later than his, so I kissed Ian goodbye, put him in a taxi to Narita and went back to the hotel room where I immediately changed the screen-saver on my laptop to a photo of him and Goro. I would look at it frequently in the weeks to come; every time I did, it made me smile.

I flew to countries where I already had friends—America, Ecuador and New Zealand. In Ecuador I stayed with an old school-friend, Susan, a midwife who’d been trying to have children for most of her adult life. She’d tried just about everything, from diet to acupuncture to refl exology, as well as an endless round of fertility drugs and IVF treatments. Her husband, Graham, worked overseas and she’d been a midwife in Brazil, France, Peru and now Ecuador. Susan took me with her to the small, privately funded orphanage where she’d started volunteering. I just loved helping out at the orphanage for the week I was there: I’ve always had an affinity with children and for years taught children with profound learning difficulties.

Susan was hoping that now she and her husband were in Ecuador they’d be able to adopt there. They’d inquired about adopting in England the year before but had been told that they wouldn’t even be eligible to start the process until they’d had a year free of fertility treatments—and Susan hadn’t a clue where they’d be by then. It had been a very disheartening experience.

At the orphanage there was a six-month-old baby girl who had been given up for adoption. “I’m hoping they’ll let me adopt the baby,” Susan said. “She’s perfect.”

One little girl was so pleased to see Susan she crawled across the floor as fast as she could to get to her. Eliana was almost three and had had a difficult start in life. Both of her parents were long-term drug addicts who’d been arrested for possession when Eliana was a baby and sent to prison. Eliana had, while in prison with her mother, caught pneumonia three times and had been transferred to the hospital where she became malnourished due to lack of care by her relatives, surviving for days at a time with no food and only an IV drip. When the orphanage was called in, nobody had changed her nappy for a week, and she looked more like a newborn than a seven-month-old, so small and fragile was she.

The prognosis for Eliana had not been good. She had never been expected to hold her head up, walk or speak, and she was never expected to progress further than a typical four-month-old baby due to the damage caused by her parents’ drug use.

But no one had told that to Eliana, and she was setting about proving them wrong. When I met her, she’d learned to crawl, despite damage to her hip joints, and understood what was being said. She let everyone know how she felt without the need for words and ate her solid food with gusto.

She wriggled across the floor toward us, absolutely determined to get to her favorite person, and was grinning with delight when she reached Susan.

Eliana was clinging to Susan’s legs and looking up at her with her big brown eyes, pleading. Susan knew what she wanted.

“OK, we’ll do some coloring.”

Susan was full of positivity. She’d been through so many difficulties and heartaches, and was completely devoted to all the children in her care; and now, after so long, it seemed as if she and her husband would finally be getting their dream. I left on the plane home newly convinced that, despite everything, things would work out for Ian and me too.

A few weeks after I arrived home, Ian gave a shout from upstairs and came running down with the paper.

“Helper Dogs are opening a new satellite center in the East Midlands. Look, they’ve put an advert in.”

We’d seen a program on TV about Helper Dogs—one of the many charities that provides expertly trained dogs for disabled people—and had been amazed at what the dogs were able to learn and the bond that developed between the dogs and their owners.

“It couldn’t hurt to go and see,” I said, taking the paper from Ian and looking at the square-bordered advert.

“Couldn’t hurt at all,” Ian agreed.

The advert said Helper Dogs wanted volunteers in our area to become puppy parents. Puppy parents looked after puppies for six months or so, before the puppy either went on to stay with another volunteer family, or to undertake its advanced training at the Helper Dogs HQ in Hertfordshire.

The new center was holding an open afternoon in a few days’ time for prospective parents. However, since I’d never been responsible for a dog for more than an hour, we decided to phone to find out more. Nervous, I dialed the number and waited.

“Answering machine,” I said, putting the phone down. I didn’t want to leave a message.

A few minutes later, it rang. A Scottish voice, amid a commotion and sounds of rustling and barking in the background:

“Hi, I’m Jamie, I run the Fenston Helper Dogs Center. Sorry, couldn’t get to the phone quick enough. Are you interested in being a puppy parent?”

“Yes. Yes, I am. Well, maybe . . . I’m thinking of coming to the open afternoon—where exactly do I go?”

Ian couldn’t come because he had to work, so I drove over to the center before its grand opening to check out exactly where it was. Still, I ended up being late on the day and just caught the official opening by the mayor. Then Helper Dogs gave a demonstration. I watched in amazement as dogs opened doors and turned on lights and helped their owners to take off their socks, shoes, hats, and coats. They could fi nd keys, bring the phone, press emergency alarm buttons, take washing from washing machines, and make their disabled owner’s life better in a hundred diff erent ways.

Everyone who had a Helper Dog sang its praises.

“I couldn’t go out before I had him, but now I go out every day,” one lady said. “He’s my life.”

“If it wasn’t for her, I’d have no reason to wake up in the morning,” said a man confined to a wheelchair by cerebral palsy.

A young man with no arms and legs had tears streaming down his face as he told us how his dog brought his prosthetic limbs to him each morning.

“She’s everything to me. My whole world.”

I blinked back my own tears and swallowed hard. I now wanted to volunteer to become a puppy parent more than ever.

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