A Dog Walk With: Illustrator Hannah Lewis & her dog Leo
A Dog Walk With is an interview series in which I go on a walk with somebody I admire and their beloved pooch and interview them. The focus of this series is to talk openly about grieving for a dog and the process of learning to love again, though we do touch upon other subjects in the interview. I felt compelled to start this series after the loss of our dog George.
Three dogs have had a huge impact on illustrator Hannah Lewis' life. When she was 11, her family adopted a lurcher called Honey, who was there throughout Hannah's teenage years as a constant companion and friend, until Hannah was 22. She helped form Hannah's strong bond with dogs and taught her a lot about a lot of things.
Roughly three months after Hannah said goodbye to Honey, when her family couldn't bear to have a dogless house any longer, Jay came along. An ex-racing greyhound from Ireland who had clearly been mistreated and though lovely, Jay had a lot of issues to work through. With training, perseverance and a whole lot of love, Jay settled into family life, but Hannah and her family sadly had to say goodbye to Jay after just four years, when he developed cancer and became very unwell over the course of a fortnight. The family were devastated, particularly as it all seemed to happen so quickly, and just before Christmas. With Honey it was different, she was old, and they knew it was coming. But with Jay it felt like their beloved pooch was being cruelly snatched away from them far too soon, just as he had properly started to come out of his shell.
Hannah and her family grieved for Jay for a long time, and eventually her parents decided it was time to visit the rescue centre once again. There they found a beautiful black and white greyhound, whose racing name was “Deadly Catch”. Hannah's Dad got his wires crossed a bit, thinking the dog was named after the film “Catch Me If You Can”, and so they decided to name their pooch Leo, after the film's star Leonardo DiCaprio. He certainly is handsome. I joined Hannah and Leo on a walk across the beautiful Farthing Downs in Coulsdon, Surrey on a sunny day in May...
There have been three very special dogs in your life haven't there? How have they differed from each other?
Honey has been our only girl, she was definitely the smartest. And the naughtiest. She ate a whole packet of cheese once, dragged two full bags of sugar through the house, ate an entire Christmas cake one year. But she liked to be around you, she was stubborn, quiet and calm.
Jay was very nervous, he and Leo had never been in a house before and it took Jay a long time to adapt. He was scared of a lot of things; he didn’t like things hanging over him so he was was wary of lights, balloons, kites - we had a house on the south coast at the time so we would run into these things every so often. He was wary of larger men in particular. He was easily spooked and would refuse to do anything he didn’t want to do. There’s no moving a 36kg greyhound. But he did come round and he had a great personality and loved to perform. He would bow to you, he loved making noises with his squeaky toys and learnt to hit the wind chimes in our hall way with his nose. He would do it to tell you he was excited. He liked to rest his head in your lap and stare up at you.
Leo’s notes from the rescue centre just read ‘very friendly’ and that’s basically it. He just wants to be everyone’s friend. Leo is the most attention craving. He’s worked out pushing his head into your lap is a good way of securing you down for a bit of QT. And he loves a belly rub. He is such a dimwit but he has this love for life that is really infectious. Everything is interesting according to Leo.
Greyhounds clearly have a very special place in your heart. What makes greyhounds so different? What are some of their quirks and can you squash any misconceptions about the breed?
They are lazy. They are basically horizontal all the time unless there’s the potential for food or they’re on a walk. They don’t need a lot of exercise as they are used to short bursts of sprinting. They are big but very calm and quiet.
They have this constant sorrowful look on their faces. And if they have raced they are generally good on the lead, will be good in the vets, will stand still for any checking, brushing or bath time you’ve got to do. This is also good if you want to dress them up for a Halloween or Christmas pic...
Are you happy to tell us a bit more about what happened to your lovely dog Jay? I know that his demise came as quite a shock to you and I wonder how the grieving process differed from that of when you lost your childhood pet Honey?
Jay suddenly stopped eating one day and seemed to withdraw into himself. It was clear he felt poorly. His muscles dropped off him. We had tablets given to us by the vet but he wouldn’t take them. He would only really eat if we were hand feeding him and he stopped eating from both of my parents as he was wary of them trying to give him the pills. So I was coming home every night and hand feeding him. Later on we would find he had just thrown up the food during the night. A sample from his lung had been sent off and all signs pointed to lung cancer. I really didn’t want to believe it. Honey had been really sick before and pulled through a couples of times before she died of old age. Jay had been at the vets on an IV all day when the results came back. They confirmed he had cancer in his lungs and we would have put him down that evening. My brother, who doesn’t live with us, hadn’t seen him in the weeks he’d deteriorated. We were all in our kitchen just clock watching until it came time to walk down to the appointment, crying. When my brother saw him he couldn’t believe it. Jay could barely hold himself up, he looked so fragile. Saying goodbye was unbearable because it was so painful seeing him in such a terrible state but the next bit would mean he’s gone forever. I held on to his paw.
I think we were all just in shock. It was a week before Christmas, we had presents for him under the tree, we had his food bought for him. And it seemed like he just went in a flash. With Honey I think we were going through some of the motions of grief whilst she was still here but with Jay we had to process everything right from the start of grieving.
What did you find helped when Jay died?
Time. It took so long to feel at peace with what happened to him. I felt guilty and sad too, that he had spent his last day in a vet's kennel, that he’d gotten so poorly and fragile. I just felt so sad for him. I remember walking around a park in the spring after he died and telling my best friend I still wasn’t over it and we just talked about how you can’t help how you’re feeling. You don’t have any control over grief, you have to ride the motions.
Making the decision to say goodbye to the creature you made a commitment to look after is one of the hardest things you’ll have to do but the life you get with them is worth it to give them experiences and happiness they never would get in a rescue centre or a racing kennels.
Did you find that your relatives/friends/colleagues understood what you were going through?
I had very severe flu like symptoms the day after Jay died. It was December so it was the season but I was surprised at how many people at my old work took it to be a reaction to grief and how sympathetic they were. Even those who have never or would never consider having pets. All my closest friends are similar pet lovers to me and all loved Jay too. It was sad having to tell them as he was a favourite to walk and hang out with. Actually one of the last photos I have of him is him surrounded by my best friends and he’s holding his favourite toy in his mouth, making it squeak for them.
Tell us a bit about when you first took Leo home and what difference he has made to your life?
It’s so fun to watch a new dog discover life as a pet and to watch their personality come out.
Just watching them be absolutely baffled by the concept of stairs. Leo barked at his own reflection for a good two weeks. He’d never been in a car, never experienced a TV, didn’t understand glass (you have to put some tape or something at their eye level over any glass doors, greyhounds can run real fast and most won’t immediately realise a glass door is solid).
But he’s a very easy going dog. He’s confident and it’s been easier to introduce him to new things. He saw snow for the first time a few months ago and he went crazy. He was biting at the ground and then spinning in circles. We’re going to take him to see the sea over the summer, so who knows what he’ll be like.
What advice would you give to somebody who is thinking about getting a rescue greyhound?
They are gentle giants. They take up a lot of surface area but you won’t hear a peep out of them. They are big but they aren’t hard to handle. They do sleep a lot but when they are awake they are excellent entertainment value. They run super fast and they gather a lot of attention when they are out on a walk. They do turn heads and people do like to ask about them.
The black and the black and white boys are usually the longest in the rehoming centres. All dogs deserve a home but try a long termer out too. They are great, I promise.
Thanks to Hannah and Leo for taking the time to walk with me - I had such a lovely time!
Since this series is still so new I'd really appreciate your feedback – was it helpful for you to read about someone else's experience with grief? If you want to get involved in future or just want to talk to someone who has lost a pet, please do email me. You can also contact Blue Cross who have a pet bereavement counselling service. Thank you for reading.
To look at Hannah's beautiful artwork, head over to her website. Leo has his own instagram account too which is deffo worth a follow. You can read more about our late dog George, who inspired this series and how his face raised over £350 for Battersea Dogs Home in an article I wrote a month after his death.
Photos are either by me or courtesy of Hannah Lewis