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My name is Joanna Hardej. As a writer of children’s books, I would like to share with you how my life, and my writing, has been greatly enhanced since adopting a giant dog.

With great trepidation, we welcomed Rhea, an Estrela Mountain dog, into our home in October 2016. My daughter Emi had been working as a kennel maid for a lady who originally kept nine of these beautiful dogs at her lovely, sprawling country house just outside Maidenhead. Unfortunately, the lady died and her family were left with the unenviable task of selling the house and finding the remaining dogs new homes. Emi had developed a special bond with one of them, Rhea, and was adamant that we should take her.

While Emi was working at the house, I visited a number of times, just to interact with these gorgeous animals. A couple of them were quite elderly, with the usual conditions of mammary tumours and arthritis, and the others were quite vocal and energetic, with one exception. When I first met Rhea, she was lying in her enclosure, facing the wall. Emi called her and she slowly turned her head around and looked at us. The look on her face reminded me of that famous quote from Greta Garbo: ‘I want to be alone!’. Her demeanour was in complete contrast to that of her outgoing, energetic kennel mates. My heart sank. How was such a shy, introverted dog going to cope with my noisy, outgoing family?

Nearly a year and a half later, this huge but surprisingly timid creature has changed all our lives. Initially, she found it quite hard to settle and would be my shadow as I walked around the house. We also had to get used to the constant ginger balls of fluff wafting across the floor every time a door was opened! (Estrelas shed a LOT!) Being a senior dog and quite arthritic, it was quite problematic getting her in and out of the car. She refused to use the very expensive ramp we got her and preferred getting into the back seat of the car. Getting her out again was a different matter! I eventually adapted a harness which enabled her to get out of the car comfortably, combined with a dog mattress to land on, to prevent any impact on her arthritic joints.

In spite of these minor inconveniences, the benefits to my family have been immense. Her calm personality makes her a wonderful therapist. She seems to understand and empathise when anyone is feeling worried or sad. Added to this is the physically healthier lifestyle that comes with owning a dog. I have gone down two dress sizes since she came into our lives, due to the increased activity. I always used to enjoy walking, but it is so much better when you have a dog at your side. You seem to be able to connect more with nature. After a stressful day at work, a walk in the woods is the best medicine; your dog a few feet ahead of you, nose to the ground and tail in the air, encouraging you to appreciate the wonderful scent of grass and trees.

Finally, I wanted to share how Rhea has helped me creatively. Her sleeping curled up posture provided inspiration for my friendly dragon in my as yet unpublished book, The Dragon of Dawson’s Farm. Like the dragon, she is protective, comforting and a loyal companion, and I can’t imagine life without her.

An illustration from Joanna’s children’s book The Dragon of Dawson’s Farm

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