Wrapped up in warm blankets, Holly the Labrador lay motionless at her owner’s feet, life slowing ebbing from her.
It was the moment that Lesley Winton had dreaded. Now, as she watched Holly take her final breaths she reflected on their unique bond and tried to brace herself for the inevitable grief and tears.
She wouldn’t be simply mourning for a lost pet. Holly wasn’t just a dog – she was the incredible force of nature that had dragged Lesley from a black hole of depression and gave her new purpose to carry on.
In return Lesley had devoted countless hours to caring for the mistreated rescue dog, nursing her from the brink of death time and again. Holly’s unconditional love for Lesley was more than matched by her owner’s devotion to her pet.
Now as the vet’s sombre tones confirmed the worst, Lesley finally had to face up to life without her precious companion.
Holly’s passing could have signalled the final sad chapter in a Marley & Me style story of the incredible impact a four-legged friend can have on their owner’s life.
Instead the loyal Lab left the seeds of a remarkable legacy, one which has stretched over land and sea, bringing hope and comfort in the most unexpected of places.
“We came into each other’s lives when we needed each other most,” recalls Lesley.
“We turned each other’s lives around. She was the most incredible inspiration in my life and I had to do something in her memory.”
Still grieving, Lesley put pen to paper to write the story of her loss in the hope it might help others through the heartbreak of losing their companion.
Her book, Holly the Mahogany Girl, touched a nerve with many. As sales took off, Lesley used the proceeds to develop another idea inspired by her pet, a project that would bring comfort to working dogs in danger zones, to vulnerable pets belonging to homeless people and others suffering maltreatment or with special needs.
Holly’s Hugs has provided dozens of dogs in the UK and abroad with boxes crammed with treats and toys to reward their loyalty, collars, blankets, leads and bowls to make their lives happier and more comfortable.
But that’s not all. More recently Holly’s memory has stretched even further, to touch the broken hearts of vulnerable children whose own short lives have been blighted by misery.
Emotionally damaged by trauma in their past, children in foster and kinship care have gradually learned how to love again by drawing on the parallels between their own difficult start in life and Holly’s early years of neglect. Holly’s eventual happy ending, says Lesley, has given children hope that they, too, will find comfort and happiness.
The project started with just ten youngsters but has been so successful that it has now received funding to help up to 100.
None of it would have happened if Holly, maltreated, grossly overweight and with a long list of medical ailments, hadn’t arrived in Lesley’s life when she needed her most.
“Holly came to me in 2008, a victim of neglect,” recalls Lesley, of Tranent. “She was unwell and very overweight – ten stones, more like a small bear than a dog.
“She could barely put one foot in front of the other. I’m sure she would have been dead within a month.”
Lesley, an animal welfare campaigner, couldn’t have met Holly at a more appropriate time. “I had been made redundant from a much-loved job in animal welfare and my life had reached a black hole. I was suffering from depression,” she recalls.
Lesley took control, focusing her energy on helping Holly get better, administering her daily cocktail of medicine and combining the Labrador’s new diet regime with bursts of exercise.
Soon she discovered the companionship, long walks together in the fresh air and her pet’s lovable character had chased away her depression and given her new reason to carry on.
“I was utterly committed to getting her well and in doing that she gave me a new purpose and reason to carry on. I had her to look after, and she needed me.
“She emerged as this wonderfully comical, cheeky, stubborn and lovely dog. The significance each of us had on the other is unquestionable.”
Two years later, however, Holly’s health worsened. Tests revealed a mass of problems thought to be connected with her earlier neglect.
“It was like being kicked in the stomach. I had worked so hard to bring her back to health and suddenly had a multitude of other problems,” adds Lesley, 49.
Somehow Holly battled on. But by May 2013 she was limping badly. This time Lesley knew it was more serious than ever.
“Holly was always determined to get up on the couch beside me come hell or high water, but now she just looked at me sitting on couch, turned and lay on the floor.
“I knew this was worse.”
Holly was sedated for an X-ray which revealed devastating news – she had bone cancer.
“Holly was lying covered with lots of blankets on her like she was tucked in,” remembers Lesley. “The vet said it would be best to let her go before she came out of the sedative. I’d tried to prepare myself for months, but when the moment came it still seemed so sudden.”
Later Lesley poured her feelings into writing Holly’s story in the hope her experience might help others coping with similar loss.
“People don’t take losing a pet seriously enough. I’d wake up in the morning and at first everything would seem OK and then this wrecking ball hits and you realise what you have lost,” she adds.
“You go on automatic pilot. You get up, you breathe and that’s about all.”
Lesley began to think up ways of keeping Holly’s memory alive. Holly’s Hugs took shape, a project aimed at raising funds for dogs in need and recognising the incredible loyalty and service many give to their owners.
Since then boxes of treats, comforts and toys have gone to dogs rescued from war zones, to others who are loyal companions to the homeless and to some with special needs, like elderly dogs whose much-loved owners have passed away.
Holly’s Hugs teamed up with organisations sending parcels abroad to troops, so working dogs in war zones and animals affected by conflict could receive a special treat too.
But perhaps the most remarkable legacy is Holly’s impact on young, vulnerable children whose difficult start in life leaves them emotionally damaged and struggling to show compassion and empathy for others.
“I’ve always been interested in the link between animal abuse, domestic abuse and that never ending circle,” adds Lesley, who also runs the Winton Bear Foundation which raises awareness of the maltreatment of bears across the globe.
“I thought Holly’s story might help some of the most vulnerable in our society understand what is happening in their lives a bit better.”
Holly’s Hugs is now part of Fostering Compassion, a nature project run by Lesley which uses wildlife workshops to deliver a powerful message of care and empathy to youngsters in East Lothian.
“The workshops help the children improve their emotional resilience. And in the Hollydays workshops they learn how Holly came from a life of neglect to one of love in a caring home.
“The children can relate their own circumstances to the story.”
It’s a remarkable legacy for an otherwise ordinary Labrador, whose impact lingers long after that heartbreaking farewell.
“She was the most incredible inspiration in my life,” says Lesley. “I was quite lost before she came along.
“We turned each other’s lives around. It has been lovely to keep her memory alive and do some good.”
Photo exhibition to raise funds
A PHOTOGRAPHIC exhibition to raise funds for Holly’s Hugs, the dog aid organisation inspired by Lesley Winton’s faithful labrador, begins this weekend.
Edinburgh-based photographer Scott Watson has teamed up with the not-for-profit organisation to help raise awareness and funds for their work helping dogs in need around the world.
His photographs feature a series of portraits of his and partner Claire Rudge’s own beloved Labradors Kai and Macey, captured against a backdrop of breathtaking Scottish landscapes.
The exhibition at the Seashore Gallery in Cockenzie begins on Sunday, when Lesley will be signing copies of her book of Holly’s life, Holly the Mahogany Girl. It runs until the end of April.