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  • Barbara Copperthwaite

How my dogs inspire my writing – and my latest psychological thriller

Buddy and Scamp 

‘Pet’ doesn’t come close to describing the deep connection of the soul that happens between a person and their animals. They are best friend and family all rolled into one. They never judge or criticise, never steamroller over ideas, and never lie. There is no cruelty there. They simply live in the moment. They are utterly innocent. 

That quote, from The Girl In The Missing Poster, sums up my own thoughts on my relationship with my dogs. They can make me smile no matter how low I am, they will love me even if no one else in the world does, they don’t care what I wear, how much I weigh, or if I have dodgy taste in music. But doggy devotion isn’t what makes me fall in love with dogs, it’s how much they can teach me. My dogs inspire me to be a better person.

Scamp is my seven-year-old cockapoo, who has numerous allergies that often make her life more difficult than it should be. Yet she’s always wagging at me, or nuzzling a tennis ball into my lap when I’m writing, or even throwing it up into the air herself to catch and chase. She loves life and never stops smiling (believe me, dogs can smile). Her attitude makes me face my own chronic health issues with a greater positivity, and on days when everything seems too hard, one look at Scamp makes me more determined. She’s a role model in a fur coat. 

Then there’s Buddy, an all-sort who definitely has a dollop of terrier somewhere in him. He’s had such a hard start to life: born on the streets on Gran Canaria, before eventually being caught and put in a kill station. He was still a puppy, only about a year old. There, while waiting for the inevitable to happen, he was attacked by another dog, which left him with a scar on his left ear, a broken tail, and blind in his left eye. Then a miracle happened, and he was spotted by rescue group Foreign Furries – and through them he came to us. 

Despite that terrible beginning, Buddy is the gentlest soul I’ve ever come across. He doesn’t have an ounce of anger or bitterness in him, instead he brims over with patience and love and, oh, you should see his joy when he’s off his lead and running around the park with his friends! If anything can inspire a person to leave the past behind and live in the moment, appreciating every second, it’s Buddy. It’s a lesson I need reminding of sometimes, but all I have to do is look at him, and I renew my efforts.

Buster

They aren’t the first dogs to teach me life lessons, either. My shi-tzu/poodle cross, Buster, who passed away almost eight years ago, had the kind of zen that Buddhist monks take a lifetime to achieve. People who didn’t like dogs would take one look into his eyes and find themselves declaring: ‘I don’t normally like dogs but Buster is amazing – there’s something really special about him.’ They weren’t just being polite, either, as they showered him with love. So often when I was stressed with life, Buster would work his zen power over me.

So when I was writing The Girl In The Missing Poster, and decided to make the main character, Stella Hawkins, a canine behaviourist, I knew she’d have several dogs – and this seemed the perfect opportunity to immortalise my own best friends.

Stella has strong views about dogs and people, at one point saying: ‘Do you know why I’m a dog trainer? Because dogs are trustworthy; people aren’t.’ 

It’s hardly surprising she feels this way – not after her sister disappeared 25 years earlier, and has never been heard of since. But I wanted more than to simply capture the sweet relationship between dog and human; I wanted to use my (and Stella’s) love of canines to actually push forward the narrative. In her working life, Stella spends her days watching the body language of dogs and their owners in order to solve behavioural issues, which means she is sharper than most people at picking up human cues. She can tell better than most if someone is lying, for example. 

But when Stella begins to receive emails claiming to be the person responsible for her sister’s disappearance, they take away her ‘superpower’. Stella deals with the physical, and feels useless as she struggles to decide what the emailer’s agenda is.

No matter what Stella is tussling with, her dogs are always by her side, though. I loved being able to immortalise Scamp, Buddy and Buster in The Girl In The Missing Poster. Their personalities are exactly the same in real life as they are in the book – although I decided to super-size Buddy from a medium-sized terrier-type to a huge Alsatian-cross, as it felt right for Stella. My dogs inspire me every day, and they’ve inspired my writing, too.

THE GIRL IN THE MISSING POSTER

24 June, 1994 – Nineteen-year-old Leila Hawkins runs from her father’s birthday party into the stormy night wearing her sister Stella’s long red coat. Some say she was crying, others swear they saw her get into a passing car. Nobody ever saw her again.

Present – This time every year, on the anniversary of that fateful night, Stella decorates the small seaside town she grew up in with pictures of her beautiful missing sister. But after twenty-five years, is it even worth hoping someone will come forward? Perhaps the upcoming documentary will spark people’s memories by reuniting all the guests who were there the night Leila went missing.

As old friends gather and long-buried secrets begin to surface, the last thing Stella ever expects is a direct response from someone claiming they took Leila. They want private details of Stella’s life in return for answers. But as the true events of the night of the party play out once again, who is lying? And who is next?

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