Monty Don tells incredible story of how dog Nigel's life was once saved by TV's Supervet

20 May 2020, 21:54 | Updated: 21 May 2020, 12:26

Monty Don and Nigel
Monty Don and Nigel. Picture: Getty/Instagram

By Giorgina Ramazzotti

Monty Don recalls how dog Nigel nearly lost his life because of his love of tennis balls.

The golden retriever, who was famous for interrupting Monty Don while filming Gardeners' World by wanting to play fetch, was a favourite with viewers and so special to Monty that he wrote a book about the dog.

Nigel's death was announced by Monty on May 11 - just days before his 12th birthday - but the dog will be forever immortalised thanks to Monty's vivid portrayal of his life as his owner in Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs.

See more: Monty Don shares unseen puppy photos of dog Nigel in tribute to beloved 'old friend'

While the book give wonderful insights into the pair's morning routine, Nigel's love of apples and disgust at the arrival of Nell the puppy, Monty also sheds light on the day Nigel almost lost his life and was saved by TV's Supervet, Noel Fitzpatrick.

Starting with the dog's hilarious breakfast ritual, read on for wonderful extracts from Monty Don's book Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs...

"As I start preparing [Nigel's] food, there’s a waiting-for-food range of noises that rise from a hurry-up growl to a high-pitched plea," Monty Don writes.

"If he thinks I’m being unreasonably slow, an irritated bark will be thrown in, followed by an apologetic shuffle of his backside. He’s fundamentally a polite dog — albeit one getting hungrier by the second.

Monty Don shares moving tribute to mark his late dog Nigel’s 12th birthday

"Finally, I lift his bowl off the counter and, unlike all the other dogs I’ve fed, he ignores me and the food and prances — no, dances — into the yard without a backward glance. He knows the form and is one step ahead.

"The bowl is put in front of him, whereupon he sits and looks at me with quiet desperation while a bubble of saliva gently balloons from the corner of his mouth — and on the command, he tucks in.

"And so it happens every day, exactly the same every time. But every time is the best time.

"After this, we walk round the two-acre garden of our home in Herefordshire, sniffing the air, releasing the chickens and working the day out. Last thing at night, we repeat the walk by torchlight — although, as this is followed by a biscuit, there is a slightly more excited tone to the proceedings.

"It has never crossed Nigel’s mind (and, even at his most perceptive, that is a short, uncomplicated journey) that he is not always the centre of attention. This means that, when you’re talking to someone or reading the paper, a slow rhythmic growling will start to build up as he tries to attract your attention.

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"The sound is moderated by the size of ball in his mouth — a small one just adds a slight edge, whereas a large tennis ball means he has to blow harder to make the sound, so it is a curious bass wheeze.

"This is repeated, the same sound rising to a crescendo, at which point the growl is unmanned by a treble note of indignation that can become an all-out squealed bark.

"Then, when you catch his eye or ask him to be quiet, the ball is deposited on your lap and is, so to speak, now in your court. He has won.

Monty Don pictured with Nigel as a puppy
Monty Don pictured with Nigel as a puppy. Picture: MontyDon.com

"September delivers another favourite harvest. When a bout of blustery wind brings down the first windfalls in the Orchard, Nigel will nose through the day’s offerings and devour them with relish, the greener and more unripe the better.

"He loves, really truly loves, the windfall apples. In his first year, the windfalls came when he was three or four months old, and at first we couldn’t understand why the garden looked as though a herd of incontinent cattle had just wandered through.

"However, an apple is never just a delicious bite of forbidden fruit for Nigel. It has the great added bonus of looking to all intents and purposes like a slightly strange tennis ball that can be thrown, chased, carried and endlessly plonked in a wheelbarrow or trug, followed by a foot-shuffling, impatient bark for it to be thrown — again.

"His devotion to an individual apple can last for days, despite it becoming progressively chewed, bashed and pulpy as a result of being hurled against trees and hedges and of Nigel taking sneaky little bites from it.

"A ball you can eat surpasses all other dreams.

"One September, as I was writing an article, I heard a scream that sent me rushing outside, thinking there had been an accident to one of the two gardeners. Eventually, I found one of them, Julia, crouched over the body of Nigel, who was shaking violently and crying.

"What had happened was completely, freakishly unexpected. For the thousandth time, Nigel had carefully placed a muddy yellow ball on the clipped top of the box hedge next to Julia as she cut back spent dahlia flowers.

"As she had done a thousand times before, she flicked it away for him to chase and Nigel leapt in the air to take it, twisting sideways and up with astonishing speed and dynamism. As he had done so many times before.

"We got him to the vet, who kept him overnight and then announced ‘one leg had had it’ and might need amputation.

"By the next day, Nigel seemed dangerously close to death, so we drove 150 miles to Godalming, in Surrey, to see Noel Fitzpatrick, TV’s Supervet, who specialises in extreme cases. After a CAT scan, Noel was immediately able to diagnose what had happened.

"When Nigel had leapt in the air, the acceleration had been so powerful, and he’d twisted with such suppleness, that one of the discs in his back had exploded, partially severing his spinal cord.

"Noel wouldn’t operate but kept him in the correct position, coupled with hydrotherapy several times a day in the pool.

"Five days later, we went back and Nigel walked out to the car, tail up, wanting to leap into the back. It seemed miraculous: despite a tremor in his afflicted leg, he was soon running freely again.

"Dogs, of course, have much shorter lives than humans. In truth, when we take on a pet, the only certainty is that it will not end well: one of you — probably the pet — is going to die relatively soon.

"When his time comes, Nigel will be buried in the coppice in the shade of a wild cherry that I planted in 1993. The roots will be hard to chop through by then, the ground compacted and dry.

"But he will always be here, his gentle presence shadowing me, real and vital, part of the living essence of the garden."

Adapted by Corinna Honan from Nigel: My Family and Other Dogs (2017) available to buy here.