By ERIN MALEY

It’s so cold that my glove-wrapped hands are aching as I grasp the slender red lead. The crunching sounds of my boots echo loudly as I step across gravel, iced puddles, frozen grass, autumn’s leftover leaves. A soft padding noise beside me is accompanied by intermittent tiny puffs from the little animal at the other end of the lead. Black and furry, he trots at a quick pace as I trip along in an attempt to keep up with him. He scents a rabbit, and I run with him for a minute or two as he races off like mad to follow a trail, nose to the ground.

As much as I love outdoorsy activities like beauty spot walks, camping, and hiking, I can’t say I’ve ever been keen on doing any of these things in sub-zero temperatures. I’ve definitely never considered making a New Year’s resolution about starting to do so, either. Yet here I am, out in just that sort of January weather, habitually walking whilst slowly freezing to death. Only because of Paddington.

Paddington (no actual relationship to his namesake, non-canine Peruvian Paddington Bear) was born sometime last August but trotted briskly into our lives on Thanksgiving Day 2016. We always knew that when the time came for our family to adopt a dog, it would be called Paddington, after one of our favorite book characters. We planned to find this dog ourselves when the time was right, but instead the right dog found us.

Our extended family’s traditional Thanksgiving Day walk is a venture always embarked upon post-dinner and washing up and, for most of us but the more eager, pre-pie. This year, as usual, we set off like the Fellowship of the Ring, trailing down a country road, with the power walkers charging ahead at the front of the group while the overeaters straggled behind. The mild weather felt wonderfully warm and we were enjoying ourselves as we walked along the barely populated road.

As we made our way past the last house, a small black dog suddenly appeared. He darted out of the yard and into the centre of our group, happily running along with us. He submitted to being petted and fussed over by some of us, but was quick to let us know that he was with us for the exercise. He dashed up to the front, sometimes, or moseyed along at the back, sniffing. But he stayed with us. We reached a creek, which many of us forded easily thanks to wellington boots. Others were carried across with much laughter and jokes. The dog waited to be carried over and then ran after us as we continued with the walk. He stayed with us as we turned around after a few miles, and walked all the way back to his house. There, he began to pretend he was part of our group, but we knocked on the door and returned him to his rightful owners. Even the bright prospect of returning home to hot coffee and an enormous array of homemade pies felt slightly dulled after saying goodbye to our new little friend.

None of us could forget the friendly puppy. After Thanksgiving, each time we walked past his house he ran out to join us, behaving as if it was the most natural thing in the world to be our walking companion on that dirt road. We didn’t even know what breed of dog he was, though his proud stance and bouncing jog coupled with his looks suggested some type of Scottie dog. His owners explained that he was a terrier/poodle mix, and, more importantly, they were interested in selling him.

The rest, as they say, is history. Paddington Sirius Peregrine Black (named after the kids’ favorite literary characters) came to live with us at the beginning of December, just as the unusually mild weather began to sink into a more seasonal chilly pattern. Paddy, as we began to call him, had spent most of his early months outdoors, running around freely with other dogs. In spite of his carefree early days, he quickly took to being trained to walk on a lead, behaving as if he’d always done so. He showed off his terrier genes as he ran after rabbits and other small animals, acting like the hunting dogs he grew up with. He began to exercise his uncannily deep growl and a sharp warning bark upon hearing far-off coyotes. And now, he has started learning all those appropriate commands that befit a well-trained dog: sit, stay, come, etc. Of course, in our opinion, he’s the cleverest dog we’ve ever met!

Paddington now feels like an indispensable member of our family, just as Paddington Bear became to the Brown family. Sibling quarrels? Go play with the dog! Need more outdoor time? Take Paddy for a walk. Stressed or anxious? Give the dog a fuss. According to a study conducted by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children with a dog at home are 9% less likely to suffer with anxiety than children from a dog-free home. Studies also show that playing with a pet can increase levels of the stress-reducing hormone oxytocin and decrease production of the stress hormone cortisol! Increased responsibility, activity, routine, social interaction, touch, and companionship are all positive factors that benefit children (and adults) in families who have included a dog in their lives. I have certainly observed this in our family, particularly in our youngest, who has grown slightly less bashful and more confident as she has learned to take charge with Paddy.

There’s something about our new family member that tells me this is just the beginning of something more. Perhaps it’s the way Paddington likes to socialize with other dogs. Maybe it’s the fact that we’ve always liked miniature schnauzers. It could be the reminder that there are so many dogs who don’t have a forever home, like Paddy does, and need a loving family. I have a feeling that this new Maley family thing, this dog-owning thing, is just beginning, and there will be more dogs joining us in the future.

We shall see.

One thing I know for sure, as Michael Bond informed us in Paddington Goes to Town, “Paddington has a habit of bringing people closer together.”

Our Paddington certainly does!