The turn of the year is usually a joyous time for my wife and me. We celebrate our wedding anniversary at that time - this year was our 51st - and there is the New Year and its promise to look forward to.

This year, however, has been a little different. We have just learned that our 10-year-old west highland white terrier, Lachie, has an incurable cancer and has only a few weeks to live.

Having pets always, of course, brings its sadness. Lachie is our sixth Westie - they have been with us for almost all of our married life. His five predecessors - Dougal, Angus, Fergus, Bridie and Jock - are all buried on the hillside behind our house - and the passing of each of them has brought its particular heartache.

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In their cases, however, their deaths occurred suddenly and unexpectedly - bringing shock as well as grief - but Lachie's case is different. We are steeling ourselves to watching our little friend decline over the next weeks; I am not looking forward to seeing his bright eyes dim.

We will of course provide him with all the love and comfort we can muster. He is for the time being in good spirits.

He continues to monitor and conform to the daily routine that is so important to dogs. He knows to the minute when his meal-times are, and when it is time for his regular walks on the beach.

He gets excited, for reasons known only to him, when I dive into our swimming pool and he watches me carefully until I re-surface.

And he continues to perform his self-appointed task of patrolling the boundaries of our property, repelling all invaders by land and air. Small birds are tolerated but anything larger, and especially hang gliders and planes, must be chased away, with much barking and springing into the air.

He is constantly teased by the weka that peck their way across our front lawn. The weka are very relaxed about being chased by Lachie; they know precisely where their escape routes are and they are confident that they can out-run him.

Lachie knows this as well; it is the fun of the chase that he enjoys. He has no intention or realistic prospect of catching them and wouldn't know what to do with them if he did.

His most important role, though, is as our constant companion. He is never more than a step or two away.

He always joins us outdoors for morning coffee or afternoon tea or a pre-dinner aperitif and is always ready to accept a tidbit; a fragment of a home-cooked cheese biscuit is his favourite, and I now cook them mainly for him. We enjoy spoiling him, now more than ever.

He is not a great conversationalist but he has an uncanny ability to interpret what we say to him and to respond appropriately. We greatly enjoy our "conversations" with him.

He is a brave little dog. The breed was developed in the Scottish Highlands to dig out foxes and badgers. Westie tails, unusually, are not merely appendages but are actually extensions of their backbones, which meant that, if they were too brave and ambitious and got stuck half way down a hole, they could be pulled out by their tails.

My wife and I are both cancer survivors. We have some idea therefore of the trials and tribulations he now faces. The one great comfort to us is that he has no idea that he is ill and that his days are numbered. He trusts us, as he always has, to look after him. For him, life is still good; he is still bright and active and his toes still twinkle as he trots towards us. When that is no longer the case, we will not let him suffer and we will know what to do.

When that time comes, we will reflect that the years of pleasure, of loyalty, affection and companionship that he gave us far outweigh the grief we will then feel. Until then, we will show him the love that he so richly deserves. Only when he goes, no doubt, will we fully understand the gap in our lives that he has left behind.