HE had acquired a few grey hairs around the muzzle recently – who hasn’t? – but this only made Nigel’s big, noble head even more distinguished and adorable.

Monty Don may front Gardener’s World, but as regular viewers know – and Monty himself would happily admit – Nigel the golden retriever was the real star, stealing the show with a wag of the tail as his master explained the finer points of pruning.

It came as a real shock last week when Don announced that Nigel had died suddenly at the age of 12. I could hardly bear to watch Friday night’s episode of the programme; Don’s beautiful Herefordshire garden seemed empty and forlorn without Nigel’s ubiquitous presence, his other lovely dog, Nellie, looked lost, as did Don himself. When a montage of Nigel’s life – which had clearly been a wonderfully happy one – was played at the end, I found myself choking back the tears.

And I wasn’t the only one, as the extraordinary outpouring of grief for Nigel has highlighted. Don spoke movingly of the “Nigel-shaped hole” that now exists in his life, and it is testament to this particularly good boy that so many viewers also felt such acute loss at his passing.

At a deeper level the reaction also relates to the terrible and frightening times we are living through, while speaking to the ability dogs have to comfort and heal human beings – even through a television set.

READ MORE: Garry Scott: It's a dog's life under lockdown

“Pure” is the word Don used to describe Nigel, and many of us will recognise and cling to this quality in our canine companions as the coronavirus wreaks misery and chaos all around. Dogs face each day with the same enthusiasm, find the same unbridled joy in every single throw of the ball and rub of the belly. Who doesn’t envy a dog’s ability to live purely and fully in the moment, even this uniquely awful, scary one?

They are also natural comedians, of course, and at this point I must give special mention to BBC Sport commentator Andrew Cotter’s viral videos featuring his labradors Mabel and Olive. All three surely deserve awards – and maybe a lifetime’s supply of Bonios – for their service to the nation during the pandemic.

The unconditional love given freely by dogs, and their unembarrassed reliance upon our reciprocation, is quite overwhelming in its purity. It can be a lifesaver, too. Don has talked publicly about his struggles with depression over the years, reiterating how his dogs helped him through the darkest times. Many reading this now will be able to relate. Even those who have never suffered from clinical depression may find themselves struggling to negotiate the loneliness of lockdown. At the most fundamental level dogs give us something to live for, something to get out of bed for. They love us even if we don’t love ourselves. They heal us gladly, unknowingly, just by being themselves.

And that’s medical fact. Scientific studies show how dogs reduce stress, depression, loneliness and anxiety. They make us healthier, physically and mentally, by encouraging us to take exercise and socialise. People with dogs have lower blood pressure and are less likely to develop heart disease than others. Just playing with a dog releases enough dopamine to give you an instant high.

I’ve come to rely on this dopamine fix. I don’t have dogs of my own – I live with a much-loved elderly cat I would never describe as “pure” – but I’ve been walking my neighbours’ chocolate labradors while they shield. Taking Sam and Morag to chase balls in the park has saved my mental health during lockdown; I honestly don’t know how I’d have coped without their infectious, undying enthusiasm these last few weeks.

During the worst of times it is natural that we yearn for and search out innocence, purity and goodness. Animals innately possess and exude these qualities. They anchor us to a better world. They remind us that a better world exists. And they encourage us to find even a small amount of happiness in every moment, regardless of how bleak it seems.

READ MORE: Susan Swarbrick: How dogs are enriching our lives more than ever

As humanity tries to find a way through the coronavirus our ability to understand its significance is both a blessing and a misfortune. With this in mind, I can’t help thinking the tears I cried for a TV dog I have never met perhaps represented a deeper grief for the loss of innocence the crisis has forced upon us all.

In the meantime, rest in peace dear Nigel. May you bound through the fields for eternity.

All columnists are free to express their opinions. They don’t necessarily represent the view of The Herald.