I’ve never really been a dog person, I don’t mind them (although I do find dogs that jump up a bit overwhelming), and, unlike cats, who pretty much just need feeding and somewhere to sleep, they need so much personal care – they need training to behave well, daily or twice daily walking, grooming and poop-scooping (rather like having another child). I do love animals though, and, as a result, over the years, we’ve gradually acquired a small menagerie of easy to care for pets. We have a couple of goldfish, a hamster, two rabbits and three and a half cats (the ‘half’ is our oldest cat, who has never forgiven us for the other three, she hates us – she actually walks in the other direction if she sees me coming – and pretty much lives in my neighbour’s garden, we only see her when she’s hungry, or if it’s cold and she needs to sleep inside). I also foster for the RSPCA, so most springs and summers I’m host to two or three litters of kittens and their Mums, and it’s lovely to see them all go off to happy, loving homes (especially the Mums) after such a rocky start in life (most of them have been abandoned).
I’ve never seriously considered getting a dog. But my children have always loved them. Years ago, friends of mine had a gorgeous, but very enthusiastic young Labrador (she was a jumper-upper – to be fair she was less than a year old and would be soon trained out of it, but it did freak me out), I was happy for her to be at the house, but she did make me a bit nervous. One day, she was playing in the garden with Oldest Daughter and her owners’ son and she momentarily pinned Oldest Daughter to the ground. I almost screamed in panic – all I could see was my two-year-old underneath a huge dog – Oldest Daughter however was laughing in delight. My friends called the dog and she immediately went to them, tail wagging and utterly over the moon with the game she was playing, but the contrast between my reaction to the dog and Oldest Daughter’s couldn’t have been greater.
Since then, Oldest Daughter has pretty much single handedly changed my attitude to dogs. On our annual family trips to beautiful North Norfolk she would watch the dogs on the beaches in delight (and provide them all with Jonny Morris style voices and dialogue, which, I must admit, made them much more appealing to me), and I began to understand that a well trained dog is a companion and a delight to be around. A couple of years ago, my sister got a cockapoo, Albie, who, for the first time ever made me think a dog might be a good idea – he’s so affectionate and friendly and being around him just makes me feel happy.
Since Albie appeared on the scene, I’ve lost count of the number of times the kids have asked for a dog (it’s got to the point where, when we visit my sister, the kids are almost as keen to see Albie as they are to see their cousins), and I probably would have considered it, if it wasn’t for the fact that we are going to have to move into rented accommodation within the next year or so, and most rental properties don’t allow pets. The fact is that we may need to rehome the pets we’ve got, there’s no way we can take on another one.
We’d all pretty much accepted a dog was off our radar, when the chance to dog-sit arose. My friend has got the most gorgeous chocolate labrador – Reggie – and she and her family were going on holiday for ten days. After a few glasses of wine, and an evening of enjoying my feet being warmed by a sleeping Reggie, I offered to look after him whilst they were away. It was perfect timing – I would be home for the next few weeks, so walking etc wouldn’t be a problem, and the kids were so keen to have a dog, that borrowing one would be a treat for them over the summer (sort of in lieu of a summer holiday). I must admit, I was a bit nervous – he’s a big dog and I wasn’t sure how I felt re poop-scooping – but when I told the kids, they were so excited (especially Youngest Son) that I was looking forward to it was much as they were.
Reggie arrived on a Friday morning. The first thing he did was an enormous poop in my garden. As I dubiously did my first poop-scoop, my Great Nephew (staying with me for the weekend) remarked in awestruck wonder “that’s a BIG poo!!”, “he’s a big dog darling” I replied, gingerly holding the poo bag at arm’s length. After sniffing his way round the garden (and weeing against the kids’ pool), Reggie headed back into the living room where he settled in front of the fireplace and snoozed. I sat in the living room with him, and when he seemed settled, I headed into the kitchen to make a coffee. Within second I heard the clickety clack of his paws on the hallway, and Reggie appeared in the kitchen – seeing that I was busy, he settled on the kitchen floor and snoozed there instead. From that point on, Reggie followed me everywhere. He didn’t go upstairs, but if I did, he’d sit at the bottom of the stairs waiting for me. When I sat in the living room, he curled up next to the sofa I was sitting on. When I was working in my study he’d snooze in the corner. Even when I thought he was fast asleep, and left the room, he’d follow me within seconds.
Now, whilst this would be disturbing behaviour in a marital partner, it was amazingly comforting from a dog. For the first time ever, there was someone in the house who wanted to be with me, and who wanted to be with me so much he would follow me everywhere. It was day one and he was proving to be the most amazing companion I’d ever had.
Reggie also adored the kids. His tail would go mad the second one of them appeared. He loved belly rubs and hugs (both of which were administered with enthusiasm by Oldest and Youngest Sons) but, despite the fact he went mad with delight at a squeaky chicken toy we’d bought for him (alas the squeaky chicken was destroyed by enthusiastic play within days), he was always utterly calm and tranquil with us. He didn’t bark, he didn’t fuss, he was just a gentle giant of a dog.
The thing I loved most though, was the walks. Recently, I’ve been so busy and so overwhelmed by all the stuff that’s going on, that I haven’t really been able to let myself relax. Everything I’ve done, everything I do has a ‘purpose’. I’ve not done anything for the sheer pleasure of it for probably a couple of years. The first time I took Reggie for a walk, I thought of it as part of the ‘job’ of having a dog, however, as we walked, side by side (him clickety clacking on the pavement) I realised that I had nowhere to go, nowhere to be, nothing to do other than just walk. This was a revelation. As I looked at Reggie’s happy face, I saw that for the next hour or so, I had nothing to do except walk for the sheer pleasure of walking.
As I’ve mentioned before, I live in Ampthill in Bedfordshire. As well as an incredible community and a beautiful park, Ampthill has a rather gorgeous nature reserve called Coopers Hill. It’s a wild mixture of heathland and woodland with sandy paths twisting between heather, gorse and beautiful silver birch and oak trees and more rabbit holes than you can shake a stick at. As you walk you can hear woodpeckers and grasshoppers and watch blackbirds flit between the bushes. It’s always been a place I’ve gone to think things through (it’s pretty much at the end of my road, and I frequently walk the long way to work, so I can get fifteen minutes of peace on Coopers Hill), but it’s always been a place I walked through, on the way to somewhere, rather than walked in.
Reggie changed this. We spent hours up there, meandering along the pathways, walking loops and zigzagging across the hill. Our only purpose was to enjoy being there. Reggie taught me to slow down. As we walked, my stride would be broken by Reg deciding he absolutely HAD to investigate a bush for activity, or sniff to see if another dog had been there. We walked in all weathers (this being British Summertime, in the ten days I had him, we walked in pouring rain, gusty winds, cool, chilly mornings and in blazing sunshine) and Reggie delighted in every single walk.
After a few days of having Reggie, I began to feel more energetic. For months, I’d been feeling so down and so dogged by anxiety that I hadn’t had the energy to do much. However, suddenly, I wanted to mow the lawns, to give the house a good clean, to bake and to cook. All the things that had felt like chores that were heavy weights on my time, began to feel light and easy to manage. As our walks went from one to two a day (I couldn’t resist heading to Coopers Hill in the evening – it has a special kind of tranquillity then), I began to feel so much better in myself. I hadn’t realised how bad I’d been feeling, but I was feeling lifted and happy. Everything that had bothered me and that I was fretting over (what would happen at court, what would happen with money, how I would get the house ready to sell, where I would live when it was sold) began to seem manageable again.
Walking with Reggie was an unexpected pleasure and rather than being the chore I thought it might be, I began to look forward to it. I didn’t even bother putting make-up on or changing before I left the house (since discovering E’s affairs, my confidence in my appearance has flatlined and I never felt able to leave the house without some sort of makeup), I just grabbed the lead, and some poop bags, and we were off. In the end I didn’t even take my phone. It was just me and Reg and Coopers Hill.
To the relief of my cats (who spent the ten days hissing, sulking and hiding upstairs), Reggie has now gone home (he was utterly delighted to see his proper family), but the ten days I had with him has had a real impact on my emotional and physical health. My mind feels clear and all the walking means my body feels better too (after months of being so anaemic that I couldn’t walk up the stairs without needing a rest, all the waking, without any breathlessness, has confirmed that I’m completely recovered – which means I feel much more confident about running and getting fitter again).
Reggie is fab dog, and he’s not only helped me feel miles better in myself, he might well have a achieved the impossible – I’m beginning to think I might be a dog person after all…