Balls (a contentious issue)

It’s always guaranteed to polarise dog owners, the question of dogs and balls. Their wonderful, inimitable, ball-y motion piques the average dog’s interest, no doubt about it – the tantalising rolling, the unpredictable bouncing, the moving, the teasing that screams ‘play with me!’ and makes dogs (or at least a lot of dogs) giddy, crazy, infatuated, high. Transfixed, obsessed, addicted. 

Personally I believe that it’s wrong for dogs to get their only exercise chasing up and down after a ball, but even though I could and would love to, there’s nothing worse than a pious bore who bangs on about ‘enrichment’ and ‘mental stimulation’ – scent trails, brainwork puzzles, agility, obedience, ‘trick’ training. Ok ok, let’s move it on… 

So, chasing after a ball is as pure, as hedonistic a pleasure as a dog can get, so why knock it? Well, for one thing the repetitive, extreme motions and all the jumping can cause damage to joints, and for a second, it can cause doggie altercations, particularly in high population areas. Dogs can get possessive over many things – food and toys being the most common. Since the humble ball is still number one in the toy ranking tables for a lot of dogs, and since a lot of dogs don’t get enough quality time so that when they do they are often over invested and over excitable, I would hazard a guess that the chance of balls being resource guarded is pretty high. 

My dog doesn’t get mad if another dog steals her retrieving dummy, or her frisbee, or her rope toy – she gets mildly annoyed, a bit impatient, but not mad. But she might if it were a ball. I’ve had to train her hard to leave others’ balls alone, I say had to as she grew up walking in Kensington Gardens and though it’s a famously dog friendly park and dog unfriendly tourists get laughed down off their benches, it’s only fair to be considerate to the people who use it too. She’s now pretty bomb proof on not chasing footballs and beach balls -where she used to fixate and race towards them like a bullet train, now not only can I warn her off action as soon as she clocks one, I can successfully call her back mid chase if needed. With tennis balls, it’s harder, but we’re getting there and it’s a near achievement that I am very proud of. 

There’s a particularly dangerous period of year for us in Serbia where we live some of the time, it’s when a sort of weird type of fruit falls from the trees. Large, dense, inedible, fragrant, their surface uneven and ergonomic, Stevie thinks they are Magic Balls and no amount of training I have tried has stopped her seeking them out. She once heard one fall in the green part across a road from the main park and raced to seek it out. My heart goes out to people whose dogs were killed or seriously hurt in a traffic accident – I can see how it happens in the flash of a split second. 

Dogs cheekily nip in and steal other dogs’ balls, and parade around gleefully, triumphantly. The best thing you can do if your dog does this (other than training them out of it in the first place) is to always have replacements in your pockets ready to give to the stealee’s owner, with an apologetic smile. Or to teach them the ‘Switch!’ command (a lot easier than training them not to chase and steal them in the first place, and some people are precious about getting their particular tennis ball back). Don’t ask them not to throw a ball for their dog as however you feel about balls, it’s their prerogative – and you risk sounding like a pious bore (see above). At the end of the day life is too short to be stressed worrying is your dog going to steal another dog’s ball, so it’s best to have a plan. 

One would hope for other dog owners to be sensitive in company and either wait for you to put your dog on the lead if they see you are struggling to restrain your Rover, or just (better) to put the ball away and let the dogs interact. If your dog will not let you put the ball away by the way, I would suggest that s/he needs a bit of weaning off the ball. Again it comes back to dog guardian etiquette – be aware of what’s happening, be aware of other dogs – don’t be one of the oblivious, ultra-annoying ‘my dog’s friendly!’ brigade. It might not be your dog that’s the problem, but it might well be your dog that gets caught up in a fight. 

Lost Dog

I just read – and loved – the book ‘Lost Dog (A Love Story)’ by Kate Spicer. It made me wonder why I’ve never written about us losing Jackson. Probably I didn’t want to relive the trauma. It was roughly 3 years ago now, and we’d picked Jackson (was Isak) up from a small place outside Belgrade called Jagodina. We’d met one of his chief rescuers and guardian angels, Inda, at a grooming salon, and when we came in there he was, sitting proud and handsome and good as gold up on a high table, being finished off. I’ll never forget how he looked at us, his paws gently moving up and down one by one on the table, as if he were kneading bread. I’ve never seen him do that since I don’t think. He was eager – so eager – to get down, cuddle us and start his new life. You’d have to have an extremely cold heart for it not to melt. So far, so good. This could work, I thought to myself, despite having had my reservations. 

I’d known – in an abstract way – that it was a bad idea getting an adolescent pointer hot on the heels of our first one. Not a sensible idea. Pointers are notoriously energetic and demanding dogs, and their puppyhood lasts longer than other dogs, til 3 or beyond. Stevie was only 1 year and 8 months old and although brilliantly behaved and socialised, a naturally easy dog with all the advantages of having a charmed life from puppyhood, she was by no means not full on. And my life was complete, with her in it. But I’d made the mistake of taking my husband (perhaps an even more ardent dog lover than me) with me when I went to assess / photograph Isak-to-be-Jackson (in order to post him on the pointer network and find him a home). Isak had seemed docile enough, letting another dog in the place lead him around on a lead, laying down and falling asleep in the sunshine (when I posted some photos on Facebook I remember someone being horrified, thinking he was dead before reading the text!). In retrospect, he was probably just bored stiff and shutting down. He was able to run around and was exponentially better off than in the kill pound from which he’d been extracted, Dusan who was looking after him was a lovely kind man, but money and resources were tight and his freedom was contained to one yard only, and social interaction to 6 other dogs, none of whom he had an overly fulfilling rapport with.  

We should have got an inkling that the calm exterior we’d seem thus far had hidden depths when he lunged across the car every time we passed a dog on our drive back to Belgrade. My husband and I exchanged looks. Strange, we thought, naively… We checked his collar was on tight, and exited the car for our first walk once we got to our local park (ten minutes from home). I don’t remember who was holding him, but I do remember it happened in a flash. Isak-now-Jackson fixated on a dog he’d seen on the other side of the park, wrenched his head around a few times like an irritated lion and that was that, we stood there like a couple of lemons with a closed circle of a collar dangling forlornly from the end of the lead. “I checked it was on tight!” I undoubtedly squeaked. I knew I had, my husband had checked too, at my request. We probably stood momentarily staring at the edge of the park and a slope down which he’d hurtled. At the foot of it, a busy, busy road. We probably then sprinted over to that place and screamed and shouted our hearts out. I don’t remember. Probably it was traumatic, probably my mind blanked it out. I only remember going back to the place we’d last seen him a hundred times in the next 32 hours, adding clothes that smelt of us, even though he’d barely had time to learn our smell. He wasn’t even used to coming to his name, how oh how could we have been so stupid not to have a slip lead on him?? A million other thoughts certainly beat us up simultaneously, and in my stomach there was – I remember that – a dark, terrifying, terrified feeling. How would we survive this guilt, this pain? We’d only just got back on our feet, even though we didn’t realise we’d been off them, after a gruelling ivf process (in retrospect I’m not sure why I ever did it as I always, always preferred dogs to humans, puppies to babies). 

It was interesting how we reacted differently. Sasa galvanised his team at work to print up posters and threw himself into the physical search. Between us we put up hundreds of posters and must have walked tens of miles. I remember tapping every poster as I left it, tapping things is a funny little OCD trait that seems to hit me when I get stressed out. I tapped Jackson’s face on the poster, wished him luck, willed him to be alive. Sasa insisted that if we just kept looking, kept pounding the streets, put in the hard graft, we would find him. Sasa is an optimist. I am more of a pessimist. I just felt like we alone were looking for a needle in a haystack.

To be continued… 

A life without…

A comment a (vague) friend had made about me at a recent gathering slipped into my knowledge the other day, cooling my heart temporarily into a little block of ice. A lot of peoples’ lives revolve around their children and a life without children may well be unthinkable to them, I get that, it’s perfectly normal. But there are other normals too. And that someone should pass such judgement about something of which they know less than nothing? It wouldn’t have occurred to me to think it strange or laughable that adults should want to willingly share their homes with babies, children, teenagers, young adults – yet frankly, when I think about it, there could be seen to be plenty of ‘strange’ in it. The reservations (let’s call them reservations) some people have about dogs – presumably things like dirt, dog hair, the risk of barking, non human-ness – seem trivial by comparison, quite honestly. 

This friend has no concept of the joy my dogs both bring to me, how much I enjoy their company, a joy that billions of dogs bring to billions of people around the world. That this friend does not ‘get’ it reflects more on her and on people like her than on those billions, in my opinion. This friend is irritated by the ‘doggie mums’ at the school gates – the easy friendship between them, a clique of which she is not a part. This friend is convinced of the superiority of humans over all other species. This friend does not like how much I love dogs, it unnerves her, she cannot relate to it, so ( / and?) she mocks it. I guess I find it strange, sad that one person should find another’s love laughable. But then in 2019 we all like to judge, don’t we. 

My strength of feeling on the subject seems to be necessitating recently that I psychologically divorce myself from people who feel too differently on the subject, or at least from those who aren’t smart enough to deftly avoid discussion about it. I feel a growing estrangement for anyone who doesn’t get the point of dogs, and of animals in general. I can’t help it. The older I get the more I am drawn to a different tribe, one I was always part of. Small children who are in turns enraptured and instinctively devastated when taken to a zoo, mothers of babies and pitbulls, metal working carers of injured opossums (@hollywoof that’s you), beautiful Pakistani film stars who have compassion for every living being that inhabits the earth (@hirahussain, that’s you), brave young people advocating for (even large! imagine!) canines’ rights and quality of life in London (@thelondog and @wolfdog_of_london in particular), celebrities who are not scared to wear their love for their dogs on their sleeves and even write books about them (@spicerlife springs to mind because I read her book recently), people who foster children and animals in their homes and change the paths of their lives irrevocably – people who like to give back, people who pick up the pieces and look to help those outside their own blood (@carolinehartleybrown).

I guess I never was that conventional and not being blessed with children has only exacerbated that, not that am sorry. I could have been mother of humans, goats and mongrels, but in the absence of human offspring springs a wealth of love and dedication I might not otherwise have had the energy or resources to tap. I am grateful. 

PS Barack Obama loves dogs. Trump is the first President in 100 years to not have a dog resident at the White House. I can’t help feeling that this is somehow relevant.

Life’s better with dogs

Your dog knows you in a funny way better than anyone else. They see you at your finest (singing along with the radio at the top of your voice, days where you tackle life with focus and gusto) but also at your lowest ebb (having no motivation to work or learn or create, days where you feel lacklustre and devoid of inspiration). They see you dressed up in your finest – perfumed and coiffed, and they see you slouching around spotty and pale in grubby tracksuit bottoms. And they probably prefer you in the latter. The point is, whatever your mood, dogs adapt and act accordingly, and always, always make you feel better. If you decide to have a sneaky daytime siesta when you’re supposed to be working from home, they’ll hop up on the bed and snooze along with you (which somehow makes the whole thing lean to feeling indulgent rather than sad) and they won’t grass you up afterwards. You can be neurotic, bad-tempered, lazy, egotistical, moody, hyper – whatever – they’ll still love you. What more could you ask for in a companion? 

I’ve always loved walking but now, I have to say, it feels a bit lonely without dogs. If I don’t have mine with me I’ll gravitate towards other peoples, and usually they understand because as dog owners they’re likely to do the same, the world over. Like any love, language is no barrier, love unites, and you can bend down to pet a dog in Delhi or Dachau or Dallas and convey in one exchange of looks with the owner how you feel about this species, and in that look find a common bond, a sweet moment of connection. Dogs just make everything better. They are company without pressure, a positive, supportive presence, they don’t judge, or try to suggest rational, logical solutions for your problems, they’re just there, with you. Canine Vladimirs and Estragons – just less complicated. 

I feel free, unencumbered when I walk with my dogs. I am not wife, daughter, employee, friend. I have no history, no reputation precedes me, I am not bound to behaving in a certain way. I am me and I do not have to play a role. I pick and choose who I talk to, who I walk with – if the chemistry is lacking I walk another path, or I walk for hours with a stranger whose company I enjoy, but who I may never see again. It’s precious, that walk and it’s repeated a thousand different times over the course of a life with infinite variations. We forest bathe, me and my dogs. We interact with others or we are enormously antisocial. We get reenergised the way we need to depending on the moment. If there’s a truer, purer thing in life than walking with your dog, I don’t know it.  

Tattoos

I have deliberated, daydreamed for years over what tattoo(s) to get. I came to the conclusion early on that I wanted it to be writing, and there’s a lot of poetry I’ve liked for over 20 years. I had nearly decided on this:  Le monde est a la fois merveilleux et atroce, un miracle et l’enfer. (The world is at the same time marvellous and atrocious, a miracle, and hell.) but I decided it was a bit pretentious having something in French, and anyway it’s a bit too general and also rather too dramatic. I wanted something that would show my love for all animals and my sadness about all the animals on the planet who are suffering and my fury and rage at humans and the ill they do. It’s something I feel passionately about and something that will never change. I decided on this:

The bleat, bellow, bark and roar

Are waves that wash on Heaven’s shore

It’s just a tiny excerpt from an epic poem by William Blake, who died in 1827. Here’s some more lines from it:

To see a world in a grain of sand

And a heaven in a wild flower

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand

And eternity in an hour

A robin redbreast in a cage

Puts all heaven in a rage

A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons

Shudders hell thro’ all its regions

Each outcry of the hunted hare

A fibre from the brain does tear

A skylark wounded on the wing

A cherubim does cease to sing

The game-cock clipt and arm’d for fight

Does the rising sun affright

He who shall hurt the little wren

Shall never be belov’d by men

A truth that’s told with bad intent

Beats all the lies you can invent

Joy and woe are woven fine

A clothing for the soul divine

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine

Every night and every morn

Some to misery are born

Some are born to sweet delight

Some are born to sweet delight

Some are born to endless night

Doesn’t it just say it all?

Are dogs babies?

I want to set something straight, in response to a particular article I read lately and which upset and angered me, along with a whole raft of other people. Not pointedly / individually to the author as much (I know she is a decent, kind person who just happened to write one article not up to her usual highly socially intelligent standards) but to all those who seem to be somehow offended by puppy coddling (and honestly, am incredulous at that – aren’t there more evil things to get yourself upset about?)

The thing I want to say is this: People who have dogs do not think they are babies. Even when they are puppies. Even when they (the people) don’t have babies. Dogs are not babies. We get that. We don’t need or want them to be. They have entirely different qualities, aside from both being – a lot of the time – pretty cute. Even those of us who have not procreated not through choice do not somehow imagine that our dogs are babies. We do not need to be pitied because we love our dogs ‘too much’. Some people who have babies love their dogs just as much as we do. For a lot of us, our love for dogs predates and will outlast our desire to have babies. The idea that we think our dogs are babies is ludicrous. Yes, some people call them fur-babies, but those same people have probably given their husband / partner / best friend a silly moniker too.

Do we anthropomorphise them? Of course we do. There goes the arrogance of humans again. But we still love our dogs for exactly what they are. They are not a baby replacement. Sometimes, babies are not needed or wanted – and dogs are. Often, the reverse is true. It’s a free world. And for the record yes, we do consider them to be part of our families.

The intensity of care a human needs to show its baby in order to thrive (or even survive, to be fair) is far greater than that which is needed to bring up a puppy. Puppies do not demand heroicly wakeful nights, they do not engender the sleep deprivation and self-sacrifice induced near insanity I have seen a lot of new mothers run close to. Animal young is far, far more self-sufficient from a far earlier age than human young, who remains helpless and vulnerable for several years (one might argue, indefinitely). A 6-month old dog will happily hike miles, gloriously naked, undemanding, grinning at you all the way – and then flop down and sleep like the dead for 10 hours. A 6-month old baby, less so.

Dogs do not shower you in reflected glory when they hit milestones (riding a bike, traversing a slope on skis for the first time, playing Fur Elise on the piano), they are quite frankly more likely not to hit any noteworthy milestones whatsoever but rather to show you up in public in some goofy, well-meaning way.  Dogs (I can’t comment on babies) give their love abundantly, selflessly, consistently. They do, also, let you down in that they tend to die after all too brief a time – they will not stick around to look after you in your dotage (although to be fair there’s no guarantee that offspring will either). They never learn to speak, and unless you are Anna Breytenbach you will never really know what they’re thinking. They’ll basically never ‘grow up’ and turn into a smart little mini-you, however much training you put in – the most you can hope for is an admiring  comment from a fellow dog walker or two.

Does it really matter though that dogs can’t talk, that they will not ‘progress’ beyond their Peter Pan selves? Perhaps not. Dogs bring pure, unadulterated joy, and relatively undemanding –  we who live with them are blessed to share our lives with them. Ricky Gervais says he feels that dogs are like Air, or Land, in that they’re so essential that they belong to everyone, not to the individual. If you love dogs, you’ll get this and it will make you smile knowingly. If you don’t, you won’t, you’ll roll your eyes and maybe smile that cynical, superior smile of an anthropocentrist who thinks s/he knows better. But rest assured, you’re missing a slice of the finest pie in life.