Friday, 27 January 2012

Fictional dog of the week #4: The Mole Dog

As a disaffected teenage diarist, Adrian Mole doesn’t seem to have much interest in the family pet. In fact, the dog in Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4 is a mongrel that doesn’t have a name or gender assigned to it, being referred to simply as ‘the dog’. But for all that, the dog features surprisingly often throughout Adrian’s diary, providing a witty and honest and quite touching picture of the impact that dogs have on our lives, whether we like it or not.

The dog belongs to Adrian’s family, not specifically to him, so it’s perhaps not surprising that he often thinks of it more as a liability than as a beloved pet. Nevertheless, it features in his list of New Year’s resolutions: ‘I will be kind to the dog’ in the first instance and, a year later, ‘I will try to be more kind to the dog.’

With all the various teenage and adult crises in the Mole household, the dog seems to be rather neglected, so I’m not surprised it misbehaves. It destroys the model ship, complete with plastic pirates, that Adrian’s father has spent three months building. It runs off because Adrian’s mother forgets to close the gate. It throws up all over the house after ingesting ‘a lump of coal, the fir tree from the Christmas cake, and the model pirates from my father’s ship’, all of which have to be extracted by the vet.

For a teenage boy who is trying to fit in while his family breaks down, the dog is an added embarrassment to Adrian. It prompts outrage when it tramples on the neighbour’s wet concrete: ‘Sometimes I really hate that dog!’ It treads black paint all over the stairs. And it follows Adrian to school, where it joins in the games lesson and Adrian discovers that ‘the dog is dead good at football’ – until it punctures the ball, of course. But it is also a companion and a fellow sufferer throughout the traumatic events of Adrian’s year, and the two spend a lot of time together in Adrian’s room.

Adrian’s observations are unwittingly revealing about both himself and his canine companion. ‘The dog has mauled the hot-cross buns; it doesn’t respect any traditions,’ he writes at Easter. And when Adrian is agonising over his theft of a Kevin Keegan key-ring from the shop, he is envious of the canine code of conduct: ‘I wish I was a dog; they haven’t got any ethics or morals.’

In fact, on some level, Adrian finds compassion for the dog, which brings a haphazard kind of stability and routine to his chaotic family life. When the dog goes missing, it’s Adrian who worries about it and walks the cul-de-sacs of his neighbourhood looking for it (it has wandered to his grandma’s house). In fact, with his parents split up and living with a father who is unemployed and depressed, the dog seems to embody Adrian’s sense of normal family life. A fellow victim of the parental split, the dog’s emotions mirror those of its teenage companion. When Adrian’s mother returns, he tells us that the dog is very happy and ‘has been going about smiling all day.’

Adrian buys it dog chocolates for Christmas, and he disapproves when his mother laughs at her own bodged attempt at cutting its hair because ‘dogs can’t answer back, just like the Royal Family’. When his parents are arguing, Adrian lets the dog sleep in his room because ‘it doesn’t like quarrelling.’ Perhaps most tellingly, when Adrian is looking after Sabre the Alsatian while his owner, Bert Baxter, is in hospital, ‘the dog’ becomes ‘our dog’, which has to stay with his grandma because it’s frightened of Alsatians – although it reverts to its traditional title of ‘the dog’ once more on its return home.

While seeming to be a minor part of the book, the Moles’ dog is actually a major influence in Adrian’s life. It may often frustrate and annoy him, but it also gives him companionship and a sense of responsibility, and unlike many of the other characters in the book, it doesn’t criticise him.

I love the Moles’ dog. I think it’s the creation of a real dog-lover who sees the humour, the chaos and the sense of belonging that, among other things, dogs give to their families.

*Pictures by Caroline Holden, from The Illustrated Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 133/4 (London: Methuen, 1994).

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

It's raining bones!

Every now and again, for no apparent reason, bones appear in my garden. Once, I even found an entire chicken wing, feathers and all, outside my back door. The bones are often cooked and, to my dismay, they’re sometimes already being crunched up in the mouth of a Whippet before I discover them. I think some of them are left by a fox, but today I discovered another source for the mystery bones.

Then this morning, as I was quietly getting on with some work and paying little attention to the rain outside my window, I was startled by a sudden clattering on the roof. For a second, I thought it might be a pair of pigeons chasing each other about up there, as they like to do sometimes. But a moment later I watched as a bone of significant size came tumbling over the eaves to land just outside the window!

‘This must be the work of crows,’ I thought as I ventured outside to investigate. The bone was too big to be from a chicken and I think it might have been a lamb bone (being a vegetarian, I’m not terribly familiar with different types of bone). The cartilage had been nibbled off at both ends before the bone was dropped.

I like crows. When I brush Fargo the Labradoodle, I often leave some of his woolly hair out in the garden and watch them gather it up for their nests. So maybe the crows think they’re giving something back by sending him a bone or two (although the Whippets will generally get there first). They are very intelligent birds, although perhaps they don’t realise that cooked bones can splinter and dogs shouldn’t eat them.

Anyway, I left the bone there for a couple of minutes in case anyone came to claim it, but they didn’t, and as I couldn’t leave it for the dogs to get hold of I threw it away. Shortly afterwards a whole flock (or ‘murder’) of crows descended on the garden, as if they were looking for their lost treasure.

And I was reminded of the amazing power of the canine nose when the dogs went out into the garden and, despite the rain, they knew exactly where the bone had landed! I gave them some dog treats to compensate for their missed feast.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Fictional dog of the week #3: The dog in 'The Outsider'

NOTE: This week's fictional is an old fella who isn't treated well. There are many non-fictional older dogs who are also in need of a loving home, so if you're thinking of adopting a dog, please consider an oldie. The Oldies Club is a great place to start your search.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to don’t remember there being a dog in Albert Camus’ novel TheOutsider (first published as L’Etranger in 1942). But for me, the brief episodes where the dog appears say a lot about humans, their sense of identity and their responses to otherness. So the apparent insignificance of this dog - and the fact that he is so easily forgotten by readers - is part of what makes the novel such a remarkable piece of writing.

The dog first appears when Mersault, the novel’s protagonist, bumps into his next-door neighbour, Salamano:
He had his dog with him. They’ve been together for eight years. The spaniel has got a skin disease – mange, I think – which makes almost all its hair fall out and covers it with brown blotches and scabs. After living with it for so long, the two of them alone together in one tiny room, Salamano has ended up looking like the dog. He’s got reddish scabs on his face and his hair is thin and yellow. And the dog has developed something of its master’s walk, all hunched up with its neck stretched forward and its nose sticking out. They look as if they belong to the same species and yet they hate each other. (Albert Camus, The Outsider. London: Penguin, 1983, p. 30-31)

Like an unhappily married couple, Salamano and his dog seem to embody the idea that familiarity breeds contempt. Every day, taking the same twice-daily walk at the same times, old man beats the dog and swears at it. Mersault tells us:
When the dog wants to urinate, the old man won’t give it time and drags it on, so that the spaniel scatters a trail of little drops behind it. But if the dog ever does it in the room, then it gets beaten again. It’s been going on like that for eight years. Céleste always says, “It’s dreadful,” but in fact you can never tell. When I met him on the stairs, Salamano was busy swearing at his dog. He was saying, “Filthy, lousy animal!” and the dog was whimpering...  I asked him what the dog had done... Then, without turning round, he answered with a sort of suppressed fury, “He’s always there.” (The Outsider p. 31)

That statement, ‘He’s always there,’ has always intrigued me. The novel never attempts to represent the dog’s point of view, and despite the apparent similarities between the man and his dog, it’s clear that these are generated through human perception. And that opens up a certain gap between what we think we know about others – both human and canine – and what we know we can never know.

For me, in many ways, a dog is both ‘always here’ and ‘always there’. The ‘always here’ part comes through a human-canine interface that owes a lot to anthropomorphism on our part and to centuries of evolution alongside humans on the part of our dogs. But to some extent, dogs are also ‘always there’, being something other than human; something that we can never quantify or fully understand. And while a cat’s ‘otherness’ is often given the label of ‘independence’ and accepted without question, it can be a struggle to accept otherness in the dog, which is customarily described as ‘man’s best friend’ and ‘almost human’. It’s a source of endless fascination to me, something that gives me a delicious sense of instability that I think enriches my relationship with my dogs and makes it a continual learning experience. Not everybody sees it that way, but despite the grim picture that Camus paints of human-canine interaction, I think The Outsider shows a profound understanding of this dynamic.

As Mersault says, ‘you can never tell.’ Despite their apparent hatred of each other, the ‘here-ness’ of Salamano’s dog, and its importance to him, becomes clear after the dog goes missing:
Salamano... told me that his dog was definitely lost, because it wasn’t at the pound.... I told Salamano that he could get another dog, but he rightly pointed out to me that he’d got used to this one... He told me that he’d got it when his wife had died... He hadn’t been happy with his wife, but on the whole he’d got quite used to her. When she’d died he’d felt very lonely. So he’d asked a friend in the workshop for a dog and he’d got this one as a puppy. He’d had to feed it from a bottle. But since a dog doesn’t live as long as a man, they’d ended up growing old together.’ (The Outsider p. 46-47)

Salamano  seems to care very much for his dog, so why does he treat it so cruelly? I think that, like many people who are cruel to their loved ones, it's because he isn't happy. In the same way as he 'got used to' his wife, he's 'got used to' his dog, but in neither case has he worked to make anyone's life enjoyable. Instead, there is a strong sense of Salamano’s dependency on the dog for a sense of self that's deeply embedded in maintaining the status quo, no matter how unhappy that state is. And of course, in the end it's impossible to maintain it. The old man’s description of the dog holds up a mirror to his own personality and decline:
"He was bad-tempered,” Salamano said. “Every now and then we had a right old row. But he was a nice dog all the same.” I said he was a good breed and Salamano looked pleased. “Yes,” he added, “but you should have seen him before his illness. His coat was his best point.” Every night and every morning, after it got that skin trouble, Salamano used to rub it with ointment. But according to him, its real trouble was old age, and there’s no cure for old age. (The Outsider p. 47)

Salamano and his dog present a picture of anthropomorphism that is based on certain similarities – such as the simultaneous ageing of the man and his dog – but that ultimately comes unstuck when claims of similarity and familiarity can no longer be made. The tenderness and dependency that emerge alongside Salamano's cruelty to his dog are perhaps built on a false sense of unshakable truth; a certainty which is finally shaken by the dog's disappearance and the possibility that it was always at odds with Salamano's view of life. After all, it is possible that the dog isn't lost, but has found somewhere better to live and didn't want to come back.

Salamano and his dog paint an unsettling picture of human relationships with ourselves and other humans, and with our dogs – a portrait that is all the more profound because of the brevity of the dog's appearance in The Outsider, his lack of a name and his ability to slip from readers' memories. When the dog disappears Salamano seems diminished, cut adrift from the certainties he used to take for granted and feeling a sense of dread at facing life without them that is evident in his words: ‘He smiled slightly and before he went, he said, “I hope the dogs don’t bark tonight. I always think it’s mine.”’ (The Outsider p. 48).

Next week's fictional dog also has no name - but which one is it?

Monday, 16 January 2012

Stanley comes to stay

You may have noticed that my recent posts have mentioned four dogs, instead of the more customary three. Well...

Meet Stanley, who has made it a hectic and exciting couple of months here at HoundHead Towers. Stan is an 18-month-old black whippet with a white chest, and he even has a built-in magic wand by virtue of one white toe on his left front paw. He likes to keep his ears up, and he can curl up really small like a cat. Here's the story of how Stanley came to live with us.

As a follower of the wonderful Scruples Whippet Rescue, it came to my attention late last November that there was a Whippet in Leicester looking for a foster home. For those who are unfamiliar with the world of dog rescue, many charities, like Scruples, don’t have their own dogs’ home. They rely on foster carers across the country to give a temporary home to the dogs, looking after them and assessing their behaviour and needs so they can then be rehomed permanently. Well, I know my whippets, I’m in the area and I’m generally at home all day, so I volunteered.

Stanley was being bullied by an older dog at home, and this was causing some stress-related behavioural problems including peeing on the kitchen floor, barking at night, not eating his food when the other dog was in sight, and chewing the furniture. In addition, his owner told me he was only put on a lead when it was absolutely necessary, and he hated it. Stanley was very much loved but his owners’ work commitments had changed and they were finding it hard to give him the time and attention he needed. So they made the difficult – but responsible – decision to rehome him.

I collected Stanley on a Sunday morning at the end of November. He was called Shadow at the time, but I thought that was a bit dark and depressing for him (although, being black and silent, he can easily disappear into any shadow, rather like a Whippet Ninja). Anyway, I tried out a few names on him in the car on the way home and he chose Stanley. He’s answered to that name ever since, as if it always was his proper name.

Stanley was definitely an anxious fellow, which is understandable given that he was being taken away from his home. He was incredibly bouncy and licky, and when he got to my house he jumped all over my dogs, which didn’t necessarily impress them. However, we took them all to the park and they ran around together nicely off the lead. Stanley refused to eat his evening meal and had a tendency to bark at all the noises in our neighbourhood, which were all strange to him. He spent a lot of the night pacing up and down, but did eventually settle down. It wasn’t a bad start but there were obviously some issues to address.

Since then Stanley has really settled in. He hasn’t chewed any furniture and he doesn’t wee in the house – all that was to do with the stress he felt at his old house. He gets a good run off the lead with Billy Whippet every morning and a walk in the evening. I threw away his old collar, which was hard and cracked on the inside and rubbing his throat, and put a harness on him. It turns out he walks very nicely on the lead after all.

Now Stanley's much calmer and, after a week or so of encouragement and monitoring, he became happy to eat his meals alongside the other dogs. He did have some separation anxiety at first – he would bark and whine a bit and was not easy to settle down – but we did some work on that and he’s much better now. He didn’t know about the special relationship between Whippets and quilts, but he soon got the idea and now he spends his evenings snoozing under a quilt on the settee. He’s become great friends with Charlie, Fargo and especially Billy (they’re the closest in age and Billy can run more than the other two), and he’s very affectionate with us humans too. He quickly attached himself to me so well that, even after two weeks, people on the park thought I’d had him since he was a puppy.

In fact, Stanley quickly got his feet well and truly under the table here. He’s a joy to have around and he settled in so seamlessly with my gang that I had to offer him a forever home. Less than seven weeks after he came to stay with us, I signed the contract to adopt him. It's an epic fail on the fostering front, but a win for both me and Stan. Now I’m really enjoying sharing my life with four wonderful dogs - although four is definitely enough to be going on with!

Friday, 13 January 2012

Sorry tale of six abandoned Lurchers

Today, I was horrified to read that a car full of Lurchers has been found abandoned outside a church in Staffordshire. The Staffordshire Sentinal reports that six of these beautiful dogs – apparently underweight but otherwise healthy and well-socialised – were found by police officers at 11.40pm on Wednesday. They stayed overnight at the police station before going to the Animal Lifeline charity’s kennels in Cellarhead. Police are working to trace the owner of the car, which it is believed was fitted with false number plates. Nobody knows where the Lurchers came from, whether they were abandoned by their owners or whether they were stolen and abandoned by the thieves.

This case is deeply disturbing and somewhat bizarre. Leaving the dogs in a car could be some misguided attempt to give them shelter until they were found – but it could also have led to the dogs not being spotted until it was too late. And surely, even if the car is stolen, it will contain evidence that could lead to the person who did this? I hope it does, and that they are made to understand the suffering they have caused.

Reading stories like this, I sometimes despair. While many pet-owners face the heartbreaking decision to rehome their pets through no fault of their own, it seems that a growing number of people are prepared to treat animals in an unbelievably callous and heartless way, as if they were disposable commodities that can be tossed aside like an unwanted toy. There is absolutely no excuse for abandoning a dog, when even an anonymous phone call would be enough to ensure that an animal is picked up, looked after and eventually rehomed.

Apart from national charities like Dogs Trust and the RSPCA, there are specific Lurcher rescue charities – such as Lurcher Link and Southern Lurcher Rescue – that could have offered advice and helped to rehome these dogs. Yes, these charities are all under tremendous pressure right now, but they will still do anything they can to help a dog in need.

I hope that some good will come of this situation, in the form of better education about the responsibilities of dog ownership and tougher penalties for cruelty and abandonment. But I’m not holding my breath, and in the meantime the best we can do is try to do something constructive to support the rescue and rehabilitation of those animals that so badly need it.

And if you do know or suspect anything that can help those six Lurchers, please call Staffordshire Police on 101 and quote incident 871 of January 11.

Fictional dog of the week #2: Belle

The star of 1960s children's TV series Belle and Sebastian, Belle is a Pyrenean Mountain Dog who is the best friend of Sebastian, a six-year-old boy who lives in a small mountain village in the French Alps.

The pair first turned up in a novel by Cécile Aubry, which was then adapted into a black-and-white, live-action TV series in France in 1965. That series was then dubbed into English and shown to kids like me, who fell in love with the giant snowball of a dog that was Belle.

Actually, my memory is a bit sketchy on this one. It was filmed before I was born and when I watched the black-and-white TV series and its colour sequel, these would already have been on their umpteenth rerun. This was in the early 1970s when I was a very young child, and although I remember being absolutely engrossed in the adventures, I can’t remember much about them. I had a feeling that Belle and Sebastian had run away from somewhere, but Wikipedia tells me that in fact, Sebastian lived with his adopted grandfather, sister and brother. My overriding memory is the snowy mountain landscapes and the gigantic, beautiful dog who was always there for Sebastian and helped him through thick and thin. To me, she was magical.

What I do know is that Belle was one of a handful of dogs who informed my impressionable young mind on the subject of dogs. Hence, my first (imaginary) dog was a big, shaggy, white, intelligent friend who walked everywhere with me, and who I could stroke without bending down – a mixture of Belle, Tintin’s Snowy and the Dulux dog with a little bit of Lassie thrown in.

There was also a Japanese anime version of the stories in the early 1980s which might be worth a look. And of course, the pair lent their name to the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian, so in a way, the legend lives on.

Next week’s fictional dog also comes from a French novel. Don't forget to check these pages to find out who it is.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Dog-leg diary: another one down, temporarily!

It’s been a while since I’ve written an update on the various dogs’ legs here at HoundHead Towers, and that’s because there really hasn’t been much to report. Fargo and Charlie are still going to hydrotherapy and they’re both making good progress. I take it easy on them in the cold weather as both of them have got some degree of arthritis now, but during the warmer spells I can see how happy and well they feel. Fargo is allowed off-lead for 20 minutes during his walks now, so he can pick up his pace a bit as long as he doesn’t run around like a lunatic. Of course, ‘lunatic’ is his favourite mode, but he’s been pretty good at listening to the voice of moderation.

So far, so good. We’re even getting to the stage when all four dogs (yes, four – more on that later) can look forward to some longish walks together.

But nothing’s ever that simple, and on Monday Billy the Whippet also fell victim to a leg-related injury. He was running on the park with some lovely Pyrenean Sheepdogs when one took a snap at him and left a big hole in his leg. I must stress that this wasn’t a vicious attack. I think the dog nipped at Billy as he was running, so the teeth of one and the momentum of the other combined to tear a hole at the top of his thigh; that bit at the front of his hip where there is very little flesh and mainly skin.

Because of the location of the injury, it hardly bled at all and, after limping for a second or two, Billy didn’t seem that worried about it. But it definitely needed stitches, so it was important to get him to the vet. Luckily I was with Tina, dog-mother to the dogs’ lovely chocolate Labrador friend Giddy. I don’t drive and the vets is a couple of miles away, but Tina very kindly dropped us off there on her way home. I owe her a big favour.

It turned out that Billy needed to stay in the vets for stitches – a fact that upset him far more than the injury itself, as he’s very nervous of the vet for no good reason I can see. The vet told me he’d try to do the stitches under sedation, but in the end Billy wouldn’t let him so he had to have a general anaesthetic. The bite had punctured both sides of Billy’s skin and pulled the skin away from his muscle, which meant that his body would fill the gap with fluid. So, a few hours and some £220 later, Billy came home with a couple of stitches on the outside of his leg while the wound on the inside was left open to drain. He’s got a supply of antibiotics and one of those Elizabethan collars to stop him biting the stitches, but he hasn’t needed to wear that yet and fingers crossed, we might just get away without it.

Having recovered from his ordeal at the vets, Billy feels very well indeed, so it’s a shame that he has to be rested for the next few days to make sure his wound doesn’t open up again. We’re off to the vets again for a check-up on Monday, and then for his stitches to be removed next Thursday. And I hope that will be an end to it.

I’ve decided to view Billy’s injury in a superstitious light. If bad luck comes in threes, then this is the third dog-leg problem we’ve had in the past three years: Charlie’s paralysis and spinal surgery in 2010, Fargo’s cruciate ligament operation in 2011, and now Billy’s puncture wound in 2012. If that’s the case, we can all look forward to a lovely spring and summer full of nice walks with healthy dogs.

Seriously, while these dog-leg issues do represent a run of bad luck, things could have been a lot worse if the dogs hadn’t been insured. I simply don’t have the kind of money that I’ve been spending on vet fees over the past few years. So I’d like to say this to all my readers: please make sure that your dog is insured, preferably with a cover-for-life policy. You never know what might happen and how much it will cost to treat.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Fictional dog of the week #1: Snowy

Welcome to a new series of articles introducing you to the many fictional dogs that have brightened up our lives. First up, my favourite fictional dog of all time, Snowy.

Among the heroes of the canine world, few stand taller than Snowy, intrepid Wire-Haired Fox Terrier and trusty sidekick to the boy reporter Tintin.

Although Snowy is a male dog, he was originally named Milou, the nickname of Hergé’s first girlfriend. He’s still called Milou in the French language version of Tintin’s adventures. And Snowy can talk, although he becomes less garrulous in the later adventures and some of his talking is a bit barky.

I’ve loved Snowy ever since I can remember. I love dogs because they’re dogs, but I also recognise that an element of anthropomorphism is a necessary part of the human-dog relationship, and to me, Snowy represents that relationship at its best. He’s a proper dog, obsessed with bones, food and the odd bit of mischief (usually to do with the theft of food or a sneaky drink of alcohol). But at the same time he manages to override his self-interest and come to the aid of Tintin when he’s needed. This he does in his own inimitable manner – for example, by peeing on the fuse of a bomb to put it out in several of the adventures.

Snowy is courageous and gets into plenty of scraps during his adventures with Tintin – he even fights a lion at one point, as well as confronting various crooks. But he also has his moments of cowardice, after which he berates himself for almost abandoning Tintin in his hour of need. And he doesn’t like spiders at all.

Wire-Haired Fox Terriers were immensely popular in the late 1920s and 1930s, when Hergé began producing the Tintin cartoon strips. They’re intelligent dogs that are courageous and full of character, and their looks combine these qualities combine with an undeniable cuteness. This could be why they appear in so many illustrations for posters, advertisements and children’s books throughout the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Hergé initially wrote Tintin’s adventures for a children’s newspaper section in his native Belgium, and the popularity of the Wire-Haired Fox Terrier as well as its character would have made it the ideal breed for Tintin’s trusty companion.

Interested in rescuing a Fox Terrier? Visit Fox Terrier Rescue.

Next week's fictional dog is also associated with snow. Can you guess who it is?