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Learning from the family dog – Darwin, DNA and shared decrepitude

June 20, 2016

Poppy 2006

I don’t consider myself to be a dog lover. If you befriend me on Facebook and incessantly post photos and videos of cute dogs doing cute things, I will block your content.  But slowly, and not so you’d easily notice, my dog-orientation is changing.

We had them when we were kids – a labrador, a miniature poodle and a King Charles spaniel. The poodle came to an untimely end in a swimming pool the day after Christmas. The spaniel yapped – incessantly. The lab did what labs do. Ate like a herd of starving pigs, demanded walks and behaved with a mild benevolence that epitomises why his species is known as man’s best friend. Except that he was a woman’s best friend – my mother’s to be precise.

64 J16

Andy with best friend, 1964

It must have been before labradors became hideously inbred, because Andy had none of the hip problems commonly associated with his breed today. Anyway, kept lolloping on until he was fourteen, which is a pretty good age for a big dog. And I won maternal brownie points by taking him for walks.

Shortly before he went, so did I – off to university in my case. And that was it for me and dogs.

Thirty-odd years later, Poppy came along. It was the usual story. Offspring begging. Wife in favour because she’d grown up with dogs too.

Poppy was born at our daughters’ riding stables. Her mother was a white german shepherd. Dad was a labrador of unknown provenance who infiltrated the stables and had his evil way with the mother. Mum was a guard dog, but clearly didn’t consider that a lecherous lab was within her brief to repel.

So we ended up with this puppy with floppy golden ears, who looked just like the Andy of old, until her alsatian snout grew progressively longer. My conditions for having a dog in the house were that she wasn’t my dog, and that the rest of them would be responsible for din-dins, walkies and the poop patrol.

Of course it didn’t work out that way. This old curmudgeon ended up pitching in with everyone else, though I continued to maintain the fiction that she was their dog. I gave her all kind of rude names, and she answered to all of them, looking up at the only male in the family with watery brown eyes. I was, it seems, the pack leader. The rest of my family would tell you that she was in a minority of one on that perception.

She’s now twelve. She still runs like a whippet after pigeons and squirrels in the garden. But she takes a while to get up after lying down, and climbing into the car is a bit of a struggle. Every so often my wife sees her walking unsteadily, and wails “she’s limping!”. She now gets Omega-3 fish oil like the rest of us. She crunches the capsule with great relish.

This spring she started to moult – big time. She reminded me of a caribou. Bits of fur waiting to fall away. If you pulled at her coat, you’d take clumps out. This, of course, means incessant vacuuming, which mainly falls to me. Her hair gets everywhere. It drifts into inaccessible places, so I can’t get away with a quick whip-around with the Dyson. I have to probe under furniture, behind radiators, up curtains. Every bloody where. After a day, the carpets have a thick white sheen. I swear that if someone eventually demolishes our house, her DNA will still be there among the ruins. In that respect she’ll live for ever.

The funny thing is that if you use the normal dog/human age converter, she’s 89, which is considerably older than me. Yet it feels as if we’re about the same age. We’re both beginning to creak. I have no difficulty getting into the car, but if I started chasing squirrels, they’d be in Timbuktu by the time I took my first lunge forwards.

We’ve both mellowed, though not that much. She still has a bark like a rifle shot, and sends me three inches off my chair when she detects a potential intruder – that is, anyone coming to the door. I still write grumpy blogs cursing Donald Trump and Nigel Farage. I’m still not a dog lover any more than I’m an unconditional lover of humans, elephants and sea anemones. I don’t go goo-goo over other people’s dogs, and I’d rather be locked away in a mental hospital than look after someone else’s object of affection. Yet Poppy’s different. She’s an individual with whom I’ve built a relationship. And she’s a member of my family.

As we approach our twilight years I can’t help thinking what a gap she’ll leave when she goes. Yes, my wife and I will be able to take off somewhere at a moment’s notice without having to think of the dog. And our lawn will at last be free of those unsightly nitrogen-rich green patches with little deserts in the middle. But I’ll still miss her utterly self-interested enthusiasm when I come downstairs in the morning and feed her. Fifteen seconds is all it takes, after which she flops, exhausted, back in her basket. And she seems to love me, despite my protestations of indifference. In fact, the more I feign indifference, the more affectionate she becomes. As if she’s trying to win my love, poor thing.

And of course I do love her in my rather crabby way, though I always wonder whether her doggie affection has nothing to do with love, and everything to do with genetics. The successful dogs are those that endear themselves.

Be that as it may, she has taught me a few things.

For most of my life my focus has been on other humans, not animals. That said, I’ve always enjoyed wildlife programmes on TV, taking the kids to the zoo and listening to the birds in the garden. In my head I understand the importance of species diversity. But I’ve never had any desire to be a jungle explorer, a vet or an animal liberationist. I’ve never really felt the connection with animals that David Attenborough showed in that priceless encounter with a family of gorillas.

Until Poppy came along, I hadn’t really had a proper relationship with an animal. The dogs of my childhood were just there. I had no responsibility for them, and besides, I was away at school for most of their lives.

With Poppy, it’s been different. The kids have left home, so now there are just three of us. I can’t say that I’m her primary carer. That’s my wife. But when she’s away, it’s just the two of us. So I feed her, walk her, vacuum up her hair, let her out into the garden so that she can survey her domain. She misses my wife. She lies at the front door waiting for her. When I’m upstairs, she lies at the foot of the stairs. She’s not an obtrusive presence, demanding attention. But wherever I am, her eyes follow me.

Even at twelve, her hearing and sense of smell are pretty good. The moment I open the fridge door, she materialises beside me, ever hopeful, usually denied. When I take her for walks in the woods, her nose follows trails unknowable to humans. She occasionally stops to pee at landmarks previously peed on – rather like a dead drop for dogs. Olfactory gossip, I imagine. This one’s happy. That one’s sad. This one’s pregnant. That one is sick.

Beyond her exchanges of scent, she doesn’t have much to do with other dogs, except when we go on holidays. She goes to kennels, where she hangs out with all the other guests who are the same size as her. I sometimes wonder what they talk about. Tales of Putney, Richmond, Volvos and Boden, no doubt. She’s not fond of small dogs, probably thanks to a jack russell that bit her legs in the local park when she was two. So we tend to steer her away from areas heavily populated with other dog owners, for fear that we might one day get sued after she takes the ear off a yorkie.

This means that her main interactions are with humans. Is that cruel? Should we have been better trainers? Should we have got her another dog for company? Sometimes I wonder, especially when she looks up with that guilt-inducing eye. But that would have meant twice as much crap to pick up from the lawn, even more dog DNA to vacuum, and ultimately the sadness of losing not one, but two dogs. And we dog owners generally work on our terms, not theirs.

So what has she taught me? She has shown me that animals are not just there to be eaten, admired, gawked at and laughed at on YouTube videos. That of all the non-human species, if we want an enduring relationship with an animal, the dog is probably the easiest option. That a she’s not a child or an animated cuddly toy. That it’s not just humans who have emotions we can understand – happy, sad, bored, jealous, angry. That sometimes it’s good to enter her world – the woods, the fields and the footpaths. To stop when she wants to sniff, to go where she wants to go.

When I do enter her world, I try to imagine what goes on in her head. No Syria, no drowning migrants, demented assassins, murderous lost boys, narcissistic demagogues. No rich, no poor, no worries, no bereavements, no frustration. Just doggie stuff, lived in the moment. Nothing earth-shattering about this, except that it’s one thing knowing, and another experiencing. And that experience didn’t come to me until relatively late in life.

And she has reminded me that there are a million species other than ours that think their own stuff without reference to human beings. For many of them the interaction with our species is rarely to their benefit. And that even if there’s not much most of us are willing to do or capable of doing to lessen that negative impact, we should no more ignore the plight of other species than we should close our eyes to the suffering of our own.

Above all she makes me realise that we’re not special – we’re just evolved. And that evolution, whatever Dawkins says, brings with it responsibility as well as power. That evolution has led us to care and protect as well as to destroy. And that if we don’t care for and protect other species, our own evolution will ultimately end in failure. In which case, so much for Darwin.

When she goes, we will not get another dog. Time is running out for us too. Whether for business or pleasure, we’ll most likely be spending increasing lengths of time out of the country. And that wouldn’t be fair. You can’t be a part-time dog owner.

But she’ll always be part of the family memory. And along with ours, her DNA will linger on, long after we’ve become distant figures in some future family history. Like most dogs before her.

From → Social, UK

  1. Your post is food for thought. Thanks! 🙂 Ellie

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