Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Ramblings: A Dog's Life

I’m re-reading a book which I really like, “We Need to Talk about Kevin” by Lionel Shriver and it’s making me reflect on how glad I am that I didn’t have any children. If you haven’t read it (then why not?) then I’ll explain. It’s a book written from the viewpoint of a woman whose teenage son has committed a horrific crime. She reflects back on her life through a series of letters written to her husband, revealing her initial reluctance to have children and her feelings about him as a child and how he turned out. She spends a lot of time considering why he turned out like he did. I won’t say any more as you need to read it or at least try and catch the film when it comes out. It looks to be corking and even if it’s not, it’s got the superb Tilda Swinton in it.
The thought of raising a child and giving it my genes and passing on my insecurities and oddities makes me breathless with anxiety. I take my hat off to anyone brave or foolish enough to do it. I couldn’t even raise a dog successfully. I ended up raising the most badly behaved dog I’ve ever known through my lack of discipline and constant worry about what he was thinking and feeling.
It was Barry’s idea to get a dog and I was foolishly lured into it by beguiling notions of long walks in leafy parks and soft focused mental images of me throwing a ball and generally frolicking. I’m not sure where I got that one from. I’m not coordinated enough to throw a ball, nor would I really want to. I also never frolic. I’d forgotten another major drawback; the long walks would also have to be taken in blistering heat, snow and ice and rain; every bloody day. I’m more of a cat person really, they have that whole aloof thing going off and at least they bury their own turds; generally in someone else’s garden too.
Not to mention the price of dog food, vets bills and the constant mess. Mud splattered walls from where a dog shakes itself; clumps of hair on the carpet and drool on the windows are my idea of hell. I wonder if people give more, as much or maybe less thought to having children sometimes?
We went to “look at dogs but not get one yet, OK?” at the R.S.P.C.A. Obviously, I walked out with the first emaciated and pitiful specimen which made eyes at me. I choose dogs much like I’ve often chosen men in the past.
Barry spotted a diminutive cheerful Collie-cross and liked that but I thought it had a look of cheapness about it. I was more inclined to a big dog. There was a rangy dog, as tall as my waist, nine months old that had his own sob story to accompany his pleading eyes. He’d been thrown from a car onto the pavement outside the animal shelter. He was Karen Carpenter thin with a nasty scar on his haunch and rope burns around his neck where he’d been tethered up. The only thing that would have made him more appealing would have been a major deformity like a missing limb. I love three legged animals. They bounce in such a fantastic way when they run.
They’d been struggling to home him as he was “boisterous” and I stupidly thought, “I can cope. Boisterous sounds fun” I walked out of the animal shelter with a dog on a lead, a plastic bowl for his food and instructions to feed him 5 tins of dog food a day, initially, to feed him up. It was an interesting and fast walk home as he pulled me all the way and in spite of his lack of heft was incredibly strong. I got him home, put down some food and looked on in horror as he ate the food, followed by the bowl.
Barry was getting twitchy to be in the pub and once his cravings got too much left alone me with an alien beast. I sat down and he looked at me before squatting down to defecate on the carpet. I jumped up and grabbed his lead and lead him out onto the park we lived next to, pronto. He then decided not to defecate. We went back in. He squatted and strained to pass a stool, I jumped up...etc. etc. This happened perhaps 15 times before I thought, “Bollocks to this game” and let him shit in the kitchen. It washed away with some Zoflora. I bought a lot of Zoflora over the coming weeks. Luckily that was one habit I managed to eradicate.
He was a Labrador crossed with an Alsatian, I think. He was big and yellow, anyway. I’m not good with breed guessing. Barry wanted to name him after his favourite singer, Leonard Cohen but we compromised on Dylan instead. I actually prefer Cohen to Dylan. Bob is too whiny for me and Leonard is much funnier. My best friend christened him Dildo for short and I’d call him a variety of names, Dilly-do, Dill-pickle or Scooby; sometimes Rufus, Beastie, Dog-nut and Doge. He answered to them all. I can’t think why he was confused. I just had to remember not to shout Dildo on the park. I usually managed that. Unsurprisingly for a dog I hung around with, he was used to hearing a lot of chatter and knew a lot of words. He knew the names of all his toys and would perform on demand and fetch the right one when I named it. He was clever but stubborn and a tad manipulative.
He was an affectionate dog. Big and stupid looking and I gave in to him every time he batted his eyelashes and made the sad face. I could write a manual about how not to train a dog. He whined at night when I shut him in the kitchen, so naturally I gave in and he slept on the bed with me. I’d often wake up in a panic with numb legs, thinking I’d got a spinal tumour, only to find it was actually because an immensely heavy (he soon put on weight) dog who was laying across my legs. He always pulled on the lead like a Husky pulling a sled of Eskimos and nothing I tried would stop him. I just learned to pull back or trot behind.
He loved to brawl and hated other dogs. He especially hated dogs that were bigger and tougher than him. If he came upon a Yorkshire terrier, he’d gently pat it. If we happened upon a slathering Rottweiler, he’d go for its neck. He was fearsome when he was riled. His tail would fan out like a toilet brush and his hackles would rise in an impressive line. He got me into a fair bit of trouble with other dog owners and eventually I started walking him at quieter times or in secluded areas.
Oddly, Barry had no interest in rearing the dog, walking the dog or ensuring he was fed. Apparently, he was too squeamish to clean up after the dog, so the walking him all fell to me. I soon came to realise that, as the great Banarama once sang, “A walk in the park can become a bad dream.” It wasn’t just the fighting. People talk to you when you have a dog. The problem here was that, invariably, I wasn’t really in the mood for fatuous conversations about dogs. It bored me. Also, the people who talk to dog owners are either other dullard dog owners or oddballs. It wasn’t just the chit chat and fighting that was a problem. Dylan loved people. He loved all people, indiscriminately. He loved them so much that he’d run up and put his paws on their shoulders in excitement. People didn’t always love that, especially when he was muddy.
I once had him off the lead on the park and five tiny elderly Asian ladies were walking down the hill towards me. My heart sank as Dylan bounded off, ignoring my frantic calls. He didn’t put his paws on their shoulders, though. He came over all Sheepdog-like and decided to round them up into a huddle. That one took a few apologies and left me red faced.

We did go for endless long walks and this was therapeutic for me, provided he managed not to fight. I actually often managed to exhaust him to such an extent that he'd sit on the pavement and refuse to walk any further until he was ready. I'd just have to stand by and smoke and wait till he decided it was time to go again.
I did grow to love Dylan very quickly in spite of his faults (which were probably due mainly to my own faults as a dog owner). He was cuddly, tolerant of me and the demented rabbit we had and always willing to listen. He had to be. I was quite lonely at the time. Barry was drinking a lot and deserting the house for the pub. The dog was often my only companion. Towards the end of our relationship, Barry would be passed out drunk on the sofa most nights by 8pm. I’d trek upstairs, get a blanket to cover him and ram a pillow under his head. I couldn’t invite anyone into this environment, so it was me and Dylan and a lot of books, most nights. I talked to him a lot. The problem came when I was out walking him and forgot that having lengthy conversations with a dog isn’t socially acceptable in the street.
If Barry got angry with me Dylan would run to my side and snarl when he raised a hand, which tended to be useful. Imagine my glee when as an experiment, I pretended I was about to hit Barry and Dylan just looked on benignly, wagging his tail. If the situation was reversed he’d bark like crazy and the bog brush tail would appear. I think it was because I walked him and fed him. Dogs are canny like that. It’s called cupboard love.
Dylan would follow me everywhere. People say “You’re never alone with a dog.” like it’s a good thing. It wasn’t for me. Even if I went to the toilet he’d be waiting. I actually quite like spending some time alone. If there were fireworks or thunder storms he’d stick to me like glue and had to touch me constantly. It was actually quite endearing and I liked comforting him. He let me bathe him regularly in the shower with moderately good grace. Maybe the smell of John Frieda shampoo was what made the other dogs so willing to fight with him.
When Barry and I split, he insisted he kept the dog which was horrible. I argued my case but my guilt at leaving the relationship made me susceptible to any demands. He was in such a pitiful state about me leaving him that I felt I couldn’t deny him a thing. I did feel a bit guiltily relived not to have the responsibility of dog ownership anymore. I acknowledged I was rubbish at it and vowed never to have another. I also missed him like mad. It was like losing a limb, initially. I’d had him for ten years and to suddenly be apart from Dylan really hurt. I felt guilty too, worrying constantly that Barry wouldn’t walk him enough or love him as much as I did. I dreamt about him and looked for him everywhere. I worried that Dylan would miss me. I think its called anthropomorphising when you attribute human emotions to a dog. I did that a lot.
Barry moved to the South Coast with Dylan, eventually and I didn’t see him for the last few years of his life. I saw him briefly before he left and he was changed. He was friendly but it wasn’t like it was. He wasn’t my dog anymore. I was just another person in a room full of people.
Barry sent photos of Dylan not long before he died and he was fat. I couldn’t believe he was fat. This tapped into my guilt. He was fat because I’d left him and he wasn’t exercised enough and that’s why he died at 12. It’s all about me, of course. I later rationalised it more.
So, my experiences raising a dog make me realise I’d probably be just as bad at raising a child. It’s a good job I’m gay and remain happily barren. Apart from my innate selfishness, which I enjoy, I’d be too soft and liberal and let it jump up people and bite other kids and eat its bowl. I'd also probably choose an odd name. My current favourites are Hilda, Mavis or Beryl for a girl and Aloysius, Roman or Chip for a boy. I can safely say one thing though. It would get lots of walks and learn to listen well.  

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