“He was the perfect companion for an adventure, affectionate without exuberance, brave without being belligerent, intelligent and full of good-humoured tolerance for my eccentricities.” Gerald Durrell on Roger the dog in My Family and Other Animals
“A black-and-yellow streak shot past the station agent. Dog Monday stiff? Dog Monday rheumatic? Dog Monday old? Never believe it. Dog Monday was a young pup, gone clean mad with rejuvenating joy.” Dog Monday greets Jem Blythe as he returns from the First World War battlefields in Rilla of Ingleside by L.M.Montgomery (from the Anne of Green Gables series)
I grew up with dogs – real-life ones and those in books. The real-life ones were my friends and even my sanctuary when the rest of the world got tough, and just the mere sniff of a dog in a book made me like it more. I haven’t touched an Enid Blyton book for years but the thought of Timmy still makes my heart skip with excitement and I’m yet to get over my yearning for a St Bernard after Rufus and Bruno in The Chalet School series. I even came to look on bull terriers with a softer eye after Heloise in I Capture the Castle.
And now, at last, we have we have a new addition to the household: an almost nine-week old Toller puppy who is as soft and fluffy as a kitten and yet looks head-turningly fox-like, right down to the foxy spring and pounce. He’s not doing much for my daily word count or for the unbroken nights that I was still counting as a blessing even though my children are now both school-age. And the house has acquired the faint odour of eau-de-canine despite daily floor-washing, a liberal application of beeswax, open windows and highly-scented flowers. However that, I tell myself, will dissipate once house-training is complete. (NB There’s no need to disillusion me here. I’m well aware of my future reality.)
My children are exactly the same ages as my younger sister and I were when our family acquired our first dog: an Irish Setter called Penny. Penny was the first of several dogs: Irish Setters, Dalmatians and a Toller.
I have a dim memory of being crowded into a small room in the breeder’s house, a litter of puppies tumbling about in the space between fireplace and sofa, while the breeder quizzed my parents. Where did they live? Had they had dogs before? Would the dog live inside or out? Did they know how much exercise Setters needed? They must have passed the test because Penny came home with us, cradled on my mother’s knee, in the back of the car. Many years later, she said, ‘I don’t know why I didn’t sit in the front seat with her.’ If she had, Penny wouldn’t have had the chance to be sick all over my shoe. I didn’t like the shoes; they were sturdy brown things from Clarks, with T-bars and no hint of a patent shine but I still wasn’t sure I wanted dog sick on them. ‘Don’t worry,’ my mother said, ‘I’ll clean them for you.’
When we got home, I assume the first thing my parents did was take the puppy into the garden. The first thing I did was run upstairs to my bedroom – I’m not sure what I’d done about the vomity shoes – and lie down on my bed, staring at the ceiling. We’ve got a dog! A dog! is what, even now, I remember ran through my mind just like the wobbly caption at the bottom of an old film. (Incidentally, I recognised the same peculiar mixture of exultation and disbelief more than twenty years later with the birth of my first child. It’s a baby…. was my first thought.)
I soon got over the urge to lie prone on the bed and joined everyone else – bar the cats, that is – in the garden. Penny, I was determined, would be my very own Roger, Timmy, Dog Monday, Jack and Pongo all rolled into one. Of course, as a child, and a young one at that, I got all the best bits of having a dog in the family and, walks in inclement weather aside (we lived in the north-west where it rains more often than it doesn’t), none of the drudgery of mopping, wiping, getting up in the night and training – although, to do them credit, my parents got me involved in all of that just as soon as I was old enough. I grew up determined that my children should have the same thing. Now they have and I am filled with a strange mixture of pleasure, excitement and trepidation. Real life dogs are much more work than literary ones but, I think, just as inspiring in their own way.
Gratuitous puppy picture: