Updated: May 17, 2021
Dogs came into my life in middle age. I had studied at university and become a journalist, which took me abroad and finally to London, where I settled into life as an urban-dweller without room in my life for pets. As a child, I had loved all animals, but was allowed only cats. We used to have holidays in Wales next to a farm, and I wanted to have my own farm full of animals, until my mom explained that farmers don’t keep their animals for ever...
After moving to Shropshire in my 40s, I became friends with a woman (through a cat, as it happens) who took me to our local rescue one day to walk some dogs. ‘Don’t get coming home with a dog!’ my partner said. I laughed: we had a nervous cat by this time, and both worked full-time. Getting a dog was not an option.
Then I met Blake. On my second or third visit to the rescue, walking whichever dogs they suggested, they asked me if I would mind taking Blake out, as he was overweight and needed the exercise. They brought out this little, fat, old brindle staffy – and so began my love affair with dogs. Angie who worked there told me one day ‘I expect he’ll end his days here, no one wants staffies these days, let alone old ones’. I was horrified! On my third walk with Blake, he greeted me like a long-lost friend, and I started the long campaign of attrition to get my partner, Michael, to agree to adoption.
It wasn’t that he didn’t like dogs, or staffies; in fact, he had owned a staffy, Bessie, just before he met me. He merely thought it was completely impractical, as we both worked full-time. Undeterred, my campaign continued throughout summer and autumn, until Christmas loomed, and every time he asked me what I wanted for Christmas, I would say ‘Blake’, and he would reply ‘We’re not having a dog’. So on 23rd December, I brought Blake home. Michael didn't speak to either of us for about three days. But Blake soon won him over, as I knew he would.
Having always had cats, and feeling I knew instinctively what they wanted and needed at all times, it was a totally new experience having a dog. The first day, Blake sat in the kitchen looking at me, and I looked back at him, and I thought ‘What do you want? I'm not sure what to do with you now...’ He soon showed me the ropes. He adored sticks, or rather limbs of trees, and once carried one down through Carding Mill Valley that was the whole width of the path, so anyone coming in the opposite direction had to jump into the bushes to get out of his way. He adored his football, and insisted on playing ball with me in the garden after every walk. No matter how far we had walked, we had to play ball or he would refuse to come into the house.
Blake wasn’t great with the cats – by now we had two of the blighters – and he had taken over their garden, but I figured he would only be with us for a year or two, and then the cats could have their garden back, and I wouldn’t have another dog. I hadn’t wanted a dog, you see; I had just wanted to give Blake a retirement home.
Losing Blake two years later hit me harder than I could ever have imagined. So the cats didn’t get their garden back. Instead, they gained a new friend, Mac, who came to live with us and was happy to share the garden, the sofa, and his bed. There were so many staffies by now at my local rescue, I’d had a lot of choice, and although I hated being able to help only one, I was determined this time to have a more cat-friendly one. Mac – later to become Big Mac – was perfect for us.
One thing Big Mac loved was to go ‘snorkelling’; he would paddle in the river/pool/sea, put his head under the water and find the largest stone he could, and bring it out. His strength was incredible; some days he would want to bring his treasure home, and I would find I couldn’t lift with both hands what he had carried in his mouth. Amused passers-by would stop to watch him. At the pool near home that we visited regularly during warm weather, he built a rockery on the banks with his findings. Big Mac had big brown eyes, soft ears, and golden highlights in his brindle coat. Big Mac really didn’t like other dogs, and I quickly had to learn about reactivity. I thought he was aggressive, but a trainer showed me that it was fear aggression, and we learned to manage it over time.
During the time Mac lived with us, we adopted another old staffy, a 14-year-old black and white female called Soxi, and it was great progress for Mac to accept another dog into his home. Soxi also taught me a lot – this time about separation anxiety, with which she suffered badly, and of which I had no experience at all. Soxi arrived at the kennels in a police van after her owner was arrested. She howled for him continually. He had been homeless, living on the streets, so I suppose she had never been separated from him. I used to take her for walks, and she would stop howling for a few minutes, then look up and realise I wasn’t Simon (we later became friends) and start howling again. When it was clear he wouldn’t be out for some time, Soxi came home to live with us. Her SA was severe, and through a friend I managed to find a behaviourist who gave me lots of advice on how to deal with this. To my amazement really, given her age, she did get over it. Meanwhile, the vet had considered her too old and frail to be spayed, and after about 18 months with us, it was a suspected pyometra that carried her off.
Big Mac was subdued afterwards; I hadn’t thought they were good friends really, only that he tolerated her, but it was clear that he did miss her for a while. We lost Big Mac finally last June, after a very long battle with arthritis that we all managed for many years, but finally his legs let him down and we had to let him go. The three of us sat on a blanket in the vet's garden and Mac was still taking treats from my hand as his eyes closed.
Throughout these years, I continued to walk dogs at my local rescue, and my love for staffies in particular blossomed. It became clear that rescues UK-wide were full of staffies, and they always seemed to wait the longest for new homes. My interest in the rescue world grew, and I was stupefied to discover how many dogs were put to sleep every year just for lack of homes, while the general public continued to buy puppies. I also became involved for a while with trying to help dogs in American shelters, through the use of social media to ‘share’ them and find rescues and homes for them, but it was soul-destroying and eventually I decided my efforts would be better spent in the UK, where I could do more.
The bonds I had developed with Blake, Mac and Soxi made me realise how loving dogs are, and how much most of them crave human company, which made it all the harder to see the dogs stuck in rescue. I had always thought it was a shame, but had not really understood quite how deeply it affected them being in kennels with little attention, affection or exercise. My empathy for them grew. I also began to understand why some were ‘difficult’, because they were so frustrated, and I started to look for ways to help them, with different kinds of enrichment, or a move to a different kennel that was less noisy; my cousin even came a few times to do Reiki with some of the more stressed dogs.
One of the staffies I met at the rescue, an old boy named Ali, used to ‘rag’ the lead, and because he was difficult to walk, people stopped walking him. Even me. One day I looked at him and thought he looked so depressed, I thought ‘he’s going to die in here without getting another home’, and I needed to help him somehow. The rescue does a great job but is not breed-specific, and many potential adopters who turned up there just did not want a staffy, let alone an old one. A little research brought up Senior Staffy Club, which I assumed was a big rescue. I spoke to the founder, Kate, and she agreed to come and meet Ali. She too was upset at his plight, and started taking him for days out with her dog, Madge, with a view to helping him. Within a few weeks she had found a new home for Ali! He only lived for another year or two, but they were happy years, with help for his now-worsening arthritis. It was at this point I realised that Senior Staffy Club was basically a one-woman band, and when Kate asked me to join her, I jumped right in.
There are so many dogs I could mention who have had an impact on me: Bulley, Hope, Butch, Ebney, Dave, Frank, Queenie, Jac to name but a few … and not enough words to do them all justice. But they have all taught me important lessons. And all of them, the ones I have loved at home and the ones I have loved in kennels, have brought me to this point where I want to deepen my understanding of them, in the hope that I can be a better carer, whether they come to live with me or not.
So, finding myself out of work for the first time in my life, in my 50s, I have decided to leave journalism behind for a while and embark on a course of study about dogs. Maybe I’ll become a behaviourist; maybe I’ll just understand my own dogs a little better; maybe along the way I can take some of you with me on a journey to learn more about man’s best friend.
It took me ages to choose a course; there are many providers offering canine behaviour studies, and all of them have different things to recommend them. In my next post, I’ll look at all the different courses and what they offer, and tell you how I get on with my first essay! Wish me luck…