For Fern.

I look for you out of habit
to see you raise your head,
your tail stump beating,
but you are not there.
Sometimes you knew what I was thinking.
Always you knew what I was feeling,
and you tried to work out why.
I was always at the back of your mind,
Your champion.
Your protector.
Your anchor.

I walk the paths where you ran,
knowing what you would have searched out,
looking for the remnants of your passing,
but the grass is still
and the water is silent.
There is nothing more
that you can bring to me.
Your grubby treasures will stay hidden.
You are not watching.
The dog in the distance
is never you.

My hand is deep in my pocket,
clutched tightly around your empty collar
as I walk, doggedly,
keeping you alive by force of will.
You gave me everything you had,
every bit of strength,
every thought,
until only your iron will
to live for one more day,
one more step, remained
and it was no longer enough.

Copy of Fern - 2008 01 07 - 001

Dog Heaven.

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My beach is dog heaven. Filey has always been a magnet for people who love dogs and any dog who lives here ( as lots of them do) can consider themselves very lucky indeed. They don’t of course. They take for granted the vast stretch of sand next to the North sea, big enough to land an aircraft on, which they can charge up and down every day. All that they know as they strain on the end of their leads, ready to feel the wind in their coat and the scent of seaweed and salt in their nose, is that soon they will be having the time of their lives all over again. There is a sense of freedom about a dog as it bounces in and out of the sea or sets off on a random charge to nowhere across the sand, allowing its natural instincts to let rip, a joy in the moment that any Buddhist would envy. There is no yesterday and no tomorrow for a dog who is setting themselves free into a landscape that fills their senses with joy. They can relax, set free from the constraints of fitting in with the life of an alien creature, a creature who may feed and care for them but who also makes strange demands. Sometimes a dog just needs to be free to be themselves, able to bark, leap, dig, fling themselves around, roll over or just hurtle off into the distance for no other reason than that they want to.

When my retriever Hal saw the beach for the first time, at about twelve weeks old, he was completely overwhelmed. He flatly refused to walk down the slipway. All that light and open space…….. I notice that reaction from some visitors dogs too. You can see them trying to get their heads round the idea that something as good as this could actually be happening to them. If it is their first visit their owner will often tell me so, proud of the fact that they are giving their dog such a rare treat. Sometimes a dog will just completely let go and give in to complete bewildered ecstasy. The word no doesn’t exist. Orders to come back are not ignored, they are completely and utterly unheard. Dogs who are normally sane, clean and quiet on the end of a lead have been shown another way of life and they have abandoned themselves to it without looking back. I have sometimes counted as many as forty dogs down there (without trying) on a busy summer day when the weather is good, all off their leads. I will never forget three Jack Russell’s who were down there on a day like that, powering along and visiting each other dog in turn to jump and bark in their face before careering off again. It was a delight to watch, a kind of celebratory “Yeah me!” to the world. A few weeks ago I watched a young greyhound find another gear in the early morning sun and race away from his owner to cover almost the entire length of our walk in seconds with the kind of easy, natural grace that seemed to take no effort at all. There are not many breeds I haven’t seen down there over the years. Papillons who are not the prim little princes and princesses you would think that they are, Dogues de Bordeaux who look like they would eat you for breakfast ambling along quietly, Newfoundlands who (more than any other breed you care to mention) really do think that the beach is dog heaven, thousands of dogs of all shapes and sizes. Sometimes the beach can even heal a broken dogs mind. A local rescue German Shepherd cross, Sam, arrived on it completely confused and out of control (I once saw him pull his owner over) and ready to fight anything that got in his way. Chihuahuas had been thrown in the air. He had spent a number of years in kennels and he had no idea how to cope with life outside prison. Slowly, with the help of a firm but kind dog walker who took him under his wing when his owners despaired, the beach did its work. Day after day he discovered all over again that nothing was going to hurt him and after a year or so he believed it. He became a quiet, slightly tubby lad who just got on with life and bothered nobody. I think I felt for him because, while I never threw chihuahuas, the beach did exactly the same job for me when I needed it.

My spaniels Fern and Freya have about eight hours a week down there, sometimes more. They know every inch of the cliff side, every fox and rabbit run, every patch of grass. Some of the paths along it have even been made by Fern during the last seven and a half years as she pushed her way through brambles and undergrowth day after day. Life is a constant search and she will never get tired of wondering what is there. The beach itself is a fresh playground for them every day, a constantly changing landscape freshly laid out by each receding tide. There is always something new and surprising to find, always something familiar to check out. They are lucky dogs- even if they don’t know it……… but they do say that happiness never has to lay its finger on its pulse.

Stuck in the Stream.

“That dog’s stuck in the stream.”
The little boy is staring down towards Fern, his silver scooter forgotten. She is staring back at him from the bottom of the stream, wondering why he is staring at her. He notices the dog leads round my neck.
“Is it your dog?”
I tell him that Fern is my dog and explain to him that it is all right because she knows her way out and yes, the black one who has just come to stand next to me because she is wondering if she is missing something is my dog too and she is called Freya. He isn’t convinced.
“Can it get out?”
I practice patience.
“Yes she can.”
His parents have now almost caught the boy up. He points at Fern and shouts towards his dad, an earnest looking man with a towel round his neck who is pulling a rubber dinghy while his wife tries to get their little girl to hurry up.
“Dad! There’s a dog stuck in that stream!”
His dad drops the dinghy and stands next to him. Now there are two of them staring at Fern. Her eyes are wide and her tail shakes anxiously. There is no way she is coming out now. Anything might happen. The dad frowns at me.
“Can she get out?”
“Yes. It’s fine.”
He looks at the steep slope of the side of the ravine.
“Are you sure?”
I am sure. Very sure. Fern has been climbing the side of that ravine every day and scooting along the top to come back to me for over six years now. There are also a couple of places further back down the stream where she can get out if she wants to. She doesn’t just know her way out, she knows every smell, every foothold, every blade of grass.
“Yes. She’ll climb up the side.”
He turns to his wife.
“Have you seen the dog? It’s stuck.”
All four of them, even the little girl who has been more interested in the glittery pink streamers on the end of her bike handlebars up until now, peer down at Fern. Fern stands absolutely still and peers back at them. She wants them to go away. She is only comfortable with people who she knows. These people have been watching her for some time now and she doesn’t know why. She doesn’t know them and she doesn’t like it. I try to encourage them to go away.
“It’s fine. She’ll come out when she is ready.”
They look at me for a second, decide that I have no idea what I am talking about, and then discuss with each other how Fern might get out. From where they are standing there isn’t an obvious way. Finally Fern decides that it will be safe enough to look at them all from the top of the banking and there might be something interesting up there. They marvel as she trots back up the stream.
“Look! It’s found its way out!”
She sprints up the side of the banking to general amazement.
“It’s up there now, look!”
She is indeed, and if they would just get on their way and leave her alone there might be a chance of her coming down. They start to move off.
The father smiles at me.
“It managed to find its way out then.”

This scenario is repeated over and over again with minor variations right through the summer when the visitors are here.

What goes through the mind of a spaniel when it sees fresh snow for the first time.

Whoa! That wasn’t there last time I went out!

Hey- YOU CAN EAT IT!

It turns to water in your mouth.

How does it do that?

Sticks to your legs as well.

It’s all right though- it comes off.

My mouth feels numb now.

It’s everywhere. There’s loads of it.

It all tastes the same, but I’ll keep checking.

If you dig down the grass is still there.

Something strange just happened to my feet.

It’s harder to stand up than it usually is.

This stuff flies up in the air when you run fast.

It’s soft to land on though if you fall over.

Doesn’t hurt.

It’s all white. Really white.

Never seen so much white.

It makes my head spin.

Snow is  cool.

Can Dogs Act?

There has been a lot of talk about whether Uggie the Jack Russell terrier who stars with Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo in The Artist should get an Oscar. A campaign to make this happen has already begun. He has been awarded the palme dog by a group of journalists at the Cannes film festival and BAFTA, the British film academy, felt the need to remind their members that all votes must go to a human candidate. It got me thinking.

At first it seems a ridiculous idea. Surely the Oscar should go to the dog’s trainer, or perhaps to the actor who has to build up a close relationship with the dog on screen or stage, rather than the dog? Isn’t the “performance” just the result of the audience projecting their own feelings onto the animal and seeing what they want to see? The old actor’s adage “never work with children or animals” grew up for a reason. Any time that you put a dog in front of an audience half of those watching will already be on its side before it has done anything at all. As soon as it actually does something their hearts will be going out to it. Dog acts have always been popular whether on stage or screen. Dogs were stars of music hall and variety and heroes of early silent films and they love to work with people. A well trained dog, doing things which come naturally to it, loves to work and give pleasure to its trainer and that pleasure is infectious and crosses over to the audience. The dog may be enjoying being the centre of attention but it is not acting.

Or is it? Set aside the obvious fact that a dog is not capable of playing a character for a moment and think again. Many a human star has made a great career out of playing themselves in every role that they are given. Some have been great actors and won Oscars for it. This fragile skill gave Cary Grant and James Stewart, just to name two examples, great careers and they were much loved and admired for it. Nobody would dream of suggesting that they can’t act. Being able to play yourself in a relaxed, natural, truthful way requires great skill. I have been on stage with many amateur actors who were utterly unable to achieve this and even watched quite a few professionals who struggle. That kind of honesty and vulnerability is at the heart of great acting. It is more important than any assumed accent, walk or character make up, however clever and convincing they may be. Some dogs, only a very few admittedly, have the confidence and personality to be able to do this without any trouble at all. If they are made to understand what it is that they have to do and they are around people who they trust they will do it wholeheartedly without any embarrassment or second thoughts. If they are one of the well trained minority who have the talent that is……….. One of the best times I have ever had in a theatre was watching an RSC production of Two Gentlemen of Verona during which Richard Moore, playing Launce, gave his dog Crab his dinner. It was a blissfully funny and perfectly timed double act and on the day I saw it Crab looked straight at his master and yawned on cue when he was told that he was the most disreputable dog in creation. It stopped the show. Most of that timing came from a wonderful actor of course, but it wouldn’t have worked with just any dog. Wooly the lurcher who played Crab was special and the RSC has recognised that by placing his picture at the very top of the stairs up the observation tower in the new main theatre at Stratford.

Here is the trailer from the film Bombon El Perro with Juan Villegas and his co star Cha Cha, a dogo argentino. Have a look and see what you think.

Notice the shared glance in the van. That dog is secure in his own skin. He is playing himself to perfection and he has been put in a situation where he can relax with the actor sitting next to him and a whole relationship is suddenly there on screen. They are an odd couple, summing each other up. When they get to know each other things will start to happen and we want to be there to watch. The plot is being set up and it is going to be one which explores character rather than relying on events. Both of them have been through hard times and already we are on their side. Cha Cha also has tremendous physical presence, something which Olivier was much admired and praised for, and this is another aspect of a performance which is by no means trivial.

More often of course dogs have been action heroes, asked to use their physical skills to rescue or help. Rin Tin Tin and Lassie were the most famous examples of this type of canine Errol Flynn character, and they are much loved and and still remembered. When I owned a rough collie I got used to life having a constant soundtrack of “Ahhhh! Lassie” when we were out and about together. This was usually from children but by no means always. An early example of this kind of stardom was Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s American pit bull terrier Luke who starred with his master in a series of silent films, displaying great confidence and physical courage. Here is a montage of some of his greatest moments.

And that brings me back to Uggie. If I was writing his Oscar citation I would want to point out how he never takes his eyes off his screen master Jean Dujardin, lesser dog actors can often be seen sneaking a glance at their off stage trainer or even staring at them fixedly waiting to be told what to do next. His concentration is absolute. Actors spend years at drama school doing exercises to get them to that point. It’s difficult, much more difficult than it looks. I would want to show the scene where he is careering down a crowded street on a rescue mission, alert and full of purpose. He had obviously been trained to run down that road but nobody could have put that kind of commitment into his head. He had to feel it for himself. The timing which Uggie and Jean Dujardin display throughout in their scenes is delightful. Try doing that kind of acting with someone who isn’t up to it, as I have after knowing what it is like to be on stage with someone who has talent, and you will fall flat on your face. It takes two, and on this occasion one of them happened to be a dog.

Here is the trailer for The Artist. Look out for him.

So does Uggie deserve an Oscar? Maybe, maybe not. He is probably above such things, as he should be.The academy has never recognised a performance by a dog before, and there have been many. He is a very good skateboarder though, and I would love to see him skateboarding across the stage on Oscar night carrying an Oscar for Jean Dujardin.

My dogs.

Trixie.

Trixie was my first dog. Strictly speaking, of  course, she wasn’t my dog, as she was part of the household before I was. She was my grandfathers fox terrier cross and  he was the one who walked her. He was the one who she followed around and idolised. All the same when I see my arm round her, hugging her close, and the look on my face in the second photo I have no doubt whose dog I thought she was at the time.

Trixie had a very different life to my later dogs. She had the life of the farm dog which she would have been a few years earlier, living on scraps and sleeping in the wash house outside at night. She was always warm, well fed and comfortable but there were no frills. I don’t remember her ever going to the vets. When she became too old and frail after a long, healthy and active life, and failed to come out of the wash house one morning because she was too weak to stand, my grandfather announced “Her back ends gone” and she was shot and buried in the back garden. The half remembered love that I felt for her remains in my passion for fox terriers, a dog which my partner is, sadly,  never going to allow me to have.

Candy.

I was told that I could choose our next dog, but it didn’t quite work out that way. I wanted a Bassett Hound, but this suggestion was firmly turned down on the grounds that its ears would trail on the ground. To this day I still think that reason ridiculous but I was still only in my early teens so I had to accept it. Our Beagle Candy was a compromise.  Her main passion in life was food and as she got older the Yorkshire puddings which she spent Sunday lunchtime barking for and sundry other treats made her fat. We told each other that her mother and grandmother had also been fat, which was true but it was still an excuse for the over indulgence which she was only too pleased to accept. With hindsight possibly the household continued to provide the scraps which our previous dog Trixie had always had, scraps which would have been more than enough to keep her going and my insistence that dogs had to have dog food might have been better ignored. I also insisted that dogs had to have immunisations and visit the vets when they were ill and my teenage stubbornness won out- combined with the fact that my mothers work in the fields potato picking had paid for our first pedigree dog and so she was seen to have value.


Candy was stubborn, affectionate and always ready to follow her nose. She would power her way through the privet hedge and set off on a scent and I would be sent out to fetch her back. She always followed the same route so this wasn’t too hard. I did try to train her, I really did, but she didn’t share my enthusiasm and we never got far. You can see a certain steely determination in her eyes in these photos, a look that I remember well. She was happiest down the river on long walks with my dad when all you could see was the white tip of her tail waving in long grass a hundred yards away.

Gemma.

Gemma was the first dog that I chose completely for myself. We spent a lot of time on our own together, I took her down to Holkham beach and Sea Palling regularly and I would walk or read while she explored. She was quite calm and well behaved but when she was out she loved to run around in circles on the sand making a massive jump each time she went past me and yelping for sheer joy. She did quite well at training classes but neither of us could be bothered with the attention to detail needed in order to compete.  She used to run next to me when I was on my bike and we both loved going to rehearsals together and visiting friends. I used to brush her and put talcum powder in her paws and white legs to smarten them up first. She loved going in the car and I would always let her jump in even if I was just going down the road. My best memories of my time with Gemma come from the holiday when the photograph was taken.  I packed a box full of books and we went up to Islay and the Lake District. Lots of walking, reading and exploring and perfect weather the whole time.

Hal.

When Hal died at the early age of eight and a half I told everybody that he was my special dog. Many people who were older were immediately able to tell me about their special dog. There was always one who had meant more to them than the others, however much they had all been loved. Hal was special to me for many reasons, the main one being that his outgoing positive nature and his need to be looked after and admired helped me recover from a period of ill health.

He was extremely handsome. His father was Ch Paudell Easter Plantagenet at Kerrien and he knew that he was worth looking at. He expected everybody to notice him and they did. If I tied him up outside the supermarket I would always find him holding court when I came out and often being fed bits of ham or biscuit. Everybody knew him and people who were complete strangers used to walk past the front gate in summer, greet him by name and make a fuss of him. One elderly couple who were back in Filey after a gap of six years still remembered seeing him as a pup, asked after him and were thrilled to see him again. Hal had a strong personality- it has been called arrogance by one person who knew him well. He usually did as he was asked but it was always on his terms and it was always his decision. He saw no point in retrieving, for example, so he never did. In fact he didn’t exert himself much at all really. It takes about three years for retrievers to grow up, as people never tired of telling me when he was galloping around with someone else’s cricket stumps in his mouth while their game ground to a halt or parading up and down in the sea with a stolen ball, but after he left his silly teenage years behind he was very happy just following his daily circuit at a gentle trot and keeping an eye out for anyone who might notice his finer qualities. He was very fond of a dalmatian called Tilly and they would have loud dramatic games of rough and tumble which we sometimes had to explain away to anxious visitors when they thought they were watching a dog fight. He had a short list of male dogs who he absolutely detested,  never for any good reason that I could work out, but he loved absolutely everyone that he ever met, and his social skills were much better than mine.

I still miss him.

Fern.

Fern arrived very soon after Hal died, thanks to the fact that we had been planning to get a Field Spaniel as a second dog to live alongside him.  Her relentless enthusiasm for me and everything that I did won me over.  She decided immediately that I was going to be her life partner and has done her best ever since to make sure that she was right. She is probably the cleverest dog that I have had, eager and quick to learn and quite obsessive about finding any kind of ball. She has even dug for golf balls into the snow and can be sent through the pitch and putt course hedge on behalf of visitors to bring back balls that they have lost. It never takes long. We have a large collection of various kinds of ball in boxes which she keeps a close eye on. She is very aware of what is hers and loves her toys in a way that none of my other dogs ever have done. She also loves her soft bed. Her energy is astonishing and both visitors and locals never cease to marvel when they see her powering up and down the side of the cliff. “That dog should have been born a mountain goat.” Not that Fern is bothered what they say. She shows very little interest in anyone that she doesn’t know and she is far too busy to notice the attention that she gets. She would have been a terrific working dog and won a first prize for being the dog who learned most on the day and showed most potential as a working dog at a Field Spaniel Society working and health day in summer 2009. We are still hoping to work her but it’s not an easy world to get into without contacts. The trainer who worked with her at the open day would have taken us on and trained us but he is too far away. She loves her food, and she puts away a roast chicken dinner a lot faster than I can, but she will never be fat- she runs it all off too quickly.

Freya.

Our second Field Spaniel will be coming back from the south Coast with us in early March. It will be interesting to see what Fern makes of her.  For the first time I shall have two dogs and that will be a whole new story.


Going Pat-dogging.

Some of my fondest memories of my golden retriever Hal are from the times when we went pat-dogging together. It was a great surprise to all his friends and acquaintances when he passed his temperament test, as a lively three year old, on a windy day in Malton marketplace, and was accepted to be a PAT dog. He accepted a treat gently, ignored the crash of a metal dish as it hit the floor, walked calmly to heal, was groomed without making a fuss, had his teeth and ears examined, and generally showed himself to be a responsible member of society- not something he had shown signs of doing up to that point! From then on, visits to a local retirement home on behalf of the Pets as Therapy charity became a part of our weekly routine, so that the residents could enjoy the chance to see him, talk to him, and stroke him. As he walked into the silent lounge, and looked round with his tail thrashing, it was as if someone has just switched the lights on. People would move in their chairs and focus on him. “Here he is.” “Isn’t he lovely” “Let’s have a look at you” “I’ve nothing for you old lad”. Suddenly the half finished cups of tea were remembered and the tales began. I heard the story of a squire, riding in a carriage, whose dog was taught a lesson when he let it go for other dogs on his way past once too often and it met its match. Then there was the young man who was locked out of his house at ten o’clock when he got back five minutes late after seeing his girlfriend home at the other end of their village, and had to pay for a new lock when he broke the door down. I heard about the time before dog wardens, when gangs of stray dogs would fight in the streets, and was told what it felt like to be a London landlord waiting for a visit from the Kray twins. I shared happy memories of life as an army child in the hill stations of India and as a Wren in wartime Ceylon, and marveled at the sixth sense of the dog who led its owners away from a coming doodlebug, as well as hearing about dozens of much loved companion dogs from the past who are still remembered. It is something very special to think that simply by being there, and looking for the attention and physical contact which he loved, Hal was able to open up memories of a life, and bring back times which would otherwise have been forgotten. It was an easy way to cheer up a morning that might otherwise have been silent and solitary, with each resident sitting in their private world. Alongside this there was the lady who would simply fix her eyes on him, hold out her hand, and murmur “beautiful” and “soft” over and over again as she found the silky fur behind his ears and ran it through her fingers. There was no reaction from one particular resident at all for months, he sat in the same corner each week staring silently, until one day there was a nod and his hand went out offering a single piece of apple. For Hal of course that was the point of the exercise. He had no idea that he was there to provide a focus for reminiscence, mental stimulation, and touch therapy. He just thought that we had been lucky enough to find a place where they gave out biscuits once a week, at about quarter to eleven, to people who could be persuaded to part with them. Bourbons, custard creams, jaffa cakes, toast carefully wrapped and stored away from breakfast, toffees, tuna sandwiches, jelly babies- you name it he sat down, stared hard, thumped his tail on the floor and was given it. I know it wasn’t healthy eating, but somehow it just never seemed to be heard when I attempted to refuse on his behalf, and they really loved it when the toffees stuck to the roof of his mouth and he had to chomp and lick to dislodge them.

I can definitely recommend “going pat-dogging” if you have the time and the right dog, which can be any shape or size so long as its temperament is suitable. Even on a quiet visit it’s always worthwhile, and sometimes you can be lucky enough to make somebody’s day, just by letting them spend a short while with the pet you love.