In Praise of Dogs

Argus article : Why loving a mutt can be a lesson to us all

I sit amid the ruins of my once fairly ordered life.

There was a time when I could write in relative peace. On writing days my husband and daughter would leave for work and school and then I’d work. Our dog Mickey was my only companion and, as a rule, he’d lie quietly in the house or soak up the sun in the garden. He was rarely any trouble.

Mickey died shortly before Christmas, almost certainly as the result of a brain tumour. He could never be supplanted in our affections, but he has been replaced. A little whirlwind has taken up residence on Mickey’s turf and turned our lives upside down.

Daisy, a Yorkshire terrier puppy, has come to stay. Like Mickey, she is a rescue dog. While he came to us from the RSPCA in Patcham, she hales from a Sussex-based charity called “Happy Breed”. We hadn’t intended to get another dog quite so soon, but our daughter missed Mickey so much we thought it would help her to cope. In the event, Daisy’s lightened all our hearts.

Whether she’s a Yorkshire Terrier or not – and there is some question about this because she looks suspiciously like an Australian terrier – she is a remarkably pretty dog. “Cute” and “sweet” are the descriptions we hear most often from passers by. Little do they know.

Yorkshire terriers were bred to kill rats down mines. Relative to their size they are tough, incredibly strong and completely fearless. Daisy can jump at least 3 times the length of her body and pounces growling on chew toys, shoes and household implements. She shakes her ‘prey’ from side to side so violently that if she lets go it flies through the air like a rocket.

Daisy came to us at the age of 4 months with a reputation for messing in the house. What we didn’t know was that she also had remarkably little control of her bladder. When excited she sprays urine about with gay abandon. Her speciality is to run at us like a bullet when we return home, leap up to lick our hands and simultaneously shower our shoes.

Daisy’s personal habits are beginning to improve, but now rebellion takes slightly different forms. In the garden she digs huge holes then returns to the house covered in black mud, proudly wiping her face on the carpet. At such moments we yell “Bad dog!” and she cocks her head on one side, thinking it’s a really good game. It’s impossible to stay cross with her.

In the house, she sits bright-eyed on the landing thinking of new pranks to entertain us. She regularly places a tennis ball at the top of the stairs just where we are most likely to slip and has demolished all of our woven straw coasters. I had to take brand new shoes to the menders covered in tooth marks, because she’d repeatedly sneaked them off the shoe rack and chewed them.

She found a new loo roll and covered the floor with it. This may look endearing when the Andrex puppy does it, but the advert doesn’t show what a puppy would do next – which is to chew each segment into tiny damp pieces and spread them about the floor where they have to be lifted individually by hand.

She’s even chewed my mobile phone. I could cope with a mobile covered in tooth marks, but the final straw was when she ripped it into 3 pieces. It still works, but I’m tired of people laughing, so I’m getting the upgrade.

Such are the joys of having a puppy. And they are considerable. It is almost impossible not to smile when Daisy is around. She’s the only dog I’ve ever had who snuggles up like a baby and sleeps on my lap like a cat. When she’s at peace, she is adorable.

Not for the first time I have been struck by just how much people miss if they don’t have animals about them. My mother, who has Alzheimer’s Disease, has always loved animals. She has forgotten many of the people she knew in her childhood, but she remembers the pets – Tiger, the huge Alsatian and Kitty, her old cat and a green parrot called Bobby-in-the-cage. She loves Daisy, who leaps on her and licks her face. Mum sings “Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do” and remembers every word.

My mother watches Crufts Dog Show and enjoys it. Generally I do not. The animals are beautiful, but I can’t enjoy watching them led prancing around a show ring. I don’t like to see dogs docked and snipped, primped, sheared and trimmed. I like a dog to be a dog. Frankly, I like a dog to be a mutt.

The columnist and former Labour M.P. Roy Hattersley recently wrote a panegyric in praise of mongrels while launching a broadside against Crufts. I never much cared for Roy Hattersley when he was deputy leader of the Labour Party. However, no man who is so in love with dogs can be all bad.

He wrote: “In my experience the most unprepossessing mongrel still exhibits all the qualities that makes dogs irresistible. The tail may be too long, the ears unpricked and the curve of the spine less than classical. But they are all dogs. And that is the universal dog – the essence of dogness – that makes, or ought to make, us want them.”

Hattersley rightly condemns Crufts for its commercialism and for its exploitation of dogs. He says “Breeding dogs is, in itself, a morally dubious activity. So many unwanted strays and outcasts need good homes that we ought to look after them before we actively engage in production of the pedigree alternative.”

Both the RSPCA and “Happy Breed” would agree. Happy Breed provides financial assistance to help new owners with the cost of spaying bitches and neutering dogs, while the RSPCA carries out the operations before any animal is placed. They are anxious to ensure that no more animals are bred for profit or abandoned in conditions of neglect. Every year their work is undermined by Crufts.

Wall to wall televising of Crufts confers respectability upon the show and suggests that, if owners can afford it – and their animals have pedigrees – it is quite acceptable to turn animals into breeding machines. This is not in the dogs’ interests, for highly selective breeding of pedigree animals frequently results in poor health and difficulties in pregnancy. Arguably, there’s little moral difference between professional breeders’ actions and those of people who illegally breed pit bull terriers for ‘protection’ on estates. In both cases it is the interests of owners which are served.

There is a strong strand of cruelty to animals in British culture, revealed in the obsession with blood sports. However, there is also a powerful tradition of love for household pets and domesticated animals and respect and admiration for wild life. Those who live within the latter tradition learn from their animals. Animals help them foster in their children, and sometimes preserve in themselves, the ability to love and nurture creatures that are weaker than themselves. It is prime preparation for parenting.

Child protection agencies have realised, relatively recently, that people who are cruel to animals tend also to be cruel to children or other vulnerable people. Consequently, they have begun to work in co-operation with organisations like the RSPCA. However, animal welfare agencies have known for very many years that by protecting animals they preserve what is best in human society.

After Mickey’s death I wrote about him in this column – and about the loss of my mother in law, to whom he was devoted. Shortly afterwards I received two letters from dog owners. They too had recently lost their family pets, Astra and Toby. By co-incidence they were very similar dogs to Mickey, black and silky haired and like him struck down by tumours. Astra’s owner sent me a photograph and she was indeed very like Mickey. The owners’ grief was real. As far as they were concerned they had lost members of their families.

It seems the article I wrote comforted them and I hope this one will also help. I don’t suggest that they should get another dog, but perhaps they could consider it. And if they do, I hope they will explore the RSPCA and Happy Breed and other pet rescue charities.

A pedigree dog may come their way and if it does I’m sure they will love it unreservedly. But if they have a choice, I’d recommend a mutt.

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