When I was young, I was terrified of dogs; unreasonably so. A fear of slavering, half-rabid rottweilers or the calculated malevolence of a lithe doberman would have been understandable; but I was also quite capable of bricking my juvenile self at the impotent yipping of the most wretched of miniature poodles. From the age of eleven, this changed, largely through exposure to Mindy, my best friend’s family dog. Mindy was, if I remember correctly, a retriever–doberman cross-breed; intelligent, loyal, protective but not ferocious, and good fun in the park. From Mindy onwards, I became very pro-dog and for a long time hankered after having one of my own.
But then I slowly swung less in favour of dogs, and here’s why: dogs lack dignity. It’s a result, no doubt, of the hierarchical nature of their pack origins, but it bugs me. At their worst—red setters and labradors—dogs can seem to be little more than hyperactive bundles of fur, saliva, and neediness. Exposure to cats played a part in this, of course: cats are dignified to the point of aristrocratic, and whereas I would happily consign the entirety of human aristocracy to eternal perdition for their presumptions of superiority based on nothing but birth, parasitic exploitation of the remainder of humanity, and the cunning trick they seem to have pulled in which half the population are fawningly grateful to them for this, for some reason exactly the same traits in cats I find wholly admirable. They both like torturing smaller animals for sport, too, now I think of it.
Reprimand a cat and all you will receive is a gaze that compresses “fuck you” to the density of a neutron star, and directs it unerringly at your soul. Reprimand a dog, and all the tragedies of Euripides, Shakespeare, and Schiller could not evoke the agonized loss in its soft, dewy eyes. Forget to feed a cat and they will make you suffer for it with the carefully deposited dismembered remains of their alternative luncheon, leave your dog’s dish empty and the suffering will be all his, and he will not even blame you for it. When your cat curls up on your lap, it’s because it’s the warmest place in the house; whereas when your dog curls up beside you it’s because he needs you and loves you and wants to be with you and wants you to love him and needs you to be with him and loves you to want him and—oh would you give it a goddamn rest. I have spent the best part of my life resolutely failing to engage meaningfully with members of my own species, I’m certainly not going to take this emotional incontinence from a member of another.
This is not to say I now dislike dogs: they appear smarter than cats—though the latter often remind me of the old Egyptian belief that monkeys can talk, but just don’t in front of humans in order to avoid being made to work. Dogs have loyalty to their owners, rather than simply a tolerant amusement of the non-cat-shaped thing that currently fills their bowls. And, if necessary, dogs come equipped with a fine protective arsenal, which in certain parts of the world is not without use.
I’m currently staying in the house of a friend who has a dog—not the first time I have lived around one. Sir Woofmore of Woof Hall—or Trix as his owner, Helen, insists upon inaccurately calling him—is a Norfolk terrier, and a good dog. He doesn’t grovel or fawn, he is affectionate but not needy, and his breath doesn’t smell. He has a sense of fun, one of the most attractive aspects of dogs, and though he fails to grasp the concept of the stick-throwing game—preferring to chew the retrieved item to a pulp rather than return it—performing the same game with squeaky toys gets spectacular results, especially if conducted within the house: his tiny, stumpy little legs propel him into a hilariously exaggerated leap over the minute step into the kitchen should you throw one there for him to retrieve—though in my case the laughter can only hide the embarrassing fact that, should a similar obstacle be placed between me and, say, a crispy Hendricks and tonic with fresh cucumber and plenty of ice, my own equally truncated (though, admittedly, not as furry) lower limbs would in all likelihood perform not dissimilar acrobatics.
He has, largely, swung my needle back in the pro-dog direction. (It is, of course, cognitively impossible to be both pro-cat and pro-dog: if you think you are and own both, you are fooling yourself. The dog only exists to give the cat another living creature to be effortlessly superior to.) But there is a downside, and one that did not come with my previous dog co-habitees. Sir Woofmore requires walking, and when Helen is away this task falls to me.
I have devoted my life to the avoidance of walking. Despite being necessarily a non-driver, I will usually do anything to avoid this pursuit. I have endeavoured to live in flattish cities where biking is easy (a year-long recent stay in Bath proved a disastrous exception to this). A number of family-members as well as one of my oldest friends are great adherents of the country ramble, and I have spent many years making excessively clear to them that, as far as I am concerned, the vaunted rolling green hills of England can roll on without me, and that the only thing you can say with complete certainty about the countryside is that for every place you step you can be absolutely sure that an animal has shat there first. I am not exercise-averse—far from it—but my favoured form of cardiovascular involves paying someone to hold up some pads whilst I inexpertly but exhaustingly pummel them: CV should be, in my view, short, painful, intense, and most importantly indoors.
Yet, horrifyingly, I found I rather enjoyed walking Sir Woofmore. An episode of In Our Time runs to a good forty-five minutes—or forty if you skip forwards when Melvin starts to get obstreperously opinionated about matters historical—and this is just the time it takes His Honourable Woofness to burn off a bit of energy, meet and greet some canine buddies, mark certain very specific bushes as his, and if you’re lucky give you a warm little present to wrap up in a plastic bag and dump in the nearest doggie bin. As a significant portion of my veneer of erudition stems from the fact that the entire, almost twenty-year back catalogue of this programme is available as podcasts, I spent my walking week gently ambling round the fields behind Helen’s house, throwing the odd ball, exchanging friendly words with other dog-walkers, revisiting favoured episodes, and internalizing a few obtuse cultural references to casually throw out during this very blogging challenge.
The downside of walking Trix, it turns out, is not the walking itself. It is the fact that I may well be forced into admitting that walking is not such a odious pursuit after all.