A light hearted look at how our relationships with our dogs change over the years. Written for Edition Dog magazine.
The Seven Stages of Dog Ownership
‘Happiness is a warm puppy,’ said the wise and wonderful Charles M Schultz, creator of the iconic Peanuts cartoon. It was the title of one of his books, and had the character of Lucy squeezing a bewildered looking Snoopy on the cover. I had the book as a child and it was my absolute favourite – not just because I loved Snoopy, but for the simplicity and charm of its core sentiment. Life doesn’t need to be any more complicated than a warm puppy, but we do love to make it so.
Sentiments aside, Schultz is right of course. Surely there are few greater pleasures in this world than a puppy? Their playfulness, their exuberance, the delicious wholesomeness of their smell. Their incredible ability to fall asleep in the most unusual positions and to eat all your soft furnishings. Those sharp pin-like teeth, the wriggling, the enormous, clumsy soft paws. Puppies are needy in the most enchanting and absorbing way, awakening feelings of protectiveness and benevolence in even the most cynical and calcified of hearts. They remind us of how big those hearts can be.
The excitement in starting a journey with a new dog, whether a puppy or a rescue, is not just in that soft fur and waggyness, but in the anticipation of the friendship that is to come and the opening of a new chapter. This is the start of your adventure. This is where is all begins.
There will be a moment in those first few months when that sweet, delightful puppy bubble will abruptly burst. For me it was the discovery of five neat dachshund poos behind the sofa, one which had already been sat on by a toddler.
House training was our biggest challenge with Henry, a breed known for their abject stubborness and penchant for peeing inside, but for Mabel, our eleven year old Jack Russell, the challenge is recall and it’s an ongoing one. Catching even the vaguest whiff of rabbit is enough to send her on a half hour reconnaissance mission across the fields. Terriers are masters of selective hearing.
Every breed has their tricky areas and the adolescent stage of a dog’s like can be particularly challenging as hormones and rebelliousness start to soar, but with patience and perseverance, issues can usually be ironed out. Training is not only a great way to bond with your pet – something that should be enjoyed and cherished – but a way of getting to know each other. This is the stage when you start to really work each other out.
Dog trainer and owner of All Dogs Are Good Harriet Alexander likes to see the training process as more of a dialogue between man and dog, rather than a series of orders. Dogs like to know the rules, to be guided, but in a way they will find enjoyable and stimulating.
‘It shouldn’t be about telling dogs what to do or controlling their every move and impulse. Instead it should enable a conversation in which the owner can communicate requests or guidance that the dog understands. Training is often a process of translation more than anything else.’
Once the finer points of training have been ironed out, you and your dog are free to adventure. We are living in a golden age of canine travel where the options for getting out and about with your dog are endless. It wasn’t so very long ago that dogs weren’t even allowed in dingy pubs, let alone in some of London’s tip top establishments like The Savoy or Claridge’s. People have finally cottoned on to the fact that we want our dogs with us, wherever we go.
There has never been a better time to go on an adventure with your dog – whether that is in an urban setting or somewhere more rural, a day trip, a new walk, or a stay in one of the many self catering properties or country hotels that now welcome dogs. Dogs love to explore and discover, to experience new environments, to meet other dogs, other animals, other people. This is what dogs do best – they grasp everything that life has to offer.
A dog’s first visit to a beach or a to a forest or a lake is to come close to understanding what life is all about as there is really no purer joy than seeing your dog giddy with exhilaration. The more experiences you give them, the more exercise and socialisation they get, the more they will thrive, developing confidence, intrepidity, and above all, a strengthening connection with you.
As the writer Milan Kundera wrote, “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring – it was peace.”
In every dog’s life there will be a period of adjustment. A time when familiarity and order are removed and uncertainty is given a chance to creep in.
Mabel has seen us through the arrival of three children, four house moves and the horribly unexpected entrance of the second dog, Henry. She has, for the most part, borne it with noble stoicism, although tell tale signs of disquiet are not far from the surface. She’s scared of more things these days: balloons, bad weather and Coronation Street to name but a few.
If, like me, your dog was the precursor to having children, a baby’s arrival can be particularly unsettling. Realising that the pack order has changed and that another creature has instantly taken top spot is a harsh lesson in the shifting dynamics of family life. There may be more food on the floor, flung from the high chairs of tiny-handed toddlers, but time is in shorter supply.
‘Moving house, new babies, new dogs – these are massive changes in a dog’s life’, says pet behaviourist Penaran Higgs. She advises that you might want to consider getting professional help if things seem to be taking their toll – tackling issues head on should help with the adjustment period and ensure that you all come out the other side unscathed. Either that or just plenty of cuddles. After all, life changes affect all of us.
‘It seemed as if nothing were to break that tie — as if the years were merely to compact and cement it; and as if those years were to be all the years of their natural lives. Eighteen-forty-two turned into eighteen-forty-three; eighteen-forty-three into eighteen- forty-four; eighteen-forty-four into eighteen-forty-five. Flush was no longer a puppy; he was a dog in the full prime of life’.
Contentment, as captured here by Virginia Woolf in her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s cocker spaniel, Flush. Woolf, a dog lover herself, perfectly describes that sense of pleasurable ease as we blend and fold into the middle years of a dog’s life. Contentment in each other’s company, of a familiar routine, of a shared understanding.
The spot on the sofa, now slightly indented, the nighttime treat, always the same. Knowing that the putting on of a particular jacket means a walk, and that the early morning news says breakfast is on its way. The rhythms and routines of family life embed themselves so deeply and so comfortably that before we even realise it ourselves, our dog has become an intrinsic part of who we are, and we of them.
The longest and arguably the most satisfying of all the stages, this is when phrases such as ‘man’s best friend’ and ‘loyal as a dog’ really begin to ring true. Steadfast and dependable, the unconditional love of a dog in its middle years is not the frenetic or flamboyant fervour of a younger dog, but something more solid, more reserved, more stable.
While the weather, the news and the subject of my toddler’s latest tantrum will all be subject to change, it’s oddly reassuring to know that Henry will always pee with excitement when my husband gets back from work. When the outside world can be troubling and unpredictable, the constancy of your dog’s routine, of their affection, can feel like the ultimate in comfort and reassurance.
There is a certain melancholy to an older dog, the greying of the muzzle, the clouding of the eyes. The paws become heavier, the joints a little stiffer, and the realisation eventually comes that your dog cannot always do the things he was used to doing. He is slower, tireder, more dependent on you.
While health issues may creep in, there are many wonderful things about this stage, and as the long years of contentment shift almost imperceptibly into retirement, we must embrace our dog’s vulnerabilities and see what a pleasure and a privilege it is to be able to care for them. This is the autumnal stage of life, where joy is found in the smaller, cosy, sleepier things.
While most would say that a dog is not sentient enough to realise its days are numbered, it’s hard not see those gentle, milky eyes looking up at us without feeling they reflect some sense of nostalgia. Dogs live in the moment and we adore them for that, but a dog who has lived a long and loving life will be full to the brim with the joy of our shared memories – of the walks across fields, of cats chased, bones chewed and naps beside the fire.
Perhaps what we are seeing in them is just our memories, and in turn, a reflection of our own vulnerabilities. Our own mortality. We see in them how precious life can be.
As a nation, we tend to underestimate our capacity for emotion. The land of stiff upper lips, keeping calm and carrying on and chats about the rain all belie a gentler, soppier centre.
We are in fact total softies.
Rudyard Kipling got it right in his glorious poem, The Power of the Dog, in which he describes not only the pain of losing a dog, but our curious willingness to give our love to them so fully again and again. ‘Brothers and sisters, I bid you beware, of giving your heart to a dog to tear.’
As a nation of dog lovers, we know the heart breaking sadness of losing a beloved pet. We are slowly getting better at expressing it too, with services like the Blue Cross’ bereavement support line and the availability of more specialist pet bereavement counsellors. But despite the fact that we have taken our dogs into the very heart of our families, feeding, loving and sometimes even dressing them up as hotdogs, we do not allow time off work to mourn or really acknowledge that our grief can be anything less than devastating. Real, public grief seems reserved for humans only.
But we should mourn as long and as loud as we feel, so that in turn, we can then celebrate a life well lived and a friendship that was cherished. For the time may come that you think about starting all over again. A new chapter, a new adventure. A new dog.