“Walking the dog! Walking the dog! If you don’t know how to do it, I’ll show you how to walk the dog.” This is a song lyric that I have always taken literally – because, truth to tell, I’ve never known how to walk the dog. I want to leave the dog lying on the floor, after all, is there any creature in creation more deliciously reposeful than a slumbering hound. But no: the dog must be walked; this clever species, which has parasitised on humans now for thirty-odd thousand years, understands how to rouse us up, force us to clip ourselves on to their lead, and then let them lead us about cheerless suburbia for an hour or two. How pleasing it is to think that as soon as civilisation crumbles, dogs will be out together again, the Borzoi and the Poodle, reunited in a quest for carrion.
The family dog belonged to my brother. She arrived together with a litter, in a basket brought by the RSPCA. Those were the days – any weirdo could ask to have a dog and a whole bunch of them would be pitched into your house. Now you probably have to be assessed by social services for months before they let you get your hands on a vulnerable puppy. The litter was tumultuous, and as I recall they stayed with for a day or so, so that my brother could choose the one he wanted.
Naturally my brother – a gentle soul – picked the sixth, the runt; a brownish, canine scrap, which had remained lodged under the sofa throughout the trial. In fairness to him, Brownie – as she became known – was the perfect dog for our family. It’s hard to say whether nature was trumped by nurture in her case – or only augmented, but within months she’d become a neurotic, people-pleaser of an animal. We fought over every aspect of her care: feeding, walking, worming, petting – she was the passive victim of an unloving tug.
We did know how to look after dogs – we were a very doggy household. Not my father – who was largely absent, and not my mother either. She spent much of her time upstairs in bed, reclining on a bolster full of benzodiazepines, the victim of a savage pincer movement enacted by depression and migraine. During her down times my brother and I were disciplined – and the word is most appropriate – by Alison, a redoubtable, warm woman, whose principal occupation was the obedience training of dogs.
Alison didn’t just any old mutts to heel – she trained Alsatians. She trained Alsatians for the Metropolitan Police – and one of her dogs, Katie, scooped a third in her class at Crufts. Alison didn’t just know how to walk the dog, she knew how to get a dog to jump over a bench, go round a tree, track an armed assailant by scent alone, and then bring him down unharmed. When I was little I went on a lot of dog walks with Alison, Katie and the others; so many that I began to feel like one of the pack: the tense exhilaration as the woods finally hove into view, the surge of adrenaline as the back doors of the little station wagon were opened, the first glorious bounds through the sweet-smelling leaf fall, the near-orgasmic joy of treeing a squirrel.
You would’ve thought that with all this training I’d have become a very capable dog walker indeed. Not so. As the family fragmented, so poor Brownie became more and more distrait, until eventually, she had to be pensioned off to Alison in Essex. For the remainder of his life my father paid Alison a modest allowance, and referred to Brownie, gloomily, as “the stipendiary dog”.
I didn’t have anything much to do with dogs again, until years later, in Northern Australia, I found myself in charge of a Doberman pinscher belonging to a friend who’d gone on holiday. Presumably from his pet, for to call Boysie “frisky” would have been a grotesque understatement: he was a massive beast with a great, stilted, lolloping gait, who could run down a beach jogger in the twinkling of an eye. When I’d run up puffing, drag Boysie off the hapless runner and attach the leash to his choke collar, the terrified prey would almost always bellow: “˜Can’t you keep your bloody dog under control?” To which I was forced to reply: “Keep him under control? I can’t even keep myself under control!”
I should’ve learnt the important lesson by then, that if you can’t have a healthy relationship with a dog, you’re unlikely to have one with a human being. Sadly, a lot more humans – and quite a number of dogs – had to be sacrificed before the truth dawned on me, that I was better off lying asleep on the floor of the bar, than racing around making trouble.