Chapter 14: Summer of Love

Better at Not Barking – St Adina – A Nightmare Scenario – Foley Suggestion – Shakespearean Caution – Love and The MOD – Love means never having to come back till you’re lassoed

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Stanley’s getting better at not barking.

There. I’ve said it. It’s out there. I’ve had the t-shirt printed and everything.

There is a slight rider, though. He’s getting better at not barking but he’s no angel.

‘He barks when he feels afraid. When he’s uncomfortable in situation,’ Adina says, gently circling her fingers in the crazy wig of hair between his ears. Stanley’s eyes spiral in ecstasy. ‘The important thing is to show he can trust you to take care of situation for him. Then he can relax, and not worry about it. So. If you find yourself in situation, make sure you take Stanley a little further off. Yes? Put distance between you and whatever it is. And if that’s not possible, simply walk away in the other direction. Isn’t that right, Stanley? Hmm?’

And my memory might be a little hazy, but I’m pretty sure he nodded once, emphatically, before meekly accepting the tripe stick she passes down to him like a novice priest receiving the sacrament.

Quite why Stanley is afraid of the Golden Retriever that comes running towards him over the field is a mystery. Even from here you can tell it’s no danger to anyone. It couldn’t look more obviously friendly if it had huge, squeaky paws and a flashing bow tie (although, having written that, I’ll probably have nightmares). I think the issue isn’t the thing itself – a buffoonish dog running towards us straight out of clown dog school, the light entertainment between the Afghans on Horseback and the French Bulldogs on the flying trapeze – but the way in which he appears, which is suddenly, from a thicket of trees just to the right of the path. It’s like being ambushed by a giant tongue.

Luckily, Stan was on the lead at that point – only because there was a hole in the hedge that he’d run through after some rabbits the other day, and it was a job to get him back. As soon as he sees the Retriever he rears up on the lead and barks his bark. It’s such a rich and devastating sound. I’m sure they could use it as a sound effect in the next Jurassic Park movie. The scene where the velociraptor gets croup.

But here’s the thing. If I was a dog running happily over to meet another dog, and that other dog made a noise like that, I’d take it as a sign maybe I should exercise caution, and hang back a little, at least until someone wearing a bomb disposal suit went over first and made sure the scene was safe. But this particular dog is so filled with love for all things, so totally and open-heartedly devoted to finding pleasure in the world, and lapping it up, like a giant, golden bee rushing from moment to moment siphoning up the nectar (and there’s another nightmare I’ll be having later), it takes absolutely no notice, but rushes up to us regardless. I’m tempted to let Stanley off the lead, because I know that by hauling on the lead like this it’s only making him worse – but I think of that Shakespeare quote: Let slip the dogs of war. So I don’t. I look around for the owner. I see a woman in the distance, waving a lead in the air and calling Maisy or Daisy or something, without the least effect. I try walking off purposefully in the other direction. Which would be fine, if Maisy or Daisy (I’ll call her MOD for short) stayed put and didn’t follow. But of course she follows, because whereas Stanley has a darkly nuanced vocabulary of emotions, influenced by his nine long years of abuse, MOD has one mood setting, which is LOVE. Dialled up to eleven.

I feel bad for everyone, particularly MOD. Looking at her, though, I’m not sure it’ll set her back all that much. She is the epitome of Golden Retriever, the essential article, stuffed full of golden things, Affection and Love and Goodness and Forgiveness and I don’t know what, hurrying about the world, retrieving wonders.

I give up trying to walk away, because apparently it doesn’t matter that Stanley has transformed into a huffing and puffing troll swinging a spiky club and threatening bloody vengeance, MOD trails happily in our wake like a hippy at a festival strewing flowers left and right and sticking a few in her hair.

‘I’m so sorry about that!’ says MODs owner, catching up at last and lassoing the Retriever. ‘She’s not the best dog in the world at coming back, especially when she’s having such a lovely time.’

‘That’s okay!’ I said. ‘I’m sorry about Stanley. He’s a good dog, really, but he still has a bit of a barking problem.’

‘Oh dear!’ says the woman, smiling down at Stanley – although her smile doesn’t seem quite as unconditional as the Retriever’s.

‘He’s getting better though,’ I tell her.


Chapter 15: Lunch at the Bitch Cafe

Dog Heaven – Too Many James Bond Films – What Dogs Do on the Beach (other than that) – Tide Brutality – A Useful List of Cross-Breeds – What the N in RNLI Really Stands For – An Idea for Curing Arachnophobia (you’re welcome) – Two Guys & an Essex Port – Wall of Fame – Collies Getting Smaller – Food Order Getting Cold

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We walk along the beach heading for a seaside cafe we’ve heard is dog-friendly. We keep Stanley on the lead, because there’s just too much going on, too much distraction. This whole resort seems to be some kind of dog heaven and we feel like we’re among our people. For some reason it makes me think of friends of ours who became obsessive triathletes. They bought a timeshare on an apartment in a training resort at Lanzarote. Which I have to say made me feel a little uneasy when they showed us pictures. Long lines of super-fit athletes, exercising in unison in the early morning sun. Scientists in white coats, smiling approvingly, taking measurements from a balcony, announcing the best times over the tannoy, calling people forward, travelling with them in electric buggies to the lab at the heart of the volcano. Guards up on gantries, a rocket, yadda yadda. You’ve seen the film. Anyway, plots to rule the world aside, timeshare can really tie you down.

There are dogs everywhere, leaping off the dunes, splashing through the shallows left by the retreating tide, careening round the windbreaks, surfing, kayaking and whatnot. Stan had a busy time running around out on the flats this morning, so he’s happy enough on the lead, and anyway, he seems to know we’re heading in the direction of food. We stride along the damp, compact sand of the strandline, along by heaps of broken shells and things, washed-up jellyfish drying out in the sun. A dead white crab waggling in the shallows, belly up. It’s like every time the tide goes out there’s a mass extinction event. But there’s such a stack of all these things I can only think there’s plenty more where that came from. The gulls and terns seem happy about the situation, piping and swooping exultingly overhead.

We hear the cafe before we see it. A great mass of noise, a Tower of Babel, except more like a Tower of Tables, with at least half a dozen hyperactive dogs per table.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. It’s the dress code at the Beach Cafe. You have to have one to eat. Don’t worry if you don’t, though. There’s a retired chihuahua behind the counter you can use, like an old tie in a fancy restaurant.

Dogs, dogs, dogs. Dogs of every variety. Sheep dogs, sausage dogs, GSPs, ESPs (bred to know where you’ve hidden the treats); surfer dogs; instadogs posing with an espresso and a French novel; border collies & collies from further inland; poodles, labradoodles, cockalabs, labacockercollies, cockatiels. There’s even a rare labarridor (a labrador born in the corridor). The cafe is right next door to the lifeboat station, which is a nice touch and makes it feel safer. I imagine when the klaxon sounds, six Newfoundlands throw down their forks and leap across the forecourt into an inflatable.

We approach the cafe with a thrill of anxiety. It may have been my imagination, but the great hubbub stops as we approach, thirty pairs of dark dog eyes snapping in our direction, thirty tongues doing an anticipatory smack of the muzzle as we head up the slope to see if there are any tables free. For a dog that sometimes has issues barking at other dogs, Stanley seems remarkably subdued. Maybe his usual responses have been overwhelmed. A bit like curing a fear of spiders by walking into a spider convention where everyone’s dressed as a spider and then shuffling into a little cinema draped in spiderweb to watch a film about spiders. Although having read that back to myself, I’m not so sure it’d work.

Amazingly there is a table free, way over to the left of the place, with a candy-striped awning and plenty of shade. The girls settle-in, Stanley slumps down under the table, and I go inside to place our order.

The queue takes an age to move. I can’t figure out if the two guys in front of me know each other or not. They’re dressed almost identically, in sandals, khaki shorts, polo shirts and baseball caps. The only difference is the colour of the shirts, and the fact whilst one guy is tall and drawn out, the other is a foot or so shorter and kind of squashed looking, with a belly so perfectly round you’d think he was carrying another guy in there, and so on, like a blokey matryoshka. The tall guy is talking at great length about Tilbury docks, the fabulous resources they have there, the tonnage, the history and so on. The short guy gives just enough in the way of Hmms and Okays and Reallys? to keep the whole thing going, but I can tell his heart’s not in it. He seems more interested in the cake display than a major international shipping facility just outside of London.

There’s a Wall of Fame just inside the cafe. You can email the cafe a picture of your dog and if it looks crazy enough they’ll pin it up (taking down the ones that are starting to look a bit dog-eared.) It’s an impressive collection – a hundred crazy hounds, blurry head shots of every dog that’s ever been slipped a corner of fried toast or the end of a sausage from the plate of the wonderful all-day breakfast.

Back outside, Kath is talking to the woman at the next table who has two little black and white dogs lying up against her legs like furry slippers.
‘They’re actually Bordoodles,’ the woman says. ‘Border Collies crossed with poodles. To make them smaller and more manageable.’
‘They’re gorgeous!’ says Kath.
‘And they know it!’ says the woman, leaning down to fuss them between the ears. ‘Don’t you? Hey? Don’t you?’
‘Number Thirty-Seven!’ shouts a guy holding two plates of food.

And I have to fight my way through a pack of wolves to get to it.


Chapter 14: To the Coast

A stop off – Meeting Amelia – A Good Long Stretch – Groomers’ Perks & Quirks – Gender Identity – Queen Victoria vs. Gladstone – Mean Bones and How to Spot Them – Rescues take Patiencepaw print

En route to the coast for a short break we take a detour to see my mum. The whole visit gets quite a build up. Mum’s keen to meet Stan, but she’s a little anxious, too. She’s been reading the blog and knows he can be a handful. She’s worried he won’t get along with her dog, Amelia, a miniature Schnauzer with a big personality, a dog who’s taken on such mythic proportions since mum got her a few years ago, I wouldn’t be surprised to be met at the door by a particularly hairy woman in a peaked cap, holding out a paw, demanding to see our papers.

We make it to mum’s in good time. The girls have made brownies and cinnamon biscuits, so we take them out into the garden to have them with mugs of tea, sitting under the porch awning when it starts to rain a little. Stanley stretches out on the grass, sighing theatrically, extending his legs like his paws are on invisible strings and there’s about another three feet of leg in there somewhere. He’s been cooped up in the car for hours, apart from a brief stop for coffee and a comfort break. Somehow we’d ended up in a dodgy tributary of the motorway services, the car park of an abandoned motel, pulling up next to a pile of soft toys fly-tipped on the verge, like some other family were forced to off-load all sentiment to have any hope of completing their trip. But I don’t believe in omens. Just coffee.

Amelia keeps a close watch on him from behind mum’s recliner.

‘The woman who grooms Amelia is so good,’ says mum. ‘She’s won competitions. Even taught grooming. But she only charges twenty five quid, which I have to say is pretty reasonable. Don’t you?’
‘Sounds about right.’
‘Stanley would cost more because he’s bigger. Does he shed?’
‘Yeah – he does. Especially in the summer.’
‘Amelia doesn’t shed. I couldn’t have a dog that sheds. Because of the asthma. Is she a lurcher?’
‘He. Stanley’s a male lurcher.’
‘But she’s got such long legs.’
‘He. He’s a he. Yeah – a lot of them do. Depends what he’s crossed with. Maybe a gantry crane.’
‘More like a labrador.’
‘Yeah. Probably.’

Between you and me, though, I have to say, despite the groomer having won the Nobel prize for grooming or something, Amelia looks a little bottom heavy, a thick frill running all the way around the middle. When she walks it kicks up like a Victorian crinoline skirt. With that grumpy and beetling frown on her face, she even looks a bit like Queen Victoria, hurrying across the croquet lawn to take a swing at Gladstone with a mallet.

‘Amelia is so friendly with other dogs,’ says mum. ‘She’s a bit put out she can’t just go up to Stanley and be friends.’
‘It’s not Amelia, though, mum – it’s Stan. He’s had nine years of neglect, don’t forget. His legs were so deconditioned he could barely walk for fifteen minutes at a stretch. Who knows what he’s been through? It’s not surprising he’s got a few issues.’
‘I don’t understand why people mistreat dogs like that,’ she says, taking a swallow of tea. Then after a pause – ‘But I did think they might get on. I thought they could be friends. Amelia seems very wary of Stanley. Do you think he’d hurt her?’
‘It’s best to be on the safe side,’ I say. ‘He’s had a long drive in the car, he’s on another dog’s patch. There’s a chance he might get a bit scratchy.’
‘Well I don’t understand it,’ says mum. ‘Amelia is so good with other dogs.’
‘It’s like I say – it’s not her, it’s him.’
‘I mean – she does bark a lot, but she hasn’t got a mean bone in her body. They can see she doesn’t mean any harm.’
‘Best be safe, though.’
‘How old is she?’
‘He. Stanley’s a he.’
‘Sorry. All dogs are bitches to me. How old is he?’
‘Nine!’ she says. ‘Ah.’ Then after staring out across the garden awhile, says: ‘Shame, though. I did hope they might get along.’

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Chapter 13: On the couch

How Stanley sleeps – Adina’s Advice – Anger Management for Therapists – Three Reasons – Biscuit being one of them – Sigmund Stanley

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Stanley needs counselling.

Especially if it’s old school psychotherapy, in a studious, book-stuffed room, with a palm in a jardiniere and a great big leather ottoman. Stan would look amazing, sprawled out on the ottoman, his paws dangling over the sides in that dejected way he has, his goatish head pointing straight down at the parquet flooring. He sleeps like that in his basket and it can’t be comfortable. He reminds me of that painting, The Death of Chatterton, the poor poet hanging half in, half out of his bed after an overdose of laudanum. Although in Stanley’s case, it’d be tripe sticks.

The fact is, not only do I not understand Stanley, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand himself.

‘Don’t worry. It will take time,’ Adina said, circling her fingers hypnotically through his crazy white fur. ‘Stanley has been through very bad situation. It will come out slowly. You must be patient with him.’ And my memory might be wrong about this, but I think he raised his eyebrows to look straight at me, making sure I was getting it all down.

I can totally imagine Adina as a psychotherapist, in a tweed jacket and monocle, one leg crooked over the other, a notepad on her lap, nodding gently and empathetically. Although – before you say anything – I do realise this is ridiculously out of date re. psychotherapy, and goes some way to explaining why I’m not working in mental health. Or in the movies as a casting director, come to that.

If Stanley DID go to see a psychotherapist, it’d be interesting to see how long they kept their temper. I suppose it would depend if they put a throw on the ottoman first, to protect the fine leather from his scuffing great paws. No sooner had they done that, Stanley would leap up and start fussing, dredging and worrying at it, so intently you’d think he was digging for water rather than rearranging soft furnishings. The psychotherapist would be waiting in their armchair, making a note maybe, sighing, cleaning their monocle or whatever. Sighing some more. Then eventually they’d slam the pad down on the floor, jump up, and after saying : ‘Oh for goodness sake!’ or worse, stride over, straighten the throw again, stroke his head and help him settle (which he’d accept with a heart-melting look from his big black eyes). ‘There, Stanley! Now perhaps we can begin the session!’ And by the time the psychotherapist had made it back to their armchair, Stanley would have produced his squeaky chipmunk from who knows where, and the therapist would curse and throw their pad down again.

Here are three reasons I think Stanley could benefit from psychotherapy:

1. Sometimes he acts as if his paws don’t belong to him, or they’re being worked by someone remotely, someone with a grudge. He’ll make himself jump doing the simplest things, like scratching his ears, or walking. The dog shelter didn’t tell us much about where he came from, other than the fact he shared the house with a psychotic little terrier called Biscuit, who – judging by the way he looked us up and down through the bars – was a cross between a Garibaldi and a ginger nut. Who knows how far Biscuit got into Stanley’s head in those early days. It’s unthinkable. The dog needed exorcising, not exercising.

2. Stanley sleeps with his paws over his ears. Now and again he’ll give a disappointed sigh, the sort of noise you might make if you’d applied for annual leave but got turned down because there were too many people off that week. Administrative annoyance, in other words. Nothing too bad. He’d probably tut if he could.

3. Stanley lies down in the worst possible places, stretching his long legs out in front of him, then resting his head on his legs and flicking his eyes about as if he’s just waiting for someone to tread on his tail or fall backwards over him with a tray of ice cream and spoons. Maybe it’s his way of proving to himself – and to anyone who cares enough to witness – that yes, here’s another terrible household, with people who don’t give a damn about causing significant injury to a poor old lurcher, and hadn’t he been expecting just exactly this sort of thing all along? (But maybe that’s not his motivation. Maybe it’s just that he wants to get as close as possible to the food – but hey, I’m not a therapist).

Of course, another reading of the whole scenario is that I’m the one who needs the counselling. And I’m fully prepared to admit that may be the case. Who wouldn’t benefit from six months, once a week? Only – it’d be just my luck to be lying on that ottoman, reaching some kind of epiphany, then glancing over to the armchair only to see Stanley sitting there, in a tweed jacket, monocle, with a pad on his hairy knee, nodding sadly and smiling with his two good teeth.

‘Well!’ he’d say. ‘I think we’re making excellent progress!’ Then he’d scratch his ear with his pen, and yelp.



Chapter 12: The Hole-in-the-Hedge gang

A horse called Onion, or something – A simple hack across the moor – Butch C. & Co. – The Wild Bunch – Stanley & why foals like him – Bushwhacked (again)

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I don’t understand horses.

Not that I’m particularly good with dogs (as this diary proves), but horses? I can’t read them. I certainly can’t RIDE them. I got up on one, once. A narcoleptic piece of furniture called Onion or Blanche or Rasputin or something. Anyway, it was enormous and old and sprouting with hair, so lacking in enthusiasm you could have offered it a carrot the size of an oak tree and it would’ve curled its lip – something it seemed to do a lot, exposing teeth so horribly blockish and yellow the only thing I could imagine it eating was a bucket of hardcore. I did my best to be friendly, reaching out to stroke the nozzle or whatever it’s called and say encouraging things, but it just turned and stared at me as if I was just the latest damned thing to walk in the yard. All this happened a few years ago and I’m not quite sure but I think I was lowered onto it by crane. We set off for a hack across Dartmoor. Not the most comfortable ride, like throwing your leg over a chest of drawers with a piece of string to guide it. Every few steps Onion would stop to tear at some meagre clumps of grass by the side of the lane. The grass was terrible. He knew it. I knew it. He was only doing it to make a point. And anyway, he probably thought there was a good chance I might slide off into a ravine, and he’d be led back to the paddock to make room for the emergency services. I held on, though, my knees up by ears, hip bones snapping like an old pretzel. I was determined not to be beaten and somehow made it to the end of the ride. But he had the last laugh. When we got back to the farm I had to be dragged off sideways. I could only walk by wobbling from side to side like a model cowboy, with a fixed, plastic grin of pleasure.

All this is to say that, like Stanley, I was wary of the Hole-in-the-Hedge gang.

No-one seems to know who owns the horses that live in the fields to the north-east of the village. I’ve certainly never seen anybody tending them. (Is that what you do with horses? Tend?) No horse boxes or bales of hay. No vets striding across the field in white coats and green wellies, waving big syringes. (Seriously – I’ve no idea). There used to be a group of three adults. Two completely brown, one a sort of unfinished brown and white. The brown and white one was the leader. For the sake of argument, let’s call him Butch Cassidy. Butch would step out from behind a tree and come right up to you, giving a peremptory nod of his head, as if to say Hands Up before he frisked you for treats. The others always hung back a little, sniggering and nudging each other, in that psycho-subordinate way you often see in cliché gangs of this nature.

Recently there have been some younger additions to the gang. A couple of frisky teenage horses on legs they’ve improvised out of clothes props and bed springs. Let’s call them The Wild Bunch. They seem to spend their time either horsing around or lying in stupefied heaps. You have to admire their commitment, if nothing else. When The Wild Bunch are crazy, they’re completely crazy, leaping and kicking and chasing each other in circles like teenagers in stolen cars pulling doughnuts in a supermarket car park.

Their favourite thing, though, is sneaking up on Stanley.

Maybe they just want Stanley in their gang. They like his anti-establishment stance, his wild, apocalyptic, who-gives-a-damn look. A punk hybrid of sheep, goat and cartoon wolf. They probably see gunslinger potential in his lope.

Whatever the reason, whenever we walk over those fields, and however far away The Wild Bunch happen to be when we go through the gate, they always look up, and then disappear, and then suddenly reappear, lunging enthusiastically out of a thicket, or swinging in on ropes, ears and nostrils flaring, hooves flexing provocatively over their holsters.

Stanley always barks, of course. Not anything extended. More like swearing. And I really can’t blame him, because I’m swearing, too. But there’s not much to be done but walk on calmly as if being bushwhacked by a couple of psychopathic foals is perfectly routine and normal and nothing to worry about and oh, look! A treat!

And we run smack dab into Butch, who’s planted himself further along the path.
It was all a distraction. We fell for it, goddamn it.
Butch gives me the nod.
‘You, there! The guy with the Mad Max kinda sheep!’ he seems to say. ‘Stop right where you are and turn out your pockets.’

Horses, eh?horses


Chapter 11: Lolloping for Beginners

An awkward confession – Cooking for Elvis – Cars – Neurologists – Lolloping at Crufts – As silent (but not nearly as co-ordinated) as an Owl – Suspiciously the Same Paw

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I keep a dream diary.

Which is, by the way, exactly the kind of diary you can leave out anywhere, safe in the knowledge no-one’s going to read it – certainly not past the first few lines. Because whilst in real life it’s generally frowned on to run screaming down the road when someone says to you ‘I had this weird dream last night…’ so you’re obliged to stand there secretly pinching yourself to stay focused whilst they segue endlessly from being naked in an exam hall to cooking spaghetti for Elvis and so on, and you feel the inevitable so what do you think THAT all means? looming towards you on the horizon like some alien moon, and you’re wondering if a shrug’ll do it – with a dream diary you can just snap it shut and move on.

I only mention it because the way Stanley runs reminds me of a dream I had.

I was in a car that was going faster and faster. And people were jumping out of the way and screaming, and I was desperately pumping the brakes and slamming the gears but nothing worked. And then the steering wheel came off in my hands and I was left grappling with the steering column, twisting it left and right…

(So what do you think THAT all means….?)

I’m sure if you put Stanley through a CAT scan you’d see the reason why.
‘This region here…’ says the Neurologist – a severe looking individual in a white lab coat and fifties specs, hair brilliantined back, holding a clipboard. (And I’m standing next to him, naked…. no, sorry, that’s another dream…) ‘This region here is what we call the Lollopus Ganglious. It’s the region that provides excitability and recklessness to the limbs. In Stanley’s case, I’m afraid this region is twice its normal size.’
‘What’s to be done?’
‘Why – nothing!’ smirks the Neurologist, repositioning his specs, then lighting a cigarette. ‘Just make sure you only let him off the lead in soft areas – ball pits, trampolines, marshmallow factories, that kind of thing. Some owners like to tie cushions around their pets. Others fly them on balloons rather than walk them….’

Then I wake up.

The truth is, though, for whatever reason, Stanley is fantastically uncoordinated. He lacks precision. He has no faculty for fine motor control. He runs like a squid escaping from a laboratory on the moon. Or a puppet dog on macramé legs that a leprechaun brought to life for the craic. In other words, he lollops.

He’s a lolloper. If there was a class at Crufts like fly-ball but for lolloping – points awarded for the number of times you crashed into posts or cartwheeled tail over nose because the front half suddenly and unexpectedly stopped and the back half just kept on going … he’d win the cup. And then fall over it.

The other thing about Stanley lolloping is that he’s completely and utterly silent. To watch him in action you’d think the sound had gone off, or you’d suddenly lost your hearing. He’s the epitome of silent. An owl gliding from nowhere onto an unsuspecting mouse makes more noise than Stanley lolloping (but then, I’m guessing the owl doesn’t tend to disappear off into a hedge in an embarrassing cartwheel when it lowers its undercarriage).

None of this matters, of course. Stanley never had any ambition to go to Crufts. He’s too good for that place. He’d much rather lie on the carpet with his paws over his ears (or somersault backwards into a blackcurrant bush chasing a ball). The only trouble is that he seems to have a weak front left paw (or nearside paw, as the vet said once, like he was a mechanic talking about a dodgy front tire that needed attention). Without an x-ray it’s impossible to be sure, but it looks like he sustained an injury there in the past when he was seriously neglected, and it healed imperfectly. So his lolloping is fine except it means he’s more likely to aggravate that weakness.

As he did today.

It was the most perfect morning. Already warm despite being early. Clear blue sky. A meadow spilling with buttercups and tall grass. Lola and Stanley go charging off through it all, having an amazing time. Lola exploring it with the grave demeanour of a naturalist from the university, Stanley like a long-legged sheep-kangaroo hybrid that had been grazing on magic mushrooms. Which meant that – at the end of the walk – Stanley yelped, stopped, and held his paw up with a forlorn expression.

He did this before, when he ran up to a collie, wiped-out spectacularly in the mud, and we took him to the vets because we thought he’d fractured his paw. At that point he held it in the same way – sitting on his haunches, his left leg up, holding the injured paw so loosely you could bat it with your hand and it would spin 360 degrees (we didn’t, of course).
‘Has he got a thorn in it?’ Kath said, rifling through the fur on his paw. We couldn’t see one.
All we could do was put him back on the lead and walk slowly back home. He gradually put the weight back on the paw, though, and by the time we reached the kissing gate he seemed back to normal.

But I suppose that’s the thing about lollopers. They heal quickly.

They have to.


Chapter 10: The Great Escape

The Spaniel – Tunnelling for Beginners – Whose dog is this? – Him or Me – Aeronautics for Houndspaw print
There’s a dog we see on the walk sometimes. Or – not so much see as experience. It’s a spaniel. I think. It’s actually hard to tell, because the moment it catches sight or scent of Stanley, it leaps a foot in the air and explodes into a mad cloud of fur and teeth and howl. Incredibly, it’s the one dog Stanley doesn’t react to. It’s as if the dog is crazy enough for both of them. The owners walk The Spaniel together, in the same way that maximum security prisoners get two guards round the exercise yard rather than one. And no sooner has he launched himself into his terrifying impression of a fire tornado, they huddle round him, shielding him from the thing that set him off, whether that’s a dog, a jogger, a cyclist, a van… I don’t know – a snail would probably push him over the edge.

Needless to say it makes me – and Stanley – feel incredibly smug.
We swap glances.
‘What a carry on…’
‘Some dogs…’
‘Some people…’
‘You’d think they’d show some restraint…’
‘Perhaps we should give them Adina’s number…’
(Although even Adina would struggle giving The Spaniel a treat without him being wheeled out of ECT in a strait jacket).

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Lola has started escaping from the garden, and we think it’s part of a campaign. About Stanley.

We thought she’d accepted him. When we caught them sleeping on the sofa together, it felt like we’d turned a corner. And even though Lola still curled her lip when Stanley tried to steal her chew, mostly they seemed to be rubbing along together pretty well.

The garden is one of those long, thin, suburban affairs, a wooden fence on the left and a juniper hedge on the right. The hedge eventually gives way to an apple tree and a loose attempt to disguise a lot of hardcore as a rockery. It’s the obvious weak spot in the garden’s security, so we’d cobbled together a kind of fence to keep the dogs safe. Plus there was a holly tree and a pyracantha shrub tangled in with it all, which was as good as barbed wire.

So it was a surprise when Lola started turning up next door.

I couldn’t figure out how she was doing it. I could only imagine she’d been working on a tunnel since the day we brought Stanley back from the centre, patiently paddling out a bit of soil at a time, carefully disposing of it in the drive, then covering the entrance up with a door made of grass and twigs. She’s such a clever dog, I wouldn’t be surprised to find a whole trolley system down there, with candles in old tin cans and some bellows made of stolen pillows for ventilation. But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t see any way through the hedge or the fence to next door. And the trouble was, next door had no gate between the garden and the main road.

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One morning, around half five, Kath’s phone lit up.
She groaned, rolled over to see what it was.
‘Oh my God!’
A post on the local gossip page (a bit worrying it’s one of her alerts, but this wasn’t the time or the place to talk about it). A photo of Lola standing defiantly at the top of the road, the wind in her ears. The caption read: Whose dog is this?
Apparently, they’d tried to catch her but she’d given them the slip.
The next thing we knew, there was a single bark at the front door. It was Lola. She gave herself a little shake and came trotting through, and the subtext was clear: This will keep on happening until you get rid of Stanley. It’s me or the lummox.

There was nothing for it but to put the pet flap on and keep them both inside till we’d sorted out the problem.

On my next day off we hacked back all the undergrowth down there. Bought a roll of chicken wire, knocked in some posts, and did everything short of hiring guards to make sure Lola couldn’t get through. Even The Spaniel would’ve burn itself out trying to get through that lot. But Lola? She quietly watched us while we worked, from a distance, her paws crossed so innocently and thoughtfully it was obvious she was planning something, sketching her calculations in the dirt.

She really is a smart dog.

I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see her in a few days, leaping off the roof in a hang glider improvised from a clothes horse and the fleeces from her basket.


Chapter 9: Disaster!

The Seven Week Itch – Mosquitos & Me – Air Purifiers & What They Do – The Itch/Scratch Cycle – Tapping Out – (Another) Fact of Life
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It starts as an itch. A scratch, and another itch, and another scratch. An irritating prickle I  chase absentmindedly from site to site – from the centre of my forehead to my ear to my neck to the back of my shoulder, my knee, my calf, the crook of my elbow, back to my ear again. Followed by a sneeze. Then another. And another, the last one after massing ominously on the horizon like a great, big, sneezy tornado. And then a rash. Sprouting on my forearm like a clump of tiny mushrooms after the rain. So bad I have to hunt through the medicine box for an out of date Piriton tablet – which immediately turns me into a zombie. A zombie with an itch. And there’s only one conclusion I can possibly draw from all this.

I’m allergic to Stanley.

How can anyone be allergic to anything so cute? An allergy to spider bites – fine. An allergy to dust mites – well, okay. But Stanley? An animal so innocent that when he turns his long muzzle in your direction and fixes you with those sad, button black eyes you just want to drop to your knees sobbing and confess all your sins. That Stanley? 

‘You could take a non-drowsy antihistamine,’ says Kath, Googling for advice.
‘I’ve tried that. It doesn’t do any good. You may as well swallow a lo-fat sweetener for all the good that does.’
‘You could get one of those scratch tests. You know – where they put different things on your skin to find out which ones you’re sensitive to.’
‘I think I know it’s Stanley. When I stroke him, then scratch my shoulder, it comes out in a paw-shaped welt.’
‘It probably is him, then. So – I suppose – one of you will have to go…’
She smiles at me without finishing the sentence.
‘I’ll pack my bag,’ I say, standing up.
‘Let me text my friends first and see if they’ve got any ideas…’

It’s not a full-on anaphylaxis, but still – the whole thing’s a shock. The only sensitivity I’d shown to the animal kingdom up to that point was crying when Will Smith killed his dog in I Am Legend.
Although – that’s not quite true. I’m pretty sensitive to mosquitos. Mosquitos have really got my number. It’s probably on some insect app, a bit like Waze, except for biting. Whatever it is, they always come straight to me, wherever I am, whatever I’m wearing. And when they jam their pointy snoots up to their eyebrows through my epidermis, I swell up at the site like a balloon on Labour day. Apart from that, though, I’ve always been pretty good with the natural world. So it’s a surprise that I’m sensitive to Stanley.
‘Could be his dander,’ says Kath. ‘Could be his urine. His saliva. The whole damned dog. It’s hard to know without a test. You can get shots to build up an immunity – but we’ll have to wait a while for that. Another thing we can do is hoover more often, maybe get an air purifier for the sitting room.’
‘I’ll do anything,’ I say, scratching my arm, my ear, my neck. ‘Otherwise I’ll be camping outside for the next ten years.’
‘Let’s try the air purifier first…’

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The air purifier is about the size of a two litre can of paint and sits on the floor by my chair making reassuring whirring noises. There was another, more beautiful model on the market, something tall and elegant and futuristic, like a time tunnel in the shape of a giant needle’s eye. Not only did it control the temperature and filter the air, it sent all the allergens and dust mites back in time a hundred years. But it was out of our price range, so we went with the can of paint instead.

I’m impressed at how quiet it is, though, and the blue light at the top is soothing. It feels like something’s happening, which is probably half the battle. Stanley doesn’t seem to mind it. He looks at it with the same, slightly disappointed look he gives everything else.
‘The important thing is to break the itch/scratch cycle,’ says Kath. ‘The more you itch, the more you scratch.’
‘It’s hard when it’s so delicious.’
‘Faye says you should try tapping.’
‘What’s that?’
‘It’s easy. All you’ve got to do is tap certain meridian points and say out loud I accept myself as I am and let all my anxiety and insecurities go – and you get over the allergy. And everything else, probably.’
‘I don’t feel anxious about Stanley. I just feel itchy.’
‘It’s more about your whole life.’
‘But I wasn’t itching before we got Stanley.’
‘Don’t shoot the messenger. Anyway – I’ve ordered some sprays, as well – to treat the bedding. And don’t keep letting Stan upstairs.’
I look over at him.
‘Oh, Stanley!’ I say. ‘Why can’t life be straightforward?’
He grunts and puts both paws over his ears. And if I wasn’t scratching so much, I’d do the same.allergy

Chapter 8: On the Touchline

The Power of Touch – Alternative Therapies Rated – A Grumpy Tarot Reader Sees Everything – Raking it in – Practice makes Perfect – Sporty Dogs – Who Actually is being Trained Here – On the Line – Adina’s Kryptonite

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Adina’s back for another session, and for the first time I have my doubts.

‘Stanley has some way to go before he can trust again,’ she says. ‘One thing you can do to help restore his confidence is through massage. Have you heard of the T Touch?’
She demonstrates the technique – a series of formal circular passes with her hands up and down Stanley’s flank.
‘Like this,’ says Adina, ‘little circles, this way…then this…’
Stanley squeezes his eyes shut and seems to be enjoying it, but then he loves any kind of attention, especially if there’s the possibility of food at the end of it.
‘It realigns the flow of energy around the dog, and irons out any kinks,’ says Adina, digging her fingers in. ‘The technique was developed by a woman who knew a lot about dogs. And horses.’
I’m shocked. Adina’s been so thoroughly practical up till now, it’s like someone showing you how to make a great pastry tart in five easy steps, then waving a branch of witch hazel to bless the filling.
I know I’m conflicted. A tarot reader told me. When she asked me to pick my cards from the spread, I finished off with the first and the last. Now I’ve seen everything she said. A pragmatic fatalist. And I think it threw her, because the reading was so wildly off she gave me a refund.

So I admit – although I like the romance and mystery of these things, for the most part I’m pretty cynical. Alternative therapy is like religion. There’s a requirement that you hang your rational self on the peg at the door with your hat, and if you don’t – well – the magic won’t happen. And whilst it’s true that I’m happy to use mobile phones without having the slightest idea how they work, I can’t quite bring myself to believe in the healing power of crystals, or the importance of balancing your chakra, or the homeopathic benefits to be had from drinking a tincture of nettle so dilute you’d get more of a nettle hit putting your head out of the window when it’s raining. It doesn’t help that a friend of ours has made a career out of alternative therapies. Her latest business is online healing. She can work her magic over the phone, which you’d have to say is convenient, and good for the environment, if nothing else.
‘Would you like to try?’ says Adina. Stanley turns his head and gives me a deeply cynical look.
I follow the pattern of circles in Stanley’s fur. He shudders.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Adina. ‘It takes a bit of practice.’

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We head out with Stanley on the usual circuit. He trots along very happily next to Adina, as relaxed as I’ve ever seen him. So maybe the T Touch has done some good – supplemented by the treats he takes from her every five yards.
We cut down a lane.
A man emerges from a gate to the right, followed by two muscular brown labradors. They all look pretty squared-off and heavy, and I’m guessing from the man’s rugby shirt that he does actually play. Probably on the same team as the dogs. Loosehead Prop, Tighthead Prop, Hooker.
When they see us they go into a scrum.
‘Now – this is good opportunity to get Stanley used to seeing other dogs walk by,’ says Adina, studying the field. ‘He’s relaxed at the moment. He doesn’t feel too threatened. But if he starts to show signs, we walk the other way. Okay? Okay.’ And she passes Stanley another treat, to make sure he understands the tactic.
I cross over to talk to the man.
‘Lovely day!’ I say.
‘Yes!’ he says.
‘We’re training him,’ I say.
‘Ah!’ he says. ‘Thought so.’
‘He’s not great on the lead. He barks a lot.’
‘He seems to be doing alright at the moment.’
We both look over at him. The labradors are a bit sneery but Stanley is too fixated on Adina to notice.
‘That’s the thing with dogs,’ says the man. ‘They need to know the rules.’
And with a big-pawed wave he heads off in the opposite direction, labradors left and right, their paws so heavy you can almost feel them through the pavement.
‘There!’ says Adina. ‘That was very good, don’t you think? So long as he has confidence that you are taking care of things, that he doesn’t have to do anything to protect himself or anyone else, and all will be well.’

We carry on.

It’s like the morning has been blessed. Stanley is polite to every dog we pass. Sometimes we stand to the side and encourage him to sniff in their direction, or ignore them, whatever he’s most comfortable with. Sometimes we carry on walking. At no time does Stanley do anything to disturb the peace. I feel encouraged, almost relaxed.
‘He’s like a different dog,’ I say to Adina.
‘He is same,’ she says. ‘Maybe you are changing.’

We pass a long line of tiny nursery school children, all wearing fluorescent tabards, all holding on to a rope, a teacher at the front and a teacher at the back. The children all laugh and smile and point, extremely excited to see something else being taken out for a walk on a lead.

We come to the churchyard. I’m just about to ask Adina a question when Stanley suddenly launches into one of his atomic woofs, throwing himself forwards so heavily it’s a struggle to stay upright. Too late I see what Stanley has seen: a French bulldog, quietly watching us approach from further along the path, ears up, legs planted, staring as malevolently as a gargoyle that leapt down off the church roof to test our faith. Stanley is so enraged even his favourite treat won’t work. There’s nothing we can do but retreat.

‘Frenchie!’ sniffs Adina. ‘There’s nothing to be done about Frenchie.’

fortune teller stan

Chapter 7: Stanley vs. Poodle

[Note: I’m playing catch-up with these diary entries, so all this happened about a month ago, before the coronavirus outbreak. Hope you’re all well & staying safe x]

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Dog, Doped – Mallard vs. Hedgehog – Into the Storm – What Rich People put on their Gates – How to Saw a Log Without Losing Your Fingers – The Military Man & His Scout – A Single Lummoxing Woof – No Harm done – The Aftermath (yet another treat)

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Stan has been housebound for two weeks. Not so much slumped in his basket as poured into it like unset dog jelly in a mould. Doped to his eyeballs on indolence and Inflacam. If he had a harmonica – and the fingers to play it – he’d break your heart.

In an effort to cheer him up I go to a pet store to buy him a toy. I end up standing in the pet food aisle with a mallard in one hand and a hedgehog in the other, staring at them, unable to decide. I can’t imagine either of them lasting long, especially the mallard. An elderly woman happens by the aisle at exactly the moment when I squeak them both to see which sounds best. She gives me a severe look, but whether it’s because she thinks this isn’t something a grown man should be doing, squeezing dog toys in public, or whether I’d made her think her pacemaker was misfiring, it’s impossible to say. She shakes her head and hurries on. I toss the mallard in the trolley and hope for the best.

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Unfortunately, I’m out of luck with the duck.

‘I think it’s alright to take him out now,’ says Kath. ‘Keep him on the lead, though.’
And she gives me a look as long and disapproving as the woman in the supermarket.
I unhook his lead from the hanger by the door.
‘Come on, then, Stanley Manlington!’
He leaps out of the basket, head-first into the harness, and if I wasn’t quick enough with the door, I would’ve been dragged after him through the dog flap.

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Needless to say, it’s windy and raining. The streets are deserted, swept clear by gusts so strong I wouldn’t be surprised to see a cackling, airborne witch peddling past on her bike, a little dog in the basket. I’m glad I don’t, because Stanley would bark and I’m not sure how she’d take it.

We cut through an alley, following the road down until we’re on a long avenue we call Millionaire’s Row, because all the houses are enormous and expensive and set way back, one with an electric gate overlooked by a stone eagle with a cigar in its beak and a clutch of dollars in its claws. Or something. There’s a long, narrow strip of grass to the right of the avenue, which I’m guessing at one time had a whole row of houses of its own, but they demolished them because they were poor people’s houses and obstructed the view. This is a good place to walk Stanley, though, because it leads down to the churchyard with a dramatic view of the downs, and you get plenty of notice of other dogs.

We came here with Adina the other day. She was very clear about how to keep Stan’s focus on us, how to give him the safe space he needs to check out other dogs and learn that they really aren’t such a threat after all.
‘If you really need to keep him distracted, use a longer treat, like this …’
She produced a thin strip of dried meat from the pouch on her belt.
‘Hold it between your fingers like this and feed it to him gradually. That way he’ll be completely locked on to you.’
And she fed it to him, like a plank through a sawmill.

I have that image in mind when I see an elderly man heading our way with a small dog on an extendable lead. The man is hunched over, walking steadily against the wind. He’s wearing a black beret and a long, gabardine coat so squared off at the shoulders he looks like some kind of army vehicle advancing on a half-track. As they get nearer I can see that the dog is a black poodle, scampering around over-excitedly, at risk of being snatched up by the wind and flown at the fullest extent of the lead like a woolly kite. Stanley has noticed them, too. I feed him a treat, which he takes in a sideways fashion, so he can watch the poodle for as long as possible. I keep to my side of the avenue, but the man sees me and starts heading my way. I panic, and fish around in my pockets for a long strip of something. The poodle is scampering towards us, rearing up on the lead, his front legs peddling frantically in the air. I find a strip of treat and try to feed it to Stanley log-style, but he swallows it in one and then releases his bark – so loud and booming even the wind dips. (Professional respect, no doubt).
‘Sorry!’ I yell. ‘He’s not great with other dogs.’
The old man stops and winds in the poodle like a fisherman landing a marlin. He’s got a cheroot in the corner of his mouth, which strikes me as quite an optimistic move, trying to smoke in this weather, but I’m guessing it’s his routine.
‘Don’t worry about it!’ he says. ‘No harm done.’
The poodle is going crazy, but Stanley is strangely quiet, like one of those big naval guns that takes a while to reload.
The old man stuffs the poodle in his pocket (I seem to remember, but I might be wrong about that), and looks up and down the avenue.
‘Looks like we’re the only ones crazy enough to come out in this weather!’ he says.
‘I know!’ I say. ‘It seemed like a good idea at the time…’
‘Well – okay, then.’
He gives me a salute, sets the poodle back on its legs, and the two of them carry on.

I watch them go, then look down at Stanley.
‘Oh Stanley!’ I say.
He looks up at me, blinking innocently in the rain.

I shrug. Pass him another treat.

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