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)

paw print


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

paw print

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).

paw print
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.

paw print
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
paw print
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…’

paw print

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

paw print

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.’

paw print

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]

paw print

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)

paw print

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.

paw print

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.

paw print

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.

military man

Chapter 6: Stanley Takes a Tumble

[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]

paw print

After the Flood – Even the Rabbits are Well Behaved – Lulled – Stanley Likes Collies. A LOT – Releasing the Hound & Immediate Regrets – If NASA made dogs – And the Award for Best Actor goes to… – What it Means When they Light the Candle – The Woman with the Poorly Knee (plus cat) – The Final Reckoning

paw print

It’s been raining – so hard, and for so long, I’m sure there must be an old man with a white beard somewhere, sawing the last plank for his boat, frantically glancing up at the sky with a mouth full of nails, whilst his neighbours twitch the curtains and talk to social services. But for one moment at least, the clouds thin, the light lifts, and a late sun peeks its nose out.

‘Come on!’ I say to the dogs, who both look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. They perk up as soon as we’re out, though. The world feels and smells wonderfully fresh, new-made and inviting. Everything has a drowned look, like an underwater village reemerging when the dam walls breach. Gutters, drains and gulleys. everywhere and everything bubbling and rushing with water; the path through the allotments down to the horse field so torrentially flooded it’s like picking your way down a waterfall. I wouldn’t be surprised to see stranded fish flapping about on the stones.

I keep Stan on the lead over the field, but let Lola run on ahead. I feel guilty about that, as I always do, but Stan would only run off if I let him go here. My plan is to do some line work as we go, then once we’re over into the second field, I’ll throw a ball for Lola and let Stan run after it, too. As soon as his attention wanders– as it inevitably will – from the ball to the prospect of rabbits in the hedgerow, I’ll put him back on the lead for more line work and that’ll be that.

He does really well. He even comes running back as soon as I call his name, which is so wonderful I feel like singing. It won’t be long, I think. We’ll be off the lead any day now. We head back home through the mud.

Off in the distance I saw a woman approaching with a young collie dog. Stan is immediately interested, pulling on the lead in his eagerness to run over and say hello. My first instinct is to take a wider route round; my second – fatally – is to unclip his lead and let him off. He’s been so good today, I think. It’ll be fine.

It really wasn’t.

Stanley didn’t just run. He took off, all at once, in a mad, leggy, uncoordinated rush. It was like the countdown at Cape Canaveral, except the rocket tears away the very moment you start the countdown, and you’re left holding the lead or whatever it is you secure rockets with, and watch the mud boiling off in the distance. Houston, we have a problem.

Rockets aren’t known for their brakes. In fact, although I’m not a rocket scientist, I think I’m right in saying that rockets don’t actually have any brakes. The closest they’ve got is a parachute that rips out of the command module during re-entry. A parachute would’ve done very well here, to be honest, because – despite the heavy going – Stanley gets such a speed up he absolutely can’t stop. I’m too far away to really see, so much of this description isn’t 100% reliable, but I’m pretty sure the collie dog raises its eyebrows, opens its mouth in horror and crosses itself, just seconds before Stanley ploughs into them all.

Luckily, the collie is both agile and forward thinking. At the last moment it springs straight up into the air, so Stanley can somersault underneath it in a chaotic tumble of mud, legs, ears and water.

I can hear the howls as I run over.

By the time I get there, Stan is up on his feet – or three of them, at least. He’s holding his front left leg out at a funny angle, and I’m convinced he’s broken it. He won’t bear any weight on it, and when I gently feel along the bone it seems to have an unnatural mobility to it. I wonder what Adina will say when she comes round and finds him in a cast.
‘I take it from this you decided not to follow my programme.’

The woman with the collie is very kind. She walks Lola with me as I carry Stanley to the gate. He’s trembling, his long paws draped over my shoulders. I’ve already phoned home, so Kath is waiting on the road with the car. We drop Lola home, then take Stanley to the emergency vets, half an hour away.

paw print

The practice is a spacious, single-level affair, floor to ceiling windows, sculpted plastic chairs fixed to the floor, a curving, white reception desk, and exhausted vets and nurses striding in and out of the examination rooms in blue scrubs. We’ve made Stanley as comfortable as possible on the towels that we’ve brought. He lies shivering at our feet.
Kath nods to a little display on a low cabinet by reception, something like a shrine, with a simple electric candle and an open book.
‘They light the candle when they’re putting an animal to sleep,’ she says, in a whisper.
‘That’s a bit morbid, d’you think?’
‘Well. I suppose it means people won’t mind if they’re in for a bit longer. And they might keep the noise down. Anyway – could be worse. Could be like those freaky animatronic workmen in the window of the cobblers. Except this one’d be the Grim Reaper.’
She grimaces and mimes waving a scythe.
The receptionist looks over to us. Kath pretends she’s easing her neck.
‘Shouldn’t be long now,’ says the receptionist.
Kath reaches down to stroke Stan’s head.
‘I don’t think he’s broken anything,’ she says. ‘He seems to have perked up.’

A woman using elbow crutches comes out of the consulting room, followed by a nurse carrying the woman’s cat in a basket.
‘My husband left me when I came out of hospital with the new knee,’ says the woman, handing over her debit card.
‘Oh,’ says the receptionist. ‘I’m sorry to hear that.’
She prints off the bill in silence.
The woman on crutches does an awkward little hop so she can turn to face us.
‘Alright?’ I say.
She nods grimly, but whether she means it’ll be my turn standing where she is to pay, or whether she means the divorce, I’m not entirely sure.

When we’re called through, I take it as a good sign that Stanley can walk with only the suggestion of a limp. The vet gives him a thorough going over, says she thinks it’s a sprain, writes a scrip for pain relief, tells us not to walk him for a couple of weeks, and sends us out again.

As we pass through the lobby I can’t help glancing down at the candle.
stan injured

Chapter 5: Incident in the Cemetery

Cones as Markers – Sunday Morning Optimism – Into the Cemetery – Mr Bernstein & Co. – The Incident – Strays Are A Lot of Work – Adina Explains – More Treats

paw print

‘Over there!’ I say to Adina, the two of us walking with Stanley through a cemetery. ‘About where that cone is.’
‘Did YOU put the cone there?’
‘No. It’s a coincidence’
I wonder if she really thinks I’m the kind of person who’d fetch a traffic cone to mark the spot where Stanley had a fight – but maybe she’s making a joke and I’m not picking up on it.

I tell her the story.

I’d come out with the dogs that morning. It was wet, so I thought we’d walk through the village first and then out to the field behind the church that might not be quite so muddy. It was a quiet Sunday morning. Both dogs were slack on the lead, trotting along beside me, noses in the air, walking with an easy kind of lope. I was feeling good, too – or better than good. I was optimistic.

We entered the cemetery through the lychgate. Suddenly, up ahead I saw Mr Bernstein and his Labrador, Bunty. I hadn’t seen either of them in months. I’d heard Mr Bernstein’s wife had died, and I wanted to see how he was and give him my best. I waved. He waved. I headed in his direction.
Lola didn’t seem bothered but I could feel Stanley tense on the lead. I stopped a little way off.
‘We’re training,’ I said to Mr Bernstein. ‘He’s not great on the lead. He’s not great OFF the lead, come to that.’
Mr Bernstein shrugged.
‘It’s a lot of work,’ he said.
Stanley began to shake. I stroked his head. I thought he might be keyed-up, seeing another dog and yet not being able to go up and sniff them and say hello. So I walked further towards them. Which is when Stanley snarled and launched himself at Bunty, his jaws coming together with an audible clack. Luckily I had a firm hold of the lead, otherwise Stanley would have taken Mr Bernstein and Bunty down like skittles in an alley. Bunty yelped – which is something I’d never heard her do before – and Mr Bernstein swore.
‘Sorry! Sorry!’ I said, hauling Stanley back.
‘You weren’t wrong when you said he’s not great,’ Mr Bernstein said. ‘That’s the thing with strays – you never know what they’ve been through.’
We said goodbye. I wished him all the best and said I’d see him around. They both stood at the crossways of the path, staring sadly after us. I half-expected to see Bunty reach out and take Mr Bernstein by the left hand, and a ghostly Mrs Bernstein rise out of the ground to take him gently by the right.

paw print

Adina is pretty clear about what happened.

‘He’s not ready for meeting dogs nose to nose on the lead yet,’ she says. ‘It’s too early. You have to build up to it. The trembling in his back legs is common. It means he’s feeling anxiety. And with dogs, when they feel anxiety, they must either run away or fight. So when you walked towards the gentleman and his dog, and Stanley had no choice where to go, he became aggressive. This is normal and to be expected.’
‘So what should I have done?’
‘I think when you saw the gentleman you should have said Hello! I’m training this dog, so I can’t come over and see you just now. But maybe I’ll see you around town? Or something like that. He would understand. And then you could just walk on the other side, and give Stanley a treat, and everything would be avoided. But don’t worry. This is typical. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.’
We walk on. I try to remember to reward Stanley with a treat every time I say his name and he looks at me.
‘Good!’ says Adina. ‘You’re both doing good.’

It feels good to hear her say it. As good as a treat.


Chapter 4: A Date with Adina

Adina the Trainer – The Superman Stop – The Sound of a Pheasant – Training as Mind Control – Two Adoring Dogs – The Real Stanley

paw print

The dog trainer’s coming tomorrow and I have to say, she can’t come soon enough. She looks great. A specialist in rehomed dogs. There are clips on her website of her swimming in the sea with a dog, walking smartly along suburban roads with a dog looking up at her adoringly, turning about, walking smartly the other way. The only thing that worries me is the physical gesture she demonstrates for the Emergency Stop. Bending her left leg, stretching her right leg back, flashing out her right arm with the palm of the hand flat. She looks like Superman leaning in to catch a train. The dog stops dead, of course, but I don’t know. I might feel self-conscious using a pose like that. We’ll see.

Stanley definitely needs some super-advice, though. A bag of treats or a bag of kryptonite – we’re open to suggestions. It’s strange, how well-behaved he is around the house (for the most part), and how oblivious he is when we let him off the lead. Not a hint of a check to see where we are, not a sign he’s even dimly aware of us shouting, blowing on the whistle, or jumping up and down, brandishing the treat bag. He’s just gone, utterly in thrall to his nature, chasing the spirit of the great wild space running out endlessly in front of him.

To be fair, even to a non-dog, it’s a pretty enchanting world. Out on the walk this morning there’s a low mist drifting in over the fields, everything ghosted, chill, strange, like it’s all hanging back, waiting for something. Monstrous tree shapes looming overhead. Somewhere close by, the sudden cry of a pheasant, deep in the bramble breaks – a sharp, unearthly, ratcheting sound, like a tin can violin played with a hacksaw.

I have to catch Stan a couple of times, so for most of the walk he’s back on the lead. I feel bad. It’s like slinging a line on a spirit, tricking Ariel into a tree.

I hope the trainer’s as good as she looks. I promise I’ll even do the Superman Stop if it means Stanley can have his freedom.

paw print

The way Stan and Lola trot up to Adina as she comes through the front door, you’d think they’d known the dog trainer all their lives. She greets them in such an easy and familiar way you can tell she’s lived with dogs and knows their ways. Everyone’s immediately relaxed. This is going to work.
‘Would you like some tea?’ I say.
‘Do you have any herbal?’
‘Peppermint, I think.’
‘That would be wonderful! Thank you!’
She smiles, and it’s only when I’m halfway through preparing the drinks I realise I’ve made myself a cup of peppermint tea, too, instead of coffee.
Damn – she’s good.

It’s a cold day and Adina’s wearing lots of layers – a bright, chunky knit hat, a flower-patterned scarf, a battered waterproof jacket over a charcoal-grey roll-neck. She shucks off a pair of ancient leather pixie boots in the hallway – made easier by the fact their fluorescent green laces are already untied – and pads through to the living room in her socks, where she pulls off her hat and roughly spikes-up her straight black hair, her angular earrings jangling. She’s like a crow after bathing in a puddle, acutely bright and alert. The dogs are the most enthralled of us all. They pay her such close attention as she takes the jacket and scarf off, I wouldn’t be surprised if they bowed and offered to carry them through for her.

We sit at the kitchen table, Adina at one end, me and Kath either side. Even the dogs sit. And we haven’t even trained them to sit.

‘Good!’ she says, smiling indulgently, passing them both a tiny treat from the pouch she carries on her belt.
‘Now, then. Tell me a little bit about yourselves.’
And I realise she means us.

paw print

‘Of course we cannot know what has happened to Stanley before he was rescued,’ says Adina, sipping her tea with one hand, idly scratching Stanley’s head with the other. He’s planted his head in her lap, so devotedly the rest of his body is pretty much suspended, like those magicians who hypnotise their assistants lying on a table supported by two chairs – and then take the chairs away. ‘I mean – we know he wasn’t fed or exercised enough, you can see that. Poor Stanley! His legs are not strong at the moment, and he still needs to put on weight. This situation, dogs like Stanley – it’s almost like an abused child, in many ways. You have to take it slow. Give them the love and encouragement to see that things are different now. That he can trust you. And this will emerge over time. But you must be prepared. It is quite usual for issues to come up.’
‘Setbacks, you know? Strange things. Like layers. The real dog is in there – isn’t it, Stanley? Hey? I mean, you can see this already. He is good boy. Our job only is to give Stanley the love he needs to relax, feel at home, and be free to be the dog he truly is.’
Adina smiles at me and Kath.
And it really feels as if she thinks we can do that.
‘So now – we begin,’ she says, putting her cup down.
Lola trots over, on cue, and the two dogs sit side-by-side to attention.
‘Good!’ she says, and hands them both a treat.


Chapter 3: Three Little Words

Stanley makes his bed and lies in it – The Lurcher that Never Looks Back – Not Really Disney Material – The Farm Dog Theory – Stanley McQueen – Spock as Dog Whisperer

paw print

Stanley’s been home a few days now and he’s absolutely perfect. Almost.

He’s affectionate, gentle, inquisitive. He has a funny way of pulling out the throw we use to cover the sofa at night, dragging it into the middle of the room, twirling it round into a weird kind of nest, then plomping himself down in the middle of it (sighing heavily, like a forbearing but disappointed teacher who has shown his pupils time and time again exactly what is required but STILL has to go through the motions). He sits when you ask him to sit. He stands when you ask him to stand (admittedly a bit confused when we say Stan, sit!) He takes a treat from your fingers so slowly and carefully it’s like you never had it in the first place. He doesn’t whine at night. He’s housetrained. In fact, Stanley’s so nearly perfect, it’s unnerving. But two things stop him from being a one hundred percent, gold-starred, fully certificated wonder hound. One is his barking at other dogs when he’s on the lead. The other is his recall – or, more specifically, his lack of it.

We’ve tried training him in the garden. We even bought a whistle. We blow the whistle and give him a treat when he comes back (which he does, mostly). It’s all fine. By the book. But when we take him for a walk over the fields and let him off, he becomes a different dog altogether. He ignores the whistle. He ignores the shouting, the frenetic rattling of treat bags, the slapping of thighs and general carrying-on. He heads off, onward, outward, away. Head up, tail out. He does NOT look back. The only reason he MIGHT stop is to write a quick letter and post it. The letter will arrive in a day or so. It will read: Dear People. I am GONE. Yours &c, S.

It’s like we’re mad inventors who built a clockwork hound only capable of running in one direction, and when it’s disappeared over the horizon we’re left looking at each other, suddenly realising the basic design flaw.

Nothing works. It’s a simple fact. Stanley will NOT come back. All we can do is head him off in a Billy Smart’s Circus version of the pincer movement, tramping through the grass as quickly as our enormous boots, flashing bow ties and buckets of confetti will allow.

If we get the angle right it’s effective, though, because the ONE good thing about Stan on the Run is that he will keep coming on, straight, in a relentless trot, so much so that when he makes contact and you grab his harness, his feet keep on wheeling round and round (or at least it feels like they do), and he looks astonished, because he can’t understand what the problem is.

Yesterday was different, though. Yesterday was dangerous.

paw print

We set off as usual, Lola on one side, Stanley on the other. Filled with sunshine and optimism and bonhomie. I feel good. Man and dogs in perfect harmony.

I see a woman on the other side of the road with an immaculate GSP. They totally look like each other, in that Disney way – heads up, noses high, marching along the pavement in perfect step with each other.

‘Good morning!’ I say. If I’d been wearing a hat, I’d certainly have lifted it.

‘Good morning!’ she says.

Then Stanley barks. That great, open-throated, wilderness-worrying, howling harroo. The sound that would make a wolf turn vegetarian.

The woman and her dog hover a few inches above the pavement for a second, and hurry on.

paw print

Over the fields Lola is running on ahead in her perfectly easy and reliable way. I’ve still got Stanley on the lead, though. I want to let him off, too, but every time we’ve done it so far he’s ended up running away, or got stuck head-first in some brambles.

Whilst I’m thinking about this, a friend of ours – Jackie, the woman who helps run the choir Kath sings in, calls to me from the gate. Her little dog Max must be somewhere around, too. He’s a cute thing, a cross between a border terrier and a lamb, as far as I can tell. I’m a little worried how Stan’s going to react meeting him whilst he’s still on the lead, but when I say this to Jackie she’s pretty forthright.

‘Oh – let him off!’ she says. ‘I was brought up on a farm and we never had any of this nonsense! No! You just let them get on with it. I know they all go on about training, but really – they’re just dogs! But that’s me. I can’t see the point of having a dog and worrying too much. They sort themselves out!’

So I let Stanley off.

And actually – it seems to work. He has a good sniff around the bramble thicket nearest to us, but doesn’t do a swan dive into them. And when Max finally appears they greet each other calmly and courteously, and nothing much happens, and after Jackie and I chat for a bit about the choir and the upcoming tour and stuff, she carries on walking, and I head in to the next field.

Which is where it all goes wrong. Stanley suddenly speeds up, double-time. He’s caught wind of some rabbits over the far side. He’s at the fence in no time at all, despite his back legs still being weak from those years of neglect. He tries to jump the fence – which has barbed wire along the top. I can hardly watch.

But of course, I do.

It reminds me of that scene in The Great Escape, when Steve McQueen tries to clear the barbed wire fences on a motorbike. Except at least Steve McQueen manages a couple. Stan falls at the first attempt, not jumping it so much as speculatively launching himself into the air with his four legs spread in an X. It’s a miracle he doesn’t end up crucified on the wire; as it is, he falls back in a heap. He’s just getting back on the bike when I catch up with him and clip the lead back on.

paw print

Needless to say, we start looking round for a dog trainer.

Kath gets a recommendation for a militaristic woman who lives locally and specialises in gun dogs, but I’m not sure whether she’ll be a good fit. All that saluting and duck work. I’m holding out for more of a dog-whisperer type, someone who can do the canine equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld. I imagine them watching Stanley performing his bed trick, when they’ll smile mysteriously, write three little words on a scrap of paper, the key to the mystery of this particular dog, and then hand the paper over:

Twirling, Feeding and Rabbits

stanley on bike