I don’t understand dogs.
I mean, we’ve had them for years. You’d think by now I’d be some kind of expert. And to be fair, there are plenty of things I do know. I’m pretty much the world expert on picking-up, any time of year. Leaves, snow, baked mud, deep grass, roadside – no worries. If Lola dumps five hundred yards ahead of me on the rec, I can fix the place by walking in a line using trees and molehills as orientation points, and come exactly to the spot, bag-handed and ready. I’d as soon go for a dog walk without my trousers as a good supply of poo bags (and I’d only realise I didn’t have my trousers when I went to pull out a poo bag).
So it’s not all bad news. I’m pretty good at cleaning dogs, too. Me and Lola, we’ve got it all worked out. You should see us when we get back from our walks, Lola with her legs black up to the elbow just exactly as if she’s wearing four velvet evening gloves. The whole thing’s as choreographed as Swan Lake (where the lake is a bucket of soapy water, and the swan is a nine year old lurcher): Bucket to the left; and front left paw into first position; and dip; and hold; and up; and a rub to the chest; and then bucket to the right – and so on, all the way round, finishing with a vigorous towelling and a sprint for the food bowl (Lola, not me).
It’s not that I don’t get the day-to-day stuff about dogs. It’s more the psychology of the beast, what makes a dog tick (and scratch, and twitch, and sprawl the way they do sometimes). I know a little bit about the theories behind all these things. C’mon! I know who Cesar Millan is. But the truth is, I still don’t get why they do what they do.
For example. I took Lola over the woods the other day. The moment she ran ahead she was surrounded by a pack of dogs, all of them barking, whipped on by a particularly mad beagle, running circles round the mob like a teenager doing doughnuts on a moped. I thought Lola would lose her shit and there’d be one hell of a scrap. Instead, and against all odds, she kept her cool. She was poised and statesman-like, Abraham Lincoln on the stump, letting all the fuss and excitement whirl harmlessly around her whilst she smiled benignly at the centre, radiating humanity and intelligence. I’m so, so sorry said the embarrassed woman who owned the pack, striding across to call them off. That’s quite alright, my good woman Lola seemed to say, right paw hooked in her waistcoat. No harm done. Vote Lola.
Fast forward a week. We’re just approaching the park when we see George and Ann with their golden retriever, Barney.
Let me introduce you to Barney.
Barney’s as big and woolly as a cut & shut llama without the neck.
Barney’s slow. I’ve never seen him run, or even trot, particularly. He’s happy to pad along at an even pace, sniffing his way through life, occasionally looking up with those deeply sad, llama-brown eyes, and saying: Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner, (because if Barney could speak, I’m convinced it would be in a soft, French accent)
Anyway – the most important thing to take from this is that Monsieur Barné is without any question at all a nice dog. In fact, I’d go as far as saying he’s essentially benign. You could send him off into a colony of monstrous, predatory aliens and even they would end up roffling his hair, hugging his neck and posing for selfies (then annihilating the marines and keeping a couple for incubation purposes, because hey! they’ve got an image to maintain).
So here we have a dog who may as well be wearing one of those t-shirts that says Hi! How can I help?
So what does Lola do? She curls her lip.
I have no idea. I mean, I can’t imagine it’s just a lead thing, although that’s the excuse I use when I apologise to George and Ann.
‘It’s just a lead thing. I think she’s just looking forward to her walk and she wants to get on with it.’
‘Don’t worry! Barney’s the same with a Jack Russell,’ says George. ‘Sometimes dogs just don’t get along.’
It’s such an unpleasant look, though, that lip curl. An expression of profound animosity, a hundred shades darker than simply not getting along. It’s the kind of lip curl I imagine those aliens using when they see another ship of marines coming in to land.
(NOTE TO SELF: I should totally watch Aliens tonight)
I was told once that a dog’s lead is like an aerial, a direct line between you and their brain. If you tense up, they’ll feel it immediately and go on alert, scanning the environment, trying to figure out where and what the danger is. So it’s vital to keep the lead slack, and not precipitate the very thing you hope not to happen, whether it’s lip curl, lunge, snap, bark or any other mortifying evidence of social incivility.
Dogs are incredibly sensitive, though. When they’re on the lead they’re like spiders, super-reading the tiniest vibration coming down the signal line. And I’m absolutely convinced they’ll feel those signals even if the line is slack, and even if the signal is merely a thought.
So I’m sorry, Barney.
Pas de tout! Tout comprendre c’est tout pardonner. (Sorry – I just love hearing him say that).
But I’m trying, Barné. Okay? After all, it’s only been nine years…