I was going to have the perfect dog. The same kind of dog that my grandmother used to walk in the park every morning, rain or shine. We got that dog last October. On the background of my phone, a two-month-old still Digger stares out at me, mud on his head, as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth.
I never said it out loud, but Digger was to be my defence against loneliness. Whatever else life threw at me, in years to come, he would be at the centre of a life that I was as yet unable to imagine.
Every morning, since last October, I have let Digger out of his crate, pulled up the blind and unlocked the back door. Then down five steps and out into the garden we go. Digger doesn’t need me to go out with him any more. He isn’t a tiny puppy in need of toilet training. But I’ve always gone out with him, and now he expects it, waiting on the bottom step until he’s sure I’m coming. I love these early minutes, before the garden wakes up. It gives me a chance to see the morning as it really is – dew on the grass, blossoms budding – so different to the stream of things in need of doing that greets me as soon as I step back into the kitchen.
I wanted the perfect dog, even knowing it didn’t exist. Having had to end the life of an anxious dog just a year ago, I felt that we deserved a break. Instead of a neurotic dog from the pound we would get a reliable dog, a trainable, child-friendly dog from a breeder. Personally I’d have gone for a non-shedding breed, if I hadn’t known that other traits were more important. As did our vet. A dog that didn’t bark would have been nice. (I know, I know, not really a dog at all.) In the end, after much deliberation, we went for a yellow Labrador. My daughter was still at home to train him and was, she kept telling me, tauntingly, a better trainer than me.
I’m sure I’m not the only one who only reads the dog books after they bring their puppy home. Yet even the most detailed dog book couldn’t have described how total the impact that Digger has had on my life, especially once I made the decision that I would get my life back quicker if I put him in the middle of it while he needed me most. That is when it hit me. Just as my kids were making moves to leave home, I’d saddled myself with a cross between a toddler and a small pony. If there was such a thing as post-puppy depression, I had it. How could I placate a boisterous, bitey, demanding puppy and keep my writing life afloat? Digger wasn’t going to defend me against future loneliness, I chided myself, he was going to be the cause of it.
Then a friend told me about the local dog park. Unlike visiting the dog beach, where my heart leapt into my mouth when Digger careered up the beach and embraced every which dog, right from the start the dog park felt more tame. Digger still careered about, jumping vertically and being rounded up, ears flapping like Dumbo, by faster dogs. But I didn’t feel panicked at the dog park. The metre-high fence around the long rectangular park worked to contain Digger and to relax me.
At first we went to the park once a week, then three times and, when my daughter was away, sometimes more. I could do some work, or go to yoga, and leave Digger in the car until we got to the dog park where he ran off his buzzy energy and I chatted to other dog owners who told me all about what I was in for. On cold mornings it was sunny and, even in the rain, dry inside my husband’s oilskin jacket, the hillside park had charm.
Initially I chatted to other dog owners to pass the time of day. But as the months passed, I realised that I was doing more than this. It was small talk, yes. But it wasn’t trivial talk. I was getting to know a range of people via their relationship to their dog. The woman who kicked a tennis ball across the kitchen to amuse her collie puppy as she ate her breakfast. And the surprisingly large number of people who slept with their dog on or in their bed.
Soon Digger hit adolescence and became possessed with extra buzz. The best way to channel this newfound energy, he decided with the wisdom of his puppy brain, was to go for the collar of other dogs. Not all dogs, and not on every trip to the park. But on those occasions when he did, he’d bite at the other dog’s collar until the play was broken up. Another dog owner took me aside and instructed me in how to lure Digger away before his play became too heated. Did I listen to her? No. I listened. I was polite. But privately I thought that she was interfering and that Digger was just having fun.
A month passed during which Digger started going for dogs’ collars at the park more regularly. Thinking that he needed something in his mouth, I bought a long red plastic stick for him to play tug-of-war with other dogs. Problem solved.
Three weeks ago, Digger played and played with a Golden Retriever to the point that I asked Peggy’s owner, who I knew to chat to, to give Peggy some time out on lead, which she did. Five minutes later she let Peggy off again and Peggy went straight back to nipping at Digger’s ear. The two dogs ran a little way away, locked in furious play. Then it happened. Digger got his jaw wrapped in a loop round Peggy’s loosened collar which meant that as I tried to pull Digger off Peggy, Peggy’s collar tightened to the point of choking her. Now Peggy’s owner was at my ear, swearing and hissing as I struggled for the thirty long seconds it took me to get Digger’s jaw out of the tightened collar. Peggy vomited over her owner’s shoes and I stood back in a sweat, Digger on his leash.
Terry and I looked at each other. We were both crying. Digger was quiet. Neither Terry nor I were angry. Terry said that it had been 50/50, in terms of who was to blame, though I felt it wouldn’t have happened had it not been for Digger’s collar habit. Terry said that the next time they came to the dog park, and Peggy played with Digger, that she would take off Peggy’s collar. I smiled my thanks and silently wondered if Digger and I would ever return to the dog park again.
Back home I texted the dog trainer who has helped me in the past and she texted back some sensible advice. At her suggestion, I booked Digger into a second day a week at the country kennels that he was already booked into once a week, where he could get as boisterous and muddy as he liked with 28 other dogs. And for the next few weeks, instead of visiting the dog park, we went for long walks, which Digger didn’t like nearly as much but I liked more because the risk of collar biting on a bush track was nil.
A month passed. Last Sunday, I woke up with the thought that I could only return to the dog park if I gave up my happily-ever-after story of the perfect dog, and thought through our next visit before I even got to the park. I got a sardine from the freezer and wrapped it in a plastic bag which I put in my jacket pocket, thinking that I could use it to lure Digger away from another dog if I thought he was about to lose control. I made a mental pact with myself to leave the dog park after a shortish amount of time. And I decided to stay in his range, just in case.
It was a cold sunny morning, my favourite weather. Digger seemed happy to be back at the park. Did he know that I was watching out for him as he raced from one pack of dogs to the next? Thankfully he behaved well. Not impeccably, but well for a teenage Labrador. We left the park the moment that he started eyeing off the bright purple harness of a four-month Pug pup. He never found out about the frozen sardine in my pocket and he tagged along, tail wagging, as we walked up the hill, behind the park, to see the early spring lambs. ‘But’, said my daughter, that night at dinner, ‘didn’t you say you were never going to the dog park again?. ‘Yes’, I said. ‘Never say never!’