Published over 25 years ago and ‘given’ as a birthday present from my dog Suzie to my son, the book Best Dog Stories, with an introduction by Gerald Durrell, still holds a special place in my heart and on my bookshelf. Although the pages are yellowing and the paper fragile, I still pick up the book from time to time for the sheer pleasure of revisiting old canine favourites such as Tricki Woo, Flush, and Bunch. James Herriot’s portrayal of Tricki Woo is especially endearing and the interactions between the elderly, widowed Mrs Pumphrey, the overweight and spoilt Pekinese Tricki Woo and the vet ‘Uncle Herriot’ are classic studies in understated humour. James Herriot’s subtle prose, his wicked take on human and animal nature and his obvious affection for his ‘trickiest’ of customers should not be missed by any animal lover. Another one of my favourite doggy books is Jilly Cooper's Intelligent and Loyal. Beg, steal or borrow a copy of this if you are a fan of the humble Heinz 57 breed (aka the mongrel!).
Countless canines parade across the pages of books and in films and for many the first fictional dogs that come to mind are Lassie, Eric Knight’s Rough Collie breed who performed amazing acts of valour, as well as cartoon dogs such as Scooby Doo and Snoopy.
My personal favourites of the fictional variety are the naughty dogs, the silly ones, the senseless ones, the hapless, crazy characters with hearts of gold. Frank Muir’s scatty Afghan Hound What-a-Mess, Eddie in Frasier, Gnasher in The Beano, Santa's Little Helper in The Simpsons; I can’t dwell too much on these for fear of filling twelve pages with favourite fictional dogs and why I love them so much! Then there are the dogs whose stories are told in a semi-fictional, semi-factual way like the hilarious and poignant story of Marley and Me, ‘the worst dog in the world’ by journalist John Grogan. Marley's 'biography' made me weep with laughter throughout and then cry tears of sadness at the end of the story.
The dogs that really break my heart are the real life loyal hounds who never give up on their owners returning, even from beyond the grave. The latest manifestation of this was the little dog called Flash in Italy, whose owner was killed in the recent earthquake, with the dog refusing to move from beside the coffin. Greyfriars Bobby a Skye Terrier, allegedly spent 14 years guarding the grave of his owner John Grey, a night watchman in Edinburgh. Whatever the absolute veracity of the tale, it is the idea of the animal’s profound reaction to his loss that fascinates and moves. It reminds me of the raw, primeval grief expressed in Sinead O’ Connor’s version of the song I am Stretched on Your Grave. I wonder how many of us ‘civilised human beings’ have felt the urge to throw ourselves on a beloved’s grave? (even for a short time).
Hachikō, a Japanese Akita showed the same sort of unswerving loyalty in 1920s Tokyo, after his owner Professor Ueno suffered a cerebral haemorrhage and died. The dog was waiting at the train station that evening for his owner who never returned and each day, for almost a decade, the dog would return to the station at the exact time the train was due, to sit futilely waiting for the professor. Each year on April 8, Hachikō's devotion is honoured with a solemn ceremony of remembrance at Tokyo's Shibuya railroad station where hundreds of dog lovers often turn out to honour his memory and loyalty. It was also made into a film starring Harrison Ford as the professor.
My dog Suzie was a rescue dog, the most skittish, nervous, and needy little puppy when she came to live with us in 1995. She was awkward, slightly melancholic and seemed to have a death wish; dancing across a main road when she escaped her lead in the park, swallowing an overdose of Ventolin tablets that she stole from a drawer, eating the straps off the back of my new shoes because I happened to leave her alone for a few hours; surely a criminal offence for any other dog? We had many adventures between us too numerous to mention, until the day I gave her a vigorous rub on her belly and discovered a large mass. She was brought to the vet and tests done straightaway, it was too late, she was fourteen, and the kindest thing to do was put her down. Holding her body as the vet administered the lethal injection was a very sad moment in my life.
The loss of a pet is devastating and people may take comfort in a concept such as the Rainbow Bridge, where deceased animals await their owners in a mythical green field on the other side of the bridge. After the owner’s own death, the theory is that the two are reunited. I take a more pragmatic view of the process, although I sincerely hope that dogs and humans have souls and have an afterlife gambolling freely in the long grass with as many doggy treats as they can tolerate (the dogs that is!)and the humans get to enjoy a spirited afterlife also. I have consoled a friend by celebrating the life of her deceased dog drinking strong whiskey with her at the ‘wake’ and stayed up all night with another friend holding vigil when his dog was dying. These are the practical things that animal lovers do for each other.
So when exactly did domestication of dogs take place, taking the dog from wild beast to furry friend? Scientists are unclear about the exact origins of the domestic dog but it seems likely that they are descended from the gray wolf. Although the oldest canine fossils found are only 14,000 years old, it has been suggested that the species parted ways anything from 15,000 to over 100,000 years ago.
Whatever the case, it is indisputable that dogs are the oldest of the domesticated animals and certainly the most devoted, fulfilling roles from the fiercest of guard dogs to the cuddliest of companions. Clever, loyal, and constant, these animals are as deserving of our devotion as we are of theirs.