That ‘never again’ moment has occurred. Again.
Yesterday we bought a new puppy. Doing so was a touch-and-go affair. I didn’t go into writing to get rich, I went into writing because it was something I’ve had an urge to do for most of my life but the so-called business of life got in the way until a few years ago. When I had the opportunity to make my living from writing I took it – but I was under no pretensions that I would see easy money come in for little effort. Quite the reverse. So buying a pure breed Cocker Spaniel puppy from a good, certificated lineage was not likely on what I bring in.
Thankfully(?) I’m the only paid(?) writer in this family and everyone else has a
proper good job. That… and having parents/grandparent/parents-in-law who are generous too. The result was that by allowing ourselves almost no presents whatsoever at Christmas, my team of four just about managed to scrape together the coffers needed to buy this little madam.
The picture is blurry. Actually all the pictures are blurry. She didn’t stop moving for one minute when we got her back to the house.
When you bring a new dog into your home to be part of your family you don’t just bring that dog back: you bring all your dogs back. Having our little Asha (which means ‘hope’ in Bangla – it remains to be seen if it is a statement of expectation or exasperation) become the fifth member of my family means she comes to a family loaded with baggage from the previous dogs in our lives.
We’ve had other pets too, of course: cats, rabbits, hamster (whose death was famously misunderstood by my very young son who thought his Gran had died instead of the hamster) and the legendary goldfish which turned, in a matter of days, into cannibals before the last one died (I assume) from overeating (shall we say?). But these don’t come to mind with the arrival of a new dog. Just the dogs come back to the memory, fresh as though having just returned from a jolly good walk.
My first – Kara – was more a member of the family than I – seeing as I came after her and so was relegated to runt of the litter. According to all the books on training dogs it’s a miracle she didn’t eat me alive, but she didn’t. She was as gentle as a lamb with me and allowed me to mistreat her terribly when I was a toddler (so I’m told).
Kara ruled the house, slept where and when she liked (indeed on whom she liked too) with the sole exception of my parent’s bed. Kara used to sleep there when she was a puppy but as she grew larger unnoticed, day by day, her habits became untenable. She would snuggle between my parents and, during the course of the night stretch out her legs in sleepy bliss and, in doing so, begin to push my father away.
Things came to a head when he woke up one morning and found himself nose-to-glass with the alarm clock, body teetering on the edge of an abyss from which, had he fallen, the dog would never have survived. That was Kara’s last night on the bed and, I guess, the first official day of no longer being a puppy.
Asha has got a long way to go before she loses that puppy ‘can-get-away-with-anything’ quality. Like having a newborn, that cute factor is, I think, an evolutionary trait designed for survival for we would surely not put up with the tear-jerking wailing when left in her sleeping ‘crate’ at night in much the same way our foremothers would have abandoned their young, not understanding the high-pitched wailing, without that unbreakable bond of love. Puppies make you love them. It’s evolution.
Our first dog in our marriage was ‘rescued’ from the animal shelter just as he had left behind any semblance of being a puppy and never had the advantage of the cute factor. Pug was a problem dog too – so much so that, years later, I could spend an hour or more with ease regaling my students with tales of what the blasted ‘hound from hell’ had got up to. Pug was a nightmare but, at least, intelligent. We were able to train him enough that he won prizes at dog-training classes and we achieved about 15 years of tolerable existence with him. I was sad when he became so old and decrepit while we were out in Bangladesh and he lived with my parents-in-law. When we returned for visits I saw him getting older and more confused and waited for the call that all dog-owners dread when the vet tells you it’s time to put your pet out of their misery. It came shortly before we came back to the UK for good. He was never a good dog but still… I missed him.
Asha is proving to be even more intelligent and almost instantaneously trainable than Pug ever was. It took one afternoon for her to get the concepts of ‘fetch’, ‘bring it here’ and ‘drop’ when playing with a bouncy ball. Today she’s grasped ‘sit’, ‘stay’ and ‘come’ for treats. Pug, by contrast, took months to do the same and doing anything for a treat was always on the basis of understanding that he was prepared to negotiate rather a given that he would do anything he’d been trained to do at all. You never quite knew with him if he would sit or shit, to be frank.
Pug, as I say, was a problem dog. This meant we had to treat him more harshly than dogs in our childhoods had. Where Kara slept where she liked, Pug had to be kept locked in the kitchen at night and kept away from children at all times. He was a dominant dog who didn’t trust kids and his first instinct was always- always – to bite. I am determined that Asha – who has come from excellent, friendly, dependable stock – will not have to go the same way. She will be spoiled rotten and will have free reign of the house. Eventually.
For now she has to learn to sleep on her bed in the kitchen at night and to get used to using that bed for sleep during the day too. Alas, I’m not doing too well on this latter point. As I write she’s flat out on my lap rather than placed in her bed as I’m supposed to do when she starts to droop.
To be honest, I want a lap dog. It’s comforting to be writing while she sleeps and it helps with the loneliness this writer feels (ex-teacher and therefore ex-extrovert – a rare breed among writers who tend to be a reclusive lot). So I’m not too fussed about training her to be so independent.
When I look at her tiny little body and her ever-ready excitement and eagerness to be with us, I can’t help but remember one of the most traumatic experiences we ever had in Bangladesh. For all the hard things we saw and dealt with there – and living in one of the poorest areas of a country which is almost entirely poor anyway, there were many – nothing was more shocking to us than what we saw within a couple of weeks of living in Dhaka.
My wife and I were walking, first thing in the morning to our language school. Bangladesh is filled with stray cats and dogs but this morning we saw a beautiful little golden-haired puppy wagging its way around the street wallahs. It was adorable but it was a stray and we were on our way to school. Nevertheless, as we passed by on the other side, we took a last glimpse back at the little cutie. To our horror, the puppy had crossed over towards another passer-by, a Bangladeshi, who kicked the dog back into the road with a distasteful touch of his foot. At that point a car was passing by and it went straight over the dog. It didn’t move again. The man grinned a little sheepishly, embarrassed by the accidental result of his kicking the dog away but clearly not too bothered either. He looked at the body a few seconds – the way Bangladeshis do when something, anything, of interest happens in the street – and then carried on his way, leaving the body in the road. It was still there the next day when we walked to language school again. It’s a moment I’ve never forgotten and one which comes back to mind all to easily with Asha around – not least because she has a Bengali name.
Actually, while we lived in Bangladesh we had a dog adopt us! He appeared on our verandah one day pretty much on last legs. He was very poorly and looked like he had come somewhere sheltered to die. One of our cats had just died after days and days of wasting away in agony and we still had an animal antibiotic pill left over after all attempts to save him failed. We snapped the tablet in half and fed them to the dog in a half-hope that he might stagger away and die somewhere else in a day or two. We didn’t want the kids to be traumatized so soon after the cat’s death by coming home from school and finding another beautiful – but dead – creature and associating it with our home.
But he didn’t die. He got better and, as I quickly gave in to the ‘no more pets’ rule, got fatter again as he ate everything we gave him. We never did ascertain if the dog belonged to someone else or whether he was a stray. All I know is, that dog stuck to us like glue and happily lived under the shelter of our verandah. I ended up training him to ‘sit’, ‘stay’, ‘heel’ and even balance a treat on his nose and make him wait before allowing him to eat it (a trick I never succeeded in teaching Pug who went cross-eyed when trying to put the treat on his nose and would just snap wildly in the air not caring if he got a treat or finger in the process).
But dogs are not well-liked in Bangladesh and even less so at the NGO, LAMB, where we worked. Despite showing how I could keep the many stray dogs who gather around the children at break times away from the school using a bucket of water and how this, when done daily soon meant the dogs moved on to somewhere easier outside the gates still the opinion of most was to kick or beat the dogs with a stick. The management, every couple of years or so would simply have the dogs rounded up and killed failing to appreciate that doing so solved nothing as Bangladesh is filled with stray dogs and killing those that lived around LAMB simply made way for a whole new set of dogs to come in.
Sure enough, the Summer we returned to the UK for a few months for our ‘Home leave’, the management did just this, killing the dog we’d so lovingly restored to health and befriended along with half a dozen other strays. I’m quite certain they waited until we left to do this, in quite cowardly fashion, after we had made such a fuss about not killing the dogs for months beforehand. It wasn’t that I didn’t agree with pest control, it was just that killing these dogs was a senseless waste of another creature’s life when it had no effective use. When we returned after a few months there were now more strays than ever harassing the children – but our dog was gone. I had many failures at LAMB but I still count my greatest one was the failure to sway the powers-that-be on this issue. It was wrong what they did and, as far as I’m aware, still is wrong today but organisations come with their immovable forces.
I’m going to be over-protective about Asha, I can tell. We come with our baggage in all walks of life, it seems, and having a puppy is going to be no different. She will grow up, inshallah, with a man in her life who will always do inexplicable things which she has no hope of understanding: such as saying inshallah for no particular reason or speaking Bangla to her all of a sudden because, as she bounces towards me with a great grin on her tail and in her eyes I am reminded of a puppy in Bangladesh; such as suddenly getting on the kitchen floor to do sit-ups and laughing when she lies herself down on my chest as I raise myself time and again because I think of Kara and wonder if Asha will ever be too big to do this with; such as being wildly pleased when she learns a new trick not because – not just because – it’s another step in her development but also because she becomes one step closer to what Pug never managed because it was simply too late for him – to be a proper member of our family.
Asha is going to be something most other dogs don’t get to be though: she’ll be a writer’s dog. She will (and already has begun to) fall asleep to the sound of my fingers tapping over the laptop keyboard. She’ll sit on my lap and stare at the weird pictures and jumbles of letters on the screen of the only thing which gets more attention from me than she does. She’ll be the one I talk to, sharing ideas out loud, asking her opinion about what she thinks to this sentence or that sentence and did she see what I did there talking about her grinning with her tail and her eyes? Wasn’t that clever? Yes it was!
Her presence here makes my writing both more focused and terribly delayed. When she finally sleeps, no longer craves constant attention nor weeing every 20 minutes and needing her latest pool wiping up, I write furiously, trying to get down the words bursting from my head after getting stuck there during so many games of ‘fetch ball’. But then this is the only thing I’ve succeeded in writing today – and this I began yesterday. What would normally be no more than a morning’s work now takes two days and I’m exhausted. With three article rewrites, a review and a full article on cartography desperately needing to be finished before I can even think of putting the final touches to the book I’ve written – I think I need to adjust my expectations. I’m not a full-time writer any longer. Now I’m a full-time carer for a writer’s dog.