Sunday, 20 March 2016

Just A-Walkin' the Dog (s)

I often walk my 3 dogs in an expansive parkland that runs alongside the railway line in outer suburban Melbourne. I’m loath to give its name as it’s an unofficial and much treasured off-leash area though no signs attest to this and some kill-joy is bound to come along one day and complain.  But - so far so good.
Off to the park!
If ever a person felt lonely they’d have only to come here to be uplifted, entertained, puzzled or to laugh out loud. There are funny stories, sad stories and no end of observations to be made, about dogs and humans alike.
Take Rose. Rose is a robust but unremarkable black dog who fancies herself to be part cat. When I first met Rose she was pouncing into the long grass in what her owners told me was a promising pursuit of field mice, an activity at which she excels. When Rose is feeling affectionate towards her owners at home she will back up, lift her tail in the air and do those schmoozing slow twirls around their legs, just like a cat. She grew up with cats and kittens apparently and took on many of their feline behaviours. It made my day, meeting Rose.
There’s Henry the tradie’s dog who fell off the back of a ute one rainy day and whose owner sped along, oblivious. The absence of name tags, registration or the necessary speed to get the number plate resulted in Henry now living in the lap of luxury in Ivanhoe with his own couch and a penchant for watching the footy with his new owner.
But not all encounters are happy ones. There’s the elderly lady who for years walked two beautifully behaved Airdale terriers, one spritely, one starting to dodder. We chatted several times about doggy things  - best food, best parks, vet bills – and then one day she turned up with just the one dog. When this happens, please, never to say ‘I know just how you feel’ because this is not what the bereaved dog owner wants to hear. They know that no-one has ever been through anything as bad as what they’re going through right now. No-one. So don’t compete, don’t even empathise. Just listen and maybe suggest going into over-the-top memorialising mode, collating photos, making booklets, hoping all their friends send cards. (Anyone thinking, ‘it’s just a dog’, leave the room now.)

Other behaviours come as a surprise. Quite a few dog owners get tetchy if you get the gender of their dog wrong.  A well-meaning ‘What’s his name?’ can bring on the pursed lips and clouds of offence if he is in fact a she. Short of doubling over in a true hairpin bend to check the undercarriage for tell-tale signs of gender it’s best not to commit. I’ve modified Catherine Deveney’s Advice for Greeting Ugly Babies in these circumstances. Smile directly at the subject, look deeply indulgent and say ‘Well, look at you! And what’s your name?’ Thanks Catherine. Works every time. Unless it’s called Dusty or Spot. The dog, that is.
Of course some owners don’t deserve to own a dog. There are the two regular, lycra-clad runners, a pair of women with legs surely built from nylon climbing rope, who pound on ahead of a poor little fluff ball in full designer doggy-gear but who can’t keep up and frequently gets lost, needing to be rescued by some other more observant and caring dog owner. I long for a falling branch to bring them down or for that little bridge to collapse and send them plunging into the drain below but so far, no luck. We can but dream.
There are the owners who keep their dogs on a tight leash which they yank viciously if another dog approaches for a friendly sniff. Presumably they believe that decapitating their dog is preferable to letting it socialise with another. A variation on this theme is to swoop down and lift the dog high, clutching it to the breast defensively in an act of fierce protection. Unfortunately this usually leads to the approaching dog leaping high and repeatedly, pogo style, to get at the dog now cowering on its owner’s shoulders. Ah me, if only dogs were left to their own devices.

Swimming in the creek

Me, I often head for this park to walk our three dogs, one black, one brown and one white. Whatever I wear I can be sprinkled liberally with dog hair of a contrasting colour. People often say ‘Oh, you have your hands full!’ - but no. They’re friendly, full of fun and they come when they’re called.  I suspect this is because they’re all rescue dogs and so far I’m the only source of Schmakos they know.

* This article first appeared in The Big Issue No. 506 March 4-17

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