[Author’s note: These events took place a couple of months ago, before the coronavirus outbreak. I hope you & your family are keeping safe and well. Fingers crossed it won’t be too long before things start getting back to normal…]
Chapter 5: Incident in the Cemetery
Cones as Markers – Sunday Morning Optimism – Into the Cemetery – Mr Bernstein & Co. – The Incident – Strays Are A Lot of Work – Adina Explains – More Treats
‘Over there!’ I say to Adina, the two of us walking with Stanley through a cemetery. ‘About where that cone is.’
‘Did YOU put the cone there?’
‘No. It’s a coincidence’
I wonder if she really thinks I’m the kind of person who’d fetch a traffic cone to mark the spot where Stanley had a fight – but maybe she’s making a joke and I’m not picking up on it.
I tell her the story.
I’d come out with the dogs that morning. It was wet, so I thought we’d walk through the village first and then out to the field behind the church that might not be quite so muddy. It was a quiet Sunday morning. Both dogs were slack on the lead, trotting along beside me, noses in the air, walking with an easy kind of lope. I was feeling good, too – or better than good. I was optimistic.
We entered the cemetery through the lychgate. Suddenly, up ahead I saw Mr Bernstein and his Labrador, Bunty. I hadn’t seen either of them in months. I’d heard Mr Bernstein’s wife had died, and I wanted to see how he was and give him my best. I waved. He waved. I headed in his direction.
Lola didn’t seem bothered but I could feel Stanley tense on the lead. I stopped a little way off.
‘We’re training,’ I said to Mr Bernstein. ‘He’s not great on the lead. He’s not great OFF the lead, come to that.’
Mr Bernstein shrugged.
‘It’s a lot of work,’ he said.
Stanley began to shake. I stroked his head. I thought he might be keyed-up, seeing another dog and yet not being able to go up and sniff them and say hello. So I walked further towards them. Which is when Stanley snarled and launched himself at Bunty, his jaws coming together with an audible clack. Luckily I had a firm hold of the lead, otherwise Stanley would have taken Mr Bernstein and Bunty down like skittles in an alley. Bunty yelped – which is something I’d never heard her do before – and Mr Bernstein swore.
‘Sorry! Sorry!’ I said, hauling Stanley back.
‘You weren’t wrong when you said he’s not great,’ Mr Bernstein said. ‘That’s the thing with strays – you never know what they’ve been through.’
We said goodbye. I wished him all the best and said I’d see him around. They both stood at the crossways of the path, staring sadly after us. I half-expected to see Bunty reach out and take Mr Bernstein by the left hand, and a ghostly Mrs Bernstein rise out of the ground to take him gently by the right.
Adina is pretty clear about what happened.
‘He’s not ready for meeting dogs nose to nose on the lead yet,’ she says. ‘It’s too early. You have to build up to it. The trembling in his back legs is common. It means he’s feeling anxiety. And with dogs, when they feel anxiety, they must either run away or fight. So when you walked towards the gentleman and his dog, and Stanley had no choice where to go, he became aggressive. This is normal and to be expected.’
‘So what should I have done?’
‘I think when you saw the gentleman you should have said Hello! I’m training this dog, so I can’t come over and see you just now. But maybe I’ll see you around town? Or something like that. He would understand. And then you could just walk on the other side, and give Stanley a treat, and everything would be avoided. But don’t worry. This is typical. Nothing out of the ordinary at all.’
We walk on. I try to remember to reward Stanley with a treat every time I say his name and he looks at me.
‘Good!’ says Adina. ‘You’re both doing good.’
It feels good to hear her say it. As good as a treat.
Chapter 4: A Date with Adina
Adina the Trainer – The Superman Stop – The Sound of a Pheasant – Training as Mind Control – Two Adoring Dogs – The Real Stanley
The dog trainer’s coming tomorrow and I have to say, she can’t come soon enough. She looks great. A specialist in rehomed dogs. There are clips on her website of her swimming in the sea with a dog, walking smartly along suburban roads with a dog looking up at her adoringly, turning about, walking smartly the other way. The only thing that worries me is the physical gesture she demonstrates for the Emergency Stop. Bending her left leg, stretching her right leg back, flashing out her right arm with the palm of the hand flat. She looks like Superman leaning in to catch a train. The dog stops dead, of course, but I don’t know. I might feel self-conscious using a pose like that. We’ll see.
Stanley definitely needs some super-advice, though. A bag of treats or a bag of kryptonite – we’re open to suggestions. It’s strange, how well-behaved he is around the house (for the most part), and how oblivious he is when we let him off the lead. Not a hint of a check to see where we are, not a sign he’s even dimly aware of us shouting, blowing on the whistle, or jumping up and down, brandishing the treat bag. He’s just gone, utterly in thrall to his nature, chasing the spirit of the great wild space running out endlessly in front of him.
To be fair, even to a non-dog, it’s a pretty enchanting world. Out on the walk this morning there’s a low mist drifting in over the fields, everything ghosted, chill, strange, like it’s all hanging back, waiting for something. Monstrous tree shapes looming overhead. Somewhere close by, the sudden cry of a pheasant, deep in the bramble breaks – a sharp, unearthly, ratcheting sound, like a tin can violin played with a hacksaw.
I have to catch Stan a couple of times, so for most of the walk he’s back on the lead. I feel bad. It’s like slinging a line on a spirit, tricking Ariel into a tree.
I hope the trainer’s as good as she looks. I promise I’ll even do the Superman Stop if it means Stanley can have his freedom.
The way Stan and Lola trot up to Adina as she comes through the front door, you’d think they’d known the dog trainer all their lives. She greets them in such an easy and familiar way you can tell she’s lived with dogs and knows their ways. Everyone’s immediately relaxed. This is going to work.
‘Would you like some tea?’ I say.
‘Do you have any herbal?’
‘Peppermint, I think.’
‘That would be wonderful! Thank you!’
She smiles, and it’s only when I’m halfway through preparing the drinks I realise I’ve made myself a cup of peppermint tea, too, instead of coffee.
Damn – she’s good.
It’s a cold day and Adina’s wearing lots of layers – a bright, chunky knit hat, a flower-patterned scarf, a battered waterproof jacket over a charcoal-grey roll-neck. She shucks off a pair of ancient leather pixie boots in the hallway – made easier by the fact their fluorescent green laces are already untied – and pads through to the living room in her socks, where she pulls off her hat and roughly spikes-up her straight black hair, her angular earrings jangling. She’s like a crow after bathing in a puddle, acutely bright and alert. The dogs are the most enthralled of us all. They pay her such close attention as she takes the jacket and scarf off, I wouldn’t be surprised if they bowed and offered to carry them through for her.
We sit at the kitchen table, Adina at one end, me and Kath either side. Even the dogs sit. And we haven’t even trained them to sit.
‘Good!’ she says, smiling indulgently, passing them both a tiny treat from the pouch she carries on her belt.
‘Now, then. Tell me a little bit about yourselves.’
And I realise she means us.
‘Of course we cannot know what has happened to Stanley before he was rescued,’ says Adina, sipping her tea with one hand, idly scratching Stanley’s head with the other. He’s planted his head in her lap, so devotedly the rest of his body is pretty much suspended, like those magicians who hypnotise their assistants lying on a table supported by two chairs – and then take the chairs away. ‘I mean – we know he wasn’t fed or exercised enough, you can see that. Poor Stanley! His legs are not strong at the moment, and he still needs to put on weight. This situation, dogs like Stanley – it’s almost like an abused child, in many ways. You have to take it slow. Give them the love and encouragement to see that things are different now. That he can trust you. And this will emerge over time. But you must be prepared. It is quite usual for issues to come up.’
‘Setbacks, you know? Strange things. Like layers. The real dog is in there – isn’t it, Stanley? Hey? I mean, you can see this already. He is good boy. Our job only is to give Stanley the love he needs to relax, feel at home, and be free to be the dog he truly is.’
Adina smiles at me and Kath.
And it really feels as if she thinks we can do that.
‘So now – we begin,’ she says, putting her cup down.
Lola trots over, on cue, and the two dogs sit side-by-side to attention.
‘Good!’ she says, and hands them both a treat.
Chapter 3. Three little words
Stanley makes his bed and lies in it – The Lurcher that Never Looks Back – Not Disney Material – The Farm Dog Theory – Stanley McQueen – Spock as Dog Whisperer
Stanley’s been home a few days now and he’s absolutely perfect. Almost.
He’s affectionate, gentle, inquisitive. He has a funny way of pulling out the throw we use to cover the sofa at night, dragging it into the middle of the room, twirling it round into a weird kind of nest, then plomping himself down in the middle of it (sighing heavily, like a forbearing but disappointed teacher who has shown his pupils time and time again exactly what is required but STILL has to go through the motions). He sits when you ask him to sit. He stands when you ask him to stand (admittedly a bit confused when we say Stan, sit!) He takes a treat from your fingers so slowly and carefully it’s like you never had it in the first place. He doesn’t whine at night. He’s housetrained. In fact, Stanley’s so nearly perfect, it’s unnerving. But two things stop him from being a one hundred percent, gold-starred, fully certificated wonder hound. One is his barking at other dogs when he’s on the lead. The other is his recall – or, more specifically, his lack of it.
We’ve tried training him in the garden. We even bought a whistle. We blow the whistle and give him a treat when he comes back (which he does, mostly). It’s all fine. By the book. But when we take him for a walk over the fields and let him off, he becomes a different dog altogether. He ignores the whistle. He ignores the shouting, the frenetic rattling of treat bags, the slapping of thighs and general carrying-on. He heads off, onward, outward, away. Head up, tail out. He does NOT look back. The only reason he MIGHT stop is to write a quick letter and post it. The letter will arrive in a day or so. It will read: Dear People. I am GONE. Yours &c, S.
It’s like we’re mad inventors who built a clockwork hound only capable of running in one direction, and when it’s disappeared over the horizon we’re left looking at each other, suddenly realising the basic design flaw.
Nothing works. It’s a simple fact. Stanley will NOT come back. All we can do is head him off in a Billy Smart’s Circus version of the pincer movement, tramping through the grass as quickly as our enormous boots, flashing bow ties and buckets of confetti will allow.
If we get the angle right it’s effective, though, because the ONE good thing about Stan on the Run is that he will keep coming on, straight, in a relentless trot, so much so that when he makes contact and you grab his harness, his feet keep on wheeling round and round (or at least it feels like they do), and he looks astonished, because he can’t understand what the problem is.
Yesterday was different, though. Yesterday was dangerous.
We set off as usual, Lola on one side, Stanley on the other. Filled with sunshine and optimism and bonhomie. I feel good. Man and dogs in perfect harmony.
I see a woman on the other side of the road with an immaculate GSP. They totally look like each other, in that Disney way – heads up, noses high, marching along the pavement in perfect step with each other.
‘Good morning!’ I say. If I’d been wearing a hat, I’d certainly have lifted it.
‘Good morning!’ she says.
Then Stanley barks. That great, open-throated, wilderness-worrying, howling harroo. The sound that would make a wolf turn vegetarian.
The woman and her dog hover a few inches above the pavement for a second, and hurry on.
Over the fields Lola is running on ahead in her perfectly easy and reliable way. I’ve still got Stanley on the lead, though. I want to let him off, too, but every time we’ve done it so far he’s ended up running away, or got stuck head-first in some brambles.
Whilst I’m thinking about this, a friend of ours – Jackie, the woman who helps run the choir Kath sings in, calls to me from the gate. Her little dog Max must be somewhere around, too. He’s a cute thing, a cross between a border terrier and a lamb, as far as I can tell. I’m a little worried how Stan’s going to react meeting him whilst he’s still on the lead, but when I say this to Jackie she’s pretty forthright.
‘Oh – let him off!’ she says. ‘I was brought up on a farm and we never had any of this nonsense! No! You just let them get on with it. I know they all go on about training, but really – they’re just dogs! But that’s me. I can’t see the point of having a dog and worrying too much. They sort themselves out!’
So I let Stanley off.
And actually – it seems to work. He has a good sniff around the bramble thicket nearest to us, but doesn’t do a swan dive into them. And when Max finally appears they greet each other calmly and courteously, and nothing much happens, and after Jackie and I chat for a bit about the choir and the upcoming tour and stuff, she carries on walking, and I head in to the next field.
Which is where it all goes wrong. Stanley suddenly speeds up, double-time. He’s caught wind of some rabbits over the far side. He’s at the fence in no time at all, despite his back legs still being weak from those years of neglect. He tries to jump the fence – which has barbed wire along the top. I can hardly watch.
But of course, I do.
It reminds me of that scene in The Great Escape, when Steve McQueen tries to clear the barbed wire fences on a motorbike. Except at least Steve McQueen manages a couple. Stan falls at the first attempt, not jumping it so much as speculatively launching himself into the air with his four legs spread in an X. It’s a miracle he doesn’t end up crucified on the wire; as it is, he falls back in a heap. He’s just getting back on the bike when I catch up with him and clip the lead back on.
Needless to say, we start looking round for a dog trainer.
Kath gets a recommendation for a militaristic woman who lives locally and specialises in gun dogs, but I’m not sure whether she’ll be a good fit. All that saluting and duck work. I’m holding out for more of a dog-whisperer type, someone who can do the canine equivalent of the Vulcan mind meld. I imagine them watching Stanley performing his bed trick, when they’ll smile mysteriously, write three little words on a scrap of paper, the key to the mystery of this particular dog, and then hand the paper over:
Twirling, Feeding and Rabbits
Chapter 2: Dogs on the Loose
When Lola Meets Stanley – Psychology of The Hump Explained – First walks – The Bull That Watches & Waits – A Notorious Bark – The calming effects of traffic – Signing on the dotted line – Incident at the Re-homing Centre (no actors or dogs are injured in the making of this scene).
Trudy rings us a few days later.
‘Canal boat man’s changed his mind,’ she says.
‘Has he? Oh. Why?’
I think of that famous line in Jaws. ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat.’
‘I don’t know why,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t matter. All I need is for you to say whether you’re going to take Stanley or not.’
I hesitate. I’m still a bit worried he won’t fit through the cat flap. Or pet flap, I should say. But maybe I’ve remembered him wrong. Maybe he isn’t that big after all.
‘Hello?’ says Trudy. ‘Hello?’
I imagine her hair, flashing violently behind the counter. ‘Yes or no?’
‘Why don’t we come and take him for another walk?’
We arrange a time. She hangs up.
At least it wasn’t a video call.
The shelter hadn’t told us too much about Stanley. We knew he was nine, that he’d been neglected, underfed, under-exercised, to the point where his back legs were weak and half his teeth had fallen out. We knew he’d spent those nine years in the company of another dog, Biscuit, the ratty little tan terrier we’d seen in the pen with him on that first visit, knuckling up and down the place like a gangster planning reprisals. Apparently Stanley had doted on Biscuit but Biscuit was indifferent at best. The two of them had been ‘surrendered’ to the shelter because the owner couldn’t cope. The ‘surrendered’ description sounded odd, like the welfare inspectors had surrounded a bungalow, and after a tense standoff, the dogs had come out with their paws up. Either way, they’d made it out of a horrible situation reasonably intact. Biscuit had gone to another place (presumably with tower guards and searchlights). So Stanley was in the pen by himself.
He barely looked up when we approached.
The first time Lola sees Stanley is in the parking lot at the rehoming centre. She immediately climbs on his back and tries to hump him. It’s as much a surprise to us as it is to Stan. We’ve never seen Lola hump anything, let alone a male dog. And a tall one, at that.
‘Yeah – well – it’s actually pretty common,’ says Lauren, one of the dog wardens, pulling them apart, then walking with us out over the field that backs on to the centre. ‘Bitches’ll do it, even the spayed ones. The thing is, it’s not so much sexual as a sign she’s a bit over-excited.’
Stanley doesn’t seem that bothered, though, which we take as a good sign. If he can ignore that he can ignore anything. We figure Stanley is so focused on the walk he’d ignore a banjo-playing leprechaun (or only pause long enough to scarf his Lucky Stars and then hurry on). And pretty soon Lola has forgotten about it, too. We trot along in neutral formation, lurchers left and right, straight ahead. Making polite conversation. Stepping round the muddy puddles in the lane.
We pass an enormous bull, its massy black head looming over a fence, a ring through its nose and one through its eyebrow, possibly. I want to take a photo but Lauren shakes her head. I think she’s worried about Stanley, not the bull. Which makes me a little twitchy. Stanley doesn’t show any sign of trouble, though. The bull watches us go.
We see another dog warden coming the other way with two Staffies, her wild curly hair flying out round a yellow headband, the dogs shouldering ahead on the fullest extent of the leads like chariot horses. She looks impressive, a modern Boudicea in fleece and wellies.
‘Let’s just move over here a bit…’ says Lauren.
The next thing I know, Stanley is barking and flying out on the lead. Not just any kind of bark, though. A deeply resonant, hound-round, bellowing ker-hoomf. The kind of bark that would make a mammoth clench. The kind of bark that would have Sherlock Holmes pulling out his pistol and hurrying grim-faced over the moor.
‘Hi Karen!’ says Lauren, hauling him back.
Karen is having her own struggle with the two Staffies, who – if not quite as homicidally committed as Stanley – still sound pretty murderous. She only has the energy to smile and wave, as we hurry on in the opposite direction.
I turn to see the bull still standing there, staring after us. I get the impression he’s there most days, to get the latest action.
Eventually we find ourselves on a footbridge over the motorway, watching the zoom of cars and lorries passing backwards and forwards beneath our feet. We stand there a moment, catching our breath. The traffic is actually quite soothing.
‘Don’t worry,’ shouts Lauren, pushing her hair out of her face. ‘You can train that out of him. You just have to remember – he’s been through a lot.’
We all look at Stanley. He wags his tail.
Back at the centre Trudy is waiting behind the reception desk with her clipboard.
‘Well?’ she says. ‘How did you get on?’
‘He barked at some staffies but other than that he was fine.’
‘Good,’ says Trudy. ‘So… what do you think?’
‘We’ll take him!’
‘Excellent. Jenny will finish the paperwork.’
She hands the clipboard to Jenny who starts working through the form.
A large red-faced man wearing the rehoming centre fleece suddenly bursts through the door.
‘Old lady down, two loose on the field,’ he says, then hurries out again.
‘Bloody hell!’ says Trudy. ‘Hold the fort, Jenny.’
She hurries outside after him.
‘I’ll go and check on the woman,’ I say.
‘He used to be a paramedic,’ says Kath to Jenny, who’s looking so flustered now she can hardly speak.
Outside there’s a shaken-looking elderly woman leaning against the passenger door of a car. A middle-aged guy is standing next to her, dividing his attention between the woman, the two dogs and the staff members running around on the field.
‘Are you okay?’ I say to her.
‘Any new pain anywhere?’
She says no.
‘I’m having my hip done next week,’ she adds, like that’s a bit of luck.
The guy with her turns out to be her grandson. He tells me what happened. How the larger of the two dogs pulled her over when they got out.
‘He’s never been good on the lead,’ says the guy.
Back inside, Kath has finished going through the paperwork with Jenny, who’s struggling with the card reader. She takes the card out, shoves it in, takes it out again and gives the machine a little slap with it.
‘I recognise that big guy,’ says Kath. ‘He teaches karate at our daughters’ old primary school.’
I have a strong image of him, running over the field, his arms held wide, trying to round the dogs up in Trudy’s direction.
‘I think he’s a black belt,’ says Kath.
‘It’s gone through!’ says Jenny. ‘Finally!’
Chapter 1: Have you got a dog in this size?
Dogs on stilts – And barges – Hair colour & its uses – Things you can pick up at the Rehoming Centre – Silence of the Bagels – The List
Trudy, the woman in charge at the rehoming centre, has a streak of ice blue in her hair. I’m beginning to think it changes colour according to the person she’s talking to.
‘What do you mean – too big?’ she says, slapping the clipboard down.
‘Well. We’re not sure. He looks enormous next to Biscuit.’
‘Biscuit’s a terrier. Biscuit makes everyone look big.’
‘Yeah – but – Stan’s legs. It’s like he’s on stilts.’
‘He’s a lurcher.’
‘Anyway,’ she says, raising her eyebrows and sighing, as if she’s had too many years of exactly this sort of thing already and it’s not getting any easier, ‘Canal Boat Man has first dibs.’
To be fair, I think Stan would look great on a canal boat. Wearing a flat cap and neckerchief. One paw draped over the tiller. Mournfully whistling as the boat chugs through a tunnel.
What we don’t tell the woman is exactly why we think Stan is too big. The thing is, we’ve got a pet flap in the door for our existing lurcher, Lola. She’s actually quite small for a lurcher, and we’re not sure Stan will fit through. We shouldn’t feel shy mentioning this, but we do. It’s a practical detail, after all. It’s better for the dogs if they have access to an outside area. It’s just – well – it feels a little insensitive, somehow. Like going into an art gallery and asking for a painting to cover a hole.
‘Why don’t you take him for a walk?’ Trudy says.
‘Yeah – but if we take him for a walk we’ll only end up falling for him and it’ll be harder to say no.’
The blue in Trudy’s hair deepens.
I like this rehoming centre, though. An old thirties semi that looks like it was commandeered for the purpose sometime in the seventies, the kennels extending out back. I like the slightly ramshackle feel of it, the scruffy old reception, shelves of stuff for sale – bedding and cat carriers, feeding bowls and harnesses, shelves of dog-eared Jack Reacher thrillers, Aromatherapy for Cats. There’s a tall counter at one end separating the tiny admin area from the public parts. Today there’s a solid-looking pit bull called Mike helping out; he looks up at me with the serious expression of a lifer with library privileges. The other members of staff come and go, all of them bright and chipper.
The thing is, we’ve got history here. Twenty years ago when Kath and I got back from honeymoon, and moved into our new house, we thought: What this place needs is a dog! (in that sublimating way new couples have). We came to look around the centre and came away with a Patterdale-Lakeland cross tucked under our arms. Well – not immediately. They did visit to check the garden first. When we said we liked the look of Buzz but wanted to think about it, they said that he was a popular dog, he’d already attracted a lot of attention, and if we didn’t move fast he’d be gone. So we fell for the hard sell and took him on the spot. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions we ever made.
Ten years later we came back to adopt a second dog – Lola. She was a tiny lurcher puppy, malnourished, quivering in the pen with a ragged troupe of the same. We took her home, and after a few teething problems – like eating Kath’s mobile phone – she soon turned out to be another great addition to the family.
So it feels as if we’re orbiting this rehoming centre on a long, ten year loop, a domestic comet shaped like a people carrier, swooping into view every decade or so to pick up another rescue. And in a funny way, it’s quite reassuring to see that nothing much has changed. There’s a new roof on the kennels, a reptile facility, and – weirdly – a vegetable and fruit rack with an honesty box (today: mostly pineapples), but otherwise, it’s exactly the same.
We’d visited one other rehoming centre before this one. It was run completely differently, with a plush reception centre, smart boards playing videos of the residents on repeat, social media icons and contact details prominently displayed. It felt more like a professional matchmaking service. We were shown into an office, interviewed formally and at length, our details taken, requirements examined, expectations and experiences forensically tested, and then, after a great deal of pencil chewing and a few brisk calls on the radio, a name was picked from their list. I don’t know what it said about us, but the dog they picked was Bagel, a brindle-coloured lurcher too nervous to be introduced without a particular handler. And even then, we certainly wouldn’t be able to take him for a walk. It reminded me of that scene in Silence of the Lambs, where they wheel Anthony Hopkins out on a porter’s trolley, wearing a mask. But unfortunately, they said, Bagel’s handler was off sick, so nothing could happen that week. We said we were happy to wait, but after two weeks without any change, we reluctantly declined and said we’d be in touch.
‘So – what do you think?’ says Trudy after we give Stan back to the handler and walk past the pineapples back into reception.
‘He’s lovely,’ I tell her. ‘We’ll take him if Canal Boat Man can’t.’
‘Great,’ she says, smiling at me in a rather disconnected way and ticking a box on her clipboard. ‘We’ll put you on the list and give you a ring.’
And it may just be my relief at concluding the deal, but her hair seems to change again – just a little – to a lighter shade of turquoise.