As featured in The Sunday Times
Last week dogs mauled children and learnt to start cars. Reformed dog nut Christa D’Souza explains our national bow-wow obsession.
Not a good week for the dog lobby, then. Two Rottweilers maul a baby girl to death. Three days later another one tries to do the same to a toddler boy and doesn’t stop when a neighbour bashes its head with a hammer. A four year old is attacked by her Uncle’s Staffordshire bull terrier, needs 50 stitches to her head and neck, and, as doctors say, will be scarred for life.
As the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991 stands – it has hastily drawn up after an 11 year old girl from Strathclyde had her throat torn out by two Rotties – dogs that attack members of the public are not automatically put down and neither Staffordshire bull terriers nor Rottweilers need to be muzzled or micro chipped.
But then why would they? As Steve Cheetham, the chief veterinary officer of RSPCA, put it; ‘We believe that the focus should be on the deed not the breed. Fundamentally what is needed is responsible pet ownership.’
Chris Laurence, the veterinary director of the Dogs Trust, says; ‘Judging a dog by its breed is unreliable. There are nice Rottweilers and nasty Golden Retrievers. The way a dog behaves is largely due to the way it has been brought up.’
And if anyone wants proof of that, take the example of Rosemary William of Great Clifton, Cumbria, who is more than happy letting her seven year old daughter Tanisha roll around the floor with the family’s 20 slobbering Rotties.
‘They make lovely pets,’ insists Williams, 33, ‘It’s just a case of being sensible….If Rottweilers are looked after then the attacks would not happen.’
That could have been me, once. Nobody, but nobody, could have been more of a dog bore. I was so attached to my Kodo that I took him out with me in the evening. He was a welcome face in some of the West End’s most fashionable nightspots. And he wasn’t some pathetic canine tick tucked into my hand bag but a Shiba Inu. Okay, that’s actually Japanese for ‘small dog’ – but it’s an ancient hunting breed and not so small. I loved him.
Now, however…well, something happened. My affair with dogs is over. I am not alone. There is a growing generation of city dwelling, two job families who find no room for Kodo in their high pressure lives. Some, having forsaken canine companionship, now regard dogs as sources of not love but toxocara canis, which can damage children’s eyes.
I won’t claim that we’re in a majority yet, however. There are still plenty of dogs nuts (and nutty dogs) around.
Take Trinny Woodall. She is such a dyed in the wool dog person that she’s not even aware visitors to this country might think her a little eccentric about Honey, a Greyhound – Alsatian mix she plucked from Battersea Dogs Home.
‘I remember being totally panicked when I found out I was pregnant,’ she says. ‘Honey had always been my big love and, as I said to my husband Johnny, how will I ever love anything as much?’
After giving birth to her daughter, Lila, she had Johnny take one of the infant’s baby grows home every evening from hospital to put in Honey’s basket in order to acclimatise her to the new baby’s smell.
Woodall says that when she came home from hospital she made sure that it was Johnny not her who brought Lila through the front door. Which is not to say there weren’t a few hairy moments, like when she was breast feeding Lila in the sitting room with Honey at her feet, and the latter ‘suddenly jumped up and tried to latch onto my other nipple.’
Nicola Formby, partner of Adrian Gill, the Sunday Times writer, also has some of the symptoms shown by the barking mad – though she was resistant at first; having been brought up in South Africa where dogs know their place.
‘When we were growing up, dogs lived in kennels outside and never ever came into the house with their muddy paws,’ she says. ‘When I first came to London I had a massive problem with the way people would let their dogs have full run of their flats, let them sleep in their beds, be on first-name terms with the family butcher and so on….’
‘That is until she got one of her own soon after her father died a terrier called Putu. ‘She had this kind of Mary Poppins effect, the way she helped me through that period. It annoyed me at first, just how fond of her I, as a human, could be of a dog, but now I’m right in there. If I’m away from her for more than three hours I get terrible guilt.
When Formby has to go away, Putu is checked into The Dog House in South West Wales, a £25 a day canine ‘spa’ which, along with a full anal gland squeezing service, provides heated chalets, customised doggie schedules (where it’s lights out and Bonios at 11pm), and even school ‘reports’ to see how they’ve interacted with ducks and sheep and other dogs.
‘They even come home with a bag of their own hair……..to show you how you haven’t been grooming them properly,’ says Formby.
Then there is Clare Staples, author of ‘Everything I Knew About Men I Learnt From My Dog’. Hr Great Dane and flat mate, Mr Big, had his own blog. ‘But then I won’t make any bones about it,’ says Staples, the business partner of the hypnotist Paul McKenna, ‘he is completely and utterly my child substitute.’
As Kodo was most definitely for me. I come from a long line of dog bores.
My dad still hasn’t got over our Afghan, Sally, who died 43 years ago. My sister and I spent quite a sizeable part of our childhood in the back of my mum’s Mini while our subsequent dog, a Labrador called Marky, lorded it up front.
I got Kodo for my 35th birthday. He became a child substitute almost immediately. I never got the hang of house training him. Whenever I went out of the house for a second he’d pee all over the bed and – like the child in We Need To Talk About Kevin – he gave me a little sly ‘smile’ if I ever caught him in the middle of doing it. But I insisted on taking him absolutely everywhere. To work, to the Ivy (where I’d have to check him in with my coat), to Harry’s Bar, whose dog loving owner Mark Birley was happy to let him sit on a stool at the bar. And to people’s houses for dinner where he’d always make a beeline for the bedroom and have a pee. For which I always defended him to the hilt.
As JR Ackerley so movingly put it in My Dog Tulip, the poignant story of his beloved German Shepherd Queenie, Kodo was my ‘ideal friend.’ And human ones? Well frankly, they came a poor second.