Spaniel stories

How a mischievous companion transformed my life

“A daily stroll with a calm dog,” my wife told me. “It’ll help you with your writing.”

We travelled with our children to a village near Buckingham where a litter of six cute puppies had been born to a gentle cocker spaniel.

“Which of these,” we asked the owner, “seems temperamentally most like her mother?”

We chose one, paid, and carried her to the car. On the way home her name was decided upon. We were now Cocoa’s legitimate owners and moral guardians. Everyone was happy.

Except that Cocoa turned out to be nothing like her mother. She grew into a tart and cantankerous canine – a muscly, meaty little thing who growled at human beings and wrestled with other dogs.

Reaching the park in the early morning, I let Cocoa off the lead. She looks up at me and winks. Then she turns tail and dashes back out of the park, her long ears streaming behind her head. I know what’s happened. Our greedy spaniel has clocked a potentially edible scrap and gone back for it. I glimpse her dash across the road, narrowly missing a startled cyclist, and disappear.

After a few minutes Cocoa reappears with a jaunty gait that says, “Pleased to see me again, old man? Of course you are!” I reprimand her sternly. She fakes remorse. When I’ve finished, she saunters on, tail once more wagging.

Virginia Woolf taught her dogs to blow out the matches she’d used to light her cigarettes

Over the following days I keep Cocoa on the lead well into the park, until I’m convinced the habit has left her. Then, my guard down, she does it again. A dog trainer tells my wife: “A Labrador enters the world half-trained, a spaniel exits it half-trained.”

Cocoa growls at a woman with an umbrella. A week later she snaps at a kid on his scooter. These human beings are not configured as she believes they should be. Today she woofs at a man in a wheelchair. Will he think I’ve trained this spaniel to bark at the disabled? I scurry away, calling her after me, and wonder what impact increased stress levels have on a writer’s work.

A helicopter passes overhead. Cocoa yaps until she’s successfully chased it out of our airspace. We purchase a device that attaches to a dog’s collar and releases a spray of citronella, which canines abhor. When Cocoa barks we can see the citronella spray onto her snout. She shivers with disgust and shuts up.
The next day a Nordic-walking woman approaches. Cocoa stares at her, dumbfounded. A weird spidery human with four legs? Her hackles rise. She barks. Citronella floods her nostrils. It has no effect. I drag her away, remove the useless device and drop it in a bin.

Eventually Cocoa calms down. A little. She scurries hither and thither, sniffing invisible trails left by nocturnal animals, apparently ignoring me yet miraculously remaining within a twenty-yard range, always aware of where I am. I can finally amble along, observing the ever-turning natural world or musing on the novel I’m writing. William Styron wrote about his dog, Aquinnah, “Without a daily walk and the transactions it stimulates in my head, I would face the first page of cold blank paper with pitiful anxiety.” It’s not long before I’m wondering how I managed without Cocoa. Walking becomes the first, essential part of my writing day.

I carry a) dog treats, b) poo bags, c) pen and paper. I fancy we’re accompanied by another literary spirit, Virginia Woolf. She adopted a boxer, Hans, from Battersea Dogs Home and taught him to blow out the matches she’d used to light her cigarettes, a trick she went on to teach all her subsequent dogs. Later, Virginia was accompanied by a mixed breed terrier, Grizzle, on her walks over the Sussex Downs, where I imagine her composing the involute rhythms of her sentences.

One day, musing on a plot conundrum, I roam too close to the pond. Cocoa spots a heavenly sight: ducks. Cockers were bred for flushing out game; she heads straight for them. But they’re not waddling on grass but paddling in water. Cocoa runs straight off the bank and for a glorious moment becomes a cartoon dog, caught in mid-air, her legs racing furiously, going nowhere. Then she drops into the water, before doggy-paddling ridiculously, turning in a large arc, and scrabbling out of the pond.

Is my dog embarrassed? Not at all. She shakes the water from her coat and trots off, tail wagging.

One lovely morning in May Cocoa and I walk to the park. I glance up and gasp: six multi-coloured hot air balloons hang silent above us. They are so unexpected – they don’t look like they could have risen from the ground, but rather descended, from some other era, the bulbous figments of an Edwardian adventure story sinking into view. Cocoa lifts her nose from the ground and gazes at them in apparent wonder.

Sometimes I throw a stick for Cocoa. She brings it back but does not drop it. Instead, she approaches and waits for me to try and take it from her. I make a grab and she twists effortlessly away, skips a few yards then returns to taunt me. I pretend to watch birds overhead, then dive for the stick. She’s not fooled and spins again, emitting a muzzled yelp of pleasure. Cocoa teases me just long enough to establish her agile superiority over this lumbering biped before dropping the stick and letting me throw it for her again.

At first, my only problem on these walks was other people: regular park users addressed me. Like Coleridge’s person from Porlock they interrupted the interior rhythm, and I walked rudely on. My four-legged companion, however, was more friendly. Cocoa and the dogs she meets sniffed each other’s nether parts. The owners gazed at them adoringly. I learned to hold on to my mental thread and discuss the weather or the football or our beloved canines’ idiosyncrasies. And soon I found that these brief doses of sociability – with Paul and his terrifyingly exuberant Staffy, Julia and her cocker, Chris and his whippet, Francesca and her springer, Dennis and his terrier and pair of tiny Yorkshires – were uplifting. I happily returned home to a day of solitary work.

Back at my desk, Cocoa warms my feet. Sometimes the computer mouse doesn’t work because she’s on the lead. When I lie on the sofa to read, I don’t notice her climb up but after a while realise she’s resting her long snout on my leg.

I’m not sure whether Cocoa understands what I say. I think she does. When I give her orders and she ignores me, she’s not being stupid, merely disobedient. An article in Psychology Today asks whether dogs actually understand particular words or gain the gist of what we say through tone and volume. Stanley Coren modified the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory, created to assess children’s language development, for use with canines. He concluded that the average dog can learn to recognize about 165 words and gestures. Super dogs – those in the top 20 per cent of canine intelligence – can learn 250 or more. The most common super dogs are Border collies. One had a vocabulary of around 1,000 words and apparently understood some of the basics of grammar.

I sometimes run ideas for character development or narrative momentum past Cocoa. She’s generally unimpressed. Stanley Coren put spaniels eighteenth in his list of dog breed IQs, but maybe Cocoa’s a super cocker and her silence is a harsh but fair judgement of my work. At least she doesn’t eat it. Writers with dogs live in terror of what happened to John Steinbeck’s first draft of Of Mice and Men: “My setter pup, left alone one night, made confetti of about half of my book. Two months’ work to do over again. It sets me back. There was no other draft. I was pretty mad but the poor little fellow may have been acting critically.”

Cocoa takes a moment to appreciate hot air balloons floating past

On Saturdays I take Cocoa to the woods. She knows we’re going long before I’ve made any preparation and is at the front door, eager to jump into the boot of the car. People claim dogs are psychic but that’s absurd. Cocoa’s not psychic; she just knows which day of the week it is.

In the wood she runs in an ever-widening radius away from me. There must be so many scents, driving her wild. Sometimes I look ahead along a forest track and see a small herd of deer skipping across it. A moment later a little brown spaniel crosses after them. Then if I’m lucky they repeat the spectacle further away along the track. Many of the observations of nature that I have put into my novel Run to the Western Shore have been made while dog walking. If the descriptions of birds and mammals tend to be of them in flight, it’s Cocoa’s fault.

My wife and I go to a friend’s birthday party in Devon. We walk along a coastal path before checking into our B and B. It’s great to be by the sea but something is wrong. “It feels weird to go for a walk without a dog,” my wife says.

I sometimes run ideas for character development past Cocoa – she’s generally unimpressed

Thomas Mann wrote a sweet book called Bashan and I about his relationship with his mongrel setter. At one point Bashan must stay in a veterinary hospital for a week’s observation. “From that day on,” Mann writes, “my walks were to me what unsalted food is to the palate – they gave me little pleasure. No silent tumult of joy burst upon me when I went out – under way no proud, high, mad helter-skelter of the chase surrounded me. The park seemed to me desolate – I was bored… I almost ceased to go walking at all. My health suffered in consequence.”

Cocoa sees a squirrel and dashes after it. It disappears behind a tree. Cocoa runs behind the tree and the squirrel has vanished! What evil magic is this? The thing is, although she’s five years old now and has been chasing squirrels all her life, unless she actually sees the animal scarpering up the tree trunk its disappearance is always an inexplicable astonishment. She looks around, stunned. After a few seconds she turns and prances off, tail in the air, on to the next adventure.

I fear that I’m closer to dotage than Cocoa. If I go first, will she pine for me like Emily Brontë’s dog, Keeper, who followed Emily’s coffin to the grave and, for weeks after, howled outside her bedroom door? It’s more likely that our dogs will die before us. When we take on a dog as a pet, we must reckon with their mortality. We shall ease them through the gateway then deal with our grief.

Byron was so attached to his Newfoundland dog, Boatswain, that when it died, in 1808, of rabies, Byron wrote an epitaph that was inscribed upon a monument erected above the dog’s tomb.

Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the virtues of Man without his Vices.

I fear I won’t be able to write such an epitaph for Cocoa, our vain, insolent and occasionally ferocious cocker spaniel. Yet after my wife, this dog is my closest companion. She might dismiss my ideas and ignore my commands, but she is always there. She neither judges nor condemns as she accompanies me through my days.

I’ve come to understand Kurt Vonnegut, who, in his later years, was rarely seen without Pumpkin, his Lhasa apso, and once wrote: “I cannot distinguish between the love I have for people and the love I have for dogs.”

It’s odd to have developed this love for the member of a different species. Metaphysically unsettling. Yet Cocoa looks at me with her sad brown eyes, and I feel a profound sense of what I can only describe as recognition. My dog and I know each other.

Tim Pears is the author of twelve novels. He enjoys urban rambling and rural wandering with the recent idiotic addition of a second dog. His most recent novel is “Run to the Western Shore” (Swift Press)

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December 23 / January 24, Life

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