Who am I writing about? Of course, the dog, the greatest friend a human may have. In last week’s newspapers and on the national news, there was a story about the bravery of a police dog, Finn who almost died, after being knifed several times by a thug, while defending his police handler, PC Dave Wardell. The German Shepherd was presented with the PDSA Gold Medal – the animals’ George Cross – for his bravery and for saving his handler’s life. It was said that the story “captured the hearts of the nation”, and it was touching to hear PC Wardell describing his dog as his hero, without whose bravery and loyalty despite sustaining horrific injuries, he would be no longer here.
It brought back memories of my own dogs whose love and friendship made my difficult childhood bearable, while they were in my life. I was ten years old when a caretaker at my primary school in a village at the foot of a mountain, brought in a five-week old puppy that had been abandoned at the school gate that night to ask if any child would have it. As I loved animals with a passion, I could not leave the puppy to an uncertain fate. It was a most daring act as I was normally keeping low because my mother was quick to anger and would not tolerate any initiative which she regarded as disobedience. When I brought the puppy home, her first reaction was as expected, but as the evening progressed and with me tearfully pleading to keep the tiny puppy, she relented, and said I could keep it. Karusek, as I called my puppy, slept at my feet in my bed, and I was delirious with happiness. It was the beginning of the long summer break at school and I could look after Karusek without any interruption as my mother, a teacher, worked long hours in a sanatorium for young adults with tuberculosis. The mountain forest around the sanatorium was a wonderful place to walk and play with such a young creature, and we were inseparable and happy.
A year on, and my mother started to tire of the now much larger dog in a flat. As she didn’t like animals in general, it would not have even crossed her mind that we, that is Karusek and I, adored each other, and that to part us forcibly would affect me for life. To make her actions plausible, she told me that a pregnant woman, one of the large number of staff living at the sanatorium, had complained. Despite Karusek being always on a lead, apparently she was frightened when she saw us walking in the grounds. Despite my distress, my friend, who still shared my bed, was taken to a closeby village and left with a farmer. The village was a couple of miles away and it was no problem for me to walk there the next day. What confronted me on arriving at the farmyard was a picture of horror. Karusek was chained to a bare little wooden kennel and he was now jumping with joy on seeing me. A young boy, the farmer’s son, angrily tried to stop him by pulling on the chain, shouting: “It is my dog!” Karusek growled at him, baring his teeth. The farmer, who had been watching the commotion through a window, ran out and started hitting my dog. Although normally shy, I now turned into a screaming demon. Crying hysterically, I removed the heavy chain of my dog, and we ran home. The two-mile road to the sanatorium was roughly hacked through the forest and deserted. While Karusek ran ahead in total joy at being rescued, I was crying and calling him to be close to me, as without a lead, I feared that he could have scared with his barking someone approaching. We arrived home to an icy reception. My mother didn’t say a word but within a week she had secretly arranged to take Karusek to some far away village, one hour away by car. I never saw him again. It broke my heart, and even now when I write this, I weep for a friend that I could not save. I still feel his fear at being taken from me, and his betrayed trust that one day I would come and find him. Soon after, my mother arranged for a transfer to a school in a town over 100 miles away, and that was an end of the problem for her, but not for me.
It would take a book to write about my other attempts to help dogs that were either mistreated or abandoned, but here I will only write about two later encounters, thankfully, both happy ones. Years later, by then married, with my own children in their early teens, and working from home, it become obvious that we could now look after a dog. The obvious solution was to visit one of the many dog rescue centres. A rough-looking man waiting behind us was telling his very young son that they would take a German Shepherd dog home to their flat as he had read that there was one young puppy waiting to be rehomed. My husband just looked at me and the unspoken decision was made there and then. We both knew what life would be like for a young German Shepherd living in a flat, left on the balcony for hours, and being in real danger of mistreatment if in frustration he would snap at a boisterous young child.
At reception we asked to see the puppy and it was love at first sight for all of us: the dog, our two girls and my husband and I. After the formalities and checks had been completed, we could take Bruce home. As he was recovering from being hit by a car, we had to massage his back leg every day, but otherwise he was of a gentle nature and very loveable. I pulled out all the stops to make him happy, and he ate a la carte everyday with an unmistakable expression of wonder on his face on seeing the plate piled with choice meats and biscuits. And no tins anywhere. His favourite place was on the sofa and he slept in our bed with us. In all the downstairs rooms there was a thick folded blanket on the floor as I didn’t want him to develop arthritis, and I would ignore some of our visitors’ remark: “It is only a dog”. He loved to play with a ball that had to be thrown across the whole garden, and his daily walks along the stretch of a Union canal. After a life of pleasure and contentment, he passed away at almost twelve years old, and I felt the loss of his companionship and love deeply.
More recently, my grown-up daughter came across a mature Jack Russell that was going to be sent to a rescue centre as his 90-year old owner could not look after him any longer. The little terrier was kept for hours in a cage as some of the old man’s carers didn’t want the dog loose, had a dreadful diet and lived in a room full of cigarette smoke. His life changed so much when my daughter took him home that he was convinced he was now living in paradise. As only a dog can, he makes a point every moment of every day to show her that he adores her, that he worships the ground she walks on, and that his gratitude has no bounds. When she has to go out, he sits on the window sill willing her to be back quickly, his little tail shaking in anticipation. He sleeps in her bed, and during the day he makes sure that they have quality time together while they snuggle on the sofa for a time of a mutual adoration – he with his cute tummy up and his nose buried under her chin. His love proved to be the best therapy possible when she had, as we all do, a low moment in her life. Their daily walks are full of exciting discoveries for Popsie (the name he had already), as he didn’t have any with the old man, and he investigates each patch of grass, and chases butterflies or squirrels. At mealtimes, he likes to eat from her hand, choicest morsels of chicken or well-done fillet steak. She loves to see his rapturous face, reflecting his appreciation of fine dining after years of subsisting on cheap dry pellets. My daughter’s act of kindness is being repaid every day tenfold. She cannot imagine a life without him.
There are also thousands of working dogs, those who help disabled people to lead independent lives, and who are greatly appreciated and loved. There are also dogs that for thousand of years worked with shepherds across the world.
That is why we call a dog – man’s best friend.