The ancient Britons believed that wounds healed best if licked by a dog. Possibly it was literally true for ancient Britons because a hearty slurp of dog saliva was the closest most of them ever got to having a wash. But what is true to this day, is that the lick of a dog heals emotional wounds. In Britain we have no ancestral memory of driving dogs away for fear of rabies, or out of bizarre religious concepts of the unclean. This pact between species is practically in our DNA.
Dogs free the blind and the deaf; seek out drugs and explosives, run side by side with soldiers, attack armed criminals, lay down their lives under hails of bullets. They rescue us from drowning and avalanche, guard our children, are our first alert on a dark night, study our moods for clues to our whims.
Dogs are not just wolves who came to dinner. They share a lot of DNA but a wolf doesn’t give a toss about your feelings, whereas scolding a dog will reduce him to misery. You can have the personality of Genghis Khan and the looks of a wart-hog, but to your dog you are the joy of his days, the light of his nights, the love of his life.
In his poem ‘The Power Of The Dog’ Kipling wrote:
Buy a pup and your money will buy
Love unflinching, which cannot lie;
Perfect passion and worship fed
By a kick in the ribs, or a pat on the head.
It’s true. Dogs give the kind of love we cannot ask – must never ask – of a fellow human.
Our dog when my children were growing up, inaptly named Prudence (Prudy for short,) was a Springer Spaniel, an amiable buffoon, always available to run, towing the children in a dingy, terrified of sheep.
Prudy yearned to catch a seagull, not understanding flight. Taking off after a gull from the Harlyn cliffs, briefly outlined against the sky with her ears horizontal, Prudy learned the difference between wings and legs, and we thought we had lost her. Luckily, Prudy survived with no worse injury than a tail which wagged in a circular motion like a helicopter propeller, because her fall was broken by someone’s picnic. We didn’t stay to find out what the picnickers thought about being hit by a low-flying spaniel.
Even nice-but-dim dogs know things we only wonder about. One day good-natured Prudy took a violent dislike to a man who was trying to pass us in the street; she stood between him and the children, teeth bared, snarling, terrifying, until he turned and walked away. I discovered he was a convicted paedophile.
We say dogs are our best friend, but when their short life-span is closing, taking a whole era of our own lives, and our heart, with it, sometimes we have to be what our dog always thought us to be: God, decider of life and death.
I now have a dog called Hemingway, who will walk miles with me or sit for hours as he is now, chin on my knee, watching my fingers on the keyboard. On mornings that I wake muttering “What fresh hell is this?” Hemingway is filled with joy just at the sight of my eyes opening. When I stand up, he is so overcome, he almost turns cartwheels – reminding me that, whatever else, it is indeed a new day.
The saying goes, ‘give a dog a bad name.’ But the funny thing is, we don’t know why Anglo Saxon ‘hund’ became Early Modern English ‘dog’. What does the name matter, after all? And if the name of the species doesn’t matter – if a hund was still all the things it had always been, even after becoming a dog – then how much less the name of an individual dog matters!
And yet, in Scotland, there is an 87 year old man called Bob, who is – under heinous circumstances – being evicted from his care-home along with his little black dog, and although almost 300,000 people have signed a petition to keep the pair together, according to the lady who set up the petition, they can’t find any big names to take up cudgels because the little dog’s name is Darkie.
To some fragile plants, you see, ‘darkie’ is an unspeakable pejorative, and rather than use that particular string of six letters, they would cravenly see any number of hearts broken.
To Bob, Darkie means love, pride, care, company, fun – everything, in fact; and if the pair are separated, all those things will go, along with this last era of Bob’s life, and the rest of his heart. And for Darkie, naturally, Bob is the joy of his days, the light of his nights, the love of his life, and nobody can replace him.
Too often people think of a dog – of pets – as being accessories, disposable if life-style changes, but that is to misunderstand the nature of love itself.
When I hear it said that someone should discard their best friend for convenience sake, it raises my hackles and makes me want to snap at those who are so unknowing. Because if we nibble away at something as deep-rooted as the love given by dogs, then we tear a huge chunk out of what it means to be human.