Tuesday, 6 September 2011

A shaggy dog memory

In my lunch break I was looking for a picture of a cute dog to send to someone, and I found this handsome fellow. Isn’t this a beauty? It’s a breed called a Schapendoes, originally a sheep-dog from the Netherlands.

We had a lovely dog when I was a kid; he was a mongrel, but he was very like this breed, so much so that the picture above gives me a lump in the throat. It could almost be Goodie. I have such happy memories of Goodie...

Goodie was half Welsh Border Collie, half unknown. He stood a bit less than two feet high at the shoulder, and had a long, plumy tail and a thick coat in a mixture of white, blue-black and brown, in blotches. In a snowy field he was perfectly camouflaged. He had a droopy moustache, like a Schnauzer, a stocky body and “feathers” on his legs, like a Springer Spaniel, and the copious facial hair of an Old English Sheepdog. Up through that thick hair a pair of melting brown eyes would stare up at you; the great plumed tail would begin to thump the instant he knew he had your attention, and if you said “Double you, ay, ell kay” he would begin to bound around the room with excitement, having long ago learned to associate the syllables with their meaning.

He was a very bright dog, though he proved completely untrainable. When he lost my mother once on an evening stroll, he went and sat outside the corner shop, by the dog chains; mum had been carrying her shopping basket, he knew that meant she was going to the shop as well, so he was being pretty logical. Since mum had by then come home in hysterics wailing “I’ve lost the dog, he ran off!” it didn’t go quite as planned, but within ten minutes Mr Searle the grocer had rung to say “Mrs Dent, I’ve got your Goodie here, outside the shop waiting for you,” so it worked in the end.

There was something missing, though. When he was about two we discovered he was blind in one eye, and this must have affected him, yet one was only aware of it occasionally. The most obvious way his partial blindness manifested was in his inability to judge distances, and that had one very odd side effect. In the winter, if Goodie stood near the gas fire, he could only judge how close he was if it was on his good-eye side. He could be standing with his rump almost literally in the fire, but his coat was so thick that he didn’t feel the heat. There he would be, tail swaying amiably against the safety bars, with a column of smoke rising. The smell of burnt dog would fill the room, and a few moments later he would suddenly notice. By spring each year his rear was patterned with scorch marks.

I was eight when Goodie came to live with us - a gangly one-year-old, not really an adult dog but not quite a puppy anymore - and twenty three when we lost him. Sixteen is a good age for a medium-sized dog, and he had had a full life. In his last years, arthritic and white-muzzled, he could still terrify unexpected visitors with his huge, deep-chested bark and habit of rearing up in excitement. People were so taken aback by the noise and the obvious effort it cost one of us to restrain him, they seldom noticed the madly wagging tail at the other end.
He had slept at the foot of the stairs for sixteen years, heaving himself out of the way with a grumble if someone had to go down. Even now, if I’m staying at my mum’s, it can sometimes feel odd not to find my foot landing on fluffy dog in the middle of the night.

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