Teaching Tricks to Old Dogs?
I love dogs. I can't imagine living without a dog or two bouncing around my knees. In fact, I'd feel positively peculiar if I could walk without tripping over a furry friend.
Tessa was the first, a black Labrador cross who came to live with me when I was a student. Then there was Casper, a Red Setter who used to explore Bloomsbury with me late at night; and Sandy, the Spaniel who used to spend most of her time sleeping in the middle of the road - and now there's Dolly Mix, a small white fluffy Bichon.
All of them were rescue dogs, all of them were adult when they moved in with me, and two of them were positively creaking with old age. Lovely.
Of course there are plenty of people ready to tell me I'm nuts. "Get a puppy!" they say. "Why do you keep on adopting wheezy OAP dogs? What's wrong with a nice little puppy?"
But I don't fancy puppies. Wriggly, widdly things, all soft and hot. I love old dogs, sturdy, stolid animals with understanding eyes and a good line in jokes:
Q: How did I sleep last night?
I'd recommend them to anyone. You know where you are with an old dog. They don't turn out to have been fathered by a Great Dane. They don't grow up to be inexplicably ugly, they don't develop training difficulties; they certainly don't puddle everywhere and chew the place to pieces. They don't whine all night, demanding to sleep in your bed. No, with an old dog what you see is precisely what you get.
This makes choosing them easy. Fleas, worms, cuts, bruises, badly groomed coat, underweight, overweight, dirty, smelly, none of these matter to me in a prospective dog. They are all relatively simple to fix. Bad temper is something else. So I always go for dogs who look me in the eye, who let me pat them and who listen when I speak.
Puppies are so cute that it's impossible to judge their temperament as adults. An aggressive puppy can so easily be mistaken for playful, and how do you know whether the little boy at the back is shy or so incurably nervous that you'll need professional help to persuade him out from behind the sofa?
Bringing up a puppy isn't easy. They need toilet training, jabs, lead-training, socialising, car-training, amusing, cuddling and... lots more training. They need almost as much care as a human baby and lots of them don't really settle down until they've got a year under each leg.
When you take on an old dog they're house-trained, they're calm, they've had their shots, bitches have often already been sterilised. They fit into your life seamlessly.
Take my lovely Sandy. Now she was a star. A beautiful dog, she was 10 or 11 when she came to us and although she was a bit depressed to start with, within weeks she was trotting about at my heels and going off for walks with the kids.
She was totally trustworthy with chickens, with cats, with sheep, with children. In fact, when my friend's son was bitten and he began to develop a phobia about dogs, it was Sandy who sat beside him all afternoon, wafting her tail about and panting gently.
It was Sandy who nudged his hand, asking for a pat; it was Sandy who rolled onto her back so that he could tickle her tummy. And by the end of that long, hot, sleepy afternoon, it was Sandy who had patiently convinced him that not all dogs are vicious gangsters.
And now here's Dolly, who has already clocked up 8 years and doesn't like to get her dainty little paws wet. So after only a week of living with us, she has persuaded my 6-yr old to push her about in the dolls' pram. The perfect pet.
Of course, she's old as dogs go. No, we aren't likely to have her with us for more than 4-5 years. Yes, she's slowing down. She needs shorter walks and she sleeps all day while the kids are at school - which suits me fine.
She adores cuddles, she likes to be brushed, she's cool with the cats, she eats like a bird. In fact, she's a typical old dog. Calm, easy and absolutely no problem.
Walking old dogs is a piece of cake; they don't pull your arm off at the shoulder, they don't bomb off the minute you let them off the lead, they don't pick quarrels, they don't dash under the wheels of buses.
They potter along with their tails up and their noses down, snuffling about looking for good smells and old bones. They say a polite hello to other dogs and then get back to the serious business of checking under every bush.
They keep an eye on what you're doing and when enough is enough, they're grateful to hop back into the car. With old dogs, you aren't left standing on an empty hillside holding a lead in one hand, bleating "Fi-do!" as your ungrateful, over-excited so-called companion animal vanishes into the distance.
And home again, I love the way old dogs have their own ideas. You can see them cogitating, their thoughts revolving as slowly as Pooh Bear's... and then they stand up and gaze at you.
"What?" you ask.
"Ten o clock!" they say, "Time for a Little Something, don't you think?"
Old dogs learn where the dog biscuits are kept and know precisely how to look thin and starving at biccie-time. They also know that there's no point in nagging when you're on the phone.
Old Labradors fetch their leads and their bowls, old Spaniels will get you up in the morning for walkies, and old poodles will still sometimes walk on their back legs if they think there's a chance of beef trimmings when you're cooking.
They say you can't teach an old dog new tricks. So what? You don't need to.
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