- a stray animal without owner's brand - a determined individualist - my new dog
On the Monday before Christmas 2009 in the busy shopping arcade outside Waitrose my wife asked, seemingly somewhat casually, would I like a dog?... completely out of the blue! Of course I said yes, and immediately began wondering about what breed, where to find this, how to cope with the practicalities, and felt quite overwhelmed. My daughter Anna said that she had been looking at rescue dogs on the Internet and when I mentioned a border collie she said there was one called Willow -- a border collie puppy bitch -- at the Blue Cross rescue centre near Tiverton in Devon. So we went home pretty fast, looked at the animal's photograph, phoned the centre to ask about reserving her. But we were told that you have to register in person before being able to reserve a dog. We jumped in the car and began our journey across to Devon.
By the time we were on the motorway north of Exeter it was obvious that we would arrive at the centre just as it was closing, so Anna called them for advice. From the tone in her voice I discerned that the dog we had wanted to adopt, Willow, had already been taken, but that we should go anyway to register. There would be another dog. Disappointed, we arrived at the centre and duly registered an interest in adopting a dog. The Blue Cross charity is very well run and extremely thorough in its vetting not just of its animals but of prospective owners. Multiple visits are required for the centre staff to witness proper bonding between potential new owners and the dog, and the home environment is visited to check its suitability for dog ownership. I asked if we could go and see Willow, just in case the new owners might change their mind in the 48-hour cooling off period before the decision is finalised. We passed by cage after Cage of Rottweilers, pitbull terriers, Staffordshire bull terriers, lurchers, greyhounds, Jack Russells and various labrador/collie/spaniel crosses. And we saw Willow.
On our way back wondering what to do we saw a little ball of blue roan energy, in a corner cage all to himself. The little fellow had only just come in to the centre, was a cocker spaniel puppy of just under five months old, craved attention and avidly licked my fingers through the cage mesh. I said that we were very interested in this dog. We were told that his name was Maverick, that he had become too much for his owners, developing separation anxiety because he was left alone for long periods of time. He was due for an examination by the Vet which would be after Christmas. So we came home pretty optimistic that Maverick would soon become ours.
I was consumed with worry about making such a hasty decision. I had no real idea about spaniels, and looked up on the Internet everything I could. Then my crazy emotional pendulum swung from side to side depending on what I was reading about these wonderful dogs, their independence, strength of character, friendliness, neurotic behaviour, ease of training, and so many positives and negatives all out on the web if you look for them! On the Monday after Christmas we went back to the centre, having stocked up at home with a crate (an enclosed dog sleeping area which could be transported from place to place, including in the back of the car), food, toys, packets of doggie treats, poo bags, a collar & lead and a couple of brushes for grooming. I had been told that probably in our case we would be able to forego any further visits to the centre, and go without having a member of staff visit our house (we had sent photographs in advance). When there we were introduced properly to Maverick in an interview room -- what a friendly dog, and what energy levels! We took him out for a walk, but there was no need for a long period of bonding -- this was pretty well instant and confirmed our initial reaction the previous week. In the early afternoon we started home, Maverick in a plastic bag lined box on my lap. We stopped in Honiton for a very late lunch at a super, dog-friendly eating place called, I think, the Boston tea room. Just before dark we got home and introduced Maverick to our home.
MAVERICK - gouache on mounting card 6/1/10
There is a further definition derivation for "Maverick" - Samuel Maverick was a Texas cattle-raiser who decided not to brand his cattle, and laid claim therefore to any unbranded beasts. A shrewd operator!
MAVERICK the Prince [Gouache on mounting card - 3.ii.10]
I had owned dogs before, but it was about 15 years ago that my last dog had died. I had had Cerys, a blue/brindle Welsh border collie, since 1981 when I was still teaching at St John's comprehensive school in Marlborough. She had been a fantastic companion for just over 15 years, accompanying me wherever I went, including into all the schools I taught in. Surely this would not be the case any more. Her colour is almost exactly the same as Maverick and in many respects the two dogs seem to be quite similar. Both dogs too are of a breed whose disposition makes them very trainable, and I firmly believe in the importance of good training so that a large slice of independence can be handed back to the animal. Maverick was off-lead on his third day with us, in the West Walks.
Leto - a brief encounter - joy & tragedy [March 20th 1980 - January 24th 1981]
Leto - a puppy in Snowdonia 1980 - charcoal pencil
I decided to have a dog when I moved into my first house, the end of the terrace [Alexandra Terrace, Blowhorn Street, Marlborough]. How exactly it came about I don't recall in detail, but someone told me of a single brood puppy whose very existence was something of a miracle. Her mother had, on heat, slipped her moorings [so to speak] and was suspected of visiting her boyfriend.... She was given a 'morning-after' dose and that, so everyone supposed, was that. Not so! For one day in March 1980 her owner, reading the paper in front of the woodburner, heard strange spluttering coughs emanating from the dog, and was astonished to see a single puppy delivered, seemingly, stillborn. He instantly revived the puppy and the dog that was to be my beloved Leto [more about that name later....] came into this world for her brief sojourn.
She needed human care from the day she was born, as her mother didn't acknowledge her existence and anyway was not producing any milk. So she was in need too of a permanent future home, and through a couple of friends word got to the owner that I was looking for a puppy. I took her on at about 6 weeks, and took her out with me in the extremely early mornings - pre dawn - for intensive fun walk cum training sessions. It paid off very early with Leto, who could be trusted off-lead from about ten weeks onwards. In her earliest puppyhood she had somehow worked her way up alongside the hot woodburner, and had burnt her nose. Although there was nothing [much] to show for this she seemed to me to lack the acute sense of smell that is a canine characteristic, indeed she didn't appear to have very much 'doggy' sense & instinct at all, probably mostly because of not being in a litter.
She came to school with me! Could you possibly countenance such a thing today! She even sat at my feet as I played piano for school assembly. Children queued up to be allowed to take her for little walks in break times and at lunch [I was invariably occupied with activities at lunchtimes].. She was very, very good natured.
We spent a glorious summer, exploring Snowdonia [huge walks in a week of drizzle, covering every peak, including Cader Idris] and spending a few weeks in August at Cae Rhedyn. She was a bundle of affectionate fun, and I was the luckiest dog-owner in the world. Her name, Leto, came about because at school in March we had been working on a play about King Midas [written by a member of staff, music by me]. The daughter turned to gold by King Midas greedy hands was called Leto - when in the history of dog ownership has a dog been so named?
In January the following year I was an assistant member of staff accompanying a residential weekend at Hildenborough Hall near Sevenoaks. Of course Leto came, and slept the Friday night in the transit van. As usual in the early morning I got up to take her for a walk. We went out onto the lawn in front of the stately home and made our way to the far wall to look at the view. The home was built into a hill, so the lawn was flat only by being held in by a big retaining wall.
What happened next still haunts me: Leto was running around me and in an instant leapt over the low wall, flying into the air and into a drop void of thirty or more feet, to land heavily below. I had to run round a fair distance to reach her, and I was too late to do anything. She was dead.
On the Monday morning a shocked school assembly heard the news and wept. I wrote the following prose:
It was with such innocent and exuberant energy that Leto launched herself into that last awful leap, such energy which she constantly exuded, for how could she possibly have known, in a strange and foreign place, that the other side of that low, pointed wall fell away through the thin branches of spindly trees to the dark and muddy earth so far below? That one bizarre leap into complete surprise, the thin little yelp that the impact forced through her throat, so bewildered, which was still faintly there as I sorrowfully lowered her into the shallow grave - such haunting moments of utter despair! How I hoped and prayed as I ran around and stumbled down the steep bank, but how I knew already, even before I carried her warm and floppy corpse back up to the garden where I laid her down and kissed her so tenderly, so helplessly, how I knew that this was the end; and I cried.