April 19, 2014 § Leave a comment
Today 2 years ago I had to let go of my first ever dog, my beautiful little kelpie girl. I still miss her at my feet every day. She was perfect and sweet, and she brought a lot of friends into my life. Many, many years back, one of my friends wrote a story about her after a weekend trip.
Thank you Michelle, for agreeing to post your story on my blog.
And my beautiful Fin, I still will never forget you or leave you behind. Ever.
The bag was on the verandah and that could only mean one thing – we were going away! I’d often see Angi pack and my tail would droop lower and lower as she moved about the rooms packing and shutting things up. Would I get to go or would I be under the house with a chicken wing for company? Sometimes she would drag my bag out at the last minute, putting my food and leash into it as if I was some sort of afterthought. But not today! Today there was no doubt that wherever she was going, I was going too.
I gave the bag a sniff while she pottered around with last-minute human things. My bag still smelt like our trip to the sea, which could have been years ago or just yesterday. Sometimes having a short-term memory was a blessing but it could also be very frustrating, particularly if you were hungry and no one was about. It could feel like days since you were fed but it might have only been two hours ago.
Angi’s friend arrived in the blue car and gave me an absent pat on her way through the door. She always seemed in such a rush, and way too excitable. I know all about excitability being a kelpie. They fiddled around for ages trying to tie their bikes on the back of the car. Angi would occasionally turn to me and say, “Fin – stay”. Like I was going anywhere! I kept my eyes glued to them just in case they forgot me in the rush.
Finally they bundled my bag into the car and I got a prime spot on the back seat. There is nothing like the wind in your ears as the car goes along and I’m glad they remembered to wind down the window for me for a change – they could be so thoughtless sometimes. But this was turning out to be a great trip.
We drove for a while and then stopped to pick up another person who smelt vaguely familiar. She called my name and showed me her teeth in that way humans do when they are pleased. This reminded me of wonderful times past. I licked her face with enthusiasm but she responded by pushing me away with her arm. Some people really do lack decent social skills. Never mind – it isn’t their fault if they aren’t brought up properly I suppose.
I settled down on the back seat while the car rocked back and forth. The humans seemed to be doing a lot of looking through the back window at the bikes on the bike rack but no one seemed to want to stop the squeaking. Was I the only one that heard it? I tried a couple of times to see what was going on by squashing my face against the back windscreen but all I got was, “Fin – down” from Angi. “Fine,” I thought, “I won’t help!”
It was dark and I woke from a snooze when I felt the car slow down and turn into a driveway. The smells were unmistakable. This was a fun place for sure. Hazy memories of exhausted bliss were linked to what I could smell. The car stopped and the humans piled out of the car calling, “Come on Fin”. They didn’t have to say it twice.
–Michelle Riedlinger, 2004
July 1, 2013 § 2 Comments
While procrastinating, tempted to do so by an article by Bruno Latour, I clicked my way absent-mindedly through the Facebook news feed until a post of a friend: Actor Jimmy Steward recites a poem to his beloved dog. That got me. It’s a touching and sweet and funny recitation.
It’s comforting to see that I’m not the only sentimental one who wrote a poem for the dog they lost. Jimmy Stewart is of course much more of a writer of poems than me, but still. It made me dig out the poem I wrote about my first dog, my kelpie Fin, when she was dying. I wanted to let my friends know where she was at; I had had an emotional day, struggling with the knowledge of what the impending loss would mean. Back then I was reading Patricia McConnell’s book For the Love of a Dog. In it she encourages dog owners to see themselves through their dog’s eyes. If the dogs could write down what we do around them (and sadly often to them), what would they write. I had started out trying to do that for Fin, but I ended up just wanting to write about Fin and me. And I wanted to share it with my friends. So I wrote that poem and emailed it to my friends back then.
While out for a walk with a friend and the dogs today, we talked about soul dogs. This made me think about my kelpie. It’s been more than a year since I lost her, and it still hurts. I still feel her. I still look down at my feet on walks and I still startle when she is not there. So here it goes.
Fin, to her human
I’ll be at your feet
While you write, while you read, and while you sleep.
Until I smell
an antechinus, or a mouse, or a cat.
Until I hear
the waterhose, with my neighbour,
waiting for me to come and play.
Until I sense
a tennis ball—somewhere, anywhere
Then I chase.
I come back and get you. Drop.
And your feet and my paws run together.
And later, when we sit down and look out at the world together
I lean into you
and you rub my belly
while I smile my kelpie smile.
June 25, 2013 § Leave a comment
We made our way back on foot. For both of us the walk proved too long. Downcast we strode on in the autumn sunshine, side by side. The houses of Kritzendorf seemed to go on forever. Of the people who lived there not a sign was to be seen. They were all having lunch, clattering the cutlery and plates. A dog leapt at a green-painted iron gate, quite beside itself, as if it had taken leave of its senses. It was a large black Newfoundland, its natural gentleness broken by ill-treatment, long confinement or even the crystal clarity of the autumn day. In the villa behind the iron fence nothing stirred. Nobody came to the window, not even a curtain moved. Again and again the animal ran up and hurled itself at the gate, only occasionally pausing to eye us where we stood as if transfixed. As we walked on I could feel the chill of terror in my limbs. Ernst turned to look back once more at the black dog, which had now stopped barking and was standing motionless in the midday sun. Perhaps we should have let it out. It would probably have ambled along beside us, like a good beast, while its evil spirit might have stalked among the people of Kritzendorf in search of another host, and indeed might have entered them all simultaneously, so not one of them would have been able to lift a spoon or fork again.
(WG Sebald, 1990, Vertigo)
The large black Newfoundland. One of the many dogs in WG Sebald’s work.Here the dog is menacing. But not as the dog that rushes the fence (although that seems to be a deeply ingrained fear for many), but as the black dog that figures depression. The narrator in Vertigo visits his friend Ernst, who has lived most of his life in a mental institution. Both are dealing with mental illness and in this episode they literally walk into the terror of it.
In Vertigo, as in Sebald’s other work, the dog mostly is a melancholy omen of actual or potential illness. As someone living with dogs, I find this aspect of Sebald’s work difficult to reconcile with that so much of his work is inspired by dogs. In an often quoted interview Sebald talks about how he has always had dogs and how the dog running in the field, following his nose, has taught him about writing and about walking and finding things.
For me, my dogs bring so much happiness and fun and laughter into my life; I cannot think easily of dogs as harbingers of bad things. But there is, of course, a long tradition in folklore of the dog as bad omen. And particularly the black dog.
There is also a dog in the cover photograph of my Penguin Books 2005 edition of Campo Santo, a collection of Sebald’s writings published after his death. It is a Kertesz photo of the church in Piana, Corsica, 1932. Men clad in black and in hats are lined up sitting outside the church, in the shade. It is probably a Sunday. A yellow, or white, dog shares the shadow of the church with them.
The photo is so Sebaldian in its style that I wonder whether it might have been one of the remembered images at the core of Sebald’s writing process: “[…] and on a walk there a remembered image came into my mind”, he writes somewhere in one of the pieces in Campo Santo. I can’t remember where, but it might have been the title essay, based on Sebald walking in Corsica. André Kertesz, of course, was a poet among photographers, observing the everyday, the easily missed moments. So here a dog as part of everyday life. No matter whether white, or black.
Interview by Joe Cuomo with Sebald talking about dogs and writing
W.G. Sebald and the Writing of History (ed. by Anne Fuchs and J. Jonathan James Long 2007)
September 20, 2012 § 2 Comments
I have sometimes thought of the final cause of dogs having such short lives, and I am quite satisfied it is in compassion to the human race;
for if we suffer so much in losing a dog after an acquaintance of ten or twelve years, what would it be if they were to live double that time.
— Sir Walter Scott
September 13, 2012 § 4 Comments
Rain is a very New Zealand thing. In some places on the globe, winter manifests in snow. In many places in New Zealand, winter manifests in mud. (Remember those scenes trudging through mud in the film The Piano?)
After weeks and weeks of rain and mud here in New Zealand we are finally walking into spring. Phew. Maybe one wouldn’t notice the mud so much if one weren’t walking a dog every day. Or wasn’t a farmer. Not that I’m a farmer. But I’ve just spent at least three months toweling a wet and muddy dog at least two times a day. And for three long months I’ve tried to arrive at work without shoes caked in mud or without mud splashes all over my black pants. Not possible if you have a very lively dog that needs running before you ask her to wait in the car or sit still in your friend’s house while you are at work.
The other thing that was always there over the last three winter months was another real Kiwi thing: I’ve been reading all of Murray Ball’s Footrot Flats cartoons. When I first moved to New Zealand so many people told me that if I wanted to know what New Zealand is all about, I really really have to read Footrot Flats. I went yeah, yeah and never bothered. But when I had to put my dog Fin down and sat on my neighbour’s garage roof sobbing (I shall write more about my neighbour and that roof later), he gave me his collection of all the Footrot Flats cartoons. My neighbour Maurice is a retired South Island High Country shepherd and musterer, was a dog man for most of his working life, and is very proud of his Footrot Flats collection. He keeps them all in a plastic bag together. He said, “Here take that; it’ll help.”
If you haven’t come across Footrot Flats yet, by any weird accident, you really should have a look. The cartoons are just so funny, and, yes, reading them did make me laugh and it did help after Fin was gone. The Dog, a black and white working border collie with an unspeakable name and tortured by Horse the cat, tells us all about New Zealand life. The Dog is just so .. well … so much dog. Murray Ball captures everything that is the essence of dog. The drawings are superb, and all the characters are bigger than life. Wal, Cooch, Pongo, Rangi, the Murphies, Major, Jess, … Go meet them.
But anyway, to get back to what started me off, that very New Zealand phenomenon: rain. When it first starts it’s great and beautiful and fresh and all the plants look fresh and all the surrounds look clean … and then it rains and rains and rains. Here is the Dog’s ode to rain:
AH, THE GENTLE KISS OF SUMMER RAIN SPRINKLES LIQUID DIAMONDS ON GRASS BLADES. WATER-FAT LEAVES EXUDE HEAVY SCENT AND FANTAILS SPRAY SILVER IN THE DRIPPING BRANCHES … MILK TURNS INTO SCUMMY GREY WATER AND UNEATEN MEAT ON BONES HANGS WHITE AND TASTELESS LIKE SOGGY COTTON… SHEEP DROPPINGS SQUASH THROUGH YOUR TOES LIKE SMELLY PEA SOUP; FLIES HANG IN A HUMID, HUMMING CLOUD AROUND YOUR HEAD; MAGGOTS HATCH ON UNCURED LAMP-PELTS
— From Murray Ball, 1983, The Cry of the Grey Ghost
August 15, 2012 § 4 Comments
“[…] dogs are expected to be much better controlled than they used to be. There has never been a shortage of experts telling owners how to take charge of their dogs. When I took on my second dog, a Labrador/Airedale terrier cross named Ivan, I was determined that he would be better behaved than Alexis. I decided I ought to find out something about training but was then shocked to discover the approach adopted by the trainers of the day, such as Barbara Woodhouse, who seemed to see the dog as something that needed to be dominated at all times. This simply didn’t make sense to me—the whole point of having dogs as pets was for them to become friends, not slaves.”
— From John Bradshaw, 2010, Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behaviour Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet.
John Bradshaw is writing about dog training in the 1980s. But this idea of our pet dogs needing to be dominated at all times, because they are lurking in the corners of our houses waiting for our weak moments just to jump in and dominate us, is still one of the ideas governing a lot of dog training today. Just look at the still popular Cesar Millan. Or take for example Jan Fennell, self-proclaimed dog listener, who insists (and I mean really insists) that we must absolutely be the pack leaders with our dogs. Otherwise they’ll take over. All her protocols are geared towards so-called pack leadership. Her technique is based on ‘communicating’ with our dogs according to wolf pack principles. No mentioning that dogs are not wolves, nor have been domesticated from wolves by humans. Also no mentioning that we humans are usually not all that good at communicating within an extremely complex communication system of another species. ‘Dog language’ consists of visual, vocal, olfactory and probably many other signals. Most of us are not skilled ethologists, and we struggle understanding our dog’s body language most of the time, let alone ‘speaking’ it ourselves.
Whether Jan Fennell promotes a scientifically outdated model of dog behaviour matters, because the old “dominance” model of dog behaviour more often than not goes together with using (physical) punishment methods in training. Fennell does not promote physical punishment at all, but her work still supports a misunderstood idea of dominance. That kind of thinking will have consequences in how we behave towards our pet dogs. If nothing else, it makes us misunderstand so much of what our dogs are actually signalling — to their owners, to other humans, and to other dogs — and what they are trying to tell us. After reading her books I felt brainwashed. You must do this. You absolutely must not do that. Never. Trying to be with, let alone train, my puppy became a constant test of my “dog leadership” skills. But I’m not a dog. This approach of basing dog training on dominance is a shame. In Fennell’s case it’s a shame because the starting point of her method—how to train dogs and communicate with them in such a way so that they want to be with us and work with us—is so important.
Oh, and by the way, Alexis, Bradshaw’s dog mentioned in the quote above, was a Labrador/Jack Russell cross, and, in the author’s own words, a roamer, interested in the opposite sex. Bradshaw dedicated his book to Alexis, a “Real Dog”. One that had more freedoms than most dogs have today in our often overly controlled world, increasingly fearful of all animals and characterised by a stronger and stronger urge to control all things “nature”.