Readers the title of this piece, which is indeed a play on that joyless 1970’s sex book, is not in any way to suggest that there’s anything sexual by way of your (or for that matter my) relationship with your hound of choice. But ask yourself, over the past few years, which particular relationship has satisfied you more, the one with your faithful, greying companion with the dimming eyes, the increasingly laborious gait, occasionally given to displays excitable if limited affection……. or the one with your dog?
Maybe it’s just me and if you read me before you’ll know that I’m suffering from a chronic illness, which plays havoc with one’s hormones and overall well-being, but the older I get, the more emotional, spiritual and physical value I see in owning a pooch. I grew up with and around dogs and I suspect, if I’d grown up with cats I’d see a value in them too. I don’t though. And, spoiler alert, if you are a cat lover you might want to skip over this next bit, because felines have always seemed to me like the very worst example of a best friend – around for the good times (for which in a cat’s case read food and comfort)- and utterly disinclined to offer any succour in one’s time of need.
Over the past 26 years I’ve owned four dogs – all Hungarian Vizslas, two raised from puppies and two rescue dogs. I bought the first one from a woman I met in Central Park when I was living in New York in the early 1990s, who bred the dogs with great ingenuity and professionalism in her apartment on the Upper West side. Every day whilst I was out running I would see her walking two beautiful and unusual gracefully rangy russet red dogs who stalked the park like excitable aristocrats out for a night on the town.
Scout, my first puppy was not an impulse buy, in fact, she was anything but. If you’ve lived in NYC you’ll know that it is ironically the ‘doggiest city on earth’. New Yorkers are more passionate about their dogs than almost anything else – The Nicks, The Giants, The Mets and The Yankees withstanding. Designated dog runs and parks are to be found often within a few blocks of each other and doggy friendly restaurants abound. In the “city that never sleeps” it’s entirely rational that you’d need a constant companion to combat the madness and what often, on this frantic, densely populated strip of land, amounts to isolation.
Dogs make great foils. They are also great for your health. In 2013, in an acknowledgement of dozens of studies, The American Heart association begrudgingly acknowledged that owning a dog was ‘probably’ associated with a reduced risk of heart disease. This year a Swedish study of 3.2 million dog owners suggested a 23% reduction in death from heart disease and a 20% lower risk of dying from any other cause during the 12 years that the study was carried out. Other recorded health benefits for dog owners include stress reduction, help with depression and relieving social isolation. But then if you own a dog you already knew that.
For my husband and I, Scout offered our first tentative step towards child-rearing (though we never vocalised this). Coming from less than stable homes we figured, I think, that if we could manage a puppy there might be some hope for us in the progeny department. Of course, owning a dog teaches you as much about yourself as it does your relationship with others. When we engaged a dog trainer for Scout, he arrived fresh from a visit to the home of one of the Jackson tribe, whose pug was making a habit of pooping on her pillow. After one session Bash ‘trainer to the stars’ pulled me aside. ‘Look’ he said, ‘quite honestly, I think you know what you are doing with the dog. But your husband is going to need quite a bit of work’.
As my children have grown and fluttered away from the nest (returning peripatetically to wash and mend their twigs), my life has changed in ways I could never have imagined. I mentioned the illness, there’s also the divorce, the inability to work (see illness), the house moves, the new relationships and frankly the grinding omnipresent recognition that nobody knows how to stop the disease that’s rampaging through my body. But through all this there’s been one constantly reassuring, unquestioning, loyal friendly, affectionate presence in my life: the dog.
Of course, owning a dog is not always straightforward and taking on another responsibility bears careful consideration. But the upsides far outweigh the down. In her book: on smaller dogs and larger life questions, the writer Kate Figes talks movingly about the comfort provided by her new dog Zeus as she battles with treatment for her triple negative breast cancer diagnosis, which is in her words, ‘treatable but not curable’. ‘Puppies turn from being adolescent at the age of one to grumpy old men in not much more than a decade. We will watch time speed up for Zeus just as it does for me’ she says with admirable pragmatism and dark humour. ‘We are one now Zeus and I, on much the same continuum. And it is anybody’s guess as to who will have to be put down first’.
As for me and Maud (aged 9), I continue to be grateful on a daily basis that she came to me via The Dogs Trust and Vizsla Rescue (she was found wandering half starved, trailing afterbirth on the streets of Liverpool). I admit that we chat – well I chat and she does her best to look interested and yes, she is allowed onto the sofa in the evenings. Small reward for the warm, gorgeous presence who presses herself against me in my darkest hours to offer comfort, who after my chemo didn’t leave my side for two days each time, sensing my desperate discomfort at the waves of nausea that washed over me, like being marooned in the sand on a bad day at the beach. And who now, with my current limited mobility is my absolute reason for struggling out the door in the morning. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t treat Maud like my child or my partner. I don’t push her to the park in a pram, dress her up in a ridiculous dog coat the minute the temperature drops to below 10 c, and I certainly don’t feed her human food. Apart from carrots. Vizslas love carrots.
But Maud and I have work to do and we can’t sit around here all day writing about it. On one of my many recent hospital visits, my attention was drawn to a crowd of people of all ages excitedly gathered in a semi-circle all exclaiming in sotto voices over something. Anything that sparks enthusiasm in the torpid, oppressive atmosphere of a hospital waiting room requires investigation. As I drew closer I could see that something was a beautiful Golden Labrador wearing a yellow jacket with the words PetsAsTherapy emblazoned on the side, sitting patiently beside his smiling owner, whilst enthusiasts queued for the chance to stroke his coat or just say hello. This impressive organisation registers suitable dogs (and owners) to work with residential homes, hospitals, hospices, schools, day care centres and prisons, offering the opportunity for patients, students and inmates to share in the absolute pleasure and the unquestionable ‘health benefits’ of having a dog visit. Maud and I are signing up. Well, I’m signing up whilst she stares longingly out of the window at next door’s tabby.