‘Dogs have a way of finding the people who need them’
I live with a dog-mad woman. She absolutely adores them, having surrounded herself with the beasts from an early age. First up were Brownie and Tiger, both sadly dispatched to the great canine beyond via the neighbour’s shotgun one evening, her father having come to the conclusion that they were terrorising his nervous sister-in-law living next door. Then came Toto, a Jack Russell terrier that regularly went through her granny’s chicken coop like shit through a goose and so named because she was reading The Wizard of Oz at the time. Another Jack Russell named Pintsize followed. Alas, poor Pintsize tragically met his demise beneath the wheels of a car, although the much anticipated arrival of her American relatives from Boston providentially saved the day by distracting her from excessive grief. And of course other dogs had starring roles in her young adult life too – a sheepdog named Rascal, a Kerry blue cross named Dusky, and her beloved black labrador, Oscar.
It was around this time that I stumbled into her life and diverted her affections. In case you’re wondering, I am not a dog, although I have arguably behaved like one from time-to-time and, as her husband, am no stranger to the dog house.
Living in New York for the first few years of our married life, a time when all of our energies were being channelled into careers and kids, the only dogs in our lives belonged to other people. Making my way to work each morning along Manhattan’s Upper East Side, the fur-clad denizens of Park Avenue sashaying along with their beribboned pomeranians or sweater-wearing pugs always made me smile piteously, the pooches primped as meticulously as their pampered owners. And sitting in Central Park with my lunch, I’d often cast my eye towards the nearby ‘bark park’, the enclosed pen where New Yorkers would let their dogs off the leash to sniff one another and play. (The dogs, you understand, not the New Yorkers.)
In our apartment building on Staten Island, our neurotic next-door neighbour, Myles, also had a dog. His domestic world was exclusively restricted to his bedroom, a pristine cocoon of normality screened off from the post-apocalyptic chewed-up wilderness that constituted the rest of his apartment. That part belonged to his beloved pet bulldog, Molly, a marauding mouthful of snarling teeth that could’ve easily been an extra from Jurassic Park. By way of contrast, another resident in our building, a young lady who worked as a bicycle courier, often bumped into us whilst heading outside to walk her greyhound, a gentle loping creature that came up to her rib cage. When my wife generously offered her the bone remaining from our Sunday roast as a treat for the hound, she politely declined, informing F with an absolutely straight face that her dog was strictly vegetarian. We never caught the greyhound’s name but something like Willow or Saffron wouldn’t have been far off the mark.
As it happened, Myles and greyhound girl weren’t the only ones who kept dogs in our building – most of the other residents did too, something I discovered whilst taking the rare opportunity to work from home one day. Tapping away on my computer beside the open window with nothing but birdsong for company, I soon became aware of the mournful baying of a dog rising up through the floorboards from the apartment below. Its forlorn howl gradually resonated right through the entire block setting off all the other lonesome hounds I envisaged wandering around empty apartments pining for their absentee owners. It was as if fate was sending me a message: “You need to get with the programme, Phil. Get a dog!”
‘I’m suspicious of people who don’t like dogs, but I trust a dog when it doesn’t like a person’
By the time we’d resettled back in Ireland a few years later with our two young sons, F decided the time was right for her to re-join the world of dog ownership. Not really considering myself a ‘dog-person’, I put up a fight, but really… resistance was futile. And so Ruby lumbered into our lives. (My use of the verb ‘lumbered’ is quite deliberate here and will shortly become apparent.)
Based on the corgi-labrador cross, her provenance was a testament to avidity over adversity. Given the rather considerable difference in size between these two breeds, and the fact that her mother was actually the labrador, one can only surmise that her father had the benefit of either a step ladder or a telescopic penis. The net result was a bulky labrador body and head precariously balanced atop sturdy little corgi legs, all cloaked in a lustrous auburn coat, her chest and paws shot through with flashes of white.
Ruby was an adorably good-natured mutt possessed of a freakish intelligence. Henry Ward Beecher was right when he claimed that dogs were created especially for children. A genuine god of frolic in the eyes of our two young boys, she in turn loved them right back and would’ve happily let them clamber all over her and jab dirty fingers into her eyes without so much as a yip. When they were all playing in the front garden she’d frequently lapse into full protection mode, a mortal health hazard for anyone approaching the gate that she judged to be of questionable moral character. She wasn’t about to let anybody mess with her man-pups. Head down and hackles raised, her growl could turn a grown man’s bowels to water.
“She’s a walking shelf!” exclaimed our close friend, Fiona, pointing out how Ruby’s back was broad and flat enough to balance a drinks tray on. Unbeknownst to us, Ruby – who was allowed to wander freely along our street, probably explaining why our garden remained conveniently poop-free during her tenure – had basically figured out how to acquire at least 6 square meals a day by ingratiating herself with several of our neighbours. To say that she was well nourished would’ve been like saying Jabba the Hutt was just a tad on the tubby side.
To F, she was the ‘Philly-O-Meter’, claiming that Ruby knew exactly what kind of mood I was in the moment my car pulled into the driveway. If I was in a bad mood, a better-than-even prospect on any given day, she’d begin pawing at the back door and shoot F a pleading ‘Let me the hell out of here right now!’ kind of look.
When she finally had to be put to sleep as a result of spinal degeneration and rear leg paralysis at 9 years of age, we were all gutted. As the months passed by I figured that was it for us and dogs, time to move on. F had other ideas.
‘My fashion philosophy is, if you’re not covered in dog hair, your life is empty’
This time around, F wanted dogs. Plural. She also opted for an upgrade on the corgi-dor model with Pembroke Welsh corgis, that most visible canine symbol of the British monarchy. Endless hours spent online painstakingly researching Irish Kennel Club-approved breeders and pedigree lines eventually saw her hand over a small fortune for two corgi pups.
“Why two?” I asked. Having by now very happily re-acclimated to our empty canine nest, two sounded to me like a pack.
“They’ll be good company for each other when we’re at work,” she replied.
“That’s ridiculous!” I protested. “Ruby was never bored.”
F was not for turning. “And you’ll need to put up a fence to keep them in,” she informed me. “They’re pure breeds. We can’t let them roam.”
And so Bella and Dougal exploded into our lives, two batty-eared balls of golden-white fur charging around the house like little loaves of bread sprouting paws. Bred from a champion sire, Bella arrived first, a dainty little bitch-pup with a slightly darkened streak of sable running along her back (or as Crufts nerds would say, her ‘topline’.) Dougal appeared shortly thereafter, a tubby little pup that could hoover up dog nuggets with all the suction power of a Dyson. Sporting an outrageously fluffy coat, an undesirable genetic trait that declared him unsuitable for breeding amongst corgi circles, we decided to have him neutered after a year. Blissfully unaware, however, that he now lacked a functioning wick in his candle, he would still occasionally attempt to get friendly with Bella. This apparent lack of mental processing power was also evident in other ways. He’d stubbornly decide to sit down during walks and stare at us in confusion as if he’d suddenly forgotten the basic motor skills involved. (This was particularly inconvenient when it happened in the display ring of the Dungarvan Dog Show.) Unlike his predecessor, he also never quite grasped the rules of ‘fetch’. Tongue hanging out, he’d simply gape after the thrown ball and then look up at me with a bemused look in his eyes as if waiting for the silly round thing to roll back, or better yet, the silly man-creature to retrieve it and throw it again. Although named after the fluffy little cartoon dog from BBC’s The Magic Roundabout, the caricature of Father Ted’s brainless TV sidekick, Father Dougal, would prove to be a far more apposite role model.
The thing they don’t tell you about corgis is that they’re chewers, an innate feature of their herding instinct. When young they also get anxious if you leave them alone for too long in the house and so they compensate by… you guessed it… chewing. Chewing anything at all. They started on the baseboards, gnawing off entire corners of wood and leaving behind little piles of splinters. Then they moved on to the bottom of the kitchen door before graduating to the kitchen dresser. And then, just for shits and giggles, they ripped out the side out of a newly upholstered armchair. I also discovered tiny teeth marks in the seasoned oak of our staircase, a notoriously hard wood that resists even the strongest drill-bit or the sharpest nail.
The other thing they don’t tell you about corgis is that they’re shedders. Bales of corgi hair were literally blowing about our floors like tumbleweed. As they got older, they seemed to be shedding enough hair each year to stuff a mattress.
“Our vacuum bags are almost one hundred percent corgi – you know that, right?” I said to F.
“Oh, stop exaggerating,” she replied.
“The stuff is absolutely everywhere,” I moaned, cutting open a bulging vacuum bag to show her proof of its contents. “It’s even in the attic for Christ’s sake.”
“Quit complaining. I think they’re lovely,” she said. “It’s just a little hair.”
But it wasn’t just a little hair. They were dropping poop by the bucketload and their frenzied dashing about the back garden was literally wearing the grass down to mud. On rainy days their paw prints painted our floors from front door to back and their smell filled the entire house, stuff I just never seemed to notice with Ruby. To say that this regularly led to marital discord would be an understatement.
On one occasion I freaked when I spotted F cleaning the dog bowls in the kitchen sink with the same pot scrubber we used to wash our own dishes with.
“I am not a hater of pets or a boiler of bunnies,” I insisted, trying to keep my voice under control, “but I would appreciate a better hygienic divide between the pets and us.” (I should mention at this point that in addition to two dogs, F had also parachuted two cats into our menagerie to round out the harmonic balance of our home. I’m also convinced she secretly bribed a family of sparrows to nest inside our chimney breast.)
“It’s not as if we’re going to catch anything off them, for God’s sake,” she said, eyes raised to heaven in that ‘Here we go again!’ expression of hers.
And so it would go. When I saw dog poop, F saw a well-nourished pet. When I grumbled about dog hair, she rejoiced in all the free nesting material for birds. When I awoke in the dead of night to the sound of the dogs’ barking downstairs, my heart pounding, she’d comment on how safe we were from burglars. When I tripped over Dougal, she’d immediately ask him if he was okay. It was as if she was exchanging atoms with them, gradually becoming tuned to the key of corgi. When she lolled with a book, they’d lie at her feet. When she rose, they’d follow. When she converted our sunroom into an online outpost of Google classroom during the pandemic, they’d sit there for hours fixed on her every word and action as if they were two additional pupils. Crufts became must-see TV. Christmas gifts and school trip souvenirs from our boys would have a doggy theme.
Whining to her on one particular occasion about my sleeping problems, her advice was unsurprisingly canine-flavoured.
“You know, sometimes when I can’t sleep, I’ll try naming off dog breeds in my head beginning at ‘A’ and I’ll be fast asleep before I get to ‘Z’,” she said.
“Something tells me you rarely get beyond dachshund,” I replied, enviously.
‘Our dogs are our mirrors’
“What is it about dogs that you like so much?” I asked. I needed to dig deeper into this, to understand how I’d not seen this coming.
“Dogs are so straightforward,” F replied. “They have no capacity for artifice. What you see is what you get.”
“Well, let me see,” she said. “There’s the loving eyes, the warm cuddles, the companionship, and the fact that they absolutely adore me and always agree with me.”
This was starting to feel like a laundry list of self-improvement tips subtly directed at yours truly.
“There’s also a degree of social connection you acquire with dogs. People have come to know me as ‘the lady with the corgis’. You can walk right up to strangers and pet their dogs and have a nice chat.”
Complete strangers do not need to be dog owners for my wife to walk right up to them for a chat. Conversation is one of her superpowers. She could converse knowledgeably with anyone about the electron configuration of rubidium and the finer points of iceberg lettuce in the same breath.
And then every once in a while she says something that prods my internal emotional radar to light up and remind me of how blinkered I can be from time-to-time as I stumble through life.
“Each dog for me reflects a distinct facet of my life,” F continued. “My childhood dogs, my teenage dogs, the dog that raised my children, and these two dogs are my middle-age dogs. A house with a dog in it has a different heartbeat. Children reared with dogs develop a special inner spirit. It’s like a gift they’ve been given, an appreciation of living comfort and adoration, that you are needed and wanted. A sense of being connected to the world.”
That I hadn’t seen the simple elegant truth of her words already take on living form in the thoughtful young men our two sons had grown into both surprised and shamed me. I was also struck with a dawning realisation that my wife could no more endure a day without her hounds than grow fur and a tail. Somewhere along the way I had become a perpetually moaning Victor Meldrew to her Barbara Woodhouse.
Have I grown so fussy and intolerant? I thought. So disconnected?
The reply wasn’t long in seeping up from some deep part of my brain.
Yes, Phil. You have.
‘Every dog is a support dog’
Recently self-quarantining in our bedroom awaiting the imminent results of a Covid test, F put in a lunchtime order for coffee and cake. Having poked her head out of the bedroom earlier that morning to find a well-laden breakfast tray left outside the door as I scampered back downstairs for cover, she’d spent the next few hours grading papers and was now ready for a break.
“And how are my corgis?” she called down.
“They’re fine,” I assured her from the bottom of the stairs.
“Tell them I miss them.”
“I will,” I replied. “I’m sure they already know that.”
About five minutes later I ventured into the bedroom with my face mask on and, just for a laugh, extended to her the requested coffee and cake balanced precariously on the end of a long builder’s spade (one had to respect social distancing rules, after all.) Strategically placed beside her coffee cup was one of the little ceramic doggy figurines she collects.
“I know how much you miss your hounds. So that little chap will have to tide you over until you get the all clear,” I said, winking at her in what I hoped was a clear acknowledgment towards the need on my part to ease up and accept. To reconnect.
Picking up the little figurine she hooted with laughter, this dog-mad woman who had shepherded our entire family through a pandemic. And in the fullness of time, woman and corgis were reunited, sharing a language that exists somewhere between words.
Phil Cummins is a Dublin-born academic now living in County Kildare. His essays and stories have been long and shortlisted in various competitions and have featured in The Fish Anthology, The Galway Review, The Henshaw Anthology, The Dillydoun Review, Fictionjunkies, Books Ireland, and The Writers Bureau. He has also previously been a runner-up for the Fish Publishing 2020 International Short Memoir Prize.
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Runner up, Fish Publishing 2020 Short Memoir Prize
The Fish Anthology
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