Chapter 1 (if the answer is no this’ll be a short story)
Along the unpredictable journey that is parenting I could feel life getting easier. On a trip into the big smoke on the bus, when the boys were 6,9, and 11, I said to them all ‘right, next stop we get off the bus.’ The bus pulled over, all 4 of us got up and we all walked off the bus. Just walked off. No buggy. No nappy bag. No supplies of snacks, spare clothes, entertainment, no stopping because there was an interesting piece of litter on the floor … this was as close to swanning out with a credit card and lipstick as I’d been for years.
So I relished the newly evolving chapter. Liberty. The physical haul of little children seemed to be over. So what flowed in and filled this increasingly peaceful space? … Smallest boy has been campaigning for a dog ever since he could woof. It was a step that didn’t even get as far as the ‘ to consider’ list. We had 2 chickens. Enough, enough. But in it crept. The dinner table discussion kept finding its way to the subject of dog. Over a number of weeks we covered : Do we all like dogs? What is your ideal dog? e.g. size, colour, hair length, breed What do you want your dog to do? eg catch a ball, run with you, sleep all day. How much does a dog cost? How much are vets fees? Will we need insurance?How will we go on holiday? Will the dog come? How often and for how long do you walk a dog? How do you train a dog? Where do you get a dog from? Who scoops the poop? So the time passed and I found myself thinking that it might prove a good thing for us to have a dog. I drew up my own ideal dog list:
Female (I live with 4 fellas – a bit of balance is needed I feel.)
Interactive – will give affection and play with toys.
Travels near and far became a chance for dog research. Dog owners, delightfully, will spend more time than you can imagine waxing lyrical about their hairy friends. I started researching Cockerpoos, Miniature Shnauzers, Border Terriers. The rest of the team were researching greyhounds, Nova Scotia Duck Tolling Retrievers (a what?), googling cute puppies and repeating the word ‘collie’ from sun up to sun down. All was progressing. However, you’ll notice I don’t say progressing nicely. There was a big chunk of me that was trying to put the brakes on. I wasn’t sure. That feeling of life getting a little easier felt threatened by the idea of dog ownership. I could hear dog owners saying things like ‘ it’s a bind,’ and ‘ you’ll have to take it in turns to sit outside the nice warm cafe, in the Winter and hold the dog.’ I could feel myself wanting to back pedal. I was having doubts. Even as far as the wish list. It felt a little too like choosing a living thing from a menu. When I had my babies I didn’t want to know their gender. I didn’t need to have the options pinned down and organised. We chose to have 3 children. We’re outnumbered. We don’t fit in restaurants with fixed chairs. There aren’t enough hands to hold each child. Insert your own personal quirk here but I admit, I like the elements of surprise and whilst being responsible, I sometimes feel that there are greater forces at work that are beyond our control.
So recoiling a little from the shopping list approach I began a regular visit to the website of our local RSPCA. Each dog had a few notes attached to their profile: Sadie has not had the best start in life and needs understanding owners who can help her to overcome her anxieties, … Tigger becomes anxious around other dogs and needs experienced owners who can help her to socialise. The guides to potential families said children 10 +, adults only… this dog will eat your babies. (not really but it was reassuring that such caution was applied by the RSPCA.)… and then up popped the face of Buster.
He was male. He was old. He medalled at hair shedding. And then came the legend Guideline for families: children aged 3 plus. He was rock solid. So off we popped one Saturday afternoon to the local shelter. Just to see who was there and maybe to glance at Buster. Yep, I can hear you. Had I already made a decision? Was this going to happen? I couldn’t dangle this in front of my children and then just whip it away. That would be cruel all round. I knew that if we all agreed, this was going to happen. So we were all introduced to Buster. 3 visits later, following a home inspection by an RSPCA officer, home he came. But before he came we had to prepare: First we read this poster and we still refer to it:
We got him a bed, the food recommended by the RSPCA, the stair gates came out again – he was to be a downstairs dog. So on my wedding anniversary we welcomed a new family member.
The realities of getting a dog. The pros and cons of adopting an older dog. How you think that you’re doing this for your whole family but really your heart has turned to mush over your new friend.
And just like that we now had a dog. An older, more male and hairier version than was in the original plan. But he looked at us with hope in his eyes and we signed up for the adventure. We clipped Buster into his seat belt in the boot of the car and set off for home. For those of you with children, do you remember that first journey home with your precious bundle? We couldn’t quite believe that this little life was handed to us and off we drove, very slowly, into the big world. Was every knock at the door Social Services coming to relieve these winging it parents of this real live baby? Surely driving our new doggy home couldn’t feel quite that enormous, could it? Well, no of course it didn’t. He was a living creature but ultimately he was just a dog. She said in her best matter of fact Mary Poppins voice. Oh hardy ha ha read on.
‘Come in Mr Buster’ we invited and so he proceeded to investigate this world of new smells like us when we walk by LUSH in town. With an air of anxious goodwill we had treats on tap. Please love us, please don’t scare the pants off us, bite us on the bum or eat the telly. What slowly became clear is that what was needed was time. We needed to get to know each other. He had a personality just like … a person. ( All animal welfare learned from 1970s TV. Johnny Morris has a lot to answer for https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UAILTQLI5oY ).
So, starting from page 1 his name was Buster. I thought he was more of a Henry or a George but a senior gentleman of 12 years is not to be disgruntled. He’d already experienced indignity of being neutered at the age of 12 by the wise people at the RSPCA. He could keep his name. He was a medium sized, Red Fox Labrador which would not rank on his pedigree certificate but as he colour coordinated with middle boy, he would offer solidarity to his fellow red.
We excitedly took him out for his first walk. We were advised to use a harness with him. It kept the lead up on his back and meant that he didn’t dance the CanCan as the lead wrapped around his legs. We took the obligatory 3 hours to work out who should hold the lead and for how long and off we went. Totally dedicated to all aspects of dog ownership everyone had a dog poo bag in their pocket. All 3 boys were totally prepared to scoop the poop – if they were the nearest (cue small boys sprinting for the hills).
So while we’re on the subject of the rear end of the dog, Buster apparently had a bladder of steel. Total respect she says 3 babies later . He could hold on for 14 hours hours overnight and then eek out all those wees over a walk – marking the spot where another dog has had the audacity to relieve itself. How very dare they, thinks Buster, and stakes his claim. He so owns that hood.
We kept him on his lead as we didn’t know how he would respond to other dogs. We soon found out. Every day for him seemed to be like starting a new school. He’d go and greet another dog enthusiastically, they’d do that special doggy thing and sniff each others bits. His hair would stick up on end. Now I knew where a dog’s hackles were. Then after the introductions he’d either walk away or he’d try a little polite chit chat. This generally didn’t go well and ended in him rearing up and having a good woof at his new acquaintance, with us hauling him away on his lead.
Walking him became quite an anxious enterprise for all of us. Until, that is, one day we met a lovely black labrador called Bear and his pet human. I shared with Bear’s human that I was concerned about Buster’s stress and in reply Bear’s human gave me this really kind if somewhat unusual offer. ‘Let him off’ he said ‘ and if they scrap I’ll wade in and separate them.’ So Buster was reassured, unclipped and had his first play date. They sniffed. They circled. Then something magical happened and they proceeded to show each other their best bounce. ‘Look at that’ said Bear’s human as I tried to remember to breathe. ‘His tail is wagging.’ My eyes turned a little misty. Buster had made a pal.
So armed with a pocket full of treats to encourage him to stick nearby, our walks could now involve a little lead free time. The small amount of history the RSPCA could give us about Buster was that he was fly ball trained. We nodded knowingly and went home to ask Mr Google. He told us this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flyball Who knew?! For us this meant we had a ball obsessed, very fit, old dog. And I finally got to own one of those ball flinger things. Result! He could run and retrieve a ball for over an hour and when he’d had enough running he’d walk along with the ball in his mouth like a dummy.
The first few days of walks felt like a chore. Just think what I could be doing instead with this time. My house could be clean and tidy. I could plan and shop for a week of meals in advance. I would be totally on top of all admin and I could trawl pinterest to make my children’s lunch boxes a culinary masterpiece. Herhum. Welcome to reality. By week 2 of the walks I was in. Deep.
He had absolutely no lane discipline and walking with any other person involved Mr B criss-crossing his lead across their path and stopping for a good sniff like a really badly choreographed episode of Strictly. Off the lead he’d often choose to walk just in front of me but had to keep looking back to check I was there, dismissing out of hand the idea of walking beside me. Or he’d stop suddenly as he discovered a rich seam of smells and a quick body swerve was required or I’d trip over him.
But being obliged to take him out into the green things every day became a total delight. Gradually I’d become part of a community of dog walkers who wave a cheery hello or stop for a chat. There was a silent understanding (possibly only in my own head) that we were there with our hairy friends, often walking the same routes, day in day out and what might be perceived from the outside as tedious, repetitive and dull was actually an addiction of the healthiest sort. So dog walkers, we stand together as junkies of fresh air, nature, community and happy hormones… who also pick up poo and slowly but surely start to look a bit like their dogs.
As our days together grew in number we learned that Buster was a combination of…
A fairly self contained old fella, fairly set in his ways, he preferred a particular place to sit and tolerated the adoration of the boys with patience and gravitas. Not a great one for affection but he gradually discovered the joys of ramming his head between your knees for a massage behind his ears – slightly disconcerting for visitors but a nice if somewhat socially unconventional way to connect with him.
He was also a poor undernourished starving waif who had to beg for food as we kept him on starvation level rations. Or so he told us. So starving was he that he was forced to counter surf for the merest scrap. We sprayed morsels of food with a bitter cherry spray which was supposed to discourage this behaviour. Let’s just say there’s a nearly full bottle available to any neighbours if they happen to own a dog that doesn’t double as a hoover with no taste buds. We learned to clear tables really quickly and the boys created a barrier with their chairs to stop him launching at their dinner and making off with a tasty morsel.
We tried praising the good. Rewarding the positive behaviour. He’d take the treat, sits like an angel, lull you into believing you can have a relaxed meal time and then … whoosh … your sausage was in the jaws of a Great White Shark. Well, a ginger one. So if our neighbours heard the woeful woof around 6 pm of a starving hound in a back garden, we’d ask them to please bear with us until we’d cleared the table and let Mr B in to do a thorough inspection of the kitchen for the merest spec of a scrap to ease his perpetual hunger.
Initial fears that he would make life really difficult had not been completely unfounded but we found ways to adjust. Our lovely neighbours would take him out for a spin if we had to be away from the house for a longer stretch. He’s also spend the odd night in the Pet Hotel, thinking about his behaviour until we’d arrive back to collect him so that he could knock us all sideways with his tail in overdrive.
The biggest change was definitely learning to live with hair. Tons and tons of it. No amount of hoovering seemed to hold back the tide and the small boys wore their school fleeces lightly coated in dog hair almost as a badge of honour. Thankfully my Mum was a very wise person who equipped me for life in many respects. Not least being the gift of this essential tome…
Let’s just say my family looked forward to Christmas with some trepidation … So, was this the end of the tale? Did our senior gentleman carry on living the Life of Riley, gently snoozing in the sun on the sofa, next to his pristine dog bed??? Well the answer is…. yes mostly.
But then I got a phone call I really wasn’t expecting….. Coming next: Everyone carries some baggage with them …
Buster chose us to be his family using his Jedi mind beams. This is the dog you are wanting, take me to your home and let me fill it with my special wet dog fragrance and coat it in my fine ginger hair. Yes Sir oh doggy we responded and he became part of our family.
The Grandparents braced themselves for our visits as we seem to have adopted the equivalent of a child reared by wolves who brings a mighty, smelly whirl to their peaceful and ordered existence. The Lego wielding, screen loving, stair sliding down grandsons are actually small fry in comparison.
When we did our initial visits to Buster in the RSPCA, whilst he considered whether we were up to his standards, we had an unexpected bonding moment. He’s hurt his paw out on a walk and had taken to his bed to contemplate life and all its intricacies and was it time for dinner yet?. He tried to get up to greet us but oooo oooww, instead he decided to invite us into his humble abode. So we went into his cage and sat with him, looking out through the bars. He managed to wag the tip of his tail but then lay on his bed to write his memoirs and nurse his poor sore paw. We sat a while a looked through the bars, sighed a sigh and promised him we’d be back soon to liberate him.
The lovely Laura at the RSPCA advised us about all of Buster’s charms. She told us his story, that he came from a house that had 30 dogs in it, he’d been kept in a cage and he’d been really good at flyball in his younger years. I had notched up about zero experience of all 3 of those elements. I braced myself for a learning curve. He’d been at the rescue centre since April and we adopted him in August. The reality for us meant that we were now guardians of a fit, old dog who loved chasing balls and carried one in his mouth at all times like it was his soother. A few weeks into our new life together I was dedicating hours of my life to that enriching force that is facebook. We have a local on line news feed and up popped a report about a court case involving a large number of dogs. It also appeared in the online version of The Telepgraph (click the link.) The Sun and the Daily Mail. (Other reads are available.) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/20/cruftsflyball-winnerbanned-keeping-dogs-life-rspca-investigation/ My cogs did a brief whirr. Those dates seemed to fit his story…30 dogs in a house – what a coincidence. I pointed it out to my family. We said ….oh…., tickled B dog behind the ears and got on with life.
He wasn’t in the photos.
Then, a few days later I received a phone call from The RSPCA. Hello, said a friendly voice as she introduced herself. How is Buster? Nicely done I thought, knowing he’s a senior citizen it’s good to check on his alive status before launching in to anything. She went on to ask had I seen the reports of the court case? Oh look at that says I, it was him. She’d phoned to invite us to bring Buster to the RSPCA to meet with some of the other dogs that had been rescued and re-homed from the house of 30. There would be a photoshoot. Nice, I thought, still a little bemused. I know every Mother sees the beauty in their own child, but was he really that much of a looker? Oh and err he’s a dog not a child. I have that distinction absolutely clear in my own mind. Completely.
I was informed that the costs for bringing the court case were set at £40,000. Cue more cog whirring. And these had to be met by the RSPCA. Blimey. That is a lot of money. So on a rainy Wednesday afternoon in June, me , Buster and his 3 pet brothers piled into the car and headed for the glamour of the RSPCA Radcliffe on Trent. We met with his fellow rescuees and although the new owners all seemed a little nervous, the dogs seemed up for being polite to each other.
We promised Buster wall to wall treats if he could turn on the charm and he decided to adopt the pose of a quizzical senior:
These photos were used in the following film which was used to promote the work of the RSPCA and to raise funds. Just as a health warning, if it upsets you to see animals in distress maybe skip the film. Or skip to the end. You’ll see Buster with his poorly eye and later you’ll see his woeful looking face next to his kennel mate as they look out from their prison. Even if you own the hardest of hearts, the edges will soften when you see this. (Make a cuppa, prepare tissue / sleeve) Click on the link. RSPCA FILM – look what a difference love and care can make. CLICK!
Right, have you gathered yourself? There’s just one more little layer to add. At the get together we met a nice person called Emma Mason, a dog welfare assistant at the Jerry Green Dog Rescue who set up a Facebook page called Flyballers Stand Together In Aid Of RSPCA Radcliffe. The aim was to have a site where all things related to this case could be posted including fund raising towards to the costs of the case. If you search the page on Facebook you’ll see that there’s a whole other world out there of people and their dogs who are dedicated to the sport of flyball and who are absolutely horrified by the cruelty of this case and the negative impact it has had on the perception of their sport and the care for the dogs who play it. This small act of support has had a brilliant response and this site has raised nearly £7700 so far. It’s incredible.
When Emma posted the picture of Buster comments were made about his influence on those around him and mystically there seemed to be someone who could get Buster to come when called. I suspect that person’s real name was Dumbledore. Then it turns out that Buster is a Daddy! There are baby Busters out there. So I’m looking at him curled up the sofa now, gently snoring and twitching his paws as he dreams about chasing balls through long grass and stopping for a light lunch of bread in a plastic bag and he melts my heart. I love having him in our family. He has brought such joy and warmth. So if you’ve gained any pleasure from reading Buster’s story or even used reading it as a completely legitimate reason for not doing your work / homework / housework / etc could I ask you to consider a couple of options? If you are asking yourselves ‘should we get a dog’? please consider that there are lots of lovely, older dogs out there who would love to bring their particular delights to your life. And if you have any money you would like to set free to support the RSPCA in their work, please click on the link below. http://www.rspca-radcliffe.org.uk/fundraising-and-donations Thanks for reading. Woof. #RSPCA#gettingadog#adoptinganolddog#redfoxlabrador
The Final Chapter
Our lovely gentleman Mr B lived with us for 4 glorious years. He gradually became slower and I used his ponderous walks as cover for checking out all the skips in our neighbourhood. And so, in May, when we were all in Covid 19 lockdown he planned his grand finale and I’ll spare you the details but the lovely emergency vets at the PDSA said old fella, you have turned enough hearts to mush; your work here is done. And we said our farewells.
And after a little pause and a few more tears when we realised we could have a bin on the floor again…we started to wonder…should we get a dog?…