26th April 2013


(the worship of animals as the incarnation of certain deities; extreme or excessive devotion to animals, particularly household pets

I ONCE visited a man - once was enough - who lived with a Doberman that was a terrible bully. The man was nice but he seemed to think that his dog was the householder. So did the dog.

I'll call it Snarl to protect its identity, although I don't see why I should. It seemed to control more or less everything that happened in the house. It padded about among the conversation, as if it were working for the thought police, staring disconcertingly at anyone who was talking. I suspected that it was terrifically stupid but I didn't mention that, just in case it wasn't as dumb as I thought it was and caught my gist.

Two words it definitely did understand were cheerio and goodbye. People who carelessly mentioned one of these words would be immediately pinned to their chair or against a wall, if they were standing, while Snarl growled ominously at them and showed a set of upper teeth which wouldn't have been out of place in an alligator's mouth. I think it was trying to express in canine language something like: So you don't like my company, eh?

People who wanted to leave, which I would think was pretty well everybody who ever came to the house, would have to work out their own discreet formula for getting out. "I have a certain predilection for departure," someone might say. Or, "Ah well, parting is such sweet sorrow". That way, Snarl didn't know what the hell they were talking about. They could drift casually towards the hall, still talking, and then make a sudden break for the outside door.

Feeling a need to visit the lavatory, I asked my host where it was. He explained, then added in a very quiet voice: "Don't shut the door of the toilet. Snarl hates closed doors." I explained to him, in an equally quiet voice, that Snarl would just have to cope, since I didn't intend to expose such tackle as I had to the dental whims of a megalomaniac Doberman. I was relieved to relieve myself without the repeated sound of a heavy body thudding against the bathroom door.

"I don't go to the pub any more," the man said on my return. "Snarl doesn't like it." That was my cue to talk of tactical withdrawals and visitations which must be over all too soon. Snarl knew I was saying something but he'd be damned if he knew what it was. I left, wondering why the man didn't just buy Snarl a twinset and pearls and marry it.

The memory of this came unbidden into my mind when I read recently in the papers that beaches for dogs are one of the latest crazes. I realised how that far-off occasion had been the harbinger of a progressive tendency in our society: treating dogs as people. Read my snarling lips: Dogs are not people. ANIMALS ARE ANIMALS

Yet these days we have canine psychiatrists. I have my misgivings about the effectiveness of human psychiatry but at least the clients can tell you whether they feel the better for it or not. How are you supposed to tell if a neurotic dog feels it has benefited from its treatment? Does it bite you more gently or bark in a saner key?

And now beaches for dogs. I'm all for dogs enjoying themselves but are we sure that is what they will do on a sweltering sea shore? After all, ask yourself how many people put on a fur coat to go to the beach - unless they live in Scotland. Yet two of the prototypes for these beaches are at Maccarese and Fregene, outside Rome. The dogs are provided with umbrellas, showers and meals in restaurants.

The despair I feel about all of this has nothing to do with disliking dogs. It's the dog owners I'm worried about. I've been a dog lover all my life. I had no choice. My father had dogs. If that makes it sound like a disease, that's probably fair enough. I don't ever remember him actually buying a dog. It just seemed to be that every so often he developed a dog. I remember he and my mother came home at half-past 10 one night from the pictures with a smooth-haired fox terrier. It had followed them when they got off the bus, my father said.

I believe him. He had an uncanny rapport with animals of all kinds. Dogs did sometimes follow him home. Jackie was one. It followed him home and stayed the night. It was returned to its owners and then came back to our house the same night. This happened so often that the owners told my father to keep it, since it had obviously decided where it wanted to live. That was Jackie. You didn't decide Jackie was your dog, Jackie decided you were his human.

Jackie was a brown and white mongrel, with a coat so rough and ill-fitting he looked as if he had borrowed it from a bigger dog and hadn't had the alterations done yet. He would be lucky if he stood a foot high but nobody had told him that. He thought Alsatians were a push-over.

In case that last fact gives you the wrong impression, Jackie was also the most intelligent dog I have ever come across. I kid you not, this was Wittgenstein with a tail.

Small example: Jackie used to travel everywhere on the bus, by himself. He simply jumped aboard and lay in the space under the stairs they used to have in the old buses and got off at his stop. A neighbour once heard a passenger inform the conductress that there was an unaccompanied dog on the bus. "Aye," the conductress said. "That dog always gets this bus. Never been known to pay a fare yet, either."

When Jackie went shopping with my mother one day and she joined the queue for the bus that went in the direction of my grandmother's house, Jackie waited in an adjoining queue, for the bus that passed our street. My mother said he kept trotting down to her queue to stare at her quizzically, as if trying gently to suggest that she had lost her marbles. The bus for our house came first and Jackie got on it, standing briefly on the platform as it pulled away and staring back, before retiring to his reserved seat under the stairs. My mother couldn't swear to it but she thought he might have been shaking his head at her.

Badly wounded in a dog-fight, he lay on his blanket without anaesthetic and let my father stitch him together with fuse wire. Not a sound. He healed well. When he reached an agonised old age and my father finally took him to the vet, Jackie lay watching my father with what looked like affection till the last sleep came. I suspect my father whimpered a bit but Jackie didn't. He was a philosopher to the end.

Jackie loved my father and my father treated him like a dog. That was the point. To treat a dog as if it is just a funny-shaped person with a very severe speech impediment is a kind of decadent colonialism, like trying to convert a happy native from his natural life to the dubious joys of civilised neurosis. Jackie may have had a kind of genius but it was a genius he could only express in his own ways, which included shoving his nose up very unsavoury places and leaving little messages in urine all over the place and fighting other dogs and going on the hunt for very small bitches. It was what he did. He was a dog.

So, if we ever feel like getting a psychiatrist for our dogs, maybe we should get one for ourselves first. It should at least help us to realise that our need may be greater than theirs, that it may be our sense of us which is the problem, not the dog's sense of itself.

Remember Jackie. I know I will.


  e-mail: william.mcilvanney@personaldispatches.com