Our house was forever alive with animal instinct. We grew up surrounded by a veritable menagerie, some more memorable than others... who could forget when our tank of stick insects was rudely emptied into some bushes by a displeased parent?
But, as rabbits, guinea pigs and hamsters, fish and amphibians came and went, the gravity of our familial sphere of influence seemed to centre always and entirely on our dogs.
Growing up, it seemed obvious that we should thoroughly dote on our canine companions. Ella, our sheepdog, adored my mother, following her everywhere she went, gazing up at her with a devoted and expectant look, tail wagging. Layla, meanwhile, was as pure-hearted a creature as one could ever hope to find. Some mongrel mix of lab, collie, retriever and all else besides seemed to provide the perfect ingredients for a trusting, loyal companion who wanted nothing else but to love.
It is amazing to learn how all the world’s ills can melt away in the presence of a good dog. When I think of my early childhood – happy and bucolic but spliced, as all childhoods are, with trauma – I remember more distinctly than anything else the softness of Layla’s fur, the deep infinity of her dark eyes. Layla was my earliest confidant, the one who listened patiently to my most secret thoughts and feelings, and the one who, quite literally, licked my wounds. When your world fills with trouble as a child – debt, divorce, arguments, courts, separation, poverty – the presence of a being who offers you nothing but unfaltering warmth, whose heart you can feel beating just like your own if you only reach out a hand and place it upon their chest, helps dissolve those troubles. You feel the safety of a bond you wish would last forever.
I think it’s this sense of totally non-judgemental listening that draws writers, in particular, to dogs. Just like a blank sheet of paper can be the place one pours every wicked, embarrassing, lovely or hopeful thought without fear of consequence, a dog can listen intently to everything you have to say and will never think of you differently for it. You can even break wind, horribly and toxically, and your dog still wags its tail, not minding in the least that your flatulence will likely be attributed to him with our prim reluctance to accept our natural bodily functions.
Another thing dogs teach you is about death, which can be quite handy for a writer but pretty traumatic for a child. When Layla died everyone around me said it was “for the best”. She had been old, arthritic and blind, and her final days before her one-way trip to the vet were spent bumping gently into legs, both table and human, and gently nuzzling at inanimate objects to see if she might find some snack or a spot of attention. It is odd how we deem it okay to release the animals we love dearly from their suffering but refuse to grant fellow human beings the right to die gently and without so much pain.
But these thoughts were not those that crowded my mind as we gathered in the garden in the rain to watch my mother dig a shallow grave for Layla rather, in my head, the finality of death was tinged with a severe miscomprehension that anything could totally end forever. It was a dream or nightmare full of confusion – that halcyon days in fields with Layla were now in the past, and the delights, exultations and joys spent with her – along with the moments of careful sorrow and intimate secrets – were nothing more than fleeting experiences never to recur. She was the one I had curled up besides when sleeping; the companion who followed me when I joined my mother picking nettles to make soup. I couldn’t understand how she could be gone.
I find this is the same with writing – the finality of an ending the most difficult thing to deal with when concluding a narrative. How can one choose the right moment to end on? Endings so rarely come when they should – perhaps because in our heart of hearts we wish that they would never come at all.
Of course, beginnings and endings are all about perspective. And as with writing, again so with dogs: it seems inevitable, to anyone who has ever owned and loved a dog – or to any writer – that you will have more than one dog in your lifetime, just as you will write more than one story.
After Layla, there was Marnie, a wiry, wily border terrier, and her puppies, Whisper (quite an absurd name to shout out in a park) and Graham (named, proudly, by myself, not quite appreciating that, when you lose said dog and ask someone if they’ve seen him, it sounds like you’re looking for some drunken middle aged uncle).
Three dogs are a lot of dogs to have at once. They’re an unquestionable distraction, which, of course, many writers dread. But they distract only in the sense that they give you a purpose and a job to do at different times of the day. You wake up, you walk them, you give them fresh water, you live, they wait, then you walk them again, pick up their mess, feed them and let them sleep. Occasionally, you have to stop them from fighting badgers, but these are rare occurrences.
This purpose provided by our responsibility to our four-legged friends is invaluable to a writer. After all, writers can often tend towards lethargy, of drinking voluminous bottles of dark spirits staring into the abyss, if they aren’t pointed in a direction and set go on a goal with purpose. Every walk I took my pack of dogs on taught me this. But they also gave me something else that I’ve always thought helped my writing: time and space to think.
So, when I look at my Labrador, Reg, and pitch him the idea of writing about the dogs I’ve loved and what they’ve taught me about writing, he looks at me and moves his nose towards my face. His tongue extends a touch and he wags his tail, as if to say “You write whatever you want, because you are my friend and I love you.” Reg is a good dog, like that.
Samuel Dodson is a twenty-something writer based in London. He is the founder of creative collective Nothing in the Rulebook and his writing has appeared in a number of literary journals and magazines, including the TSS, and Litro. He is currently crowdfunding for his first book, Philosophers’ Dogs through award-winning publishers, Unbound. This illustrated, satirical book reveals a truth long-kept secret: that all human philosophers stole their ideas from their dogs. More information about Philosophers’ Dogs is available here - https://unbound.com/books/philosophers-dogs/