Small, dark, almond eyes blinking eagerly at me through the thin grid of fencing, a narrow head just reaching my knees, ears perked forward like twin radar dishes, his entire sleek, black body wobbling from side to side in an unthreatening display of welcome and happiness. I squat down and boldly stretch out my fingers to poke them through the chain-link. A too quick tongue gobbles at them as I try to tickle his chin un-slobbered to no avail. Looking at each other under the glare of the harsh summer sun, we both know who is coming home with me today.
“I don’t know, you sure you want this one?” The shelter manager is wearily letting me through the gate to see my prize more officially. “He’s a bit of a problem dog, been rescued twice, and he’ll grow. A lot.” I am not offended by the remark; with my short, thin, female frame, I’m used to friendly concern when handling anything larger than a toy poodle. Problem Dog is sitting on top of my worn trainers at this point, craning his head up and back to look at me even as I am tickling behind his large bat-like ears. He is quietly laughing all over his dark angular face and leaning back against my jeans, completely at ease. With his neck stretched out I can see he’s not pure black as I first thought: there’s a small smear of white on his chest, and his paws are a tan colour that blend with the dusty red earth.
“I should be able to manage, I’ve kept dogs before,”
“His mother was a German Shepherd, father was a Blue Heeler, he’ll be strong.”
I look down at what I would swear blind was a pure-bred kelpie if his chest wasn’t so deep but hold my tongue. “My Mother used to keep German Shepherds,” I say with a smile, “I’ll be fine.”
“Right.” He didn’t sound convinced, but he would sign the papers and take my money anyway.
Rule 1: Dogs go in the back of the car
Problem Dog had not resisted at all when I slipped his new collar round his neck; he stood still while it was fitted and an old lead clipped on. I was even surprised to find he walked loosely to heel for all of three seconds past the front gate of his old temporary home, before towing me in a zig-zag pattern, from one interesting sniff to the next, all the way to where my car was parked on some sunburnt grass just off the dusty dirt road. The moment I opened the driver’s side to press (what had once been considered) a convenient button to flip open the tailgate, Problem Dog ducked under my arm and nimbly hopped into the driver’s seat, settling himself quite contentedly. “No, down.” So, he did. “Not on the seat.” He lay there, front paws dangling over the edge, and tilted his head in confusion, poor slow human, giving silly instructions. “Out.” This he understood.
“Okay dog, ground rules.” I led him by the collar to the back and pointed, then patted the thin layer of carpet. It had been cleaned, but with a pang I could still see the odd pale hair showing up against the dull grey. After a cursory sniff, he sprang in with a single effortless bound. “Good, see? Dogs go in the back of the car.” I patted his head and he blinked at me; it looked like he’d gotten the message. I smiled to myself, maybe a little sadly, but it was good to have a dog in the car again. Then slamming the rear door shut and getting back to the art of going home—a fifty-minute drive on mostly dirt roads before winding back to some decent tarmac.
About half an hour later, with the air-conditioning turned down just enough that I could still hear the radio, I became aware of warm tickling breath on the back of my hand as I changed gears. A startled glance behind revealed a pointed nose poking through the gap in the front seats and resting his chin on my cup-holders. Apparently, my Problem Dog had gotten lonely and scaled the back seat without my noticing. I hastily indicated and pulled over with visions of flying dogs at 100mph if I had to break suddenly. With a sigh I raised an eyebrow at my Problem Dog. “Happy with yourself there?” He licked his lips once in response, which I took to mean ‘yes’. Crawling along, watching car after car overtake me, I reminded myself that I was being a responsible owner, they could honk all they liked, I was doing the right thing. That didn’t stop the remaining twenty-minute drive from taking forty.
Rule 1 (amended): Dogs go in the back of the car unless they have ‘dibs’ on front seat. Note to self: also buy a dog car harness.
Rule 2: Dogs should be seen and not heard (unless there are intruders)
Problem Dog had been settling into my house and my routines quite well considering he’d only spent a day here. He was happily trailing me around as if he’d known me all his life instead of all of yesterday. He soon decided that his favourite spot was on the ‘dog sofa’ that overlooked the front garden and beyond that the road, through large square windows that covered the height and length of the wall and made for a splendid dog television. To my delight, he expressed no interest in barking at the cars and logging trucks that roared past at regular intervals. It appeared this would be a peaceful relationship. Until the Sunday bike races.
I jerked out of a light doze, the half-finished crossword puzzle flying off my lap and my pen thrown to land in some bothersome location under the coffee table. I spun to face the source of such a ridiculous cacophony; surely, I was being invaded by a menacing horde of some kind. I was half right. Row after row of brightly coloured vests and helmets—it was this horde cycling up the road that was driving my Problem Dog to practically cough his lungs up with overprotective vigour. Shushing at him did nothing, covering his eyes didn’t help either. I couldn’t believe the sheer volume he was making, it wasn’t a deep booming woof but a definite angry barking, so loud that standing this close to him I pined for the ear defenders hanging uselessly in the tool shed—it was that German Shepherd chest cavity at work.
In desperation I grabbed a box of dog biscuits out of the pantry cupboard and rattled them invitingly, but it was doubtful he could hear it over the sound of his own prodigious voice. Defeated, I waited for the last bike to cycle harmlessly from view, while counting my blessings that this small hobby farm was bordered by paddock rather than houses—although the sheep and cows may not have shared that sentiment. Threat gone, Problem Dog suddenly turned and smiled to see me. He ignored my glowers and delighted in the fact that I was awake now and no longer boring. He also noticed that I had biscuits.
Next Sunday I had a plan. Before I settled down with my newspaper, I went and closed all the blinds so there wasn’t even a whisper of light to allow my Problem Dog to see even the hint of a bicycle. It worked. Thwarted by the peaceful gloom of the house, he settled down for a snooze. Satisfied that I had solved the problem, I sat huddled over a desk lamp to attack my crossword. I’d only just skipped the first four and was working on five across when the phone rang in the kitchen. There isn’t a phone in the kitchen, I thought, my hand automatically pawing at where the cordless should be by the desk. A half memory surfaces. Carrying it through while talking to my sister last night, I can see it casually deposited on the counter next to the toaster. Oops. Flopping down the paper casually, and the pen more carefully, I leapt up and turned to sprint around the corner. Suddenly my foot connected dead on with something solid but oddly soft, and my body flipped over the black lump that had merged with the carpet, instinctively trying not to fall on the dog. Landing hard on my knees, I scramble up—is my dog okay?! But I needn’t have worried. He’s padded with fur and solid muscle, he hasn’t even moved, he didn’t even yipe. A little disgruntled I limp to the still ringing phone.
Bruised knees and a phone call later, I returned to have a word with Problem Dog. He took one look at my knees and kissed them better. Taking that as an apology, I returned to my crossword puzzle, this time taking the precaution of checking if he’d moved back to the sofa or not.
Rule 2 (amended): Dogs should be seen and not heard unless dog is hazardously invisible. Note to self: buy florescent collar.
Rule 3: Dogs play outside
EEEK SQUEEEK EEEK. At this moment in time, I absolutely hated my sister for sending me a dog toy for Problem Dog—EEEK EEEK EEEK SQUEEEK—with a working squeaker. I had hoped he would grow tired of chewing it while I worked at my desk (not on a crossword), but he seemed enamoured with what had to be the most torturously annoying high-pitched death cry of rubberised anguish. Fed up, I grated the sliding door open and indicated that if Problem Dog was going to continue to butcher squeaky toys, he had to do it outside. Blissfully unconcerned, he ran for the open door and—ground to a halt. He stared outside with a look of pure terror. And scuttled behind the sofa.
I looked outside, but all I could see was rain. I couldn’t even hear anything menacing, not even the muted splashing of traffic over the sound of it. “Come on boy, out we go.” He peered mournfully from his sanctuary; he knew there was something terribly wrong outside. “Really, look, its fine, I’ll prove it.” I stepped outside and called him, and to my credit he did appear at the door, but he wouldn’t budge. I begged, I asked nicely, I threw his squeaky toy outside, nothing. Eventually, sopping wet and feeling a little mean, I dragged him by the collar, four paws dragging all the way, until he was out of the house. “There, you see, it’s just a little wet stuff.” But he was a pitiful sight. Head down, ears pasted to his skull, tail tucked under his body, huddled at my feet. My heart melted, and we went back inside to dry off. As a token apology, I even retrieved the damp squeaky toy. To my eternal regret.
Rule 3 (amended): Dogs play outside unless the world is melting horribly.
Rule 4: Dogs eat dog food
I was slickly peeling off my drenched raincoat after spending about fifteen minutes getting Problem Dog to relieve himself outside under the shelter of an umbrella. We had been going out for ‘walkies’ in the rain whenever I could, to help him get over his phobia, but he had his limits. Fortunately, on a country property in the pouring rain, there are very few people around to comment on the oddness of holding an umbrella for a dog while he does his business. It was while I was sloshing water out of my boots that I suddenly became aware of noises. Crunch crunch SNAP. It was coming from the kitchen, and my mind immediately pictured images of my nice wooden table with its nice wooden legs being chewed by a nice wet dog.
I skidded around the corner, hopping on my single booted foot and stopped with a slosh, to look at my perfectly safe and beautiful table. Crunch SNAP crunch. The noise was coming from the other side of the fridge. “Oi, what are you eating!?” I hadn’t seen him bring a stick in. Rounding the fridge with a few deft hops, I wobbled to keep my balance and caught myself on the kitchen counter and stared at the mess of orange chunks of carrot debris scattered around the jaws of my happily chewing dog. He had nicked it straight out of the vegetable rack beside the fridge and didn’t at all mind that he now had a silent observer. He didn’t even have the decency to look guilty; he just beat his tail in greeting and otherwise ignored my presence.
Clearly, Problem Dog needed proper dog food to chew on, so he wouldn’t eat all my vegetables. So, I began returning home with special chewie bones for him; it was supposed to be tasty and clean his teeth etcetera. He must have loved them, because the moment I dangled one in front of his nose, he would grip it firmly in his teeth and off he would trot. The next time I saw him the bone would be gone. “Good boy.” He got a scratch behind the ears for his good behaviour, and he licked my hand because it was tasty.
It actually took me a while to cotton onto the truth behind Problem Dog’s streak of good behaviour. Then one afternoon, he padded into my bedroom, bone in mouth, blithely ignored me when I called out a greeting to him and proceeded to ‘bury’ the bone under the spare blanket piled at the foot of my bed. In shock, I watched him deftly flick at the soft blue cover with his crafty nose to make a place for his prized possession, drop the bone, and then nuzzle the material in loose folds until it hid his prize completely. It was both the funniest thing I had ever seen and also rapidly horrifying as I realised that this was the reason he had gone through all the bones so quickly. He quietly laughed at my stunned expression and trotted out of the room.
The next day was spent un-burying the bones. I found one inside the spare laundry basket, another under the green, bean-bag dog bed, another under a pillow on the sofa. I was amazed that he’d had the dexterity to not only place the bone on the sofa but to manoeuvre the pillow on top, albeit in a squiffy manner. The others I found by trailing him around the house like a P.I., and later I had to console him as he investigated each dig-site to find that his bone cache had been raided. He did get one bone back in the evening, and after he kept trying to sneak out of the room with it, I caved and gave him one carrot which he tucked into immediately. From then on carrots lived in the fridge and his treats were alternated between proper dog food and Problem Dog food so my home didn’t resemble a graveyard.
Rule 4 (amended): Never mind
Rule 5: If you love your dog, he will love you back
We were taking a dog walk up the back of the property, a steep strip of two acres covered in scrub picked low by five pet goats that shall remain nameless. While said lawnmowers were ensconced in their rather spacious sheet-metal barn—an old cattle shed—Problem Dog and I had a free run of the hill in all its damp and rabbit riddled glory. In theory anyway. It was raining so it was more ‘human walking’. In a few minutes I would no doubt come back to find him sat under the awning outside the back door, impatient to get in and be towelled dry— a pastime he had come to adore and played no small part in softening his intense dislike of rain.
The lonely walk didn’t bother me too much though. Walking in the rain always reminded me of England, and there was something peaceful about standing on the hill surrounded by nature. On a clear day, there was a splendid view of the valley, curving away below us, dotted with Brahman cattle on the right and Dorpa sheep on the left, but with the rainfall the animal making its presence most known was the army of frogs bellowing from the river just past the road.
Eyes shut, listening to the rain and trying but failing to block out the incessant croaking din that undermined the peaceful atmosphere, I became aware of a presence at my side. No way. I glanced down to find my Problem Dog had quietly followed me all the way up the hill, and was sitting there, a little uncomfortable at being wet, but there. A mixture of joy and pride filled me with warmth. He loved me more than he loathed rain.
He was my Not a Problem Dog.
I smiled, “Good boy.”
Rule 5 (sustained).