This is a dog story. Not just any dog story, but one that illustrates triumph over adversity, the importance of small joys and the role of a writer’s companion. Some of you will have seen Harry in my official author photo – he brings his own special something to my life and work. He makes me take breaks and exercise regularly. He ensures I don’t take myself too seriously. He keeps the other canines in the household under control. He is a neighbourhood character, well loved by all. But it so nearly wasn’t so.
In late 2010 Harry was surrendered to an animal rescue group – a small white curly-coated cross breed, filthy, skinny and terrified. His age was given as three, though most likely he was older. On the way to the shelter, while being transferred between cars, Harry escaped and took off into what we in Australia call ‘the bush’ – in this case a densely forested area. The animal rescue people searched but he could not be found.
A community of Buddhist nuns living on an isolated property kept glimpsing a little white dog on the fringes of the monastery grounds. He was too scared to come close, but they left food out for him, and after three weeks living wild Harry was apprehended again. At his vet check it was apparent that he needed major surgery on his knees. I volunteered to be his foster carer during the pre and post-op periods.
I’ve had foster dogs come and foster dogs go. This one was different from the moment he came in the door. It took me around thirty seconds to decide that this frightened little soul was a keeper. He wasn’t especially pretty or particularly friendly. There was just that intangible something between us. By the end of the recovery period Harry had settled in as if he’d always lived with me and my (then) household of two tiny girl dogs.
The following year tested both Harry and me severely.
Whatever had happened in his former life had left Harry terrified of unfamiliar dogs, a fear he demonstrated with aggression – barking, growling, lunging forward and, when off the lead, charging toward other dogs even if they were four times his size, then bolting in terror if they responded. It’s called ‘prey behaviour’ and is bad news. He and I worked on this and were making good progress when he was attacked by a group of large, uncontrolled dogs while off the lead. His injuries were bad enough but the psychological impact was far worse. Behaviour-wise we were back to square one. Also, I was now fearful too, and not prepared to trust him.
So, I joined my local dog training club and committed us to one night a week of obedience training. Not such a big thing, you say? Oh, yes, it was. Long ago I was the overweight, short-sighted kid who was always last in the race, last to be chosen for the team, laughed at on one occasion by my whole class (and the teacher) because I looked funny when I ran. I was terrible at any sporting activity and knew it; I hated my own body. And somehow that outweighed any number of academic achievements. Sadly, that imbalance has stayed with me for most of my life. I’ve never played sport as an adult and I’m physically quite timid. So joining a club where the activity was physical as well as mental was a stretch for me. And there was the time commitment – a whole evening a week when I wouldn’t be able to write!
Well, here we are three years later. Harry and I are still members of the club, and have made many friends along the way, both human and canine. It has been a long haul for both of us, with progress sometimes hard for me to see. But the feedback of trainers and fellow-handlers has confirmed for me how far Harry has come. We’re now at an advanced level among clever border collies and smart German Shepherds, and there’s my boy performing with remarkable accuracy and style (and me alongside him managing the weaves and spirals and turns at least adequately.) This year Harry has obtained his first title in the sport of Rally-O, which combines agility and obedience. This despite ongoing health challenges. The most wonderful aspect is seeing him confident and happy around other dogs, and throwing himself into the work with bright eyes and enthusiasm.
The day we won our title, I felt an elation quite out of proportion with the achievement itself. It felt bigger than signing a new book contract or winning a literary award. On reflection I realised that there were two stories in this. One was about a little dog who overcame his terrors and handicaps to become well-balanced and content. The other featured that awkward, plump child of long ago, who as a well-padded grandmother achieved success in what is, in effect, a competitive team sport. Along the way, the two of them learned patience, tolerance and how to laugh at themselves. And the grandmother wrote a novel with a lot of dog training in it (Flame of Sevenwaters.)
Have you tackled an activity that takes you out of your comfort zone, and how did it change you? Who has a writer’s dog or cat, and what role does that animal play in your working life?