The writer’s dog is a multi-talented individual. He or she carries out a support role essential to the creative process. The writer’s dog is companion, confidante, inspiration, distraction, time keeper, and monitor of all matters health-related: nutrition, exercise, stress, sleep. His or her job includes keeping the writer mostly sane, reasonably fit, and for the most part on task.
I speak from personal experience here. For a long while I’ve worn two hats: writer and crazy dog lady. I spent some years as a foster carer for a canine rescue group, specialising in old and frail dogs, and I have seen quite a few little ones come and go from the household. These days I am down to three permanent dogs, two of whom were ‘foster fails’, that is, animals with whom the foster carer falls in love and cannot bear to part. It is perhaps no surprise that I’ve written so many dog characters into my novels, or that I love reading stories with great dog characters in them, including a few by WU’s own Barbara O’Neal.
I write full time from a home office. My dogs have my working day well under control, with suitable breaks for walks, snacks, and administration of their various medications, of which there are many. If I sit at my desk for longer than an hour and a half at a stretch, they have several techniques for drawing my attention. One, come and sit by my feet, gazing up piteously until I respond. Two, run to the front door barking wildly. Sometimes this means a real person is at the door, sometimes it’s only someone walking up the road (person with dog or dogs gets an extra loud bark), and sometimes it is solely an attention-grabbing ploy. It always works. Fergal may be very small but he has a mighty voice. Three involves tipping over the kitchen bin and scattering the contents on the floor. Four is to sit alone in a distant part of the house and wail as if the end of the world is coming.
The correct response to all of these is to get my eyes off the screen, stand up and take a break. Such breaks must include cuddles. They should involve moving out of the office to an area where at least one dog can get on my knee, and the dispensing of snacks for all.
Dogs love naps. They especially enjoy taking naps with their writers. I take a break from work in order to do this most days, and stay up later to compensate. The dogs give me the sign when it’s time, more or less herding me into the appropriate area and settling around me.
Dogs don’t like deadlines. When a deadline is looming, writers don’t stick to the sensible program the dog expects of them. They sit at the desk far longer than they should, they forget the established protocols and they miss the very clear signs that it’s time to take a break. At such times the writer can be tense and cranky. They may even shout and throw random objects. Basically, they are not a lot of fun to be around. Dogs will make their displeasure clear. We should try to take notice. A quick walk reduces tension. Dogs know this.
However long a writer has dogs, there’s always something new to be learned from them. Today I learned that the most unlikely canine can be an emotional support animal.
It’s easy to feel amused at stories of travellers taking their emotional support peacocks or guinea pigs on a plane to alleviate their anxiety. Travel is not a huge source of stress for me, but I don’t love the publicity that goes with being an author, and I particularly dislike having my photo taken. I have a set of studio photos that were taken with my dogs, and I use those as my official author shots. However, a new publisher needed a standard author ‘head shot’ – just me without a dog. The photographer did the shoot at my house, with Fergal, Reggie and Pip running around at foot level. When I explained how hard I find it to relax in photos, and how having the dogs in the pictures had made my previous shoot easier, he suggested I sit and hold Fergal on my knee while he did the head and shoulders shots. So all those pictures that don’t show a dog actually do have a dog in them, sort of. And they have a much more relaxed-looking writer. (Actually we did sneak in one or two with Fergal visible – he had been such a good boy.) Did I mention that Fergal is a wispy little one-eyed dog with Addison’s disease and glaucoma? His name means ‘valorous’ and in his own way he truly lives up to it.
Last but not least, the writer’s dog takes his human through highs and lows of emotion. I’ve written before about the traumatic loss of a beloved dog to an unprovoked attack. We lost another dear old man about two weeks ago, this time from a mystery illness which, compounded by his severe heart murmur, meant it was time to let him go. Zen came from a situation of neglect, and proved to be the gentlest, sweetest dog I’ve ever known, spreading peace and calm wherever he went. He especially loved babies and small children. It was sad to say goodbye. I write this with tears in my eyes, but such a shining example of goodness can only be remembered, in the end, with joy.
A writer learns many things from a dog. A dog allows us to set free emotions we might not express in front of another human. A dog can show us qualities we may not find in another human. Dogs teach us wisdom that feeds into our creative work, not only when we write about animals, but when we write about life. They teach us sorrow, they teach us hope, they teach us utter joy and blissful contentment. They teach us unconditional love and deep forgiveness. In the end, they teach us pain and they teach us acceptance. I say thank you to each and every one of them, the easy and the challenging. But especially to you, Zen. You sure lived up to the name I gave you.
Photo is by Alex Cearns of Houndstooth Studio. It shows Fergal on the left (before his eye operation) and Zen on the right.
Give us your dog stories, folks! Cat, peacock and guinea pig stories are also welcome! What role does your animal play in your life as a writer?