When Cracker (our Labrador) died, it seemed disrespectful to his memory to rush to replace him as if he were a household appliance. We also had a few travel plans for my early retirement which weren’t dog friendly. So it wasn’t until 2019, almost five years after the Cracker era that we succumbed to our daughters’ (mostly Alice’s) persistent lobbying and agreed to become dog owners again.
The first question was: should we go for a rescue dog, or a puppy from a breeder? There were a few rescues in our lane who had bedded into their new owners’ lives very successfully. Our smart wooden floors also made us a little nervous of house training a puppy from scratch. So we decided to try the rescue route. Surely if we could improve the life of a troubled pooch, that was worth doing.
We compiled a list of “must haves” for the dog we wanted:
- Small enough that we could lift it into the boot of our car without straining our backs, and that it wouldn’t be able to pull us over into the mud or ice (we could be into our late seventies within the lifetime of this dog).
- I refused to countenance flouncy decorative yappy little dogs which would undermine my Manliness when out walking.
- Our dog must be good with people.
- Our dog must be good with other dogs.
- I wanted a dog which could accompany me on runs.
- Debbie didn’t want a dog who walked with its tail high, showing its bum off to all.
We made a few trips to dog rescue homes, and left our details with them. Suitable dogs seemed thin on the ground: for a few weeks we weren’t offered any dogs at all. We began to think we were being marked down as unfit owners.
Then we visited Dogs Trust in Harefield, where the lady said they had just completed their assessment of a dog called Abbie – a Jack Russell cross (with heaven knows what) – who might fit the bill. She had been brought over from Ireland, and was estimated to be about five years old – nothing else was known of her history. She was described as having Queen Anne legs, and she had been certified “green” on their traffic lights system, i.e. ready and safe for adoption. We were told that she hadn’t got on well with one of her kennelmates, and had “told them off”.
While they fetched Abbie, we were invited to look around at the residents, to see if any caught our eye. Inmates might have been a better description. The poor dogs looked wretched, anxious, unpredictable, mostly large – full time projects for their new owners. I suspect we were being softened up, by showing us the alternatives to Abbie.
When she was brought out, Abbie’s greeting was polite but non-committal. She was a strange little thing, with her stumpy little bow legs. We were invited to take her for a stroll around the grounds, and she trotted along nicely enough, but we weren’t charmed until we came to the play area. She suddenly came alive, chasing around energetically after a ball.
It was decision time. Debbie and Alice were hesitant: but I reasoned that if we were going down the rescue route, what were we waiting for? Here was our dog. So we went back to the office and said we’d take her. A donation of £150 was required. We filled in the forms and agreed to pick her up the following week.
When we came to pick her up, the asking price had gone down to £100. I wonder whether, had we waited three weeks longer, they would have paid us instead. We attended a briefing about dog ownership in general, and the particular issues of rescue dogs, and a representative came to visit our house and garden to check that it would be a good home.
We didn’t think Abbie a suitable dog’s name: we knew of women in their twenties called Abbie, and wouldn’t want to be calling that in the park. After some discussion we settled on Betty, reasoning that most ladies with that name were probably pretty old, like Betty White.
Betty settled in well enough, and was house trained after just a couple of accidents. She suffered from kennel cough for a few days. This led Alice to invent the Betty voice: a nasal, blocked sound, where m’s came out as b’s, self-pitying and not overly bright, which seemed to fit our new dog’s personality well. We are often entertained by Alice’s running commentary of Betty’s innermost (but not especially profound) thoughts.
It became clear after a few days that Betty did not meet all the criteria we had laid down. Nowhere near, in fact, just the first three:
- She is certainly small.
- No-one would call her flouncy or decorative. Nor yappy, she has a good strong bark.
- She is generally very relaxed around people, although she doesn’t like being loomed over, or petted near food.
- She is not good at all with other dogs.
- There is no way those little legs equip her to join me on runs. She can also be a very slow walker – a half mile walk can take half an hour. If we hoped she would keep us fit with long, brisk walks, we certainly chose the wrong dog.
- She loves to show off her big bum.
I had sometimes felt that Cracker, with his endless patience, good nature and noble bearing, was too good for us – or at least, for me. I have no such feelings about Betty, I fear she might be the dog I deserve.
Her first few months saw her slowly gaining confidence and becoming more affectionate, perhaps as she started to realise that this was home now. She enjoyed chasing her ball around the house, and we took her for walks and trips in the car. We were just getting her used to being left alone in the house for an hour or two when the Covid pandemic struck, and we were going nowhere, except to walk her. She must have thought our lives dull indeed. But our timing had been good: she provided us with much entertainment during those difficult months.
On her introductory visit to the vet, they reckoned her age older than five, and she does indeed frequently have the demeanour of a confused old lady: she can appear two steps behind the action when nothing is happening. Although Betty’s past is a closed book, we have made some guesses. She’s fine around people, and will greet them nicely after her initial rage at the doorbell: from this we infer that she might have been neglected, but not actively mistreated by humans.
One possibly revealing incident came when Debbie went to use a portable toilet cabin while I stayed with Betty on the lead. She was frantic, desperate to be allowed to follow her mum into the cabin. We thought she might have been abandoned – possibly by travellers? – who shut her outside and drove off.
We have been unable to make any progress on Betty’s behaviour with other dogs, and always keep her on a short lead when they are near. Jack Russell Terriers (as we believe she mostly is) can often be aggressive, and that might easily have been aggravated by something in her unknown past. Her attitude to other dogs is not tempered by any common sense: she will snarl at Labradors, Staffordshire Terriers and Alsatians alike, with no apparent thought of the likely outcome were she allowed to engage in battle.
We have been reduced to calling any dog she does not try to attack a “friend”. Her “friends” are often old, slow, half blind, small. This suggests that her aggression comes from a place of fear: it would be more convenient if her fear made her more submissive, but a terrier is a terrier. At least we know we are well protected from vicious Labrador puppies. She also fiercely defends us from low-flying light aircraft: she charges comically around our lawn in ungainly circles of impotent rage, hackles raised and back arched. This is actually quite effective: the pilot normally flies straight on, abandoning any thought of attacking our back garden.
I think of her like a Scottish castle, relatively cheap to acquire, but horribly expensive to run. Her decision to snap at a bee one summer’s evening resulted in her face ballooning up horribly in reaction to the sting: of course it was outside the vet’s normal hours. Her emergency injection cost £300. My cousin Geraint, a sheep farmer, told us that gets you a bovine Caesarean section in Wales. Betty also managed to scratch her eyeball on a thorn while chasing her ball outdoors, and tear a claw while chasing a ball indoors. Maybe we need to find a safer way to exercise her.
She also needed a costly eye operation. Should we have bought pet insurance? Well, we tried, but the insurance form – from the firm recommended by Dogs Trust – demanded so many details of her medical history which we couldn’t possibly have known, that we gave up.
My great grandfather was once described as a “street angel and a house devil”. Betty is the opposite: she behaves very well inside the home. She is very affectionate, and loves to sit on Debbie’s lap or my lap – sometimes in the very rocking chair where my grandmother Sallie would sit with her dachshund Tumbi in attendance – or to nuzzle against us on the sofa. It’s true that she’s even more affectionate as her four o’clock tea time approaches, but she also comes by afterwards to say thank you.
Cracker was a much better behaved dog, certainly in his relations with other dogs. But he was tolerant, and accepted that his place was in the kitchen at night time. Betty, however, is more assertive, and this has won her extra rights – she sleeps on the old sofa in our lounge, much warmer. She even comes into our bedroom sometimes, following us in as we bring the morning coffee.
For Christmas last year, we gave her a squeaky pig. Debbie predicted that Betty would tear it to pieces within half an hour, or failing that, she would lose interest in it after a couple of days. Six months later, I can tell you that neither prediction proved accurate, and Piggy still squeaks joyfully, loudly and persistently, every day. Yay!
And let me share some advice: when you’re taking your dog out for her late night walk, and you leave the bag untied because there might be a bit more to come, and you want to scratch your head, use your torch hand.
Who’s her favourite? Well, it’s a mum and dad thing. I’m her mate – she plays with me, cuddles and fusses over me. I get all the attention at her tea time. But when we come back after a longer absence, it’s Debbie who gets the first greeting and the bigger welcome – Betty knows who really looks after her. I usually get the slobber, Debbie gets the separation anxiety.
And perhaps I’m imagining it, but I feel her love contains real gratitude: we don’t know much about her previous life, but maybe at some level she feels that we have indeed rescued her. She ain’t perfect, that’s for sure. But who is? Like Popeye, she very much am what she am. We love her very much.