It started with Pauli. We had booked a villa near Pisa in the summer of 2000, and we drove up a narrow winding road and reached a remote house. As we got out of the car with our two young daughters, still unsure whether we had reached the right place, a large and scruffy Alsatian bounded towards us. We braced and stood in front of the girls, but the dog’s charge turned out to be no more than a friendly welcome.
The owner explained that Pauli lived at the house, but that he would happily take her away if we preferred, otherwise could we feed and look after her? By this time, the girls were excited about having a dog about the house, so we agreed. She was very well behaved and no trouble at all.
When I took a run along the track which led up through the woods, she followed me. At first I wasn’t happy having to be responsible for her, but soon realised it was she who was looking after me, and was very pleased to have her company when we encountered large dogs some distance from their owners. Pauli kept in range, and we reached a clearing with wide views: there in the distance was the beautiful old city with its famous leaning tower. Only one city in the world looks like that. I called her back and we returned to the house together.
A year or so later I was walking with Rachel and Alice when we were greeted by a friendly dog. We chatted to the owner, and the girls told her that we didn’t have a dog because Mum and Dad didn’t think it was a good idea. Their wistful, uncomplaining tone made me feel slightly hard-hearted, as was no doubt intended. Our happy experience with Pauli encouraged us, and dog ownership entered the agenda.
Debbie had grown up with an elderly black Labrador called Snudge, and that became our choice of breed. By the autumn of 2002 we were the proud owners of Tasarla Cracker, puppy of Tasarla Black Jewel Ginty, sired by Hatchfield Feargal, a Field Trial Champion. When we visited the breeders to choose one of the litter, Cracker ran over to say hello, wagging his tail and licking our hands: he had been adopted by the breeders’ daughter, who had carried him about. As a result he was super friendly, both to people and to other dogs. In his playful enthusiasm he tugged at my shoelace and managed to untie it. This was the dog for us.
While I was at work, Debbie worked hard on training and socialising him, and his friendliness made him an ideal family dog, tolerant of the abundance of attention he received from excitable girls of eight and six years old. He had known only love and care, and he was gentle and trusting. But we hadn’t foreseen what a calming influence he would be in the household. Not that our lives had been particularly turbulent, but like almost any household with children, there would be the occasional noisy argument or shouting match. Cracker would slink off and hide, looking guilty and distressed, under the impression that he was in disgrace. The sight of his innocent suffering would often lower the temperature – or at least the volume – of the argument.
He loved charging around with other dogs, and once or twice escaped into next door’s garden, where he and Snips trashed some plants in their exuberant play. Another time I was impressed by the ability of dogs to moderate their play: when he was newly full grown he was charging round the garden of our holiday cottage in Dorset with three other dogs. The game must have been too boisterous, as one of them suddenly let out a yelp. The dogs didn’t stop, but immediately dialled down their speed and intensity.
His friendliness with other dogs did have a downside. He was confident of his irresistibility, and this confidence was often justified. (Don’t worry, pregnancy was not a risk). But he wasn’t always a gentleman, and didn’t always understand that when a bitch (or a dog) says no, they mean no.
And there were one or two gaps in his socialisation: flappy raincoats could set him off, and sometimes he would be indignant about people who had the temerity to take a walk unaccompanied by a dog, or to come round a corner unexpectedly. He resented our neighbours moving about their own back garden. Also he gave our daughters the opportunity to add the word coprophagia to their vocabulary at an early age. And to our embarrassment, he could sometimes exhibit racist tendencies. He certainly wasn’t perfect.
Debbie’s brother and his wife out in Athens owned Nelson, also a soft-hearted black Labrador. This meeting, billed as the resistible force vs the moveable object, sadly never took place.
He was polite about the house. Having grown up with Tumbi being so badly behaved at dinner time, I was determined that Cracker should not be fed scraps at the table. He can’t have been happy about the delicious meat smell drifting down from our plates: he would march off and glug great quantities of water, as if to say “who needs meat when you can have water?” Then, as plates were emptied and cutlery laid down, his hopeful black nose would slowly appear over the table.
In his early years, Cracker often accompanied me on my runs, after one Saturday when his big brown eyes stared up hopefully as I tied my running shoes. Why not? I thought. He had trouble matching my running speed, by which I mean he preferred either a second gear trot or a fifth gear sprint. So when he was off lead – he would dawdle, then zoom past, then dawdle again. Some nuances of running etiquette did escape him, typically when we encountered a chocolate Labrador bitch.
But there was such joy in seeing him bounding along beside me, ears flapping. He would go off on detours but I could always trust him to come back to me soon. Sometimes he would nuzzle my hand as we ran along, as if to say “Thank you, Dad.” Only once, on a cold and very wet February day, did I sense him staring at me asking the question: “Why are we doing this?” I didn’t have an answer for him.
Once I took him on an absurdly ambitious run along the Cornish Coast Path from Boscastle to Widemouth Bay – over twelve miles. There were thunderstorms about. I wildly underestimated how long this fiercely undulating run would take, and among the worry about whether we would ever arrive, the girls had already planned the Cracker Memorial, a giant bronze statue with his noble features looking out to sea from a prominent headland. Meanwhile I would be remembered by a cross made of a couple of lollipop sticks secured by a rubber band.
One time he found a squirrel in the middle of a field, unable to take its usual escape route up a tree. Cracker was upon it in no time, but was then stumped as to what he should do next. His killer instinct lagged some way behind his speed.
I noticed that after we started running I seemed to get more respect from him on walks and around the house, as if he now accepted me as a pack leader. Once he was even allowed to take part in a charity 10k trail race in Chalfont St Giles.
At one point in the race we came to what seemed an impossible stile for him to pass through: while I was fretting and scratching my head about what to do next, he got bored with my dithering, took a run-up and leapt clean over, landing safely on the other side.
We had a go at Canicross (“Where your dog takes you for a run”) and we finished 5.6km in a respectable 27 minutes 52 seconds, sixth out of ten in our class. I’m pretty sure he could have kept up with a faster partner. We even appeared in the background on The One Show: they had been there filming a piece in which ex-athlete Colin Jackson was partnered with a humorously unsuitable dog.
Keeping a pet is often recommended as a means of reducing stress. It doesn’t always work like that. But sometimes after a frustrating day at work I would pass through the lounge on the way upstairs to change out of my work clothes, and Cracker would roll over for a tummy rub. I could feel my mood lighten at the chance to give – and to receive – a little love, with no trace of the demands which people make on each other. Although he could be overenthusiastic: whenever some task required my head to be near floor level, he would regard it as a slobbering opportunity.
He could be obedient to the point of stupidity: Alice found that if he was lying at the edge of the sofa, he would still obey the “Roll over!” command, even if meant that he tumbled to the floor. Repeatedly.
He loved the childrens’ summer parties: he would lead the kids round and round the garden in a frantic game of chase. Sometimes the girls would set up an obstacle course using play equipment, and he became quite proficient. He won the agility competition (and a medal) at the Chorleywood Village Day, because we had trained him to run through the play tunnel – all the other dogs failed at this hurdle. He almost retained his title the following year – under Rachel’s expert guidance he completed a superb round, but in the tiebreaker the judges inexplicably awarded first prize to a dog with an adult handler. Being a Labrador, however, his performance in the obedience competition (i.e. not eating the sausage) was less impressive.
By the time he was twelve, his health was failing: the cancer which had visited him since he was eighteen months old became overpowering. He grew lethargic, and could no longer accompany us on walks. Reluctantly we took him on his last visit to the vet, where the woman gently injected him with a sinister blue fluid. He hardly reacted, passing imperceptibly from sleep to something deeper. I know that stuff’s not for humans, but it did its work very peacefully. “He was the perfect family dog” I told the vet as I looked on him for the last time.
We remember him for his patient, joyful and loving personality. If a hug was happening, he always wanted to be part of it. We unanimously voted him the nicest member of our family. Sometimes he seemed too good for us: as if we just didn’t deserve him. Bless him.