Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Dog days

Three days a week -- Monday, Wednesday and Friday -- rain or shine, wind or hail, I drive the 8 minutes to my sisters' house, pick up her 99 per cent cocker spaniel (1 per cent cute) dog Jordan and walk him to the nearby park, a small park with a fenced play area for children and a large oval where dogs can frolic freely.

I've been carrying out this ritual for about 16 months. It is my self-administered social anxiety therapy. The whole thing, including a short training session when we get back (Jordan is hopeless at training once he gets to the park: too many smells) takes about an hour. Jordan and I hang around the oval, trying not to look needy. When our mutual neediness becomes too evident, I project mine onto him: 'He's cooped up all day -- it's great to get him out' (I am equally cooped up - I work from home and, like Jordan, sometimes don't have enough work to do).

But it's true, it's not 'all about me'. Especially at the beginning, I ached for Jordan, stuck in a family who had no idea what to do with him -- 'What's the point of him?' I often felt like asking them. The poor thing, still only a couple of months old and semi-housetrained, was shoved outside to sleep in a kennel pretty much for good after he poohed on the floor.

My two nieces soon tired of playing with him. 'He doesn't bring the ball back', one of them complained. That's true -- you have to train them to do that!

In those first weeks he spent outside, still a tiny baby, when I visited I would unlatch the gate and call and call. No response. Perhaps my sister had taken him somewhere? And then I would find him in the backyard, curled up on an old canvas deck chair he'd adopted, his chin on his paws, lost in a haze of loneliness and abandonment -- 'clinically depressed' would not have been inaccurate. This would send me into my own fog of sadness and I'd spend the rest of the day worrying about him.

Jordan does spend some time inside at night now (I am assured) but even when my sister's at home during the day he mainly sits in the front yard, waiting for someone to walk past and when they do, barking in a fake-angry way and chasing frantically back and forth behind the fence.

Anyhow, Jordan and I need each other, and my sister and I have learned to manage our mutual incomprehension (I am a dog person; she's not. She has a dog; I don't) on the fairly rare times she's home when I pick up my charge.

But it's not all beer and skittles once we get to the park. Sometimes I have to drag myself there even as I drag Jordan, who would happily spend the hour 'reading his pee-mails', as one astute writer called it, on the garden-flanked gravel walkway that leads to the park. Sometimes when we get to the park entrance I'm tempted to do a sharp right-turn away from it and just keep marching.

But the fact is, Jordan and the other dogs are my cover, my id running free and getting away with it, the best distraction in the world. I don't have to look at the people I'm speaking to for extended periods; I look at their dogs. Conversation is simple: what breed of dog is that? Yes, I can see the kelpie/poodle/labrador strain. What's its name? How old? It's got a lovely coat/smile/personality. And Jordan seems to sense when things are getting a bit strained and often does a runner at strategic moments, dashing to the other end of the park so I have to apologise and try to catch him before he gets onto the road.

It's still not easy and I think now that it never will be. There's always a twinge of panic when I see someone advancing from the other end of the park, their beastie bounding ahead or obediently trotting beside them. Do I know them? Do I know the dog? (Depending on the mood I'm in it's sometimes easier if I don't know them, if I can start from scratch.) Not everyone wants to talk of course; some do walking laps around the oval with their dogs following and scratching in the bushes, and some just walk through the park and keep going.

Sometimes there are lonely days when it's only the two of us on the pale yellow dead grass of the oval, bar a maintenance truck or two. Then Jordan will ignore me in the dizzying world of smells that envelop him until the minute he suddenly comes to, and looks at me as if to say: 'well -- are you going to throw the ball or aren't you?'

And sometimes there are bad days when I walk away cursing myself for something I've said, usually to someone I won't see again for weeks, that seems stupid or inappropriate.

And sometimes there are okay days when we meet a friend and have a chat, and say hello to someone else and their familiar pooch.

And sometimes there are magic days when the trees bow in a gentle wind and dapple the sunlight and a group of us gossip in a circle and the dogs run down the side of the tennis courts like naughty boys, stretch their elegant limbs as they charge around the oval or clutch each other and roll around and around on the grass.

On these days especially I leave with a sense of uplift, but even on boring or bad days I rarely regret going. Many times I leave with a spring in my step and the feeling that I have achieved something, made some small personal progress and given my cheeky little friend a small patch of joy in his dull life.

Photo courtesy of Bigfoto (www.bigfoto.com)

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