Thursday, March 19, 2009

Depraved, deprived, deloused

Life is such a mixture of the routine and mundane, and the quietly revelatory. It's a force that shows me the aspects of its own nature that I need to understand. Every now and then an incident happens which seems to reveal to me something about myself or the world that I needed to know. But the information is not always welcome.

Yesterday, as I do every Wednesday, I took my sister’s golden cocker spaniel Jordan to the nearby Ainslie Park. We ambled along in the mild morning sunshine, Jordan stubbornly halting to read his pee-mails (and leave one or two) on the way.

We soon reached the park oval and after we’d been on it for a while another regular, Sarah, came up with her blue heeler cross, Rufus. He’s a sweet-tempered five-year-old with an obsession for the ball. He occasionally gets annoyed by Jordan’s persistent invitations to play, but this day they bounded around together like old drinking buddies as I watched in delight.

Sarah was polite but distant and, as is my socially phobic wont, I wondered if it was something I’d said or done last time. If I made a remark she responded but in the past she’d been much more open. The conversation just never got off the ground, although at no stage was she rude. I remembered that I’d seen her being cool and distant with someone else and wondered if she was like that with most people. Perhaps she was just preoccupied?

Suddenly Rufus raced across the oval, towards the water tap for dogs near the tennis courts. Jordan bounded after him and I went over to supervise while Sarah stayed on the oval. By this stage the two dogs were sniffing around the wide bushy garden beds that flank the sides of the park. Sarah started calling Rufus. I didn’t even think to grab him; he’s an older, usually obedient dog. Instead I grabbed Jordan’s collar so he wouldn’t lead Rufus further astray.

Sarah kept calling. Suddenly Rufus disappeared behind the tennis courts. There’s a long narrow path overhung with squashed-in trees that runs between the tennis courts and the side fence, and leads to the other end of the park. Sarah followed Rufus down the path and didn’t come back. I assumed they’d both gone home, and took Jordan back to the oval for another short play.

He sat himself down under the shade of a huge oak. I threw the old tennis ball and yelled ‘Fetch!’ He stood and stared for a second and then inexplicably turned and ran back towards the narrow pathway. In seconds he’d disappeared.

It didn’t make sense to me. It should have. He was running after Rufus, following his scent. And Rufus was on his way home, to a flat in the same nearby, busy street that my sister, Jordan’s owner, lives on.

If I’d worked this out much earlier things might have been less, well, hairy.

Instead, I slowly made my way down the narrow path, calling his name, sure he would have been waylaid by a juicy, overwhelming smell. But the air was thin and bleak with absence. By the time I got to the end of the park near the fenced-in play area the undulating lawns were bare of him. I ran around the front part of the park, up the white stony path, yelling his name. Despite the few kids playing on the plastic swings and slides the place felt chilly, empty, deserted.

Then I realised that the impossible had happened – he'd left the park.

Suddenly I was running along the path to the entrance. And then I saw him, trotting along the gravel walkway, across from Ainslie Road, that leads away from the park. He was walking steadily towards Wattle Road. He’d already crossed the quiet Ainslie Rd, still in search of Rufus. He is clueless when it comes to roads and cars. If he got as far as Wattle Road he'd be cactus.

I ran faster, screaming his name, not giving a shit how it looked, crossing Ainslie Rd at a clip. ‘Is it a dog or a kid?’ I heard a workman on a nearby house speculating. I got onto the walkway and screamed at him to come.

And he stopped. Miraculously, he stopped. He stood there, staring at me with that daffy smile on his face, mouth hanging open, his skinny, cute, overly long legs jutting out at not-quite-right angles from his little torso. He had that expression he adopts when he realises he’s gone too far: ‘Oh. How sweet. I guess I’ll humour you – you do sound a bit concerned.’

‘Come here!’ I yelled imperiously. ‘Come!’ And he trotted towards me although I was scowling and bearing down on him. He cowered when I went to put his leash on and I felt so sad for him: I wouldn’t have dreamed of smacking him. But I was furious. He’d scared the hell out of me. I wanted him to know that I was angry, to understand it. ‘Bad dog’, I scolded as I pulled him along. ‘Very bad to run away. I’m very angry’.

When we got to my sister’s place and inside the gate I took his leash off and he looked around and began to run in front of me, ready for me to throw the ball. But there would be no post-walk play today (and of course we’d left the ball at the park). ‘I don’t want to play with you. Bad dog. I’m very angry.’

I eventually stroked his hair and tried to explain to him what he’d done as if he was a kid and could understand, and then closed the front gate behind me. As I drove away he was staring at me through the slats of the fence.

I had mixed feelings. As usual I wanted to save him from the long lonely hours he’d be sitting out till my sister got home. I also wanted him to understand that he’d done something naughty, and suffer a little bit. But his loneliness is an unfair punishment for being alive that he must bear every day anyway. Why should I make him suffer more? And if his most loving aunty is cold to him, where is love to be found?

It would be clear to a tree stump that Jordan badly needs training, and that he’s undersocialised in both the human world and the dog world. I’ve written in this blog before of my concerns for his ‘welfare’ – he’s in a family who aren’t really ‘dog people’ and, as far as I’m concerned, emotionally neglect him. (In the words of one of the delinquents in West Side Story, he’s ‘depraved on account he’s deprived’.)

I don’t think he gets to the park much apart from our walks, certainly not when there’s a lot of dogs around who could knock him into shape and teach him what's what in the dog world. He ran after Rufus because he was starved of doggy energy. And if Jordan was a wild dog he’d be exercising his independence by now -- who could blame him for wanting a bit of freedom, a walk on the wild side?

But a domesticated dog is part of the human world and must, to some extent, put such notions aside. Jordan urgently needs training to know his role in this world, so different from the doggy world, not least for his own safety. Dogs give up the use of some of their instincts to be companions to us and Jordan is no exception. But if we don’t give them a ton of love in return they won’t want to make this sacrifice and won’t know how to even if they’re willing.

And this is where the idea of revelation comes in. No matter how much I plead with my sister, he’s not going to get the training he needs, and I can’t afford to pay for it. We do have a short training session the three times a week I walk him, but he’s not the brains trust and he really needs daily training.

I like to think of myself as Jordan’s mentor, and to believe I’m helping him. And I do help him somewhat just by being there. But I can’t transform his life as I’d like to; he’s going to stay emotionally immature for a long while. We’re both powerless in some areas of our lives, Jordan and I. All I can do is make the most of our time together.

I also need to stop kidding myself that he has any idea of what a park is, or what an oval is. All he knows is that we go to a joyful place of smelly, hairy friends; and that when they leave, it’s lonely.

Photo courtesy of Bigfoto (

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