by   David Hancock

The American essayist Washington Irving, when describing a visit to the great Scottish novelist Sir Walter Scott in 1817, wrote: "...we were joined by a superannuated greyhound...cheered by Scott as an old friend and comrade. In our walks, he would frequently pause in conversation, to notice his dogs, and speak to them as if rational companions...His domestic animals were his friends..." Those words tell me more about Sir Walter, the man, than any biographer ever could. And I find nothing odd in Sir Walter speaking to his dogs "as if rational companions."

 I do find it odd, however, for Britain to be described as a nation of dog-lovers. Not easy to define a dog-lover, I know, but easy to give examples of attitudes towards loved dogs. My vet once described to me how one of his lady clients brought in an aged but perfectly sound golden retriever dog for destruction because "she'd fallen in love with that bearded collie in the TV commercial and couldn't wait to have one". The vet was obliged to carry out his client's instructions; his client had long boasted of her love for dogs. Against that story, I recall one from my own childhood.

 During the Second World War, after two successive nights of sustained bombing, my father decided that on the third night we should take refuge in a nearby public air raid shelter, rather than under the stairs in our own home. So, clutching our gas masks and accompanied by the family dog, my parents, my sister and I approached the public shelter. We were met by an officious air raid warden, in steel helmet and navy blue uniform, who greeted us with just two words: "No dogs!" My father didn't hesitate: "Then none of us will come in" he said quietly, "the dog is part of the family". We went home, to take our chance under the stairs. This was not a light-hearted decision by my father; he knew about war, from the Somme. The family dog was a small black mongrel; I never once heard my father describe himself as a dog-lover.

 Dog-lovers claim to admire working sheepdogs, dogs whose every fibre indicate commitment, single-mindedness, the sheer enjoyment of challenging employment. The joy of watching sheepdog trials for me lies in every eager movement of spiritually happy dogs. Sadly, all over the country, whilst people admire such canine contentment through TV programmes like 'One Man and His Dog', their own dogs lie bored and unexercised at their feet: gundogs never allowed to scent game or encouraged to retrieve, terriers denied a hedgerow alive with rabbit smells, sighthounds not given the chance of an extended gallop and lively mongrels never provided with the long walks they crave.

 A neighbour of mine once expressed her regret to me over taking her dog for the same walk each day. She felt better when I explained that for her the walk was a visual experience, for her dog it was a scenting exercise. Every day her walk was used by other dogs, farm animals, wild animals and walkers from distant places. Every walk, for her dog, was a totally new experience. Dogs experience life through their noses not their eyes. That alone explains much of their value to man, whether in the hunting and shooting fields or in the detection of drugs, explosives, buried bodies, dry rot, the onset of epilepsy or even melanomas.

 When I was a soldier in the Malayan emergency we used Labradors to track terrorists. Once, in dried out mangrove swamp, in exhausting circumstances, our Labrador gave up, utterly spent, simply unable to go on. We had choices; we could have shot it, abandoned it or just hit it over the head. We chose to take it in turns to carry the exhausted dog, no mean feat at any time, doubly daunting there. But we silently acknowledged that the dog had, like us, endured the heat, the humidity, the flies, the thorns, little water and a great deal of sweat. The dog was part of our team; it could do things we couldn't and was respected and valued. Carrying a tired Labrador in the jungle may not be a rational act, but, as my father showed me many years before, reason isn't always the main criterion when dealing with dogs. As Sir Walter Scott demonstrated to Washington Irving nearly two centuries ago, respecting dogs and valuing them beats loving them by many a mile.