This is a blog inspired by the acquisition of a new puppy (Simon, a Dobermann, born 15/11/2010). However, since even I don't really believe the emotional life of a puppy can sustain a blog indefinitely, I'm combining such reflections as Simon's progress gives rise to with my other indulgence, books. So this will be about books and dogs, in particular books about dogs, and dogs in books. There'll also be plenty of photos of Simon.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

The dark side

I'm not sure how it came about that death has become a recurring theme in this blog; perhaps, after a certain age, the sight of very young creatures makes one inevitably think of their necessary decline. Thus, in an earlier blog I quoted Robert Frost's 'Nothing Gold Can Stay', in which the celebratory first line, 'Nature's first green is gold', immediately modulates into the downer of the second line: 'Her hardest hue to hold' -- and so on, to the poem's world-weary conclusion: 'Nothing gold can stay.'
I'm bringing in the big guns here to justify the fact that instead of indulging in pictures and descriptions of romping puppies, I'm obsessing about death. Be that as it may, here is a poem about death and dogs, and it's such a wonderful poem that I really think I needn't apologise for including it here. It's by Richard Wilbur:
The Pardon
My dog lay dead five days without a grave
In the thick of summer, hid in a clump of pine
And a jungle of grass and honeysuckle-vine.
I who had loved him while he kept alive

Went only close enough to where he was
To sniff the heavy honeysuckle-smell
Twined with another odor heavier still
And hear the flies' intolerable buzz.

Well, I was ten and very much afraid.
In my kind world the dead were out of range
And I could not forgive the sad or strange
In beast or man. My father took the spade

And buried him. Last night I saw the grass
Slowly divide (it was the same scene
But now it glowed a fierce and mortal green)
And saw the dog emerging. I confess

I felt afraid again, but still he came
In the carnal sun, clothed in a hymn of flies,
And death was breeding in his lively eyes.
I started to cry and call his name,

Asking forgiveness of his tongueless head.
. . . I dreamt the past was never past redeeming:
But whether this was false or honest dreaming
I beg death's pardon now. And mourn the dead.
After that, I should perhaps after all have some gambolling puppies. Death has had its due; here's to life:

Yes, I know it looks like a feeding frenzy, but in fact it's Puppy Class in full cry. Those are Life Skills that they're acquiring.


Saturday, January 29, 2011

What price consistency?

The whole issue of the possibly disproportionate affection we lavish on puppies and other cute creatures has become less vexing to  me since coming across this book:

I must confess that I haven't yet read the book: the cover is enough to comfort me. It says, in the first place, that we tend to love puppies. hate rats and eat pigs; and the sub-title makes the point that it just is  difficult to
be consistent about animals.
The anti-animal rights people have it all their way, logically speaking: 'So you're opposed to hunting, but you buy your meat at the supermarket?' Or: 'So you don't eat meat, but you wear leather shoes?' Or 'You don't eat meat or wear leather shoes but swat at flies and mosquitoes?' And so on. In the end, the only consistent position is to kill and eat everything in sight, as our forefathers did. And if an ageing Chinese Romeo is in need of an aid to potency, is a rhino too high a price to pay?
I've decided that consistency is for the birds, as it were: if the sight of Sarah Palin with a hunting rifle somehow sickens me, I'll go with my nausea and forget that I had some biltong not so long ago; if I want to avoid eating meat as far as possible, I'll do so, without  feeling I've somehow failed in a vow if for social reasons I do eat meat. And if I spend more money on Simon than I have lately donated to charity -- well, I'll try to up my charitable donations, but I'm not going to starve Simon.
Absolute consistency may be the prerogative of saints and martyrs. Ordinary mortals just have too many contradictory claims on their affections and their time. Consider the case  of Elizabeth Costello, JM Coetzee's stand-in (not to say alter ego) in The Lives of Animals and other works:
 Elizabeth Costello, you will remember if you've read the book, is a distinguished novelist who has to deliver a series of lecture at a university (the book in fact comprises a series of lectures Coetzee delivered at a university). She makes man's inhumanity to animals her subject, and amongst other contentious statements she likens our treatment of animals to the Holocaust. This gravel;y offends one  of her audience, a distinguished Jewish poet, who accuses her of  cheapening the Holocaust. Her son, who is is in the audience, squirms with
embarrassment. The whole visit is somehow distressing to all concerned. It would seem (though I'm not claiming that that is what Coetzee is 'trying to say') that such consistency as Mrs Costello's comes at a price in human relations: our 'sympathetic identification' with other species alienates us from our own.
The old adage 'Love me, love my dog' is the dog-lover's declaration of fealty to the non-human, and a challenge to other humans: you're going to have to put up with my dog or otherwise jeopardise my friendship. But it cuts both ways: you may end up with only your dog for company, which not even the most canophilic of us would really want.  Which is, once again, an argument against consistency. In practice, yes, we expect our friends to indulge our indulgence of our dogs; but we do also try to accommodate those friends who really don't like dogs. As long as they don't expect us to lock out our dogs when they come to visit.
Fortunately for our friendships and our inter-species relations alike, many of our friends actually like our dogs:

That is, I hope that is affection. On the photo it's indistinguishable from cruelty to animals. Which opens another can of worms ...
P.S. But then, I don't expect my friends to love my dog without any return on their investment: they needn't go hungry so Simon may eat.
Simon, by the way, is just off-camera,  in Anacreon's line of sight. The strange object on the table is his chew-toy.  And yes, I'm afraid that's ham on the plates. Some we love,  some we eat.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

The world as udder

Yes, that's not a particularly attractive image, and in various ways inappropriate to a puppy. But here's the source, from that stern moralist, George Eliot, and her greatest novel (and one of the greatest novels ever written), Middlemarch:
We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves.
The implicit image, clearly, is that of a calf, and perhaps only George Eliot would think of a calf as in the first place morally stupid. (Okay, we none of us would cite calves as  exemplars of intellectual brilliance  -- but morally stupid?) The point is, I think, that what's charming in a young animal (and this is giving George the benefit of the doubt), is at best misleading, at worst reprehensible in human beings. Here is George Eliot again on the subject of young animals, this time from Adam Bede. She is describing Hetty, a pretty dairy maid -- or, in Eliot's term, 'that distracting kitten-like maiden':
Hetty's was a spring-tide beauty; it was the beauty of young frisking things, round-limbed , gambolling, circumventing you by a false air of innocence -- the innocence of a young star-browed calf, for example, that being inclined for a promenade out of bounds, leads you a severe steeple-chase over hedge and ditch, and only comes to a stand in the middle of a bog.
So spring-tide beauty leads straight into the the bog. (As Robert Frost more memorably put it in 'Nothing Gold Can Stay':   'Nature's first green is gold,/ Her hardest hue to hold./Her early leaf's a flower;/But only so an hour./Then leaf subsides to leaf./ So Eden sank to grief,/ So dawn goes down to day./Nothing gold can stay.')   The Eliotic view of innocence is severely moralistic: even a calf has a  'false air of innocence' -- and as for Hetty, readers of Adam Bede will know what a terrible fate Eliot is preparing for her --somewhat gloatingly, it is difficult not to feel.
The problem for Eliot is with 'our supreme selves', the tendency to see the world as conveniently created for our private purposes. The converse is to see the world as a place of restrictions and limitations. We've had these two world views in earlier blogs: on the one hand Larkin's lambs born in snow, not knowing that 'earth's immeasurable surprise' (Eliot's 'spring-tide beauty') is about to transfigure their experience; on the other hand the young steers who, exploring the limits of their world, come up against the muscle-shredding electric fence.
Well, an electric fence would have prevented Eliot's calf from straying 'out of bounds' into the bog; and a more rigid code of conduct would have spared poor Hetty the suffering that Eliot metes out to her.  But would we sacrifice 'earth's immeasurable surprise' for the sake of not suffering the  unpleasant surprise of the electric fence and the bog?

It has been interesting, watching Simon in his first week away from the udder, as it were, to note at what point  his assumption that the world is there for his free exploration has come up against the knowledge (if knowledge it can be called) that the world is also resistant matter, setting limits to his supreme self. The answer is that the knowledge comes almost immediately: by definition exploration will continue until it is checked. And it has been instructive witnessing Simon's outrage at the discovery, the righteous anger at a universe that does not arrange itself just as he might have preferred it. And before we know it, the will manifests itself, asserting itself against an intransigent reality.  Nothing gold can stay.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Getting to Know You

Socialisation, it seems, is the other buzz word (the first one, of course, is Pack Leader). The books all warn, cajole, threaten: if you don't make use of this unique window of opportunity, these first few weeks, you'll end up with a Badly Socialised Dog, one that chases after wheel chairs and growls at babies. The idea is to expose the pup as early as possible to as many categories of people and things as possible, under pleasant circumstances, so that he'll retain benign feelings towards all these. My bible, Gwen Bailey's The Perfect Pup, has a check list of 43 people, things and places that the pup is to be systematically exposed to in the first sixteen weeks of his life. That's a Young(ish) Adult up there, my friend Hans getting to know Simon and vice versa over a glass of wine. I now need some babies and toddlers, people wearing motorbike helmets, and some loud, confident people. My friends are all confident enough but not, thank heaven, loud.

All of which makes me wonder: why do we expect our dogs to put up with every conceivable type of person and situation, when we ourselves go to some lengths to avoid at least half of Gwen Bailey's categories? (When is the last time you voluntarily spent time with a teenager, for instance? Or went to a car boot sale? Or a village hall? ) But the poor pup has to learn to tolerate all these, or else be branded a Badly Socialised Dog.

Which brings to mind, predictably, Philip Larkin, and his poem about socialisation, Vers de Societe. It doesn't actually mention dogs -- well, there's a bitch in there -- or other animals, apart from an ass and the rear end of a pig, and frankly, has little to tell us about the socialisation of pups, but it's a great poem, and says all there is to be said about being a Badly Socialised Person:
Vers de Societe
My wife and I have asked a crowd of craps
To come and waste their time and ours: perhaps
You'd care to join us?
In a pig's arse, friend.
Day comes to an end.
The gas fire breathes, the trees are darkly swayed.
And so Dear Warlock-Williams: I'm afraid --
Funny how hard it is to be alone.
I could spend half my evenings, if I wanted,
Holding a glass of washing sherry, canted
Over to catch the drivel of some bitch
Who's read nothing but Which;
Just think of all the spare time that has flown

Straight into nothingness by being filled
With forks and faces, rather than repaid
Under a lamp, hearing the noise of the wind,
And looking out to see the moon thinned
To an air-sharpened blade.
A life, and yet how sternly it's instilled

All solitude is selfish. No one now
Believes the hermit with his gown and dish
Talking to God (who's gone too); the big wish
Is to have people nice to you, which means
Doing it back somehow.
Virtue is social. Are, then, these routines

Playing at goodness. like going to church?
Something that bores us, something we don't do well
(Asking that ass about his fool research)
But try to feel, because, however crudely,
It shows us what should be?
Too subtle that. Too decent, too. Oh hell,

Only the young can be alone freely.
The time is shorter now for company,
And sitting by a lamp more often brings
Not peace, but other things.
Beyond the light stand failure and remorse
Whispering Dear Warlock-Williams: Why, of course --

So hey ho hey ho, it's off to Puppy Class we go. Simon has at least cosied up to a wire sheep and tossed about what looks like the hind leg of a cow. It's a start. Mr Congeniality 2012.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The sentimentality trap

Puppies, like babies and sunsets, are of course notorious sentimentality traps. In the park yesterday, a grown man tickled Simon's belly and said 'Ag shame, mamma.' Nor did I find it an inappropriate response. We do get things a bit out of perspective when dealing with young animals. Or all animals.
Or some of us do. Here is an extract from Zukiswa Wanner 's novel, Men of the South. Her narrator is reflecting on 'the NGO world' -- basically ' a world that loves Africa but does not seem or seek to understand her'. One of the points on which the NGO world (that is, its white component) and Africa do not see eye to eye, is dogs.
When the dog of one of my expatriate colleagues died, group e-mails expressing condolences were sent from as far afield as the US, the bereaved was given days off from the office until she felt better, and a fellow animal lover in one of the offices started a collection for a card and flowers for the bereaved.
This resulted in all the Africans in the organisation, regardless of the country, whispering to each  other, 'Now that madness. Me make a contribution for a dog? So many children starving and they want us to make contributions for a dead dog?'
Now this is difficult to argue with, and I suspect I may also have balked at the card and flowers, not to mention the compassionate leave. But this is really only an extreme manifestation of a tendency to value the lives of (some) animals over the lives of (some) people, a tendency that among other things produces blogs about dogs. There are, after all, more pressing issues that I could be addressing than my new puppy. And let's face it, the money that I spend on my dog could probably keep a couple of kids fed and clothed.

I'll have to think about this one.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

So many firsts

I suppose parents are used to this, and I'm not advancing it as a novel insight, but hell, the world must be  a dizzying place for a young animal: all those new sights, sounds, smells. Especially of course smell if you're a dog.
I've been watching Simon deal with all the firsts in his life: first car trip, first meal out,as it were, first sight of a guinea fowl, first night out (photo above; it wasn't quite as restful all the time). The fact is, of course, as parents presumably know, that the young animal takes it all pretty much in his stride (well, that's not the best metaphor, I suppose), meeting it all with the blandness of innocence. Just as well, really, that he doesn't know what horrors are out there. To get literary about this, the Greek tragedians were much exercised by the question of whether anybody would want to be born if they knew what was waiting for them (answer: by and large, no).
Of course, not all first experiences can be negotiated on a basis of trusting innocence. Take staircases, for instance: you may be able to get up without a problem, but can you get down?
 The text for the day is once again from Philip Larkin. As far as I know this otherwise admirable poet wrote no poems about dogs (which may explain his habitual moroseness), but he did write about cattle, racehorses, rabbits (I'll spare you the poem about the rabbit; it's called 'Myxamatosis', if you want to depress yourself) and, in this instance, lambs.
First Sight
Lambs that learn to walk in snow
When their bleating clouds the air
Meet a vast unwelcome, know
Nothing but a sunless glare.
Newly stumbling to and fro
All they find, outside the fold,
Is a wretched width of cold.
 As they wait beside the ewe,
Her fleeces wetly caked, there lies
Hidden round them, waiting too,
Earth's immeasurable surprise.
They could not grasp it if they knew,
What so soon will wake and grow
Utterly unlike the snow.
For once, Larkin takes the cheerful view: some surprises may be pleasant, life may improve. As I look at Simon newly stumbling to and fro, I can only hope  that the wretched width of cold is not a precondition for that.

The Homecoming

Apparently mother dogs, not to call them bitches, are only too relieved to see the last of the pups leave the premises, so at least you don't feel a heel carting off her offspring. But you're not the big hero either -- the pup seems entirely indifferent to the great privilege of being taken home by you, and complains at the top of his voice.
I came home armed with an excellent Puppy Pack compiled by the breeder, which confirmed my impression, gleaned from other preparatory reading (about which more later), that Dog Training Ain't What It Used to Be. Like other species (e.g. human beings), dogs apparently respond better to reward than to punishment -- the old Yank and Stomp School, to which I subjected my first dog (we both survived it, but only just), seems to have been relegated to the dustbin, along with choke chains and electric collars. And Barbara Woodhouse, who put the fear of God into two generations of dog owners.
BUT nor is reward to be confused with pampering. Be The Pack Leader is the new mantra, indeed the title of a best-selling book by Cesar Millan, the original Dog Whisperer. The Pack Leader takes no nonsense, and always takes the lead -- first out of the door, first to eat, first at everything. This is actually quite a difficult state of mind for naturally unassertive people to cultivate, which may mean that naturally unassertive people should not acquire Dobermanns.  Or become assertive. Be bloody, bold and resolute, the witches urged Macbeth (and see where that got him). Apparently it's all a matter of body language -- but learning a new language at an advanced age is notoriously difficult.
But all this is just talk. Here's a picture (or two)::

It'll be clear from these picture that the process of reward is well under way. Watch this space for developments.
And what about books?  Well, the Puppy Pack is a sizeable book, and I have mentioned the Dog Whisperer's book. And Macbeth, of course (there's plenty to be said about Shakespeare and Dogs, and I may yet say it). But here's a poem. It's by Philip Larkin, and it's about cattle, not dogs, but mutatis mutandis it applies to all animals, including and especially humans. And it's about what could be called Training Methods, though the poem is called

The widest prairies have electric fences,
For though old cattle know they must not stray
Young steers are always scenting purer water
Not here but anywhere. Beyond the wires

Leads them to blunder up against the wires
Whose muscle-shredding violence gives no quarter.
Young steers become old cattle from that day,
Electric limits to their widest senses.
Ouch. But fortunately such methods, as I've said, are now history.  Watch this space for what happens when we take down the wires.


Monday, January 10, 2011

Starting out

This is something of a maiden effort, prompted in part by my agent, Isobel Dixon, who has for some time now been tactfully nudging me to Get Out There. She has used the occasion of my acquiring a new dog to suggest that I could tell the world about the dog -- which, after all, is what most dog owners want to do -- as opposed to writers, who are not always all  that eager to tell the world about their books. So the dog is the sweetener here, and I'll filter in comments about books -- my own and those of others -- as they seem relevant or even sometimes when not.
The new dog, then, is called Simon, and will be arriving tomorrow. He is an eight-week old Dobermann of dizzying pedigree, but hell, he doesn't know that. That's him in the light-blue collar, cavorting with his siblings. (Or some of them: there were ten pups.)
Of course, we'd all like to write another Marley and Me or Jock of the Bushveld or White Fang, but I'm not really banking on that. This will just be a chronicle of an ordinary dog, and time alone will tell how he will turn out. I'm not sure that I want another Marley, even if he does get to to star in a movie with Owen Wilson. Marley's owners, I'm told, were on the Dog Whisperer show the other day with Marley's successor, another problem dog. It would seem that in this case, too, the problem was not the dog but the owners, and the Dog Whisperer sorted them and him out. Result: no sequel to Marley and Me. Moral: no problem, no best-seller. Who wants a book about a perfectly-behaved dog behaving perfectly?