Barking mad: rules of engagement for classy canines

Like most people obeying the lockdown laws, my world has shrunk and I haven’t had as much human contact as I’d ordinarily like. Luckily, my covid bubble, or family, includes a dog, German-Shepherd Rottweiler cross, Ruby, who has proven herself an excellent companion on 5 kilometre walks – even if she does take a few too many toilet breaks.

Our preferred route on which to stretch our six legs is fairly remote, but we usually meet a couple of trucks on their way to the nearby quarry as well as some other people out walking their dogs. Once or twice we’ve even met dogs walking their humans.

A few months of not being able to gossip freely with my friends has clearly affected me; I am now reduced to judging people’s dogs based on how they interact with my own. Yes, we’ve tried Zoom and long walks and al fresco coffees, but our brand of misanthropy requires …. never you mind.

For now, I’ve no choice to accept my fate of living vicariously through my dog.

I’m not sure where she got it from, but Ruby is a frightful snob. Most members of the canine community are, as I am discovering. It might have something to do with nominative determinism; people seem to give their dogs names they would be mortified to give their children. Then they wonder why their beloved ‘Coco’ won’t sit when she’s bloody well told. I’ve never met a Coco that wasn’t an absolute brat. Ruby was a rescue who was originally named ‘Bee’ for her colouring, but we changed that to Ruby because we thought naming a dog after an insect might cause some identity problems when she grew older. Now we have a dog with a stripper’s name and a Hollywood actress’s sensibility.

As you can probably imagine, sparks fly when Ruby meets the the local Coco and co. Despite her breed’s reputation for aggression, Ruby’s a pretty genteel girl who doesn’t want to cause trouble with the neighbourhood bitches, but that doesn’t mean they can mistake her for a pushover either. Ruby’s worst enemy is a black-and-white puppy named Mia, who has the audacity to be the village’s beautiful young ingenue. Recently, Ruby met a more mature white labrador whose name, Phoebe, comes straight out of a 90s sitcom.

I know the dog’s name is Phoebe because her owners yelled at her to come back to them as soon as they came upon us when we were out for a walk one day, but it was too late; Phoebe bounded towards Ruby completely oblivious to her owner’s increasingly futile pleas to “heel, Phoebe, heel.” He was so worried that something untoward would happen that I did my usual trick of half-heartedly brandishing the lead at Ruby, even though I knew she’d just pretend not to hear me. Sometimes I watch her retreating into the middle distance with barely concealed glee and I wonder where she learned to be such an anarchic bitch. Perhaps it is my fault; my Mum is much stricter with her.

But my Mum indulges her too. Recently, our laissez-faire lead policy came under review when Mum and Ruby met a lady out walking who was not shy in disclosing her fear of dogs. “Please put that dog on a lead,” she trembled, as her companion – a human male – tried to reason with her. Mum said after the incident that she was shocked a woman could go through life with such a debilitating fear of something as ordinary as a dog. I agreed. Who could be afraid of Ruby running through the woods with her ears back and her tongue hanging out for adventure?

Plenty of people it seems. In fact I used to be one of them before I met Ruby. She changed me. Our family first met Ruby at an adoption day for puppies set up by dog rescue charity Madra. We held tiny chocolate coloured labrador pups in our arms, but it was at the perimeter of the pen housing the slightly older puppies that our lives were enriched. Funny story: it was my brother who noticed her first because she was, as he said, eating the other puppies’ poo. He thought this was hilarious, and as he was the designated family dog person his vote won.

As far as I know, Ruby has matured beyond the need to eat poo, although she will eat almost anything else.

More of a gobbler than a gourmand, she was nearly fatally poisoned a few years ago. Luckily, she made a full and miraculous recovery after a few days of TLC at the vets.

We think she’s in her teen years at the moment because she’s gotten into a bad habit of answering back. No, really. She follows me around some days vocalising that she wants to go for a walk, like, right now. She pesters me at my laptop when I’m working and barks loud tantrums during meetings, a classic attention-seeking behaviour.

There’s a litany of manuals for dealing with pets and dogs, but Ruby prefers to do things by the bark than the book – I suppose I wouldn’t have it any other way. She’s better than a sister and only slightly smellier.