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.

Country roads, take me home

Another dawn, another day waiting for whatever emails I sent the day before to bear fruit. Somewhere between 2 pm and 3 pm I decided I wasn’t going to hear back from The Guardian about the pitch I’d sent them so I checked my emails again – only to find this time a rejection from the HR department of a shoe-shop I’d applied to.

“Well, feck them!” I said to myself in that good-natured way people who are used to such rejection emails do in order to conserve their sanity. Some of us don’t have a lot to spare in the first place. In case you’re wondering why I, an entry-level nobody, pitch to such illustrious outlets like The Guardian, it is because that’s what I do instead of playing the lotto. I like to write and I don’t have much shame – ergo, I pitch to lots of editors routinely (BUT NEVER AT THE SAME TIME because they don’t like that). Most have been very constructive and kind in their “thanks but I’ll pass on this” emails which gives me heart that someday my pitch will land.

While I wait for my pitch to land/prince to come, I’ve been trying to get a regular retail job to keep me going until something else comes along, but that’s not going so hot either. On the day I got the rejection from the shoe-shop I didn’t react like I sometimes do – take to the bed – instead, I didn’t let it faze me and I went for a long walk through the country-side accompanied by the dog, who wouldn’t reject a wretch like me.

I’d made the mistake of taking what my phone’s forecast app said verbatim and I went out dressed in long-sleeves and a rain-jacket. Despite it being 14 degrees and sunny out, my phone said it would rain soon, and sure enough, the sky was boiling for showers, as they say. By the time I’d reached the end of one road still dry I insisted to the dog we’d go down the next one. She was having none of it. She froze on the spot and wouldn’t respond to my pleas; I felt like the husband of a sherry-drunk wife making a scene at an English dinner party. I picked her up and hefted her a metre or two across the road. She got the message; “There, I’m stubborner than you,” I panted.

We walked on until we met a man we’d seen before on another day when he’d glared at us from his garden after one of us made his dog bark. On this occasion he was on neutral territory, walking on the lane-way. In my best diplomatic tone I stated: “Howya doin'” as we passed him – this has become my standard countryside greeting over the past few months. It’s obviously inspired by Joey Tribbiani, and a smather of Miley from the Riordans. The man clearly didn’t appreciate that because he just grunted “uh” at me for having the temerity to walk past his farmland. I knew then looking at him that he’d be the type that wouldn’t think twice about putting a bullet in my head or the dog’s head, either, for that matter. (And she didn’t even say anything to him.)

We walked on, but I couldn’t help feeling a bit dejected, like I’d been rejected by HR all over again – only this time HR was one contrary ‘aul lad wearing filthy clothes and the disgruntled expression (and huge swollen stomach) of someone with a seriously advanced case of GERD. Either that or he was in the final days of trying to beat the record set by the Malian woman who’d given birth to nine kids in one go.

My fruitless encounter with the unfriendly farmer got me thinking about the importance of first impressions. Clearly he was impervious to the standard “Howya doin” which works on everyone else I meet when I’m out walking. The trick is, I think, to state it rather than say it; country people have no respect for a pushover or a mumbler. You have to say your chosen greeting out loud and proud and then move on quickly lest you make a fool of yourself. If it’s your neighbour you might stop and have a word about the weather, a subject of endless fascination.

I haven’t fully gotten the hang of first impressions in a professional interview setting yet. When the dog and I eventually reached home, I pondered that as I tucked ice under my armpits and checked my hide for bullets. Maybe it’s my glasses, I thought to myself; maybe they think I’m an intellectual who’s hopelessly unsuited to customer service. (Only the second part of that sentence is true). If they gave me a job I’d be able to save for laser eye surgery, or at least a less pretentious pair of specs. I like the ones I have but they do make me look as if I’m about to define postmodernism at any second. I swear to god I barely even know what postmodernism is and I wrote a thesis on it; I just want to make a living wage. Ironically, when I apply to customer service jobs I lie about my education, because having two Master’s degrees and no job makes you seem like a mad scientist on paper. At my lowest I’ve thought of leaning in to the way my face looks and doing a PhD, but I’ve decided it’s slightly less mad endeavouring to get work in my area while also trying to make a quick buck or two working for people who think my lack of enthusiasm for serving customers means I’m secretly fantasising about postmodernism. I’m not, I’m thinking about a holiday in France just like everyone else. At this stage though, I’d settle for a by-line or even a howya from the peevish country-man with the quintuplets in his belly.

5 Ways to prevent early-onset madness in lockdown

Here’s a few things I did to cope with lockdown over the past year…

Learn how to insult your loved ones in several languages

Some blog writers might recommend you be productive with your time spent in lockdown. They might say: “Get up at 8 am and do thirty minutes of Spanish on Duolingo every day because learning new skills is a great way to prepare yourself for the job market.”

I say b******s to that. Especially the getting up at 8 am bit. What kind of nutter gets up that early unless they’re being paid to? I’m currently unemployed – despite my best efforts to secure a job, any job – and I’m having a great time learning how to slag my family members off in an array of exotic tongues.

So, instead of relying on a needy green owl to teach me how to ask for directions to the train station in French, I’m learning skills I actually need for the kind of life I lead at the moment – i.e a life lived at home with my family, who occasionally get on my nerves.

I use the notoriously unreliable and inaccurate Google Translate because it’s all free, and there are no “daily reminders” – perfect for those of us with commitment issues who want to call their brother a smelly poo in German.

Teach your dog the safe cross-code

What do you mean your dog doesn’t know the safe cross-code? If you have a dog and you’re in lockdown, you’re most likely bored out of your skull at least one day a week… Go and walk your dog; you have no excuse not to. My dog’s legs are being worn to butts she’s being taken out so often these days – not that she minds the extra bonding time with her humans. And she’d certainly never let a bit of rain stop her. Since the winter set, in we’ve both gotten absolutely drenched together more times than I can count as we wander the quiet country roads near our house. Ruby empties her bowels, and I empty my head.

Neither of us particularly like the dog-lead – one of us resents having her freedom to sniff curtailed; the other prefers her arm in its socket, thank you very much. We both accept that leads are a necessary evil for roads with cars and dangerous bends, though. It took one of us, in particular, a very long time to get used to not acting like a complete thick whenever a car ambushes us. In my defence, Ruby doesn’t respect me or my authority very much, so if we do find ourselves crossing the road when it’s busy it becomes a power struggle in which the biggest bitch wins. But only just about.

After one too many near-brushes with doggy death by Skoda Octavia, I decided I needed to get a bit stricter, for both our sakes. We’ll start working on the safe cross code any of these weeks now.

Don’t be mindful™

Is there anything more boring than mindfulness? Somebody talking about mindfulness, perhaps. There’s an app you can download on your phone that tells you how to meditate. It’s called Headspace, and it sounds very stressful – what if I wasn’t good at mindfulness? Would I be able to handle the shame? I’d rather remain a head-case than find out I’m bad at something else.

Whenever we as a society go through a traumatising period, someone inevitably writes a smug newspaper column or blog post about mindfulness and how important it is “to be present in our suffering” – or some shite like that. Go and iron your yoga pants, you silly sausage.

Nine times out of ten, the rest of us are too busy getting on with it to be mindful of anything except what’s for dinner. (It’s beans on toast again because what’s the point?).

Purchase exercise equipment for ornamental purposes

At the start of Ireland’s second lockdown, which was six weeks ago at the time of writing, I got a sudden notion to start circuit training. I thought it would be a nice way to increase my woeful upper body strength as well as keep me occupied in the evenings.

I went on Amazon to look at exercise equipment, and then I bought what I thought I needed on an Irish website. I got two 4kg dumbbells and an ab-roller, which I tested out straight away. The ab roller was so easy to use I thought, ‘I must be doing something wrong here,’ so I haven’t used it since because I don’t trust it. It lies forlornly on my bedroom floor, and I keep meaning to have another go, but I’m afraid that if I do use it correctly, it will hurt ferociously. It’s just easier to think I don’t need it because my abs are already so obviously shredded. Not.

I’m having a bit more success with the dumbbells, but they are so heavy I can only use one at a time, like a kettle-ball. I tried to do an exercise called a bent-over row, and I nearly broke both my arms off. So, the dumbbells are lying on my bedroom floor also, and I take it in turns to use them so they don’t get jealous of each other. My advice to anyone thinking of taking up circuit training in lockdown is: don’t. And if you do buy exercise equipment, make sure it matches your curtains.

Treat lockdown like Lent

I’m pretty sure every religion has something like the Catholic tradition of Lent, a period during which people deny themselves of basic pleasures like biscuits to prove to their God that they are worthy of salvation.

Practicing Catholics observe Lent for six weeks every single year until they eventually die, and, one would hope, after all that self-denial, get their Heavenly reward.

Hopefully, we won’t have to do lockdown for six weeks every year – or twice a year – until we die, but it mightn’t do some of us more materialistic folk any harm to go without for a while. I’ve been treating lockdown like Lent – which I’d never do ordinarily – and it’s been working out fairly well for me. That might just be because as I write this, Ireland is about to open up most of its pubs, cafes, restaurants and shops. I’m aware that I sound smug to people in countries still dealing with restrictions and lockdown, but this last tip has genuinely helped me survive the past few weeks.

Bear in mind, too, that Lent doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you enjoy; it can be an opportunity to take up new hobbies and adopt better habits too. Sometimes a change is as good as a rest. I’ve swapped my nightly Netflix binge, which was getting out of hand before lockdown, for reading. I’ve just finished reading a brilliant book called ‘Shantaram‘, which is set in 1980s Bombay. It’s as far from Ireland lockdown 2020 as possible and a welcome change from 1990s American sitcoms, too. It’s a hefty tome at over 900 pages, but it was so enthralling I found it wasn’t half long enough. Perhaps I’ll end up feeling the same way about lockdown…