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.