My Paws In Life Story with a cheerful ending

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Jack, my father, was a brutal man.

In his early 20’s, he fell in with some like-minded bikies in small town Queensland, where one of their favourite weekend pastimes was ‘bashing surfies and abos’. Mick, his younger brother, was killed in a car accident, decapitated under a cattle truck, which led Jack to search for answers in religion. He became a convert to a fundamentalist sect, which allowed him to carry over a lot of his previous traits into this new life. One of his oft-quoted life mottos was the scripture Proverbs 13:24.

“The one who will not use the rod hates his son, but the one who loves him disciplines him diligently.”

And diligently was how he used the rod, both on his children and animals.

Dogs were always a part of our life growing up. They were always outside dogs though, as were most dogs that I knew growing up. It was quite rare to see a dog inside the house, which was pretty much the dominion of cats.

Our dogs were never purebreds, and were usually rehomed dogs from other families, or puppies received from non-desexed pets. It was a time when people didn’t think about desexing pets, and besides, how embarrassing would it be to have a male dog without the nuts?! You might as well ask a man to chop off his own!

The first dog that played an important part of my life was ‘Ruggles’, the old, chunky Blue Heeler who belonged to my grandmother. Ruggles loved to join in when my uncles played backyard cricket, and he would tear off after the tennis ball at each hit. You had to be quick between the bins, if you wanted to score a run against the star fielder! He would keep this up for an hour or so, but once he tired, that was it. He would sit on the ball, and growl at anyone who dared to try and retrieve it. So, when Ruggles was tired, that was the sign for tea break. We lived a short bike ride from my grandmother, and many days I would ride around there and spend hours in the backyard, Ruggles always close by. His days were cut short in the end, as he had the bad habit of racing out onto the road to give passing-by cars ‘what for’.  In the end he developed ‘Dunlop Fever’, as it was called in those days when a dog finally caught one of the cars they were so passionately chasing.

A few unremarkable dogs filled in the next years, always just… there… The average dog would spend his days lazing around, bark every now and then, and get fed the cheap tinned food and dry biscuits at the end of the day. They were usually stinky, only getting a bath every few weeks, and as soon as you gave them a soap down and a hose off, they’d be off again, rolling in the dust of the driveway to get the gritty feeling back. If you patted one of these dogs, you usually had to go scrub your hands.

Barney came along when I was 6 or 7. He was really stupid. Like… dropped on his head as a puppy stupid. Black lab, mixed with some other mutt, he had a straggly beard, like a teenager trying to show his manliness, with a thin and unkempt, but weak attempt at a beard. We would often see him trotting down the road, on some dim-witted mission, and then Jack would have to get in the car and go look for him, because he was too stupid to find his way home again. Our neighbour, a newly-minted mother, had washed and hung out a fresh batch of nappies. On the old type of clothesline before the Hills hoist, the one where it’s just a long wire across the yard, and you propped up the middle with ‘the stick’ to stop the sheets dragging in the grass. These fresh white beacons, flapping merrily in the wind, were just too much of a temptation for Barney. Leaping and snapping, hanging from the line by cloth nappies until the wooden pegs popped, running merrily around the yard shaking them like a ratter attempting to kill its prey. The nappies didn’t fare too well, and Jack, after administering some discipline to the dog, had to go buy another batch of cloth diapers for the poor lady. Barney disappeared shortly after that, and he quickly faded from our lives as if he never were.

We then moved to a house in the country, and there the dogs came thick and fast. Dogs in the country didn’t have a long lifespan, as our house was surrounded by cane fields, the home of all sorts of snakes. Often times we would come home from shopping or church, and find the dogs sitting proudly by the fresh carcass of a snake. They caught all types; brown snakes, red-bellied blacks, tree snakes, and harmless old carpet snakes. The quick ones did, at least. Sometimes Jack would get out of the car and make a game of it, grabbing the end of an 8-foot carpet snake, swinging it around and around, hyping the dog up even more.

Two of these country dogs were Australian Bull Terriers. ‘Vanilla’, the white one was my companion as we wandered the cane drills and pestered the colony of flying foxes, the brown one preferring to spend his days scratching and lazing. We had free-roaming chickens, and one day as we were gussied up in our Sunday best, ready for church, the brown pig dog dropped one of the chickens proudly at the back door. Jack grabbed a hessian bag, and shoved both the dog and dead chicken in there. He ripped off his belt, and with loud squawks like an angry chicken, commenced flailing at the bag. Opening the bag, the dog took off, shit and feathers everywhere! For the next two days we could see the dog’s head every now and then, poking up above the grass about half a mile away, too scared to come home. It finally came home when its hunger became unbearable. In the end it would lie there in the sun, allowing the chickens to pick fleas from its belly and share the kibble. I think this was one of the most formative lessons in my life, about how to treat a dog.

Beat them, and they will conform.

At this time in my life, my uncle, Billy had two pig hunting dogs. These dogs were blooded as pups, learning to enjoy the taste of the kill with a string of chicks, ducklings and kittens. Billy’s kids were told to stay away from the cages where the dogs lived, and the only time they were let out was to hunt. These dogs were wild, vicious beasts, and were treated in a cruel manner to ‘keep them keen’. A hunting that turned soft or was too slow usually didn’t return from a hunting trip. So I guess this type of ‘dog training method’ ran in the family.

We moved back to the city, and got our first pedigree dog, a Labrador. ‘Sandy’, or ‘Snow Dove’ as was her kennel name, had been previously owned by a miserable piece-of-trash breeder. He had overbred the dog, and her life was either puppies or pregnancy. Now she was no longer capable of breeding, she was offered up for free, of no further value to the breeder. It took about 4 months before Sandy could stop shivering, as her nerves were shot. She had a massive amount of anxiety, and if startled would take off running across the yard, a watery stream of shit escaping her clenched butthole. This was the first dog we had desexed as well. One frosty winter’s morning, Jack comes out to get into his car to go to work. There, on the warm bonnet of the car, is Sandy and three other neighbourhood dogs. Sandy was in heat, and they up there having a dog orgy. I’m sure you can imagine the next set of events, once Jack saw the piss, dents and scratches all over his car, so we will just allude to the beating. That dog stayed with us for at least another 10 years, and became a mellow dog over the years. One of my favourite memories is my brother towing a little trailer behind his pushbike, with Sandy sitting in it, a look of long-suffering patience on her face as she was ferried around our neighbourhood streets.

However, of all the dogs in my life, the one that made the most impact was Luna. Birdy & I used to volunteer to walk the rescue dogs at Monika’s. We were living in a flat at the time, so had no space for a dog, but Birdy was keen to spend time with dogs, and this was one way to do that. When Birdy spotted Luna, she knew immediately that she was ‘the dog’. I didn’t understand really. To me dogs were interchangeable, and relatively… OK. But Birdy knew, so that was good enough for me.

Luna was not an easy dog at the start, by any means, but she has taught us so much. Lauren and many other amazing dog trainers showed Birdy how to form a bond with the dog (without resorting to beatings). This was also the first dog that was embedded in our family, rather than living outside on the periphery of our life. She is an empathetic dog, and can sense when someone needs company or a cuddle, and is also a great little watch dog when I go travelling.

So, after all those years of being shown the wrong way, Luna was a key part to helping me learn a different way to interact with the creatures in our lives. She was the catalyst, so that I could learn about the possibilities of a relationship between dogs and humans, and I can now understand when someone talks about their bond with their pet. My life is so much richer, having her Paws in my Life.


About the Author:

Dan is Birdy’s other half, and professional dog-sitter when Birdy is giving weekend workshops. He loves to ride motorbikes and is part of the Paws In Life HQ.