Cotswold Mother: The unstealable spaniel

PUBLISHED: 12:13 20 November 2015 | UPDATED: 16:32 07 January 2016

Maddie the Cocker Spaniel. Photograph: Evie Norman

Maddie the Cocker Spaniel. Photograph: Evie Norman


The truth of the matter is despite my best intentions I have failed miserably to train my dog beyond the basics

Clare with Maddie. Photograph: Evie NormanClare with Maddie. Photograph: Evie Norman

When I was young, the notice board in the village would occasionally play host to a Lost Dog poster. ‘Beloved pet’, it would read, ‘reward offered for safe return.’ My sister and I would spend the weekends Just William style, fruitlessly hunting back gardens for lost Labs, in the hope of earning ourselves the promised fortune.

We never got lucky, but then there were never very many dogs to find: perhaps one or two throughout a long, hot summer that tipped gently into autumn, the new school term leaving little time for bounty hunting.

Nowadays you can’t move without seeing a similar plea, the owner’s anguish as tangible as if each mass produced poster were hand-streaked with tears. On my daily dog walk across fields and through woods I might encounter half a dozen of these home made appeals, each with the name of the dog emblazoned beneath its photo: Freddie, Buster, Sally.

Back home, browsing Facebook when I should be working, a dozen more images are pushed to my feed. BEWARE DOG NAPPERS! The thefts are rife: Spaniels stolen; rare Pekinese lured from old ladies walking in the park; puppies physically snatched from young owners introducing them to the lead for the first time.

Have there always been so many dog thieves around? Were the lost dogs of my childhood summers not lost at all, but thrown into white vans to be sold on? Even allowing for the scaremongering so easily perpetuated by the internet, the rise in reported cases is worrying.

Clare with Maddie. Photograph: Evie NormanClare with Maddie. Photograph: Evie Norman

I have become a cautious owner: my dog not only microchipped and identity-tagged, but with a second tag carefully hidden on the underside of the collar, in case the first is ripped off. Although I’ll allow her to romp off the lead, she never leaves my sight, and should we walk anywhere close to a road I keep her safely by my side. It’s not the traffic I fear, but the fabled white van, driven by men who seem to be able to reach out for a dog then disappear without a trace

What do they do with the dogs? Who buys them? Are they sold for pets - the best case scenario, I suppose - or sacrificed as fighting dogs, no more significant than a pound of meat? My paranoia is heightened by the number of spaniels believed stolen; far more than pugs or dachshunds, or any of the other hundreds of breeds. “Gun dogs,” my friend tells me knowledgably, after another brace of springers disappears from outside kennels at a farm up the road. “They steal trained dogs, which can then be sold on for big money.”

Instinctively, I look around for Maddie, who has her muzzle thrust into the warm centre of a cow pat, and is swallowing enthusiastically. My friend looks awkward. “Um, I think you’re safe.” “What do you mean?” I say. How could any dog-napper resist my lovable adolescent spaniel? I call her and she bounds off in the opposite direction, where a rotting bird provides the equivalent appeal to a serving suggestion on a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. “We-ll,” my friend says tentatively, “she’s not exactly well trained, is she?”

I’m immediately defensive; that absurd reaction one has when even an undesirable outcome is denied, like walking past a builder’s yard and failing to secure even a single sexist cat-call. I recover quickly, sighing slightly. “No, I guess she isn’t.” As if to illustrate the point, Maddie ignores my command to drop the dead bird, instead bringing it to me and dancing around me as though I might be persuaded to play fetch with its putrid body.

The truth of the matter is that despite my best intentions I have failed miserably to train my dog beyond the basics, and that even those basics are liable to be abandoned in favour of an interesting smell, the neighbour’s cat, or anyone carrying something that might contain biscuits. The biddable dog I had envisaged when I first started puppy training - that dog who waited meekly by my side, nose brushing my knee with every step I took - is so far removed from my hyperactive companion it’s laughable.

Maddie jumps up at me, leaving muddy footprints on my stomach. I catch my friend’s eye. “She’s not that bad,” I say. There’s a pause. “She is. But look on the bright side; at least she’s unlikely to be dog-napped.” I wipe at my coat, realising too late that the brown sticky substance isn’t mud after all.

I glare at Maddie, for a split second entertaining the idea of clothes without dog hair; a house without mud... Then she looks at me with her head on one side, and her mouth slightly open; big brown eyes telling me that - dead birds aside - I mean the whole world to her. And I lean down and ruffle her ears. Man’s best friend: isn’t that what they say?

This feature was taken from the November 2015 Pets Issue of Cotswold Life

You can follow Clare on Twitter: @claremackint0sh

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