Jesus’s choice of his twelve closest companions leaves something to be desired. Amongst their ranks were those who criticized, penny-pinched, missed the point, welcomed a bribe, stole, as well as doubted, betrayed and distanced themselves from Him. They fell out over power, relied on their mothers to speak for them and in the ultimate moment of crisis saved their own skins by running away in the dark. Perhaps the Lord would have fared better with an equal number of dogs! After three years of training He would have benefitted from obedience, loyalty, followers who’d established a pecking order, recognised that the hand that fed them was that of their true leader, listened to their master’s voice, saw no value in money or clothes, accepted their leader’s friends as their own, and in times of threat would have laid down their lives defending Him.
Life has provided me with three canine companions. Tammy, a Wire Hair Fox Terrier; a constant companion, protector, and four-legged nanny from before memory can recall until the end of my first decade. A Border Terrier, called Bracken, was our inheritance on the loss of my great aunt in 1980. Our bond began the moment she was collected from kennels as a puppy and was to last for some fifteen years. An excellent walker (although she always pulled) she never aged, still eager, willing and able to cover many a mile on her short doggy pensioner legs. Wise to attempts of deception so as to avoid false hope, she soon picked up the meaning of certain words spelt out in her presence such as W-A-L-K or T-E-A. About twenty minutes after the completion of a shift at the mill Dad would arrive home. A good five minutes before this Bracken would rouse herself from bed and position herself behind the door to be the first to welcome him. Her powers of being able to identify his journeying car above any other on the road were virtually psychic bearing in mind Dad’s notoriety for changing cars.
In the first spring of my time as Parish Priest in Dewsbury I set myself the task of looking for a four-legged companion. Initially intent on a mission to simply view dogs temporary resident at a rescue centre in Huddersfield, needless to say I arrived back at the Presbytery later the same afternoon with a nameless and bedraggled cross-Terrier. But not before a visit to a veterinary practice in Heckmondwike to have her checked over. It was a precarious start. With a rather richly odoured dog at the end of a piece of rope and in a studded-leather collar, befitting the neck of some Medieval bear in a pit, we arrived at the door of the vet’s, but not before my less than refined companion had decided to part with the contents of her bowels on the street. The wild child had arrived prematurely, and the learning curve of new doggy parenthood was steep and sharp! With my new found housemate suffering from acute Kennel Cough I was advised not to get too attached. So with pills and potions we departed, but not before she had left a further token on the streets of Heckmondwike which, I hasten to add, like the first was quickly scooped up and disposed of appropriately.
Even if the Vet wasn’t holding his breath I decided that whatever time we had was going to reveal something of human kindness to this dog. Hopefully equalling, if not bettering whatever she’d encountered of humanity beforehand, in an unknown past. Our bonding began with a shower, ridding her of anything she was carrying from the obvious grime and dirt to hidden life-forms that may well have taken up residence on her small but warm frame. Guessing that it was a new experience, she clearly loved it, not least its conclusion which was being wrapped in a towel removing any excess water, and then, on release, having the freedom of shaking herself even drier, and taking off like a mad thing, running up and down the plentiful steps of the Presbytery, in and out of every room where she encountered an open door. Eventually exhausted by her exertions she curled up, contented, in a corner on the landing. With trust, I left the new arrival alone, in order to purchase much needed basics. A bed, collar, lead, food, and a toy or two were on the list. On my return, (with nose working overtime … just in case !), there she was, on a landing halfway down the stairs with tail wagging and eyes that offered a welcome warmer than any words could ever convey. There had been no accident and when I sought out where she had been in my absence it was obvious that she’d claimed a corner of the landing as hers. In her doggy-wisdom she had hit on the exact spot where the central heating pipes converged under the floorboards. It was where she was to sleep for the next near-decade in a series of beds.
Taking the first of many thousands of walks around nearby Crow Nest Park, it was only as the day drew to a close, and more investigations of her new surroundings were done by my new companion, that I decided on a name. Caz. As it was the feast of St. Casimir there was something appropriate about it. Day two began with my opening the bedroom door to discover a loudly yawning, tailing-wagging and excited bundle of life with bright sparkly eyes and clean fur looking up at me from her bed. Caz had survived the night.
Our relationship was adventuresome to say the least. Although spotless in the house, she was never wholly trained. Having taken the counsel of a supposed dog guru, I was told that I should show my confidence in Caz by releasing her from the lead. With speed beyond that of light came her departure from my side; it was an event never repeated. Not only was there a smallish brown dog moving at Olympic pace around the perimeter of a treasured open space, but there was also a near demented cleric frantically in chase and loudly calling out a name that was clearly lacking any recognition. Eventually, more by Divine intervention than human prowess, we were reunited, Caz clearly in better physical shape than myself at the end of our escapade. A wise investment came in the purchase of an extendable lead allowing her to enjoy long runs, and myself to have the security of being able to wind her in at the end of playtime. Well almost. Our first trip to Lytham saw Caz running excitedly at the end of the long lead, breathing in fresh sea air on the Green, supposedly under my watchful eye, when she suddenly diverted her attention to a bench on which someone was seated. In the blink of an eye she had snatched a bag of sandwiches and was clearly looking for a spot to enjoy her ill-gotten gains. With horror, embarrassment and perfuse apologies I approached the previously lunching individual. And with humility both man, and to an obvious lesser degree, dog, accepted the dignified forgiveness of the newly hungry-worker.
Despite always having a plentiful supply of food Caz never lost touch with her earlier life on the streets of Kirklees. If the discarded remnants of a fast-food supper were to be located on the highways and byways of Dewsbury that we traversed, her sleuthing skills out-witted those of Miss Marple. Many was the time that I would try to remove some unsavoury left-over from her mouth. It was always a stand-off, fingers and teeth locked in a battle-royal. Rarely could I claim a victory. Content with her own company, when she felt it was time for bed Caz would quietly make her way to the bed in which she would spend the next eight hours. If she wanted to snuggle close, she would decide who with and when, except in the case of my Mum, whose lap was always too tempting and comfortable to refuse, even for picky-pooch Caz. Visiting Otley, Dad was her designated walker and chef. When it was time for going out she would take hold of the bottom of his trousers and give them a meaningful tug. She provided entertainment through her response to situations such as the opening of a tin of tuna or salmon and the accompanying dance and prance on hind legs, with shiny nose wildly taking in the aroma of canned fish. Or the incredible jealousy displayed when Mum received a large monkey soft-toy. Its removal from the packaging caused Caz to go into defensive and stand-off mode. The monkey was hastily replaced in its wrap, and for its own well-being and safe-keeping removed from sight and beyond reach of Caz. Similarly to prevent damage to it our TV had to be changed to another channel and our Christmas viewing interrupted as the on-screen barking dogs from “101 Dalmations” were a step too far for the real and very alive Caz, who attempted on several occasions to climb into the TV to join the pack.
Her natural nursing skills were hugely appreciated when I found myself suffering from a dose of ‘flu, and spent time in bed. She instinctively knew just where to lay and in what position to give my aching limbs relief from her own body heat, at the same time being unusually contented with very much abbreviated outdoor exercise for herself. She travelled well, sleeping throughout any motorway drive. At the Harry Ramsden’s roundabout she knew she was just a couple of miles from Otley, and likewise her excitement for free time at the coast was apparent as we left the M55. A happy and good walker, we once walked from Starr Gate to Fleetwood, and got as far as the Tower at Blackpool on our return before reluctantly having to take public transport due to a torrential downpour. Quirkily she was fascinated by the sound of her own claw-nails on linoleum and as I carried out various jobs in St. Paulinus’ Church, she would accompany me intrigued by the echoing sound her paws made in such a cavernous space. In all the years she was in Dewsbury, living in a lighthouse-style building on a traffic island, there was just one occasion when she sounded an alarm by barking at night. On opening a window to investigate, I disturbed a late-night reveller relieving himself in the yard behind the Presbytery ! When answering night calls to the hospital, I would get little more than a knowing look from a curled-up Caz, nonplussed by the disturbance, but on my return she would be on the landing halfway down the stairs, an observation point for the front door, laid on her stomach with tail wagging. After a little fussing, showing appreciation of her welcome, we would both return to our beds, waiting for the first walk of the day. She was a great pal, and remains often talked about and her antics smiled at.
Despite providing a foster home for a number of strays and even thinking I’d discovered another canine housemate during my earlier years in the Spen Valley, for good reason and intention no lasting bond has been established so far. There is a school of thought that would question whether as humans we find the right pet for ourselves, or whether animals seek us out, ensuring that we are suitable for them. Whatever the thought behind it, my experience of our dogs has been that they have taught me a lot, and as for training … very often they were good teachers ! Having come across the following few lines recently, written out of the experience of dog-ownership, I thought them worthy of sharing:-
Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy.
When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
When it’s in your best interest, practise obedience.
Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
Take naps and stretch before rising.
Run, romp and play daily.
Eat with gusto and enthusiasm.
Never pretend to be something you’re not.
If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, nuzzle them gently.
Thrive on attention and let people touch you.
Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
On hot days, drink lots of water and lie under a shady tree.
When you’re happy, dance around and wag your entire body.
No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into guilt and pout … run right back and make friends.
Bond with your pack.
Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.
May we remain united in faithful remembrances in prayer and affection.
As ever, Fr. Nicholas