I keep a photo on the mantelpiece in our living room. It’s the only photo from my childhood that’s on display. Myself three or four years old, my sister a couple of years older, sitting in a field, and lying down between us, bigger than either of us, our Alsatian, Lassie.
Lassie lived with us only three or four years. But she’s woven into all my memories of those years. Winter evenings in front of the fire, birthday parties, visits from relatives, outings, holidays: I can’t think about any of them without seeing her. She was our friend, our protector, our playmate. And I cried when she fell ill and had to be put down.
We never had another dog during our childhood years. Nor did I get one when I had a home of my own. But after I got married, it wasn’t long before my wife and I agreed to get a dog. I suspect that in part, that was a nostalgic desire to recreate my own childhood. Maybe I wanted my children’s childhood to echo mine.
There were practical reasons too. I wanted to take more exercise. A man walking on his own round the local park may draw some very odd looks. But if he’s walking the dog, it’s seen as legit. I wanted Anne, too, to be able to walk round our fairly rough neighbourhood and feel safe. I wanted a guard dog to scare off thieves.
I don’t think either of us had realised what a liability a dog could be. Griff was a rescue dog, collected from a local refuge. He was a long-haired mongrel, part Alsatian, part who-knows-what? He’d never been trained properly, didn’t know what it meant to walk on a lead, and treated all other dogs as enemies. He came to us full-grown: bad habits were already ingrained into him. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks...
I shudder still as I remember some of the disasters we had with Griff. The time when we were staying with friends and he satisfied his thirst by drinking stagnant water from their garden pond. He was violently sick (and worse) in the middle of the night. We spent two hours that night cleaning the foulest of foul messes from our hosts’ new carpet. It never looked new again.