Honey (Labrador; blonde, too fat) exhibits all the cool intelligence of her breed. Wide brown eyes, folds of extra flesh that cushion her head as she sleeps, a judgmental poise that speaks of wisdom as old as time. She surveys her territory from her French windows with an imperious air, where her growl of warning causes the boldest heart to flutter. She does not merely understand the word ‘cat’, she can spell it; just as she knows three words for ‘walk’. She is 34 kilos of muscular objectivity. Any intruder would be entirely justified in vacating her space with all possible expedition – or, if you prefer, running like hell.
“Is the dog all right?” Our postman asks nervously, as Honey shows him a mouthful of teeth. He has read the sign at the gate: ‘Intruders may be gnawed.’
Never have appearances been so deceptive.
Confronted by a stranger male of our species Honey reacts like a garrulous gander; head borne low, eyes wary, throat vibrating with guttural sounds of danger – but just like the gander she utters her threats whilst walking backwards, and if her immediate pack members are present she will hide behind their legs. In such situations I have sometimes wondered if she were moved to carry out those muttered menaces she would bit my leg rather than that of the intruder – a sort of assault by proxy: fortunately, however, although she has no love of men she has never been moved to bite. Ever.
Females evoke suspicion, though hostility is rare. Children provide amusement, for the most part, as long as they do not tease her. She is selective in those she likes and those she does not, whether of our species or hers. She will not tolerate the ritual bottom-sniffing that is expected by other dogs she meets. She detests small-talk.
Chasing (birds, cats, anything that will run away)
Moisturizing Creams (which she licks, BTW. Honey doesn’t moisturize, personally).
Wearing a lead that is unfashionable
Wearing a lead at all
Confronting anything (birds, cats) that will NOT run away
Floor tiles (She skids on them and they terrify her).
It is five years since Honey interviewed us in some depth and decided she would agree to be part of our family. She was a rescue dog; by which I mean we rescued her former owners from her. There was no written contract – Honey mapped out the terms of our agreement by her actions, and obedience is not a word that applies to Honey. She is not entirely disobedient; she will respond if lacking better things to do, generally subject to negotiation. She will not, for example, abandon a really interesting scent in the cause of ‘coming to heel’, or return indoors on rainy days, at least until she has swum in a minimum of two polluted ditches to load up her claws with mud. Nor will she consent to visit anywhere resembling a veterinary surgery, allow clandestine attempts to cut claws, or agree to have reeking flanks washed after rolling in a particularly interesting odor.
The areas where response is possible, and therefore our House Rules, have developed and modified over the years of her stay. There are many, so I will limit myself to a few examples:
‘Bed’ – she will go to bed if commanded. (‘Bed’ consists of the most comfortable chair or settee in any given room, whether or not it is already occupied).
‘Game’ – this consists of ‘rough-housing’ and allows Honey the opportunity to practice on her Pack Leader the moves (and wounds) she would like to apply to the Postman, if she had the courage. The throwing of balls or Frisbees as a ‘game’ is not recognised. She is happy to chase or catch a ball, with the object only of acquiring the ball. Apart from a certain squeaky rubber item which has become her lifelong companion, all toys are for trade. If Honey presents either of her pack members with a toy she makes it plain she wants something in return.
‘Treats’. She can hear the opening of the appropriate cupboard door for one of these (usually a chew) from approximately half a mile away in a gale. ‘ Treats’ are an entitlement, not a bargaining chip. They are awardable upon set occasions, like the end of a walk, or returning from garden ablutions before bed.
‘Walks’. Walk times are prompted by the closing music of certain television programs, or when anyone passes within ten feet of her lead, which hangs in the hall. The route for a walk is determined by Honey, who will pick her desired program for the day. Attempts to vie with this are subject to refusal. The whole exercise ceremony is complex, and takes account of such things as clothing worn, weather, and the possibility of a ride in the car.
‘Daily Schedules’. These must be rigorously observed: Honey rises at 7:00am, acknowledging the right of the male Pack Leader to have his first coffee of the day in peace. Bedtime is midnight at the latest, when the dominant female retires. (Female Pack Leader’s status is constantly questioned, and this issue often results in argument. If FPL fails to keep to designated bedtime, Honey will tend to retire by herself).
‘Meals’. Meal times are 7:00am and 5:15pm, with a special exception for Tuesdays when cooked fish is on the menu, which she is happy to eat as soon as possible, often straight from the pan if the cook turns her back. At the moment food approval ratings are high, but it is incumbent upon the Pack Leader to vary her diet from time to time. Honey has a special look of disappointment she reserves for a choice that has been badly made, together with the final sanction she may return the dish with interest ten minutes later on the best rug.
In return for our consent to honor these basic conditions she has formed a deep attachment to us; a devotion a little like stalking. In practical terms this means we must survive the rest of her lifetime without stepping backwards, knowing that to do so will mean falling over Honey. It also means she feels free to follow her Natural Retrieval Instinct Part One, which consists of bringing back any box or packaging we throw away. She seems never to have achieved a Pass Grade in Natural Retrieval Instinct Part Two; delivery of the retrieved object in good condition to her owner. Instead she tears the object, symbolically, a few times, before losing interest.
The fierceness issue; that deep bass voice which could give such an able rendition of ‘Old Man River’ (if she knew the words) has never withstood any logical test. An early morning outburst occurs as she erupts from the door into the front garden, although there is rarely any threat at that hour. Thereafter she will sit on guard at the gate, ready to bark a warning at – well, not everybody, as it happens. Uniforms generally evoke a savage-sounding response, otherwise we can only conclude that her vocal warnings imply a judgement of character.
So here we are, Honey’s pack, five years on. I won’t pretend they have been easy years: the words ‘Dog Pound’ have been uttered more than once, and by her reception of him, I judge she has never quite forgiven our son for bringing her to us. But she has condescended to share some of her time with us, to deliver her verdict upon other dogs she meets and for that, I suppose, we must be grateful. Otherwise please do not stint in your sympathy: we are truly worthy of pity.