How easy it is to turn into the person you didn’t want to be. Though I’ve always loved dogs, I never wanted to be a dog person. And I never got much out of reading what people wrote about their pooches. So, if this bores you, please know I sympathise.
Anyway, we got him at seven weeks when he weighed 3kg. He’s now twice as old and nearly four times as heavy. He has been with us for half his life, which feels as good a time as any to reflect on what I know now about having a dog in your life that I didn’t seven weeks ago. It feels an awful lot longer than seven weeks; this despite, or perhaps because of, the dizzying pace of change in him. It’s like raising a baby then toddler then child on fast forward. Our human young move forward at what feels at the time, if not in retrospect, a glacial tempo. With my daughters now at the leaving-home stage I wish I had cherished their younger days more. Already, after less than two months with him, I wish I had found a way of experiencing less distress during Tito’s entirely incontinent early puppy days.
Tito. The name started as a daft joke for my Croatian mum long before we got him. We had been watching some Croatian drama about Yugoslav spies on Walter Presents and I was reminded of the photographs of Marshall Tito that used to be on display, apparently mandatorily, in all business premises. The name was supposed to be only a working title; we couldn’t possibly call him that. Worse dictators have stalked the earth than Tito, but a dictator he undoubtedly was. Try as we might, though, the name stuck. Nothing else seemed to work. Tito it was. I’ve run it past many Croats and Serbs and they have just laughed. So far, so good; no offence seems to have been taken. My mum’s mates, laughing in delight, send him plameni pozdrav – fiery greetings, which is apparently what the Marshall liked to receive. In my mum’s school grammar book from 1946, students were told: Tito did this, Tito did that. It pleases me no end that for all his vainglorious ubiquity he ends up sharing a name with a daft ball of incontinent fluff.
Toilet training, it turns out, is like golf: the minute you think you’ve mastered it, it all falls to pieces. Just as I would play five faultless holes before executing an embarrassing airshot, I would survey with pride a clean floor of a morning and believe we had triumphed – only to come downstairs the next day to a very different scene. Not since the harrowing experience of trying and failing to present a successful breakfast television programme have I been gripped by such tension and anxiety before dawn. Has he or hasn’t he? He usually hasn’t, but sometimes still does, which is worse somehow. It’s the hope that kills you.
The advice you get, often unsolicited, on puppycraft, is frequently bewildering. Dry food? Wet food? Raw food? I’ve had passionate speeches advocating all of the above. The range of theories on managing behaviour is disorientingly wide, too. Yes, I know I’ve got to show him who’s boss. And I also understand that rather than punishing bad behaviour, which doesn’t work, I should reward good behaviour. So, when he starts nipping tiny chunks out of us, we should quietly just leave the room. We live in an open-plan flat with a small adjoining room. And it’s in this small room that my girlfriend, daughters and I are often to be found, picking mournfully at wounds to our skin and clothing, while Tito has the run of the rest of the place. Who’s the boss?
Some issues I really didn’t see coming. The one thing I knew wouldn’t be a problem was giving him enough exercise, as I pace the streets, Gump-like, every day. What I didn’t realise is that you’re not supposed to walk them very far in the first year, while their bones are still developing. So I felt like one of these people who move to the country but find they have to drive somewhere to find a footpath to walk on. Luckily, dog rucksacks are available and I invested in one. This worked brilliantly until 30 seconds into our first walk when, in scenes reminiscent of Tyson v Holyfield, Tito sunk his razorlike puppy teeth into my right ear.
More worryingly, he demonstrates no great enthusiasm for walking far anyway. Only this morning, before 7am, our idyllic morning stroll was brought to an abrupt end when he stopped and lay down, apparently intent on nothing more strenuous than cooling his nuts on the stone-cold pavement.
On occasion I’ve wondered if I’m losing my mind. I found myself resolving to take lots of pictures of him while he was a pup so I could show him when he was older. Eh? We’ve also left some old trainers lying around, and pretend to be annoyed when he runs off with them. You won’t find that trick in any puppy training book.
It’s not helping anyone that the hair around his eyes is impairing his vision and he won’t let me and a pair of scissors anywhere near him. I took him to the groomer, who said she would do him for a fiver. Walking/carrying him there, I idly wondered if she could do something with my own absurdly bouffant lockdown barnet. No luck for either of us, I’m afraid. She got him up on to the table but, frenzied by all the doggy smells and possibly lust for a long-haired dachshund next to him, he could not be calmed. We were sent away with tails between our legs, hopelessly hirsute.
I consider my feelings towards him. Is it love? Hmm, not sure yet. Can I remember life before him or consider life without him? No, and no. When I’m sitting at my desk with him at my feet I feel a kind of peace I’ve never experienced before. When he snatches and runs away with the cloth I’m using to wipe up his excrement, I experience different feelings altogether. But a consoling thought comes to me: the sad paradox of your relationship with your child is that you try to equip them to go their own way. When they do, your heart aches. If they don’t, you’ve fallen short somewhere. With dogs it’s different: they’re right there with us, all their lives. And I’m looking forward to all of Tito’s life with us.