Hounded by Love

Recent reports about toxocara poisoning and Rottweiler attacks have put Man's best friend in the dog house. But for many of us, family life wouldn't be the same without a canine companion. Novelist Sally Beauman tells how her life changed the day she met Lovell.

Our first sight of Lovell, a Bernese Mountain dog, was when he was five weeks old. There he was, one of a litter of ten, all beguiling, all beautiful. They were feeding; ten bowls, ten identical brown bottoms, ten waving tails. It seemed impossible to decide which should be ours, but we did decide. Lovell was the only puppy to attempt a bark, though it came out more as a squeak. When he sat on our son's shoe and undid the laces we took it - sensibly - for a sign. I held him then, for the first time, and we inspected each other face to face. It was the beginning of a serious love affair. He had little russet brows like bumblebees and teeth like tiny needles. This one, we said - at which point, as in all love affairs, our lives irrevocably changed. Three weeks later, when Lovell was eight weeks old, we returned to claim him. It seemed harsh to take him away from his mother, from those nine brothers and sisters. We drove back to London very slowly, top speed 40mph the whole way. Was he called Lovell then? I think that decision came a few days later. Alan [Alan Howard, the Shakespearian actor] had just been playing Richard III for the RSC; we liked that old tag - "The cat, the rat and Lovell-the-dog". So Lovell he became. It was the commonest 16th-century name for a dog, we discovered, the Elizabethan equivalent of Rover.

It was hard to believe, on that homeward journey, thst this scrap of a thing would grow up to be a mighty Bernese. These dogs are an ancient breed; for centuries the farmers of the Bernese Oberland used them as cattle dogs and, with their great strength, as draught dogs, pulling milk carts in the mountains. But long before that they were known and valued by the Romans, who sent them into battle wearing collard armed with spikes.

A battle dog? Lovell lay in my lap as still as a mouse, and as small as a muff. His markings were mapped out with the beautiful symmetry of his breed; a white blaze on face and chest, four white paws, tan cheeks, tan stockings and a black tail tipped with white. Every so often, on that journey, he gave a small pink yawn. We thought this was amazingly clever. Our enslavement was already beginning, of course, though none of us admitted it then. Once inside, Lovell regarded his new home with equanimity and we watched him with a fearful delight. Would he grieve for his canine family? Would he settle? Would he eat? Lovell snuffed the air. He peed on the rug. It was a rather good rug, but no-one uttered the slightest reproach. We stroked and, I'm afraid, we also cooed and clucked a good deal. Lovell accepted all this in a seignéurial way. After a bit, looking bored, he curled up and went to sleep. Two relatively sensible adults and one extremely sensible nine-year-old boy watched this unremarkable doggy procedure with a besotted gaze. Lovell appeared to dream. His paws (large even then) scrabbled. Ten, perhaps fifteen minutes passed. By the time he began to snore, our enslavement was total and complete.

Well, that was six years ago now but, it has to be admitted, very little has changed during that time. We were all push-overs then - we are push-overs now. And Lovell, of course, knows this. Since he is a noble dog of great tact, sagacity and understanding, he is not despotic. He gently reminds us of our dependency and our frailty - but then, only occasionally. He has, with his Swiss ancestry, Swiss-watch precision timing. Two meals a day - on the dot. One long walk a day - also on the dot. A small share, awaited with with an air of tolerant patience, of certain human delicacies, to wit - roast beef, ginger cake, Big Macs, digestive biscuits and cheese, preferably Stilton. These are his demands and since they are, for the most part, perfectly legitimate demands, they are met. Usually promptly.

Sally Beauman with Lovell

Well, always promptly, actually. After all, if they are not met, a terrible thing happens: he barks. The bark of a full-grown, almost ten-stone Bernese Mountain dog is a fearsome thing. It can be heard at a quarter of a mile. It drowns out reproach or threats, it deafens, it maddens, it causes postmen to flee and tough, leather-clad, six-foot-tall couriers to retreat, white-faced, to the bottom of our steps, safely out of range of the demented, blood-thirsty fiend lurking within. This can, on occasion, have its uses. I do not, on lonely walks late at night, fear muggers' attacks - but in the home, when the hour has come round, when it is time for the daily expedition, or the dinner? Well, it is easier to give in to him than to make a stand.

There are times (amazingly infrequent, but there are times) when I resent this doggy dominance. It occurs to me that despite the fact that we have a drawer full of yellowing kennel brochures, all acquired in the early days when we all spoke briskly of how holidays were no problem, kennels were fine and dogs loved them, the fact remains that we have never actually investigated any of these kennels. We have not, to be honest, taken a holiday abroad in six years. Not all together, that is. If we go abroad, we do so in relays. One of us stays with the dog. Lovell remains blithely indifferent to this sacrifice of ours; as a result of it he is, within the parameters of Britain, a very well-travelled dog. He has already been to Cornwall, Wales, Yorkshire, Devon, Suffolk and Norfolk. He has been in a boat on the Norfolk Broads (it rained). He is one of the few dogs (all right, the only dog, and I'm certain the only ten-stone dog) to have been transferred from a rocky Hebridean lobster boat and carried up the sea-cliffs at Mingulay. In our house we don't discuss rabies, quarantine laws, palm-trees or pagodas. Well, we do - but wistfully, out of earshot of Lovell. That is the cost of a canine love-affair, a corollary to dog-devotion. Do I mind? Not so very much. The many compensations enrich our lives. He is the best of companions, the most loyal of friends. Whenever he's absent, I miss - we miss - the absolute dogginess of him.

How do I love him? Well, I could count the ways. I love him, inevitably, for his beauty, which is considerable. I love him for that always fascinating paradox, gentleness of nature combined with massive strength. I admire, also, his character, the patient and considerable tolerance he shows to children, and the reticence he shows to adults. This is not a dog who greets strangers with fawning, or with licks. I rejoice in his equanimity, his absence of ill-humour, his refusal - ever - to sulk. I am made happy, every day, by the direct simplicity of his optimism, an optimism which never tires, never becomes jaded, so that each new day, each walk, is full of promise. Rain or shine, winter or spring, he wakes refreshed, and greets us with a thump of his tail in the morning. A walk is never a chore to Lovell, but an adventure and, because of that, when I am with him my mind relaxes, plots unravel, dialogue untangles. I notice the sun shining and I hear the birds sing.

In London, we walk on Hampstead Heath; in the country, we walk by a very beautiful river. On these walks, Lovell - very properly - ignores us. He likes to round us up, and becomes anxious if we stray, but apart from this we are irrelevant. He is pursuing the immaterial, the world of smells. These are his America, his new found land, and we poor dull humans can only watch and guess at the messages he receives at each gate post, stile or tree. Sticks do not interest him, balls bore him. Being a dog of great size and therefore not a dog of great speed, his interest even in rabbits is perfunctory. The point of walks to Lovell is the smells, those unseen stories he reads, those stories we cannot perceive.

He is courageous, also - oddly - timorous. His breed is web-footed and famous for its prowess at swimming, yet he fears water and walks round puddles. His chief hate (most dogs' chief hate, I suppose) is thunder. He senses it before it sounds, and his response is always the same. He jumps on the sofa (this is a dog who never jumps on sofas or beds or chairs, and always sleeps on the floor). Once on the sofa, he buries himself in cushions until the storm is over, the thunder gone away.

Are those cushions surrogate brothers and sisters, I sometimes wonder? Is he seeking the reassurance of a litter he left six years ago? I can never know, of course, because he cannot tell me - and it is this above all, I think, which touches our hearts, and ensures our devotion: his silence.

We know he understands some of our words ("walk", for instance, he understands in all its synonyms, and several foreign languages), but when it comes to understanding him, we must forget words. We must go back to a shadowy, stranger world, in which feelings and wishes are conveyed by the eyes, by movement, by gesture, by touch. Silent eloquence. I find it poignant. And it's the main reason, I'm convinced, why dogs can teach humans - especially writers - so much.

Sally Beauman

SHE, July 1990.