It's a Dog's Life by Alex Marchant

Last month I blogged about facing an ‘empty nest’, with both daughters now at university. But to be honest, it’s not empty at all. Not only is it occupied by myself and my partner, but there are also the pets, so it doesn’t seem particularly empty at any time, even if the elderly cat spends most of her time asleep, curled up near a radiator. Gunner, the dog, more than fills any space that’s left.

We rehomed Gunner in February this year, our second adoption. It was a very deliberate decision each time to offer an older dog a new home, rather than opt for a puppy, but I’m not looking for any credit for it. I simply didn’t want to face all the time and effort needed to train a puppy – however cute – in all the basic necessities, like house-training. I am, it has to be said, rather a lazy dog owner.
One can, of course, feel good about offering a dog a new home. There can be many reasons why a dog needs rehoming and the word ‘rescue’, while often used, in our cases certainly hasn’t been appropriate. Milli, our first dog, was reluctantly given up after a relationship break-up led to her owner moving into a rented flat which couldn’t accommodate pets. Gunner was also a much-loved pet whose family were experiencing difficulties which meant they couldn’t give him the time and attention he needed. It will have been tough for both owners to make the decision. And we have been the fortunate beneficiaries of their misfortunes. In both cases we inherited amazing dogs.
Cocker spaniels both, each typical in some ways, but very different in others. With Milli we’d decided to look for an older dog, who might not need so much exercise, as too-long walks would eat into my work day. (I knew the children might be desperate for a dog, but it would be me who’d do all the work). Eight years old when she arrived, she was still full of life and energy, and continued to be mistaken for a puppy until only weeks before her untimely death from cancer only four years later.
Milli was a little on the tubby side when she arrived - 3.5 kilos overweight in fact...

She was very much a ‘people dog’, disdaining to take much notice of other dogs, but always keen to encourage us to play. Tug, piggy-in-the-middle, chase (us chasing her, of course) were among her favourite human games – and she also loved to dance, pirouetting on her back legs for a titbit, or bouncing across a room for the fun of it. She’d been brought up in a bar in Spain, so perhaps had learned there to dance for her treats. She was respectful to (if not actually scared of) the cat, friendly to the chickens and guinea pigs, and loved all humans – except the postman. Even someone in a red tee-shirt and shorts carrying a letter could set her off barking. We think it was defensive – perhaps one too many divorce-related solicitors’ letters thumping on the doormat, or just the feeling that the house was being attacked…
Milli in play mode

After our sad loss of Milli, it took a while before we acted to fill the now gaping hole in our lives. We knew straightaway we would have another dog, but actually finding one to adequately fill that hole was always going to be difficult. We returned to the same spaniel rehoming organization, looking once again for an older, female show cocker. ‘Oldies’ are often overlooked, so it would be good to rehome one again – even at the risk of losing them in a short time once more. (Although, it has to be said, none of us wanted to contemplate that…) So, there was no way I was going to look twice at a 13-month-old, male, working cocker – was there?
It has to be admitted it was the name that first caught my attention. As a lifelong Arsenal supporter (third generation), I wasn’t going to pass by a ‘Gunner’ without noticing. But knowing how boisterous young working cockers are (my sister has had one from a puppy, who only now, aged five, is beginning to calm down – sometimes), I took one look at his details and moved on to the next dog.
But something drew me back. It was the fact that everything else about him was right: good with people, loves children and cats and other dogs (maybe OK with chickens), travels well, can be left a short time, good training and recall… he sounded perfect. Except that he was only 13 months old and from working stock – hence the name, though he’d been brought up a pet.
So, reader, we adopted him. And not a day has gone by when we haven’t been grateful for our good fortune in giving him a new home (and also to his first family for bringing him up so well). He became part of the family in an instant (though the cat still won’t accept him) and, while lively and loving his walks and play, suits us by settling at other times.
Gunner, the (mostly) calm working cocker

He hasn’t ‘replaced’ Milli, of course. That’s not possible. Perhaps he ‘complements’ her. They’re very different personalities, after all. She barked a lot, he never does, except shortly and sharply to encourage another dog to play. He often spends an entire walk with his nose to the ground; she used to walk along with nose and tail in the air, apparently a red-rag to other dogs. He only displays mild interest in postmen and window cleaners, and as I’m typing this, has thankfully shown no reaction at all to the fireworks going off outside. (Yes, it’s only early October, but Firework Month starts early round here.) Although he has puppy-chewed the odd thing (we don’t leave slippers around now, and make sure there are no trailing wires where he sleeps), he’s not so ruled by his stomach that he’s likely to give us the same wealth of food-related anecdotes as Milli. He has, once, managed to flip a whole pizza from the kitchen counter when our backs were turned, but we doubt he’ll shape up to the two-entire-advent-calendars-including-foil-and-cardboard, whole-bag-of-foil-wrapped-chocolate-coins-and-two-packs-of-cough-sweets-including-wrappers, four-doughnuts-foraged-somehow-from-the-very-back-of-the-counter, or half-a-bag-of-rice-very-nearly-leading-to-death-but-fortunately-resulting-in-exploding-rear-and-front-ends-without-an-expensive-vet-trip incidents that Milli cooked up.
Gunner, hurtling... despite the 'cone of shame' after a recent op

Milli was responsible for the decision to include in my books Murrey, the loyal puppy-growing-to-hound companion to my lead character, Matthew. Murrey is the red-coated, runtish offspring of Duke Richard’s favourite hound, Florette, and Conqueror, from the kennels of King Edward IV, and she remains with Matthew throughout his adventures, when even his closest friends are not around to keep him company. Many of Milli’s traits can be seen in Murrey – from the dancing (taught to Murrey as a pup by the young Edward, prince of Wales) to her tendency, like a typical spaniel, to show loyalty to anyone with food. They are features that prove rather useful at various times in the story. Sadly Milli died before the books were published, but some of the raw emotion I felt at her loss made its way into the narrative in the final draft. Now when I watch Gunner hurtling across the same moors that prompted many of those scenes, I often wonder how different Murrey might have been if inspired by him. But then again, Murrey’s sister, Shadow, appears in my work-in-progress, so maybe I’ll find out….
Up on those moors...

Alex is author of two books telling the story of the real King Richard III for children aged 10+, the first set largely in Yorkshire, and editor of Grant Me the Carving of My Name, an anthology of short fiction inspired by the king, sold in support of Scoliosis Association UK (SAUK). A further anthology, Right Trusty and Well Beloved..., is due out 1 November.

Alex's books can be found on Amazon at:


Umberto Tosi said…
Now you've got me jonesing for another dog. My inanamorata and I have discussed all the particulars several times since her old cat went on to his 10th life somewhere. We've yet to make up our minds, but joyful doggie stories like your own might be a tipping point. Anyway, I just finished a story about ghosts and people in which a dog was a main protagonist. Thanks for the delightful post!
Alex Marchant said…
Many thanks for your response Umberto - your support is always much appreciated. Good luck with making your decision, and if you decide to go ahead, I hope you are as fortunate with your choice as we have been and have as much happiness from it.

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