DOG TAILS 8: LIKE A DUCK TO WATER
Mac was equally at home in water (so long as it wasn’t in a bath tub). On summer days I would ensure that every walk included a lake, reservoir or river, preferably near the beginning to get him wet and cool, and again at lunchtime so I could eat my sandwich in peace and relax in the sun in-between throws.
He had two distinct methods of stick retrieval, depending upon the circumstances. Anything with a bank and deep water merited a run-up and full racing dive instantly the stick left my hand. For a shallow entry he would wait for the stick to splash, make a mental note of its position and then wade into the water. Both methods worked fine in still water, but add current into the equation and he was flummoxed.
For such an intelligent animal and with fifteen years experience, he never ever mastered the concept of flowing water. Because the rivers in Derbyshire are relatively narrow and him a good swimmer, he rarely lost eye contact with the stick. If it floated downstream he would set off in pursuit, but if he lost sight of it he would only search the area in which it splashed down, without any thought of paddling downstream. After searching fruitlessly for a while he would turn to me for instruction. Pointing was a waste of time, as dogs look at your finger, not in the direction it is pointing. I therefore had to teach him the difference between left and right. Commands he would obey, but only up to a point. After several yards he would stop, turn round and swim back to where he knew it had landed. Inside the balloon it said “I saw the splash, dummy. It has to be round here somewhere.”
The Lathkill was our favourite river. The stream flows entirely over limestone and through a beautiful dale. The water is cold and blue and crystal clear, and forms deep, still pools at the foot of the numerous weirs along its course. A half-buried pipe lay along the bank of the deepest pool, forcing Mac to leap over it for entry. He could only exit thirty feet downstream where the pipe submerged, which meant I was well out of reach of his shaking.
One time he was pursuing a stick downstream in the Derwent at a rate of knots. By the time he caught it he was too close to a weir and got sucked over. I watched in despair as he disappeared beneath the surging foam and finally surfaced ten yards down river (still proudly holding the stick, I might add). He scrambled out, came back and dropped it at my feet once more. This time I threw it further upstream and not so far out. He retrieved it easily, but made no attempt to swim back. He simply trod water and let the current take him over the weir again, thus proving that dogs can be adrenaline junkies. Needless to say, I hastily moved on.
Another mistake I only made once was sending him in the water in winter immediately upon leaving the car. As soon as he emerged from the freezing water, one of his back legs cramped and stuck out horizontally. He didn’t make a sound, but I had to rub his leg for ages before he could walk properly.
A similar thing happened on our local playing field. He limped up to me and the person I was talking to and cocked his back leg. We both jumped back in alarm to avoid the jet of urine. With a look of impatience he sidled up close again and raised the same leg. We looked at Mac, then at each other, and shrugged in incomprehension. Mac sighed and waggled his leg. I got down on my hands and knees and noticed a rose thorn embedded in the centre of his pad. I pulled it out and he went merrily on his way without as much as a thank you.
The only time I ever saw Mac go swimming just for the sake of it was on a regular route which involved crossing the dam of a large pond approximately 150 yards wide. A single-track road with a narrow pavement runs over the dam and there are no passing places. I was halfway across one day and a car approached. I looked back to make sure Mac was on the pavement, but he was nowhere to be seen. I waited for him to appear, but he didn’t. The quacking of agitated ducks made me look over the wall. Mac was directly below, swimming across the lake. ‘What you doing?’ I asked.
“What’s it look like,” the cartoon bubble would have said. “I’ve been meaning to do this for years. Every time we walk this road I say to myself, one day I’m going to swim across, just for a change and for the hell of it. Today, I finally remembered to do it.” He never swam across again. Once was enough to prove a point. Been there, done that, job done.
I walked across this same dam with Bert (Dog Tails 2) on the day my little boy died. It was a couple of months before his sixteenth birthday. I’d driven him to the recreation ground for his morning stroll and lifted him from the car. He managed only a few yards before having to lie down. He was unable to get back on his feet. Two days before he had walked past our gate without recognising where he lived, and I knew the end was near.
The walk with Bert was pre-arranged and though it didn’t feel right to leave Mac, I went. I needed the catharsis of talking about Mac and his life, especially with someone who knew and liked him. Funnily enough, amongst his many talents Bert was a Samaritan. I couldn’t have chosen a better or more sympathetic listener.
I recalled the day we visited the kennels in Nottingham, walking round the cages time and again, talking it over. Which breed? Which sex? Which dog? We stopped for the third time outside a cage with half a dozen tiny Border collie pups pressed against the wire, yelping, tails wagging, vying for attention. Pick me, pick me. An impossibly beautiful tricolour, perfectly patched in black white and brown, was sitting on his own at the back, unconcerned and wondering what the fuss was all about. Rob pointed and said, ‘That’s him. That’s my dog.’
He had a name before we reached the car and Mac laid on a towel on my lap, happily chewing my fingers, me stroking him, forging a bond of love that lasted a lifetime.
As soon as we got home, we drove Mac to the vets in Bert’s car and I had no regret in having him put down. I’ve never had a dog since, probably never will. I’m sure I would love it if I did, but there could never ever be another Mac.
This has been a very pleasurable trip down memory lane, digging out all those old photos and recalling the great times we had together. Thank you for reading them