It’s difficult for me to pinpoint exactly where it all started. I could go back seven years ago, to a day in June 2009 where I was sat in my back garden with a friend who was then a dog walker and who finally persuaded me to set up a just for fun training class that people could join. Or I could take you back even further, to April 2005, when I acquired my first dog, Zeus, who at the time was extremely anxious and in desperate need of some TLC. Or, I could take you back even further than that, to a day in a month I cant even remember now, when I was still very young and growing up in a family that was simply crazy in love with animals, dogs very much in particular! Perhaps it’s difficult for me to pinpoint where it all started, because my passion for animals has always been there. It’s in my blood. Even on the days where life just feels like it’s against me and I think to myself that I’ve had enough, really, I’m just fooling myself because I know I could never have enough. You see, dogs are just that, my whole entire life and dogs are something I could never have enough of.
Let me share with you my first memories of the dogs that blessed my childhood. After all, it was those guys that taught me my first lessons in communication….something I understand and refer to now professionally as Canine Body Language and Communication. I remember one day, walking in to my Auntie Margaret’s house and hearing somewhat of a giddy commotion in the kitchen. It must have been a Friday, although I could be wrong, but I’m guessing it was as that’s where I used to sleepover every week after school was out. I remember walking in and my Aunt, in her thick Irish accent, bellowing out at me to watch myself as, just then, I saw the dopiest Doberman puppy running up to me. He was the gangliest, clumsiest, most gormless dog that I had ever met in my life and he was called Duke. With big brown eyes, thin floppy ears and nothing but a stump for a tail that throughout his life he never really seemed completely in control of. I thought he was simply magnificent. And from the moment I clapped eyes on him I instantly fell in love. I also remember falling to the floor too, as Duke launched himself at my face and showered me with big fat slobbery tongue licks. ‘Agggghhht! A’ flamin’ well told ya’ to wetch eeet!’ I remember Margaret yodelling as my uncle Chris, who was the one who had brought Duke home just stood and laughed. I barely remember what happened in the kitchen after that. I just remember running to the door in the kitchen and virtually flying into the back garden to play with my new friend, and indeed that is exactly what Duke was throughout his life….a dear, unwaveringly loyal and trusted friend. We spent hours and hours playing outside and despite all of our interaction, he never seemed to get any wiser to my tricks. I referred to him fondly as Dukey and would shout him to come and chase me around the circular flower bed that laid to the right of the garden. I’d run in circles encouraging him to chase me and then after three or four laps I’d quickly turn and run towards him. As true a dope as ever, we would run straight in to each other and every single time, he would look as shocked as the first time I ever played that trick on him. I realised during those games, that the more excitable and squeaky my voice was, the harder and faster Duke used to play.
Something else I noticed was during the evenings, when it was time for my obligatory Pot Noodle that I used to have and right around the time that Happy Days used to air on the TV, Duke would sit and look at me forking the noodles in to my mouth, drooling…and usually farting too. His eyes would draw almost a triangle route in the air, from the pot noodle, to my mouth, to my eyes then back to the pot noodle again. When I’d had enough and it was just the gravy left, I turned that into a game too. His eyes were quite quick when they moved so I used to see if I could catch him right at the moment he looked into my eyes, always with his head lolloped towards the left too, as though he was trying to hear what I was thinking so that he could get to the gravy that bit faster. I know now, that that was my first experiences of practising eye contact with a dog, although at the time, it was nothing more than a special game we used to play, much to my Aunt’s annoyance!
Perhaps Dukeys’ most valuable lesson though, was how he taught me to move around dogs. When he got excited, he used to drop in to a bow and then he’d grunt and quickly turn around in loose circles, almost like he was dancing. He looked almost graceful too, although he wasn’t much of a graceful dog. I knew on those occasions that he was happy and wanted me to play with him and almost instinctively I used to copy his movements. We got into a rhythm where Duke would go first and I would watch, then immediately copy what he did and after a short time, we would both end up in a wiggly heap on the floor, with Duke again bouncing and licking and drooling and farting and me shrieking from the fun of it all. I have no idea why I used to do it or what it was that told me it was OK to behave in the same way. Perhaps because I saw his elation and was inquisitive as to what it might feel like if I did the same. Whatever it was, that movement is something that to this day has stayed with me and many a dog since has responded to the game in the same way that Duke did all those years ago.
When I was three years old, not long after my only sister was born, my parents moved us in to a pub to live called The Plantation. To this day, the pub still stands and is now run by one of my mothers dearest friends, Sue. Not long after moving in, I remember vividly waking up. It was a Saturday morning, so there was no school, which meant I was left to occupy myself until my parents woke up with kids TV.
As I stumbled out of my room and across the apartment landing into the living room still rubbing my eyes, a little ginger dog suddenly sat bolt upright on the sofa. In that instant I remember freezing. I wasn’t quite sure if what I was seeing was a joke….a dog didn’t live here! I was at an age where I still believed in goblins and fairies so it crossed my mind that what I was seeing might actually be a ghost. But I also believed that ghosts were see-through and this little ginger thing was anything but. I can also recall the events of the conversation I then had with my mother, that went a little something like this and had me running backwards and forwards between the living room and my parents bedroom:
Me: Mum! Mum! There is a dog sat in the living room!
My Mother: Yes, Kaley, I know.
Me: But, why?
My Mother: I don’t know. Why don’t you ask your Dad. Probably for the same reason he brought you home the duck that you wanted.
Me: Oh. Ok. Well what’s it called?
My Mother: IT is a she and SHE doesn’t have a name yet.
Me: Oh she’s a girl just like me! …….Can we call her Barbie?
My Mother: No!
Me: Why not?
My Mother: Because she’s called Barley.
Me: Hey! I thought you said she didn’t have a name! Why do we have to call her Barley?
My Mother: Because Barley rhymes with Carly (my sisters name)
Me: Well I think that’s just stupid and Barbie is better.
My Mother: Kaley, shut up and go watch TV with the dog now will you…..and don’t torment her. Ok?
…and that was how I came to meet the sweet but fiesty Barley, our little childhood companion and our stealthiest protector. The one that taught me everything you shouldn’t do when it comes to dogs….