Me and my dog: ‘You be you and I’ll be your fool’
Paul Howard’s basset hound, Humphrey, has had a stubborn streak from day one
Paul Howard with his dog Humphrey, at home in Co Wicklow. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
We have hit middle age at exactly the same time. Our hair is losing its colour in many of the same places. We make a similar low groaning noise when we get out of bed in the morning. And we are becoming increasingly partial to the mid-afternoon nap, usually waking up, drooling and disorientated, next to each other on the sofa, where he knows he shouldn’t be. But he knows equally well that I’ve given up explaining the rules of the house to him. Humphrey’s resolve is stronger than mine. I think he sensed that from day one.
Basset hounds aren’t like other dogs. I watch my brother’s dogs respond to his commands and it always seems like magic to me. In 7½ years, Humphrey has never come to me when I’ve called him. As an experiment, I once said his name 200 times in succession to discover if this defiant streak had a breaking point. But he sat there stubbornly staring at me, just beyond petting range, ignoring this insane mantra. Then, once sufficient time had passed to make it look like it was his idea, he came to me, full of wet-nosed, tail-wagging affection.
More than a few people have commented on the fact that I have the same relationship with Humphrey as Ross O’Carroll-Kelly has with his daughter, Honor
My wife and I took him to a dog trainer once in the hope that he might learn some semblance of obedience. The trainer laughed when she saw that he was a basset hound. “Does he go outside to poo and wee?” she asked.
“Yes,” Mary replied, “he’s fully house-trained.”
“Then you’ve done well. Everything else, just write it off as personality.”
So that’s what we did. Through all the incidents and accidents he’s caused down the years, we learned to apologise and laugh about it later. Like the time I attached his lead to a park bench outside the post office in Avoca village. He heard a distant bark and took off at full pelt, dragging the bench behind him like a sled dog. I ran out of the post office in pursuit as he crossed the forecourt and headed for the road. By the time I caught him, the bench was in several pieces. I returned to the post office to apologise to the owner, who had tears of laughter pouring from her eyes and who refused to accept money from me on the basis that it was a long time since she’d seen anything so funny.
There was another day when we were walking through St Stephen’s Green during a beautifully sunny, weekday lunchtime. A man sitting on a bench eating a sandwich made the mistake of taking his eyes off it to smile at a passing woman. I felt a sharp tug on the lead, then turned in horror to see Humphrey relieving him of his lunch.
The man didn’t see the funny side of it. But then neither did I a short time later, when, having laid out a cheeseboard for some friends who had come for dinner, I walked into the room to find him standing on the glass table, noisily grazing his way through four pounds of Sheridan’s finest.
We put it all down to personality, just as we did when he was expelled from the doggy daycare centre where we left him occasionally. The owner received a solicitor’s letter from a neighbouring businessman who was driven to distraction by the barking of one dog in particular – “a basset hound” – and we were politely asked never to bring him again.
More than a few people have commented on the fact that I have the same relationship with Humphrey as Ross O’Carroll-Kelly has with his daughter, Honor. I’m a sort of bemused onlooker rather than a figure of authority. My brother has suggested I write a dog-training manual, entitled, Oh, Well – What Can You Do? I never had a dog as a child and had no real desire to have one as an adult. Mary and I are one of those couples the ISPCA are thinking about when they warn people not to buy a dog for Christmas. We did it anyway. We made the decision while half-drunk on the good feeling that Christmas brings and bought a food bowl on Christmas Eve, knowing that this committed us to getting a dog early in the new year.
I always had a fondness for basset hounds because Lieutenant Columbo had one: a big, ornery lump of thing that was too lazy to walk and had to be carried everywhere. I liked the idea of a dog with that amount of personality. So Humphrey – three months old and very adorable – arrived into our lives in the third week in January. And we thought, “Oh, no, what have we done?”
Very quickly I realised that a dog didn’t fit into my life. I work from home, which means that he was there with me all day, always demanding my attention. He urinated all over our new carpets and at night he cried for his mother with a distress that upset me deeply.
It didn’t help that I had a deadline to meet. I was trying to finish the book that eventually became NAMA Mia but I couldn’t concentrate for more than 15 minutes at a time.
Every rookie error in the book, I made it in those first few weeks. Instead of confining him to the floor-tiled kitchen, I gave him the run of the house. Mary arrived home from work one night and saw me through the kitchen window, stirring a pot of something on the hob and staring wildly into space, unshaven, unshowered and sleep-deprived, while this puppy ran wild through our newspaper-strewn house.
She phoned John Boyne, who had recently been through something similar with his own puppy. She said, “I think Paul’s having a nervous breakdown.”
John’s advice was to hang in there. This mistake could turn out to be the happiest mistake of our lives. Given time, Humphrey would fit into our world just as we would fit into his. He gave us two valuable pieces of advice. Firstly, he said, the dog was running amok because he was waiting for us to tell him the rules. And secondly, he wasn’t pining for his mother at night – he was pining for me.
I took one of my T-shirts from the laundry basket and dropped it into his bed. That night, he went straight to sleep, reassured by my scent that I hadn’t abandoned him.
Then something happened that changed everything. He became sick. It was the lethargy that I noticed first. He wouldn’t get up in the morning. Then I found puddles of strangely coloured diarrhoea around the garden. I took him to the vet. Tests confirmed parvovirus, a particularly nasty viral disease that is fatal in almost all cases involving young dogs. The vet operated to remove a length of Humphrey’s intestine and said the next 48 hours would determine whether he would live or not.
We found a common rhythm. I get up early to work. Humphrey ensures this by beginning a chorus of high-pitched whining at around 5.30am
A day or two later, he seemed to be recovering well and we were allowed to take him home. But that night, Mary noticed that his stomach was very badly distended, as if something had burst inside him. At 10pm, we drove him to the Emergency Veterinary Hospital in UCD. They said they would do what they could to save him but we should prepare ourselves for bad news.
Off he trotted with the vet, trustfully wagging his little tail, while we went home and cried and waited for the phone to ring. At 5am, we had a call to say that they’d successfully operated on him and he could come home later in the day.
And that was the moment that defined our relationship. I decided that day: “You be yourself and I’ll be your fool.” Which is how it’s been between us ever since.
We fitted into each other’s lives just like John said we would. We found a common rhythm. I get up early to work. Humphrey ensures this by beginning a chorus of high-pitched whining at around 5.30am. We spend a minute or two saying hello to each other – bassets are affectionate, gentle and utterly devoted – then he goes back to bed until 11am, when he wakes and pads out to the hallway to await the arrival of the postman. When the post comes through the letterbox, he makes a run at the door and barks for a minute or two. Then he spends the two hours until lunchtime either ignoring me with the cool indifference of a cat, or trying to entice me to play with him by bringing me a succession of toys. Sometimes, if I’m concentrating hard, I won’t notice this until I stand up to fix our lunch, by which time there could be up to 10 toys on the floor beside my desk. Usually, they’re the ones that he thinks I have a bias towards and that breaks my heart every time.
After lunch, we walk. But first he tries to get at the cats who live two doors down, then heads for a bush where four years ago he found a doughnut and is convinced he will again. He determines the pace of the walk either by storming ahead at the end of the lead or by pulling against it. I try to encourage him along by saying, “Quick, quick,” and I recently heard a child say to his father, “Daddy, Daddy, here comes Quick Quick!”
He will be eight years old soon – late autumn in the life of a basset hound. Karen Tiernan, who runs a sort of Disneyland for Dogs in Wicklow where he sometimes boards, told me recently she’d noticed that he’d slowed up a bit. She said it with the sad smile of a woman who’s seen it many times before.
Like a lot of purebred dogs, he has suffered with his health. He has hip dysplasia in one of his back legs, requires artificial tears to be administered to his eyes three times a day and suffers occasional bouts of irritable bowel syndrome, a legacy of his brush with death. He has arthritis in his right shoulder, a blister on one of his paws that refuses to heal and has recently started to develop a collection of interesting allergies.
But then he is no different to the rest of us as we grow in age. His body is like a vintage car – all you can do is fix the problems as they come up and try to keep the thing roadworthy.
Humphrey is my first dog and he will probably be my last, mainly because, like many pet owners, I can’t imagine feeling this way about another animal. Any other dog could only suffer by comparison. Sitting in my office, curled up on a mat while I write, he has filled my working days with love and laughter and valuable lessons about patience and being true to your nature and letting others be true to theirs.
The happiest mistake of our lives is right.
Dancing with the Tsars by Ross O’Carroll-Kelly will be published by Penguin Ireland on September 6th, €15