#27 Barking Mad (Part One)
‘So, have you got any plans for the weekend?
I was standing with James, a photographer, at an awards event I was hosting and we were in that awkward pre-show limbo, just wanting the thing to start.
‘Well, yes, I have,’ I replied, ‘a dog behaviourist is coming to stay. She’s going to help us out with the puppy.’
‘Oh really, that sounds fun, what puppy have you got?’
‘An English setter.’
James went pale, and seemed to be choosing his next words carefully. ‘Fuck,’ he said, ‘good luck with that!’
My knowledge of English Setters prior to Kipper’s arrival was sketchy at best, well non-existent really, but what I’ve learned since is that they strike fear into the hearts of even the most ardent dog-lovers, as though they’re ungovernable, the bête noir. English Setters have the reputation that precedes a hurricane: it’s inevitable, there will be damage and all you can do is batten down the hatches and hope. Nathalie – same name, same batty animal obsessed kindred spirit as ‘my’ Natalie – thinks differently. Having rescued an English Setter herself, she’s an expert on their foibles and instincts; their energy, their sensitivity and their sheer rampant joie de vivre-laden doolallitattery.
‘You must be a very patient person,’ I said, acutely aware of my own failings in this regard.
‘It’s important,’ she replied seriously, ‘my own dog took years to train.’ I must have blanched at the prospect so she added quickly, ‘I can see though that Kipper is very intelligent.’ Kipper still had a shiny mouth after chewing Maurice’s lip-salve earlier that evening. She spoke to him in French and I spoke to him in English, ‘You see?’ she smiled, ‘very intelligent.’
‘He’s more bi-lingual than I am!’ I joked, breaking Nathalie’s dog passion for an instant and making her laugh.
’Show off,’ Thérence muttered, ‘making sure you got a laugh in early, I see.’
‘Watch it kid,’ I replied, ‘or I’ll find a behaviourist for you too.’
Kipper has been to some dog-training already and he behaves fairly well there, but he’s a sensitive soul and easily intimidated by other more aggressive dogs. The problem I had with these previous training sessions though, was the method, it was too lax. I’m no expert of course, but don’t raise your voice, be always gentle not firm and give treats even if they’ve just swallowed their own lead isn’t going to instil the discipline we need for Kipper to have free rein around B&B guests. That kind of laissez-faire approach to authority is the kind of parenting that produces brat kids whose parents claim to be advocates of ‘self-expression’, while their offspring jump up and down on public transport seating and other passengers mutter darkly about National Service or chimneys.
‘He needs order and boundaries!’ Nathalie snapped over dinner as Kipper bounced from one sofa to the next, scenting cat.
She wasn’t joking.
She came for Kipper at 9am brandishing a choke-chain so heavy duty it looked like it had once been attached to a ship’s anchor.
‘Do you have one of these?’ She was in business mode.
’No,’ I said, feeling like I’d already let Kipper down, ‘we have a harness.’
‘And does it work?’
‘Of course it doesn’t,’ she spat, ‘it’s à la mode, a fashion.’
She put the chain around Kipper’s neck, like penitential bling, and I swear the poor thing looked at me like a pleading John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing, “Look into your heart,” he was saying, “look into your heart.”
I tried to avoid watching any of Kipper’s three and a half hour intensive first session. I occasionally glanced out of the window as he was walked endlessly up and down the garden, a tight grip on the chain here, a treat there. I’m not soft and I know that dogs need training properly for their own benefit, but I am awfully squeamish too. I’m a fan of discipline, I just find it a hard watch that’s all; honestly, I’d be rubbish at S&M. Natalie (my wife Natalie that is) and I had nearly fallen out over the subject of Kipper’s training. She’s a bit squeamish about these things too, but it was I who insisted that Kipper have proper schooling, and not that Hippy-effort he had been having, all Californian ‘don’t raise your voice’ stuff that was obviously having no effect. Natalie thought I was looking for excuses to get rid of him, when nothing could have been further from the truth. But, I explained, we run a business here and we can’t have him jumping up at guests, knocking their kids flying. TripAdvisor takes a dim view of animal molestation, no matter how well intentioned and if we let that happen, it’s our fault, not the poor dog’s.
So Nathalie was booked. And within hours I had a second Nat(h)alie in my life highlighting my inadequacies.
‘No, no, no Yann!’ she said disappointedly, ‘you must be firmer! AU PIED!’ she snapped, it means ‘heel’, ‘AU PIED!’
‘Au pied,’ I whimpered, as Kipper looked up at his master for stronger direction. In three hours Nathalie had Kipper virtually walking to heel and trotting at her side like a police dog on parade, but my natural timidity in my second language was undoing all of that and Kipper was back in Husky mode, pulling at the lead. I eventually got my au pieds to an acceptable level of volume and dominance and Nathalie declared lunch, striding off like a cricket umpire.
Natalie wouldn’t be joining Nathalie and me for lunch, it’s very confusing I know, as she had a meeting, and this was a part of the first day that I’d been dreading. I don’t know how many times I have to make this clear, but I don’t do society, I don’t do small talk but fortunately when you have a fanatic in the room, conversation lulls are rare. The only thing Nathalie was coy about was how many cats she had at home, now either this was because she’d lost count or that even she, self-confessed animal wacko, knew it would be a figure bordering on insanity, so I didn’t push it. ‘We’ve only got the three,’ I said gratefully, noticing Minou sitting on the stairs giving me her usual condescending stare. The cat hates me, winds up all the other animals, spits like a footballer and arches her back at me if I so much as come within five metres of the feline Medusa. Nathalie, as these people do, noticed our stand off.
‘You know what Minou’s problem is Yann?’ Minou curled herself around Nathalie’s legs, like the Quisling she is.
‘Yes,’ I answered, ‘I do know what Minou’s problem is.’ Nathalie beamed, maybe I wasn’t a lost cause after all. ‘She’s fucking mental,’ I said.
Unsurprisingly, I wasn’t required for the afternoon Kipper session, which is probably just as well. Anyway I had to pack. I was leaving early the next day for a gig in London. The Natalies would be left to their own devices for 36 hours and I was not a little concerned at the prospect. I had the sneaking suspicion that on my return Kipper would be like a raw army recruit, stiff backed and constantly at attention; that ‘we’d’ have rescued four hundred cats, and that I wouldn’t be greeted with warmth on my return, but an ‘au pied’ and a choke chain. Ah, some people pay good money for that I suppose, we certainly were.
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