After several clandestine conversations with people in the know, I obtained a secret phone number, which I rang.
"Hello?" said a tentative voice.
I said the password that would unlock certain savoury secrets, "I want a dog,"
"That is indeed the correct password," said the voice. "Welcome to Adopt-A-Dog."
"I'm glad I got it right," I said, "but technically it's called a passphrase because there's more than one word in it."
"Errmm..." said the voice.
"Though since it has a verb in it, it's actually more like a passclause than a passphrase," I mused.
"But..." said the voice.
"Though since it makes sense as a stand alone object, it probably ought to called a pass-sentence," I said, following my train of thought to its logical conclusion.
"Never mind all that," said the voice. "Tell me what kind of dog you are looking for."
"A grammarian," I said firmly.
"That's a very rare breed," said the voice, "and we don't have any at the moment. Will anything else do?"
"I want a dog who understands that cats are in charge of the universe," I said. "We have two cats and they are not going to take kindly to a dog moving in. So respect for cats is essential. Also we don't want a puppy we want a grown up dog who knows what's what. And it needs to be a proper dog, not a rat with a fancy hairdo."
"I have just the dog for you," said the voice enthusiastically. "Jake is a huntaway cross who is currently being fostered in a house that is owned by a cat called Shumba. Shumba is a thug, and Jake has quickly learned respect for all the feline race. You can see the training scars on his nose."
"A huntaway?" I asked. "Aren't they normally working dogs on farms?"
"That's what they were originally bred for. But they make lovely pets as well."
"OK," I said. "That sounds good. What's the next step?"
"Here's the phone number of Jake's foster parents," said the voice and it gave me a number which I wrote down. "I'll tell them to expect a call from you."
I rang Jake's foster parents and we agreed a date and time for them to bring Jake round to meet us so that we could see how we were all going to get along with each other.
And that's how we met Jake for the first time.
"Hi," said Jake, wagging his tail and licking my face.
"Hello, Jake," I said. "Sitting over here is Robin. Say hello to her."
"And the cat on the sofa is called Bess," I said. "Be wary of her. The cat who is nowhere in sight, because he ran away outside as soon as you arrived, is called Harpo. You probably ought to be wary of him as well."
"Hello, Bess," said Jake, and he stretched his head out and sniffed her.
"Piss off!" hissed Bess, and she threatened him with a claw.
"Careful Jake," said Jake's foster mum. "She'll give you a snotty if you get too close. You know what cats do. She's just like Shumba."
"OK. Got it," said Jake and he returned his attention to me. "What are you like at giving tummy rubs?" he asked. He rolled over on his back and his paws became extremely limp-wristed. I gave him a tummy rub and he went into a trance.
"Well, you two seem to like each other," said Jake's foster mum. "Before we let a dog move into a new home, we always like to meet the people and inspect their property, just to make sure that it's suitable for dogs. We look for a secure, fenced area for the dog to run around in which is definitely important for the dog's future happiness. But actually I think it's much more important to see just how the dog reacts to the new people. Dogs can always tell if they are going to be happy or not in a new place, and sometimes when we visit a potential home, the dog just falls asleep without interacting much at all with the people. I'm pleased to see that we don't have any problems like that here. Jake seems quite at home already."
"He's a lovely dog," I said. "What's his background?"
"He's a failed huntaway," said his foster mum. "He's not very good at herding things because he's got the attention span of a gnat he's always getting distracted by something new. And he's afraid of sheep, which is a big disadvantage when it's your job to herd them. But the farmer put him up for adoption instead of just shooting him because he's got such a lovely temperament."
"So, Jake you're scared of sheep, are you?" I asked him, and I stopped rubbing his tummy for a moment.
He briefly came round from his trance. "Nasty, woolly horrors," he muttered. "They kick without warning you know. I don't like that. How about you steer your left hand down a bit and start rubbing there?"
I did as instructed. His head fell back and his eyes glazed over as he relapsed into a coma again.
"Well it's beginning to look like a done deal," said Jake's foster mum. "Let's start the administrative processes and get the paperwork out of the way. I should think that he'll be able to move in with you next weekend. How does that sound?"
"Sounds good," I said.
"Yes, indeed," said Robin.
"Oh, goodness me. No! Don't do it!" said a horrified Bess.
"See you next Saturday," said Jake as he trotted off with his foster mum.
We spent the next week stocking up with dog stuff. We bought a kennel and put a cushion in it. We bought a bucket and filled it with water so that he'd always have something to drink. We bought an enormous bag full of dog biscuits for him to eat, and we bought a rope so that we could play tug'o'war with him. We bought dog chews for him to gnaw on, and dog treats to surprise him with when he was extra-specially good.
The next Saturday Jake came back to our house. "Oh, hello," he said. "It's you again."
"We probably ought to make this quick," said his foster mum. "So I'll go back home straight away and leave Jake to make himself comfortable with you."
"Welcome home," I said to Jake. "You live here now."
He shook himself, then he sat down and scratched. "How about we go for a walk?" he asked.
The days passed, and we quickly fell into a routine. Jake gets a walk on the lead in the morning and another one in the evening. Round about lunch time we drive to a local park that is very dog friendly, and he gets to run around off the lead. He plays with all the other dogs, chasing them, herding them and barking loudly at them. Then they chase him for a while. Luckily, all this exercise tires him out so that when he's at home he generally just sleeps. On the rare occasions when he's not sleeping, he passes the time by licking his willy, making loud, satisfied slurping noises as he does so.
"Why do you keep doing that?" I asked him one day.
"Because I can lick my willy, but you can't lick yours," said Jake. "I'm trying ever so hard to make you jealous. Licking your own willy is the best way that a dog has for proving his superiority."
Looked at in that light, I had to admit that everything he said made perfect sense. So now I just let him get on with it while I look on and listen. Enviously.
"Why do you have to slurp so loudly when you're doing that?" I asked him. "Sometimes you drown out the sound of the television."
"I slurp loudly to attract your attention, so that you are in no doubt at all as to exactly what's going on" he said. "I also do it for the same reason that you slurp the last drops of your milkshake up through a straw. These things are so much more fun when they are noisy."
Whenever we go for a walk, we always take our cellphones with us so that when Jake discovers a dead body we can call the police straight away. Jake and I are both addicted to detective novels and so we know that almost all murder victims are found by dogs who are being taken for a walk. We haven't found any human bodies so far, but it's early days yet. We have found a dead rabbit and a dead bird, but they had both been corpses for such a long time that most of their interest had vanished, and thankfully they didn't need to be rolled in. I was very grateful for that.
To begin with, Jake wasn't very good when he was walking on the lead. He was so eager to race ahead that he pulled and pulled and pulled, and then he pulled some more. Because he's a very big and very strong dog, I spent most of our first few walks lying face down on the ground being dragged along by an enthusiastic Jake who was super keen to follow a brand new, fascinating smell that he'd just discovered. Every day I came home with grass in my hair and scorch marks on my jacket from the friction. Something would have to be done.
"OK, Jake," I said, "this is how it works. Every time you start pulling we will come to dead halt. And we won't move until you sit down and calm down. Then you get a treat and we start walking again. As long as you walk without pulling everything will be fine. However every time you pull hard, all the fun stops because the walk stops. Of course, as long as you walk nicely, the fun will never end. How about it?"
"I don't know about that," said Jake dubiously. "But you're the leader of the pack, so I suppose we'd better give it a try."
Huntaways have the reputation of being extremely intelligent dogs. It only took two training sessions before Jake got the idea and by our third outing, he was behaving perfectly on the lead. So it seems that the reputation the dogs have for intelligence is very well deserved. Next week I'm going to start teaching him Relativity. The Special Theory, of course, not the General Theory. It's important always to start with the simple stuff.
Although Jake is well aware of the behaviour expected of him, he is a boy and therefore he is not able to multi-task. When something interesting happens, all his training vanishes, and he starts pulling hard on the lead again. "Something interesting" is best defined as "anything at all". Pedestrians passing by need to be chased down and said hello to. Groups of children on their way to and from school have to be herded onto the edge of the footpath furthest from the road. Other dogs have to have their bottoms sniffed. Interesting smells have to be followed as far as they go. And all these things have to be done at maximum speed. So he continues to drag me around on our walks. So far only one jacket has actually burst into flames, but Jake peed on it to put the fire out, so that was all right.
One of the parks where Jake can run off the lead to his heart's content has a lot of streams flowing hither and yon through it. Many of the dogs who run there will happily dive into the water and swim after sticks. Jake, however, is not a swimmer; he's much more of a paddler. He fastens a knotted handkerchief onto his head, rolls up the legs of his trousers, and splashes happily in the shallows. Other dogs call him a wimp, but Jake doesn't care. He's bigger than they are and he can bark louder and longer than they can.
We've been together for several weeks now, and we have a well defined path that we always follow on every walk that we take. I think it's important for a dog to have a settled routine so that he can get used to the way things slowly change from day to day as we walk around our well-trodden tracks. This became very clear to me when, out of boredom, I went round the circuit in the opposite direction one day. Jake wasn't impressed at all. "What's happened?" he complained. "All the smells are upside down!"
"Sorry," I said. "I won't do it again."
And so far I haven't.
Acknowledgements: I'd like to thank Jane Lindskold, whose comments on an early draft of this article gave me the idea for several extra jokes.