How to love a dog

Investigative journalist Mike White turns his mind to a softer, sentimental shape - his dog Cooper, the subject of his latest book.

I had a cat, once.

My sisters had been given a cocker spaniel to share. In an effort at balance, I was given a cat for my birthday.

Josie was fine: undemanding, moderately affectionate, and was ultimately hit by our neighbour as he sped down his driveway. Of course, the impact didn’t kill her outright, like an open road accident would have. The vet was left with that task.

I don’t remember a lot about Josie – as I say, she was obliging, and periodically caught mice, which was seen as useful. But she never captured me like any of my dogs have, and never meant so much to me. I can’t remember missing her when she died, certainly nothing like the way I’ve missed all my dogs.

I have only one photo of her, half-curled, presumably contented, sunning herself on the deck of my father’s truck. My father was a milkman and he would start work at 2am so the milk was delivered cool and uncurdled, in time for breakfast. Every damn morning of the year. When he arrived home, the truck was at Josie’s disposal.

That photo of Josie is in black and white, but the scene loses little for that – she was sort of speckly grey anyway, and the truck deck was plain.

There are a lot more photos of the dogs who followed her, all in colour, generally with more interesting backdrops. High in tussocky hills, in full flight at the beach, hanging hopefully at picnics. They’re really good at that last one, that deliberate mix of patience and pleading. Their strategy is twofold: Wear you down by staring till you weaken and hand over a sandwich crust; or position themselves close enough for an opportunistic snaffle if a crumb tumbles.

A dog’s life is often about these small excitements – walks, food, games - interspersed with periods of tedium and expectation, daily routine as if Morse code: long-short-long-long-short-long…

We got my current dog, Cooper, from the SPCA. He was found dumped in a Northland forest as a puppy, and spent the next two months in Whangarei’s SPCA. Nobody wanted him, it seems. So they shipped him down to Wellington where they hoped his chances of being adopted might be better.

When we saw him, he was in a cage with a much more desperate and demonstrative cellmate who leapt at the wire and squirmed and pissed himself with eagerness to get our attention. Cooper sat at the back of the cage, either bemused or bored. We took him for a walk and when we stopped, he sat on my partner’s lap. Well, there wasn’t going to be any debate about getting him after that.

I like to think he’s had a good life in the 10 years since. We certainly have. I know it sounds soppy, but I spend much of my day smiling because of the dog. You can’t walk a dog and see their joy sniffing at a world of thrilling possibilities, and not share their happiness.

I love watching him when he’s asleep, too - just the whole happy serenity of it. And the dreaming – the twitching and grumbling and whimpering. When people see this, they always say, “Oh he’s chasing rabbits.” Like shit. Cooper’s never chased a rabbit in his life, why would he start in his dreams? Chasing cats? Much more likely. And definitely sticks. But not rabbits.

My day is bookended by walking the dog. In the morning before breakfast, in the evening when the sun is somewhere out to sea. Every day.

The routine is solid, the destinations regular, the pace slightly slower, now Cooper is getting on. Oh, I mean, he can still sprint at good speed, and we still take him running and tramping. But you start to notice he’s a bit stiffer when he gets out of bed, and the leap into the back of the car is more carefully sized up - a little more laboured, with a bit more of a run-up.

He hasn’t gone very grey around the muzzle yet. But I notice how he’s not in such a hurry to get up in the mornings, happy to stay snug in his beanbag under the heater. The day can wait just a little longer to get started.

I mean, there’s no mystery in this. You can’t buck an inevitability like aging. But it’s a change, the kind of change that gets you thinking.

So I’ve started to take more photos of him. I don’t kid myself about this – I know what’s going on, I know I’m doing it because I’ve let myself think, who knows how much time he’s got left?

Cooper is ready for his close-up. Photo: Mike White.

The last time we went tramping I took a load of photos of him swimming after sticks and curling into our laps, dripping, happy. It’s probably his favourite place in the world, and I wanted some record of that.

Likewise at Waikanae Beach the other weekend, when Cooper ran circles on the sand and became a silhouette each time he ran in front of the sun that was mooching just above Kapiti Island. He loves this place too, especially at low tide when the sand goes on forever and there are sticks galore to choose from. So I took several videos, Cooper pirouetting and hurtling out of shot, leaping small waves to retrieve his stick.

I don’t know if I’ll ever watch them when that time comes, after he’s died. I don’t know if I’ll be brave enough. Maybe I won’t feel the need.

But I want to have them, just in case. You need to have more than just one photo.  

How to Walk a Dog by Mike White and illustrated by Sharon Murdoch (Allen & Unwin, $35).

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