What pets teach us

The other day I was looking through an old memory stick that I have. I discovered a very short video that I had made about five years ago of my two dogs Toby and Skye (which can be seen above).

Now,as can be clearly seen, I am not now nor will ever be a serious rival to Stephen Spielberg. The video was taken with a rather cheap digital camera that had video facility. It was a bright day and the dogs wanted to go out into the garden where they could roam around and play with each other,as dogs do.

Unfortunately, a few months after I took this video Toby, who was at the time of the film 10 years of age and had had to put up with four years of Skye had a serious stroke and had to be “put down” (to use the horrible euphemism that we use at the time that we put them out of their misery).

Looking at the video gave me the chance to reflect on just how much the ownership and companionship of living and interacting with my dogs has added so much to my life. It made me think about the importance of pets in the lives of children and the way that we learn so many skills from our interaction and care of them.

As a Primary school teacher I often had hamsters in my class. It was wonderful to see the way that the clearing out if their cage became such a major event for the children. They loved to play with these little rodents and somehow managed to work out their particular idiosyncrasies, although I have to be honest and say that they all seemed alike to me.

The care of the hamster during the school holidays became a real focus of interest for the children. I had to draw lots to decide which child would look after a hamster for each week of the holiday and how they would be responsible for taking the hamster, cage and food around to the next child on the list! Failure to get chosen in the lot became a real emotional “downer” for many children and frequently there  were tears (but I suppose they were learning yet another lesson in life about the fact that we don’t win them all).

For myself,as all this pet keeping tshool was going on I was completely petless at home. It was only after I married that my wife decided that it would be a good idea to get a dog. Now I had never really had a pet in growing up. We had a cat for a few weeks but my brother developed ringworm as a reaction to the cat’s fur and we had to find the cat a new home. My mother hated dogs.. she had been set on by a dog whilst walking in a dark alleyway in London, where we lived and had a lifelong dislike and fear of dogs.

She managed to pass this fear onto me. I would often walk on the opposite side of the road if I saw a dog coming along. I did experience a few dogs as I was growing up but was very wary of them and would approach with great care.

So imagine my feelings when my wife said that she wanted a dog. I tried to make an argument for how easy our life was just then with just the two of us and how dogs are a tie. She was very single-minded though and determined to get the dog that she had always dreamed of as being a part of her life when she eventually settled down with someone.

We went on a holiday to Cornwall in the summer and she spent most of the holiday looking at everyone else’s dogs. A few weeks later we went to a short break at Ironbridge in Staffordshire. We were in a an old reconstructed Victorian village when my wife spotted a somewhat unusual looking dog. It looked like a miniature version of Lassie except that it had black and grey markings and was very very shy. We were told that it was a “Shetland Sheepdog” which was a miniature collie dog bred on the Shetland Isles where many of the animals were much smaller than their mainland equivalents.

I had always loved Lassie films and was entranced by this almost human animal that managed to rescue the people from terrible happenings. Watching Lassie on film was O.K. but here was real dog breathing and licking in front of me and I tried to stroke her but she turned away. We were told by the owner that the “Blue Merle” shelties were often very shy and in fact we were to later experience the strangeness of this particular kind of sheltie when we bought our second dog (who is now nine years of age) Skye.

It was love at first site for me. I had seen the dog that I wanted and a deal emerged between the dog wary me and my dog obsessed wife… we would get a dog as long as it was a sheltie! A few months later we travelled to Newmarket in Suffolk (about 50 miles from where we lived) and purchased a small bundle of fur, barely eight weeks old, who we called Toby and who was going to totally transform my life.

Since I am writing a blog post and not a book I haven’t got the time to go  into the many many stories that we had with Toby. Suffice to say that we lived in a brand new little two-bedroomed house and Toby managed to make holes in the wall, chew the table legs so that they had to be replaced, chew up a new and expensive rug and dig a hole under the fence at the back to take himself for a walk!

When he arrived he cried all night. I spent hours going up and down the stairs. We then had the problem of puppy training. We were both complete novices with a dog and this little bundle of fur ran rings around us (as well as herding us together as was his sheepdog way).

But slowly and surely we learned to cope with his ways and he became an important part of my life. I had to walk him (I have always walked our dogs). He would be there waiting on the ledge in front of our bay windows as I returned from school every day.When the children had given me a rough time (or more frequently the headteacher) I could take him out for an instant walk to unwind and also have him cuddle up next to me when I felt that I just wanted to cry.

We had an idyllic life in some ways with the wonderful Toby for six years and then my wife had another of her brainwaves. “Toby is getting older now… why don’t we get him a companion?” Now I wasn’t too set on this idea. It meant two dogs for me to walk and it may not be what Toby would have liked. But my wife is very persistent when she has an idea in her head and so, after a few months we went to Suffolk again and took home a bi-merle, black, grey and white sheltie dog called Skye.

Toby had always been such a loving and playful dog. Skye, we were to learn, was a very different kettle of fish. He was obstinate, strong-willed and unlike Toby, he didn’t like people (except us, who he adored). He could be quite aggressive when people came in to see us and nipped a few people in his time. (In fact we have probably lost quite a few friends because of him).

But what we learned from having Skye is what people with children learn. That every dog, like every child, has their own personality and that you need to look for their strengths as well as try to curtail their weaknesses. Skye was there for us when we went through the incredible pain of losing our beloved Toby. I had not really wanted another dog but I was so pleased that he was there to come home to after we returned absolutely distraught from the Vets, after Toby had been given his final injection.

Like Toby, I have learned so much from Skye. He is, as I said above, a very very loving dog to us, his owners. He loves to come up on the couch when I am watching television and I sit there stroking him. He will roll over onto his back and let you tickle his tummy. He loves affection and gives a lot back. At the moment, as I write, we are having a new toilet put into the house and we have had to put him into kennels so that he won’t be disturbed by all the comings and goings. When he isn’t with us we miss him loads and we are only too painfully aware that,at nine years of age, he may not be with us for too many years to come.

Looking back I am so glad that I have had the privilege of looking after my dogs. I have learned so much from them and they have enriched my life in a way that I would never have felt possible. We learn so much from our pets and they are really important in our lives. This is my lifelong learning blog and I have enjoyed writing this piece more than practically anything that I have ever written about education… because it is real and because it related directly to my experience. Teachers need to be aware of this when they give children boring things to write about…. let them express what they are passionate about and the words will flow.

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