By David Carson
I know what people say about me. I hear them when I pass them in the street or in the park – there’s that dog walker woman. But I’m more than that. There are many who depend on my success for an enhanced life.
It’s not a full-time job, training a guide dog. But you need to be properly committed, from when you take ownership of the dog to returning it. I’m organised, and I’m focussed. Maybe too much so – I never seem able to keep a boyfriend for long. Whereas, by the end of a year, I’ll have given the dog what’s needed to be a reliable and faithful companion.
Sam was my sixth dog. I know this. I keep a careful note of each one. I have photos and notes of what we did together, a kind of dog diary. I often look back at these records between dogs. As well as being a comfort, it’s a reminder to me of what I have to do to be successful. Repetition. Routine. Recognition Reward. My four R’s, and a good recipe for man and dog alike.
Sam was a golden labrador, light brown coat and large liquid eyes. He was alert and curious, sniffing his way round the back porch to find his bowls and bedding, making himself at home. Over the next few days he showed himself to be obedient but not docile, responsive but not aggressive.
My routine was well established. My job was to familiarise him with everyday sights and sounds. And so each day we set out to walk around the streets of Dundee. Crowded pavements, supermarket aisles, buses, and even the corridors of the local secondary school provided Sam with what he would experience when a fully-fledged guide dog.
I try to stay matter-of-fact as I describe all of this. You’re not meant to let your emotions get in the way. Up till then I had always succeeded in separating the training from other sorts of involvement. But he was different. I began to notice this when I took him out of the urban environment and into the country. I’ve always thought that my dogs needed to at least sample something bucolic. It’s a way of learning self-discipline for them, no straining at the lead when an interesting scent wafts past, no chasing rabbits or sheep.
Sam did none of these things. We went in my car to a small wood near Muirhead.. It’s quite a popular spot, but on this day there was nobody. When he jumped out of the car, Sam was quiet. He followed me up a short track then along a path and into the wood. I let him off the lead. Although he took an interest in the damp undergrowth, he didn’t run ahead, he didn’t lag behind.
I came to a fallen tree trunk and sat down. Sam came up close and nuzzled my skirt between my knees. Then he sat. He sat for half an hour, and it was clear to me that he was alert, listening – to the creak of branches and the rustle of leaves – and watching – a red squirrel as it skated up a tree, a small army of ants as they marched over dead wood.
As we walked back to the car, his expression was one of pleasure and gratitude.
Another trait that set him apart from all the other dogs that I have fostered – for that is what it amounts to – was the one that eventually proved a terrible undoing. Of course I didn’t know this at the time. It was when we were returning from the wood. Sam was in the back of the car, behind the grille. I assumed he was sleeping after his walk. I took a CD out of the glove compartment. I like music when I drive. (I like music at most times, in the morning when I go into the kitchen, at night when I’m writing out my logs of the day.) I slid the disc from its container and wiped the surface with the cloth that I store with the CDs. Immediately Sam heard the first chords – a symphony by Beethoven – he raised his head. He listened. He wore the same expression as he had earlier, under the trees. And his head bobbed to the rhythm. I turned the volume down, and he whimpered. He stopped when I turned it up.
I knew I had to test this facet of his character, so when we got home, I beckoned him into the kitchen. I took another CD from the rack, cleaned it and put it on. A piano concerto by Mozart. I watched and noted his reactions. He nodded his head in tune and in time, lay down at the andante, stood, a paw in the air at the allegro, and pushed his head into my hands at the finale. These gestures were repeated so regularly that I knew what I had to do.
We had walked in front of the Caird Hall on many occasions, admired the soaring columns and its air of solidity. Took nine years to complete, I told Sam, and how it was built on jute and named after the eponymous baron Jimmy Caird. If the exterior is impressive, it is inside that the true glory lies. The acoustics are amongst the finest in Britain. In answer to Sam’s quizzical look, I explained that this was not cultural chauvinism, but the reason why so many renowned symphony orchestras return year after year, and why the audience (which can number over two thousand) is so appreciative and enthusiastic.
I checked the events for the Caird online, and after a discussion, we chose a concert to be given by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra in a fortnight’s time.
I had an end seat four from the front next to the central aisle. Sam settled underneath it, head just protruding into the passageway. He was on the lead, which I held on my lap. I had removed the metal frame but kept the identifying label.
There is a ritual to a classical music concert whose familiarity both relaxes me and fills me with anticipation. Routine and reward in such close proximity.
The players appeared in ones and twos from the wings, and took up their positions. Some sporadic notes preceded a more concerted tuning. I whispered to Sam to watch the lead oboe as she sounded the A note. The other players joined in, and a strangely unified cacophony ensued. This died to silence, and the conductor walked briskly on stage and mounted the podium before turning to the audience with a bow. His raised baton was the signal for the music to begin.
Tapiola is the last piece that Sibelius wrote. It paints in ever expanding chords a forest in Finland, dark, brooding, melancholy, but dramatic too. Sam listened intently, pushing his front paws further into the passage, and I imagined him reliving his walks in the wood, padding through its sombre light. The musical motifs grew and combined, like a tall thick-branched tree. Sam stretched his neck as the coda, led by strings and brass, slowed and faded to silence.
The lights went on for the interval. I pulled gently on the lead. It was time for a reward, and I nodded to the empty seat next to mine. Sam stood and jumped. I looked behind, and saw some of the audience pointing and whispering. I was used to that, and continued to stroke behind his ears.
Perhaps we should have left then. Perhaps I was expecting too much. Perhaps I was being selfish, wanting to stay for the second half. I now see it was fanciful of me to think that Sam would enjoy The Carnival Of The Animals. I will long regret my lack of judgement.
As the music progressed, through depictions of hens, tortoises, kangaroos, I sensed only a slight restlessness next to me. The elephant came and went, the restlessness became agitation. I felt the lead being tugged. Not long now, I whispered. I thought the haunting melody of the swan would calm him. It didn’t. I knew we should stand and hasten out, even if we disturbed those around us. The music was building to a climax, and Sam was emitting a low continuous whine.
The last animal to be portrayed is a donkey, and the piece ends with six harsh heehaws. The conductor raised his baton and brought it down like a scythe. Once, twice, Sam was off his seat, I grabbed for his lead but he was too quick and strong, three times, four times, and he was racing at the stage, five times, he was sailing through the air to land on the podium. The tails of the conductor’s jacket billowed between the rails, and on the sixth beat Sam lunged, seized them and yanked them violently. The conductor stumbled, his baton flew over the second violins and clattered at the feet of the trombone players. The music came to a halt in a disorderly racket.
Sam surveyed the chaos, then leapt off the stage and ran back towards me. I seized his lead as the stewards descended on me from left and right.
I was prepared. I knew I had failed. They came to take Sam, and I did not demur. What were you thinking of, they demanded. It seemed the whole world had heard about it. As well as the report in the papers, someone in the audience had filmed the episode on their phone and put it online.
What have you learned, they persisted. Of course I wasn’t going to tell them. I knew I wouldn’t be training a dog again. I disposed of my photos and records, but kept some of Sam.
I sometimes take them with me, when I go alone to the wood. I look at them as I listen to the trees creaking in the wind, the rustles in the undergrowth, and watch a squirrel scurrying about his business. And I know there will come a time when I call on a dog, my dog, to come to heel, and we walk in a companionable silence to my car, then home.