A Dog’s Life
Posted by Vic Steadman on 1st June 2016
Even if I say it myself, I am a very well bred Golden Retriever; my parents came from long lines of working trials winners. I was a very expensive puppy and that is why my earliest memory is rather unusual. My sister and I were taken away from our mother very early one morning and driven from Norfolk to London to a posh house in Marble Arch. It was unusual for a breeder to deliver puppies but I think that, in this case, “the price was right”; I remember him telling us that: “We would want for nothing”.
A 10th birthday party was underway; we were the birthday presents. But, like all too many birthday presents, we were soon to be discarded.
We were taken to the vets and givens lot of injections which included rabies because we were going on a long journey by aeroplane. I did not know what an aeroplane was but it sounded exciting. We set off a few days later but the journey stopped at a very big house with tall locked gates near Slough. The house was very comfortable with thick white carpets everywhere and big squashy sofas. We thought we would enjoy living there but we kept getting shouted at every time we came in from playing in the garden or tried to sleep on a sofa.
After a few weeks everyone started to prepare for the long journey. We thought we were on the way to the aeroplane only to be locked in the stable when all the cars left. We were being left behind and this was to be our home for nearly 2 years. Youseff and Mohammed, who looked after the house and grounds, let us out of the stable in the morning, locked us back in at night, and gave us things to eat. We were free to run around on our own, chasing the ducks in the lake and barking at the deer. We would sit beside the men if they were working in the garden but we were not allowed in the house. Our bed was an overturned box with a couple of blankets to lie on, I liked to climb up on top with a blanket but Sweetie, which is what they called my sister, did not like to do that. Sweetie is a silly name so I am glad that they did not get around to giving me one, I was known as “B dog”, I do not know why or what it meant. Although we were occasionally, well often really, cold and wet we thought these were good times as we knew nothing better. Nobody told us what to do (except keep out of the house) and we would play outside all day.
Things changed very suddenly one day when we met Vic who came to the stable with a woman who was a famous Golden Retriever breeder. Vic rounded us up and put a rope around our necks. I can tell you I was scared; I struggled and fought back as much as I could but he soon had us tied up in the back of his car. Sweetie was crying and was very sick. I tried to reassure her that all was well but was not sure of that myself. After a few hours the car stopped and Vic took us out, we were in a yard with a high fence so had no chance of escape. Vic cleaned the back of the car out, put me back in and then, before I realised what was happening, shut the car door and drove off. Sweetie was left with the breeder. I was now very frightened and lonely but I was not going to let anyone see that. After a few minutes, the car stopped again and I was taken into a field to meet 2 other Golden Retrievers. Toby was a big, wise, gentle old dog. Jack was just a little bit older than me and much darker in colour, and very strong and fit. These were the first dogs, other than Sweetie, I had seen since I was taken away from my mother and I could not understand them. They were sniffing and giving all sorts of signals but I had no idea how to respond. In time these two dogs would become my great friends, my new family, but friendship was far from my thoughts at that moment as we all went into Avon Cottage.
The kennel here was much smaller than the old stable and I had to share it with the other 2 dogs though we were all allowed in the house most of the time. I chose to stay on my own, usually in the kennel area; there was a big tool chest in the yard and I could lie on top of it waiting for Sweetie and a return to our old life in Slough. Vic would take me for a walk with the other dogs giving me a chance to run as far away as I could. I used to stay away as long as I could but I had learned that food followed these walks so I usually followed them back into the garden. But it was on my terms, I was in charge and no one could tell me what to do, though Jack often tried to do so. Sweetie and I had often shared the same food bowl so I could not understand why Jack used to bite me if I tried to take food from his bowl. Toby told me that Jack, after Vic, was in charge and that I had to watch his face and listen to his noises and do as I was told. I was having none of that so got bitten quite often, fighting back each time but always coming off worse.
From left, Toby, Ben and Jack at Avon Cottage
After about 6 months of living in the kennel at Avon Cottage, I walked past the open door of Vic’s office. It looked so homely with Vic working at his desk, Jack at his feet under the desk, and Toby in a bed behind Vic. I had to go in. I sat beside Vic, put my head on his lap and felt him stroke between my ears. I realised that I liked it there, I liked Vic and Jan and the other dogs and wanted to please them all. I was a member of the pack after all.
From that moment on, I lived in the house, no longer ran off, and did my best to please Vic by doing well at training. Humans are very easy to please; all you have to do is stay beside them, sit quietly a lot and bring things to them. For this last thing they love it if you sit and look them in the eyes while they take it from your mouth and it seems the older and smellier the thing is the more they like it. So I learned to retrieve; toys, balls, dead rabbits, rats and birds all had to be taken back to Vic. Then one day all 3 of us dogs got in the car, I now enjoyed car journeys, and drove off to meet a lot of other dogs and I had to work for a living, it was a shoot day.
Working as a gun dog is a lot of fun, and you only work for one or two days a week for four months of the year. It is like play but with a purpose; you run around a lot, jump fences, hedges and streams and sometimes get to swim but at all times you have to make the humans think they are in charge and controlling you. On that first shoot season I spent a lot of time on the lead as I was not very experienced, but I did learn to understand the sights and sounds of the shoot and, most importantly, the smells.
That was the only season Toby joined Jack and me while shooting. Toby was too old to come out shooting again and even stopped coming out on our walks. He used to sit at the garden gate, watching for our return. He greeted us all warmly but you could see it hurt him to move. Two ladies came to see him one day while Jack and I were shut in the kennel. I saw the ladies put a white sack in their car and I never saw Toby again. Vic and Jan cried.
Jack and I were getting on well together as I had learned to understand his foibles and used to let him think he was in charge. We got into a steady routine of training during the summer and working in the winter with lots of love and home comforts at Avon Cottage, far better than my earlier life in Slough.
I remember the last day of the last full shooting season we went on, Vic was struggling to walk and the fields were flooded so we could not get to a wood where a lot of dead birds had fallen. Vic had to send jack and me across the river and up into the wood on the other side. I took great care getting into the river, finding the right place to get out and then making sure I had the birds picked up tidily and in the right balance before returning. Meanwhile, Jack was leaping in, dashing across the river and sweeping up birds as quickly as he could. He must have picked up 3 times as many as me and by the time we finished there was quite an audience watching us. Many of the men bought Vic a drink to reward him for our hard work. In the car on the way back home, Jack told me that he had a head ache and could not see very well.
Golden Retrievers at Work
A few weeks later Vic went into hospital and came out on crutches so Jan had to take us out for our walks. To be honest, walks with Jan are more fun, no training and lots of play; she is easier to please. On one of these walks I got excited and, forgetting Jack could not see, barged into him as a joke. Jack felt attacked and responded in the only way he knew, pinning me down on the ground and biting me. I was very badly hurt and had lost a lot of blood so had to spend a night in the vets. After a few days I had to go back to get my bites checked while Jack went to see an eye specialist. Jack had gone completely blind and they suspected something was “wrong in his head”. While we were getting into the car on the way home I accidentally bumped into Jack and he again attacked me; it took all available vets, nurses and receptionists to get him off me and I was very badly hurt.
After a couple of days back home with me being kept apart from Jack, Vic and Jan drove off with him in the car and returned an hour later without him. They were both crying and I realised that Jack was never going to come back. Life at Avon Cottage had suddenly changed, Vic was unable to walk us and was struggling to go upstairs, Jan had been ill a bit earlier and now I was the only dog in the family.
It was shortly after this that we moved to Wadswick Green. Vic started walking me again, only short distances at first but we gradually got back to our normal long and frequent walks. We even started training again. Wadswick Green has lots of people to say hello to, residents, staff and builders. They all know me and I love going up to everybody so that they can greet me and stroke me. We are all happy again.
Where the story ends, Ben at Wadswick Green
Afternote: Sweetie did not like all the other dogs at the breeders and did not do very well at training so had to be rehomed again after a couple of years (I do not like breeders). She went to live with a friend of Vic’s in the same village so we met up quite often. I have not seen her since we moved to Wadswick Green.