The unexpected appearance of the sun, bright and shiny like a new pound coin, lures me out for a dog walk. After months of drab, grey skies the warm day is both a novelty and a treat. We set off purposefully, my jaunty-tailed black dog paving the way and head for high land. The ground feels boggy from all the recent rain and my Wellington boots, trying to get purchase, slide backwards as I climb. The blue sky is smudged with patchy clouds and in the distance is the sound of farm machinery but mostly all I can hear is birdsong. Spring, it seems, has finally arrived.
We enter a ploughed field pock-marked with crows. They scatter skywards as we cut a path through the middle, the black dog racing after the sticks I throw. Apart from the birds, it seems that we are alone in the world as we pass no one. I drink in the views around me struck, as I always am, by the softness of the English countryside.
We have been walking for about an hour and are nearing home when, from behind me, I hear a sound. I turn and my heart somersaults. Two dogs, of unnatural size, are within touching distance, their arrival sudden and shocking.
I have seen these dogs before. Once, when walking with a friend, they appeared without warning and set upon my dog. Clearly terrified, she tried to outrun her pursuers, but eventually surrendered, cowering on the ground with one of the dog’s nose determinedly locked to her rear end. While I struggled in vain to get the dog off her, I noticed a man and a woman watching us. They stood at the far end of the field, legs astride, holding four other dogs on leads. It became apparent that the big dogs belonged to them but when I called out for them to intervene they just stood there, watching us like we were an interesting program on TV. Stupidly, I hadn’t brought the black dog’s lead, so I had to take hold of her collar and pull her, fighting me all the way, along the field towards home. The big dog remained glued to her rear and no matter what I did I could not get it away.
‘Kick it,’ my friend suggested, when nothing else worked. I did so half heartedly, but I was also mindful of the couple watching us. There was something almost sinister about their indifference. This was not the behaviour of normal dog owners.
By the time my friend and I reached the bottom of the field I was hot with the effort of holding onto my struggling pet.
‘Can you call off your dog,’ I shouted to the man, ‘She’s not enjoying this and nor am I!’
‘What do you suggest,’ he said, in a lazy voice, ‘D’you want me to let go of the rest of them?’ and he raised his hands holding the tethered dogs in a threatening way.
‘Then it looks like I’m taking your dog home with me,’ I muttered crossly, maddened by his lack of co-operation. It wasn’t until I was halfway across the next field that he suddenly reappeared, this time dog free.
‘Don’t know what you were panicking about,’ he said casually. ‘He wouldn’t have hurt you.’ He then hooked a lead onto the big dog’s collar and turned tail without so much as an apology.
Now, here I am again, faced with the same menacing dogs only this time I am alone. One has me cornered. The creature has an almost human gaze, its opaque eyes watching me with disquieting intelligence. It comes right up close, a low, menacing growl emitting from its bared teeth and I realise we have reached that moment, that moment when I finally learn if my docile labrador has that protective instinct in her and adopts a savage fierceness to fend off my predator. She does, after all, possess a bullying nature with passersby who get too close to the boundary of our garden.
It is a fleeting and, when I have time to think about it, foolhardy scenario that I am imagining. My dog takes one look at these beasts and legs it. I watch her fly across the field, the second animal in hot pursuit, moving so fast that within seconds she has shrunk to the size of a black dot before disappearing completely. I call out to her, urging her to come back, because she has headed straight for the road and in her panicked state she won’t stop for passing cars, but my cries are in vain. She doesn’t come.
I turn my attention back to the first dog who continues to stalk me. Its front legs are set apart and there is a thread of white drool breaking from its mouth. I stamp my foot and the animal flinches but doesn’t back away.
This is stupid. I shouldn’t be afraid of a dog albeit one whose size resembles something mythical. But this is not a normal situation. The animal is almost casually bold and without its owner the usual rules of respect between dogs and humans may very well not apply. If challenged I have no way of knowing how it will respond.
I take the risk. ‘Get out of here,’ I say, stamping my foot again and moving forward in a threatening manner. For a moment the dog tenses and a flicker of fear runs through me, then the animal suddenly seems to lose interest and lopes off back up the field presumably to rejoin its mate.
For almost twenty minutes I search for the black dog, calling vainly for her to come but in the end I have to admit defeat and go home. As I walk back through the front gates to our house, however, I find her sitting on the front lawn. She looks singularly unconcerned about the world.
‘Thanks,’ I say, as she gets up to greet me with a wag of her tail, ‘You were a great help.’
The tail moves with increasing enthusiasm and she follows me in through the front door. When it becomes clear there’s no food on offer, however, she heads straight for her bed and curls up in a ball. By the time I’ve made myself a much needed cup of tea, she’s asleep.
Dogs, I think, you’ve gotta love ’em.