Saturday, 12 June 2010


Imagine for a moment that you are a person who really, really loves pets, but can't have one because your landlord won't let you, and that you are forced to look at this face multiple times every day:

(West Highland White Terrier)

Did you just have a cute overload? This little fellow was the tenth most popular dog in Britain in 2009. According to Kennel Club registration numbers, nearly 6,000 Brits own a Westie, which I have long thought to have some of the most unbearably darling mannerisms of any breed. Apparently all of these Westie owners congregate in Falmouth, because I see more of these perky-tailed terriers trotting down the street than pretty much any other breed. They were originally "developed," to use an impersonal (but accurate) word, in Scotland, to dig out foxes and badgers. While I was living in Chapel Hill, NC, I pet-sat for a Westie named Cooper (full name: Cooper Pruitt--seriously, can you get any cuter?). Although most dogs seem to like me pretty well, probably because I am the biggest sap ever and will let them get away with just about anything, Cooper was unreasonably fond of me, and I had many pleasant evening jaunts in his company. One of my biggest regrets in leaving Chapel Hill was that I did not kidnap Cooper and take him with me, and seeing his British doppelgangers everywhere is always a bit poignant.

A close cousin of the Westie is this guy:

(Jack Russell Terrier)

If you watched American television in the 1990's, your first thought was probably "Eddie!" and you would be right--this, like the adorable pet in Frasier, is a Jack Russell Terrier. Lots of dogs are mistaken for Jack Russells, because there are very similar breeds that not only look the same but also have similar names (e.g., Russell Terriers, Parson Russell Terriers, etc.), and many of them have probably interbred. Like Westies, these were bred for fox hunting. Remarkably, these do not even make the top 20 list of the most popular British dog breeds, which I find unfathomable because I see them everywhere. When I say everywhere, I am being pretty literal, since you sometimes walk into a pub and see someone with a Jack Russell, or hop on a bus and find a Jack Russell sitting at someone's feet (Does a dog need a ticket to ride a bus?). Once, when my husband and I spent a night at a fancy-schmancy spa, there was a distinguished old gentleman in the lobby, accompanied by his Jack Russell in the four-star hotel--overnight! Oddly, more than any other dog breed, people love to let Jacks off their leashes, and the dogs don't run away. I can't tell you how many times I've watched untethered Jack Russells trotting earnestly behind their masters, barely even taking the time to stop and smell other dogs' marks on the wall, or eat bits of food on the sidewalk, or any of the other things that dogs normally do. It is unnatural.

There are three other terrier breeds that I see quite commonly: the border terrier, the Staffordshire bull terrier, and the (regular) bull terrier. I had never actually seen a border terrier in real life until I moved to Britain. They are quite an odd breed--sometimes they are really cute, and other times they are really not. Mostly, they look kind of like the canine version of a crotchety old sailor, or a wind-weathered farmer from the highlands:

(Border terrier)

A lot of their cuteness is determined by the little beard (which, actually, is a shock of fur that goes full-circle around the muzzle and even sticks up on top)--how long it is, and how scraggly--and also by their eyes. For some reason this breed often has off-kilter eyes, with one just a bit higher or more googly than the other. If this little face looks familiar to you, you may be remembering Baxter in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy. These guys are seventh on the list of most-popular dogs, which doesn't surprise me given that I always see them being walked in pairs around town. Evidently they get lonely easily.

Staffordshire bull terriers are one slot above them on the list, and these are another distinctly British dog. In the US, you are more likely to run into pit bulls, which, unfortunately, have quite a bad reputation despite actually being quite intelligent, loyal, and sweet dogs, provided they aren't trained (or given a willful lack of training) by ignorant, violent morons. Staffordshires are a bit shorter and more squat, but do give the same general impression of being capable of lethality when/if necessary:

(Staffordshire bull terrier)

As you might guess given its formidable physique, this breed was originally developed to bait bulls, a truly appalling and thankfully extinct form of recreation. As with border terriers, Staffordshires always seem to come in pairs or even trios. I get the impression that they are not the most intelligent of dogs, as they seem quite happy to mindlessly idle in front of shops while waiting for their owners to return and resume the walk. They just sit there looking blandly about, without a care in the world. They do seem to be quite sensitive and calm animals (although some of them, particularly the darkest ones, can look quite demonic, with those pointy ears and overly-muscled chests). It's good that these generally seem well-behaved, considering their strength and power--I would not want to have two of these guys yanking at the end of a leash and dragging me on a wild chase after every squirrel, gull, Yorkie, or small child in sight.

The last terrier I will dwell on is the bull terrier, which has long been one of my favorite breeds of dog. I have always wanted one, and given that these are the 19th most popular breed in the country, there is a good chance that I could own one if spend many more years here:

(Bull terrier)

This is a (regular) bull terrier, famous as Spudz MacKenzie from the Budweiser ads, as Bill's canine companion in Oliver!, and, most recently, as the Target dog. Pound-for-pound, bull terriers are said to have more muscle than any other dog breed, and I can believe it. I pet-sat for a bull terrier named Wombat, who has to be one of the most massive dogs I have ever encountered. She is a bit old and rickety, and not inclined to rouse herself for long walks, so I was compelled to lift her off the sofa myself in order to coax her out the door. My back was sore for two days after that endeavor, and I got a good bicep workout, also, when I tried to convince her to keep walking forward after she'd decided she'd had enough exercise and wanted to go back home. There is no arguing with a dog that strong. It is no wonder they are called the "gladiators of the canine race."

As you'll have noticed by now, there are an inordinate number of terriers in this country. That is because most terriers originated in either the UK or Ireland, and have been popular here for centuries. There is huge variety in the terrier family, which includes five groups, each of which contains multiple different breeds. Some can be tucked into carry-on bags and practically worn as accessories, while the largest, the Airedale, can be taller than a retriever. Although most terriers no longer have to earn their keep, they were originally developed to hunt vermin (hence the incessant and sometimes compulsive digging of our dog Laddie, a Scottish terrier) or engage in animal-animal combat.

In general, favorite dog breeds in Britain generally tend to be related to some outdoor pursuit, and some of them do actually still work in that capacity. This includes, for instance, the classic hunting companion, the spaniel. There are no fewer than three spaniels in the top ten list: Cavalier King Charles Spaniel (#5), English Springer Spaniel (#3), and Cocker Spaniel (#2). Cumulatively, these breeds account for over 40,000 registered dogs.

I have always been a bit bothered by spaniels, and not really in love with them despite my generally accepting nature of all dog breeds (except the little rat-like lap dogs, which really shouldn't be allowed to be classified as canines, in my opinion). Yes, they have quite silky coats, train well, and are very good family dogs. But their eyes are all pop-out-y, and some of them have such runny eyes that you have to wipe at them all the time just to keep them clean. A few of the breeds also have snub, boxy noses, similar to bulldogs but not quite as atrocious. Take, for instance, the Cavalier:

(Cavalier King Charles Spaniel)

Look at those long, scraggly ears. He can't even perk them all the way up--what kind of dog is this? Also, what a pompous name. On the other hand, take a look at this cocker spaniel:

(Cocker Spaniel)

Now, obviously, that was a bit of a cheap trick, because this is a puppy and all puppies are cute, but, come on, can you blame me? I want to adopt this dog right now. In any case, there are two types of Cocker Spaniel, an American variety and a British variety. The British one is much more attractive than the American one (a reversal of the usual pattern, ha ha). In case you are wondering where that ridiculous name comes from, it is because they were often used to hunt woodcock. Since we're talking about ridiculous things, I might as well show you what that looks like:

(American woodcock; the British version looks quite similar. Stupendous bill, wouldn't you say? I once stumbled across one of these in the woods and it was so terrified that it flushed straight up into a tree limb and knocked itself out cold for a good 30 seconds. Who needs a rifle when you can just hunt using the scenery?)

Anyway, if I were going to participate in the spaniel trend, I would have to go for the English Springer Spaniel, a truly beautiful dog, and one that I do not see all that often down here in Falmouth:
(English Springer Spaniel)

When we recently traveled to the Isles of Scilly, we took a nauseating boat ride out to see puffins and razorbills and other assorted wonderful birds that hang around on inaccessible bits of rock jutting out of the freezing, choppy waves. Our skipper had what I believe was an English Springer Spaniel (or, at least a mixed breed that was heavily endowed with Springer Spaniel blood), and I could not believe how well-behaved and well-acclimated it was. As we were all boarding the boat at the dock, she waited on the steps and hopped on last, took a quick spin around the deck to make sure all was in order (avoiding all attempted petting because she was busy attending to business), then went into the cabin and jumped into the skipper's chair, where she remained happily curled up for the remainder of our vomit-inducing journey. I had no idea a dog could have sea legs, but she had four of them.

As I intimated above, all of the dogs I'm mentioning here are (or were, when they were first developed) useful not just as companions, but also in getting rid of rats and otters and foxes and various other beleaguered wildlife. You might also notice something else they have in common--they are relatively compact animals. Even the largest, the English Springer Spaniel, is not a giant by canine standards. Undoubtedly, one of the reasons these breeds are so popular is that they are easy to fit inside a flat. This is important because approximately 80% of Brits live in an urban area, and urban areas account for nearly a tenth of all space in this country. Even in cities, many people have small, narrow gardens out back. These are quite nice if you own a larger breed that needs a bit more romping space than can often be found inside the typical British residence.

The final three dogs that round out the top ten list fall in this "larger dog" category. One is the boxer (#9) and the other two are retrievers (Golden, at #8, and Labrador, at #1). I probably see two or three of these every day, but not nearly as often as I see the littler dogs, especially terriers. That probably has something to do with the fact that I spend most of my time in the middle of the city, where people need flat-friendly breeds, and also where people with larger dogs are less likely to go for a walk, when instead they could head somewhere more spacious (e.g., the beach). Interestingly, the Labrador retriever is not only the current most popular dog in the UK, but also in the US and, in fact the world. I guess that means an image is warranted:

(Black Labrador Retriever)

You may be thinking, That's all very well and good, but who cares, other than animal-crazy Caitlin? Well, as it turns out, the British care. British people are absolutely insane about their pets. Where I lived in Williamsburg, we had three pet stores and a fourth on the way at the time of my departure. I worked for one of at least four petsitters in town, earning as much as nearly $1000 a week during the busiest times of the year. I pet-sat for people who cooked their own dog food, for people who insisted on giving their dogs only healthy "treats" such as carrots, for AKC championship winners, for dogs with more toys than I ever had when I was a kid...I could go on and on with crazy pet stories. The point is, it is hard to live in a country like the US, with endless animal-product commercials and animal charities and celebrities with high-profile animal companions, and imagine that there could be a place where people could be even more insane over their pets. But then I moved to Britain.

According to some possibly-spurious internet statistics, nearly half of all UK households have a single pet, and most have more--7.2 million total dogs, 7.3 million total cats. In a single evening of television watching, you can see adverts for pet insurance policies (as in, their health and safety and their vet bills), home-for-life plans (insurance guaranteeing that, if you die, your animal will be provided with a safe, loving home), pet supplies, and any number of pet charities, including the RSPCA and other rescuers, animal health groups, and animal welfare groups. As I already mentioned, you can take pets practically anywhere--inside most shops, inside many cafes, on public transport (even the ferry to the Isles of Scilly, which is a 3-hour journey). Look down the sidewalk, and you will see a row of water dishes outside cafes so that dogs can refresh themselves while their owners shop. You will likely also see at least one or two dogs tied to posts or thoughtfully-provided leash rings, waiting patiently for Mom or Dad to come back. Unfortunately, you may also see a few piles of dog poo, but for the most part you don't, because the authorities provide special trash cans--especially common along major walking routes--for tossing out poo that you've scooped. It's all very civilized and wonderful, this total integration of animals.

You may noticed that I just said "animals" after focusing mainly on dogs. That's only because most of my experience is with dogs, but there are many others, as well. I often pass house cats, but they are mostly very uninterested in my affection. They are quite street-savvy, these British cats; they look both ways before crossing the road, they stay away from strangers. There are also loads of chickens, though mostly in backyard coops, such that you do not see them often. We have friends who keep chickens, and it is quite lovely to get batches of fresh eggs from them. I believe that rabbits are quite common, also, though for the life of me I can't figure out why--they never really seem to do much except twitch their noses and scamper into the back corner of the hutch when people get too close, but maybe I've just interacted with the wrong animals. Flocks of pigeons wheel around above the city, and at least some of them are homing pigeons that someone releases each morning and shuts back up each evening. Then, of course, there are the "working" domestic animals that dot the landscape--horses, the occasional mule or donkey, cows, a seemingly infinite supply of picturesque sheep.

In any case, I think you can tell a lot about people by watching their interactions with animals (I always said I'd never keep a boyfriend that Laddie didn't approve of). If that is the case, then the Brits can be said to be quite a caring, generous, and thoughtful people. Now if only I could find more of them who are in need of a petsitter...

1 comment:

  1. Hello

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