Saturday, 6 December 2008

Bonjour nice Mr Dog - do you bite?

How reliable are first impressions - especially when they seem to be formed primarily on preconceived notions of what should and shouldn't be?

What an unusually serious way in which to begin a weekend post, but fear not, that's about as philosophical as it gets.

Instead welcome to another slice of life in France and a pre-Christmas thought. This time both centre on man's four-legged best friend - le chien.

There was a point in the opening question, as will become clear(er) as/if you read on.

For the moment though, back to the dogs.

Owning a dog in France may not require a licence as in some neighbouring countries, but it's still a responsibility.

That's perhaps especially worth remembering at this time the year, when the hunt for THE present sometimes results in the hasty purchase of a pooch.

Here in France, the Société Protectrice des Animaux (Animal protection society, SPA) while desperately trying to rehome abandoned dogs and cats, reminds us all that a pet is not just for Christmas, but for life.

And of course during an animal's life it's important to ensure that it remains as healthy and fit as possible.

While they're not obligatory here, annual jabs are highly recommended to protect pets (and in this case dogs) against a number of diseases including leptospirosis, kennel cough, parvovirus and of course rabies.

The latter still exists among wildlife in parts of Europe but has been controlled to a large extent by programmes such as the oral immunisation of foxes.

Nonetheless there have been a few cases of transmission of rabies among domestic pets - most recently a couple of months ago here in France following the illegal importation of a dog from north Africa.

"Prevention is better than cure" runs the idiom, so a trip to the vet for those annual vaccinations against the nasties and an all round check up seemed to be more than responsible.

My dogs -there's more than one - are bilingual. That is they ignore me in both English and French.

Mother and daughter, Mabel and Panthus

We've been to obedience classes together and all been taught (in French) how to "sit" "lie" "stay", "come" and even "heel". Somehow though the real meaning gets lost in translation. Or maybe none of us were very good pupils.

That said they're happy souls with a mild temperament and almost infectious joie de vivre. It's a breed thing (apparently).

Apart from food, sleep, walkies and mischief one of their real joys is to ride in the car. They quite happily bounce into the back of it thinking we're off on some glorious trip and that they'll be able to get in some much needed shut eye.

Mind you that only works on long distance motorway journeys as the humming of the engine seems to have the desired soporific effect.

On short hops they tend to spend their time peering out of the boot (trunk) window and happily making their presence known to fellow motorists and passing pedestrians.

But the fact that they travel well makes life that much more pleasant - even if at the other end it's the vet that awaits them.

So this week was jabs week, and after 15 minutes worth of "singing" we arrived at the surgery, struggled into the waiting room - one owner being pulled in what seemed like six different directions by two dogs at the same time - anyone with experience of cockers will appreciate that's entirely possible.

And as the door slammed shut behind us, that's when we saw HIM.

A quivering, muscled mass - a cool 50 kilogrammes for sure - alert and just a little too interested in the presence of my two "girls".

If I had the same generous pilosity as the couple dragging me every which way possible, the hairs on the back of my neck would certainly have stood up to salute and probably done an about turn at the same time.

'Tyson' (that just had to be his name) was one of those Group 1 dogs - a Rottweiler with a terrible public reputation and about which there have been frequent media reports of their involvement in maulings.

In fact there was such a spate of highly-publicised incidents last year here in France, that the interior minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, introduced legislation making the muzzling of such dogs in public and education/obedience classes a requirement for anyone planning to own one.

The beast now facing us seemed macho to the extreme, oozing doggy testosterone and a status symbol that for many appears to be the owner's way of shouting out "don't take a step nearer or else...."

So with understandable trepidation I tried ushering my two over to the reception area as inconspicuously as possible.

But Mabel and Panthus (the terrible two at my end) had other intentions and without a second thought made a beeline for him, exchanging greetings in a manner in which only dogs can reasonably get away with in public.

"Sit," came the command from 'Tyson's' owner - a 30-something guy dressed in a sharp suit and brandishing what looked like a Blackberry.

"Tyson" sat immediately and seemed to 'smile' as my two said "hello".

"It's all right," the owner reassured me. "Clarence is beautifully behaved and very mild mannered."

"CLARENCE" I thought to myself. "Whatever happened to 'Tyson'?"

And that's when it dawned on me.

I had read only the headlines, seen the worst reports on television and built up in my own mind what the dog represented, and heavens, even what he should be called.

Here in front of me was living proof - as if ever I needed it - that there is probably no such thing as a "dangerous" or "bad" dog in itself.

They exist for sure - the stories are out there and appear to be reported with alarming regularity.

Certain breeds have earned the reputation for ferocity because of the way in which owners have handled them, the purposes for which they have been bred and the lack of appropriate training they have received.

But the bottom line would appear to be so often that it's the breeders and owners who are "bad" and the dog is just a result of their behaviour.

Clarence certainly looked like a brute, but he didn't behave like one.

And his owner seemed to be taking his responsibility of looking after a "dog with a reputation" seriously.

We chatted for a while as the other three continued their canine investigations, and it transpired that Clarence was in fact a rescue dog, bought by a family the previous Christmas and then handed in to the SPA at the end of February this year - aged just seven months.

Along with the Summer holiday months when owners "dump" unwanted pets because they don't appear to fit neatly into vacations plans, the post-Christmas period marks an alarming surge in the numbers of animals handed in to shelters.

Such had been Clarence's destiny earlier this year. He had apparently "outgrown his welcome" with his original purchasers as the cute Yuletide present quickly turned into a strapping and gangly teenager within the matter of a couple of months.

Just a shame perhaps that they hadn't realised that before buying him.

Thankfully for Clarence, he had only spent a couple of days at the SPA before "Mr Blackberry" turned up and gave him a proper home with the appropriate training to boot.

And now there he was, calmly sitting in front of me, genuinely grinning and sharing a moment of doggy friendliness with my pampered pair.

When Clarence was called by the vet and made his way politely and quietly out of the waiting room, I was left with my two fidgeters to ponder.

The SPA recently held a huge adopt-a-dog show in Paris, and of course centres throughout the country are trying to rehome unwanted pets all year round.

But one point the organisation is really trying to drive home in the run-up to the holidays is that an animal of any sort is a responsibility. A dog or a cat really is for life.

Let's hope that's a message that will be remembered by all those tempted when staring at that oh-so-cute puppy in the store window.

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