All one’s animals are special. So much loved, so much missed when they die, and so often in one’s grief one feels they are still around, loath to move on when they know we are still so sad without them. We feel paws needing the bed at night, hear a purr from an empty cushion, register the touch of a cold nose against our hand, the heavy weight of a dog leaning against our knees for a moment as we stand looking at the view, become conscious of the brush of a cat’s tail around our ankles. What I was not prepared for was for my lovely Briard, Diz, to come hurtling into my new novel in a small but vital star appearance. Unplanned, not in the synopsis, not even in my head until the second she arrived, she has turned into a boy for the occasion (boy dogs are bigger of course) and, at least in the first draft of the book, the Briard is called Nero. To my horror, after I had written her bit into the scene, I found myself sitting at the key board in floods of inconsolable tears. It had all reminded me of how much I still miss her. Briards, for those who don’t know are huge shaggy French sheepdogs. Diz was black.
A few years ago I wrote, with her active connivance as she was the heroine of the piece, a short article for the magazine of the British Briard Club (known to its aficionados, somewhat confusingly, as the BBC). This is a slightly amended version of what we wrote!
It is not that Dizzie has an inferiority complex. Briards, as we all know, do not do inferiority! It is just that when her magazine, The Double Dew Claw, comes (and how many dogs have their own magazine?) it is full of snooty show dogs. This award. That award. Firsts. Seconds. Even , reluctantly , Thirds. Where are the Briards who don’t do showing?
When we brought her home, small black and scared, we explained to her that we weren’t show people. In fact, we weren’t really dog people. Oh, we had a golden retriever, Freya, but she thought she was a cat, and the cats - lots of them - knew just where a dog’s place was. On the floor, out of sight, and in the back row for the Aga.
Diz listened and learned and for a while kept her opinions to herself. She was at the time the youngest in the house. Then Little Bee had kittens. Great! Diz wouldn’t be the smallest any more. But surely this couldn’t be true? She was, she discovered , supposed to put up with little cats swinging from her beard! Cross eyed and stunned by their sheer nerve she accepted it, and after a while grew to love them, flattered I think by their unashamed worship of her. And her day would come. Wouldn’t it?
Oh yes. It came. She grew. And she grew. And she grew! She discovered she could look onto the kitchen table without having to stand on her back legs, then without even having to stand on her toes. She discovered she was a thief and how to cultivate a look so innocent of any crime that Freya was accused every time - just because she always looked guilty and meekly took the blame, even when Diz had the evidence hanging from her moustache! Then Diz discovered she had sheepdog genes. She practised on the cats. Luckily they thought it a great joke to be rounded up now and again and they actually appreciated it when she decided that sibling spats were getting out of hand and neatly stopped the combatants in their tracks, separated them and, having decided who had started it, gently showed them the cat flap. Her more dubious musical genes are of unknown origin. Are Briards known for their operatic skills? She loves to sing. Noisy signature tunes are best. She can, and does, sing every note of the Neighbours theme tune. (No, of course WE don’t watch it. The TV is put on for her benefit!) She loves Songs of Praise, pressing her nose against the screen, howling the hymns, verse after verse. Recently she tried Gilbert and Sullivan. She quite liked Handel’s Messiah and was enchanted by John Tavener. Her tastes, as you can see are catholic!
Being a herding dog she loves to be busy. She knows every corner of the large garden by name. If I say I’m going to the greenhouse she is there before me, and if I divert and become distracted a black nose nudges my hand. She reminds me I have gone to the wrong place. I said greenhouse - would I like her to show me the way? Nobody had told her of a change of plan!
One night a cat managed to get itself trapped under a falling, (thank goodness empty) bookcase - that’s cats for you, causing trouble again! Diz realised that this was an emergency. She broke the rules about not coming upstairs, (I drew the line at sharing the bed with a Briard that stood about 26 inches at the withers and weighed goodness knows how many stone) padded up to my bedroom in the early hours, came round to my side of the bed and gently nudged me awake. The message was clear. Mum, this is urgent. Serious stuff. I followed her and found the cat completely hysterical trapped and very frightened under the huge fallen piece of furniture.
So, how do others regard my Briard? How often have I been stopped with the words ‘I love the retriever - aren’t they gorgeous dogs. But what is that?
That is known by one friend of mine as ‘the hurtling hearthrug’. Could there be a better description? Although it does rather betray her constantly bedraggled appearance. How can Briards with their thick long double coats, be country dogs? They pick up burrs and mud. They trail yards of brambles from their tails, an event so common I have to make sure that on walks I always carry with me my trusty Swiss army knife ((with scissor attachment). She also hurls herself head first into whatever luscious mixture our neighbouring farmer has thought fit to spread on his fields.
To combat this I have devised an instrument of torture known as the ‘paw bucket’ on the grounds that this Briard at least can only be bathed a quarter at a time, otherwise the human (me) ends up in the bath and the Briard up a tree at the bottom of the garden! Sounds disobedient, I can hear you saying. Not always. She came effortlessly top of her obedience classes. All of them. And was praised by her home tutor. Both of them. It is just that she chooses which rules she needs in her life. And baths aren’t one of them. Nor is coming back to heel when there is an inferior (in her estimation) dog out there that can be chased . Once she met a Great Dane. I have never seen such quiet obedience - sitting not just at heel but slightly behind me, gazing anywhere but at the visiting dog! Sadly such chastening visitors do not come often and Diz remains the biggest dog for miles.
We originally bought such a large and extrovert dog because we lived in an isolated house and we needed a guard dog which wasn’t going to present a burglar with every shoe in the house (sorry, Freya, but you know it’s true).
In the noise and guard-dog stakes Diz surpassed all expectation. She has warned us again and again of unexpected visitors, not all of them welcome, some of them in the middle of the night who decided they perhaps didn’t want to come and knock on the door after all when they heard her spectacular roar of fury as they came too close. She arrested our lovely plumber (twice), trapping him in a corner until I could come and say it was all right for him to leave, (he had a bag with him of rattling metal things which she assumed was the family silver. It actually contained spanners and plumberly things!), the carpenter who came to put up some fitted book shelves ( no more cat traps) and once in a spectacular error of judgement, the policeman who had come to see why our burglar alarm had gone off. Luckily he was impressed. He even told us they were trying out Briards in the police dog force. We never heard if they were a success. Anyway, Diz wasn’t volunteering. She had far too many duties looking after her family at home&ldots;.
We have all seen her around the place since we lost her. I am convinced that just as her namesake Nero does in the new novel, in rather more exciting circumstances than hopefully we would ever encounter – you will have to wait till next year to find out the finer details! – she would be there for us in a crisis, as ever knowing that none of us can really cope without her and that just as she always suspected, Briards are the only ones really capable of running the world. They are very special dogs.