by Philip Gardner


My dog's name is Phoebe. She's a golden cocker spaniel and is my best friend. I bought her from a backyard breeder, which was probably a mistake, because when she arrived she was in terrible condition.

I picked her up one Friday morning, and had to take her to work because I didn't want to leave her alone in a new house. I sneaked her into my office and shut the door. I found a bowl in the nearby kitchen, filled it with water and put it down for her. She was a little round ball of silky smooth golden hair and she whined and cried for most of the day. I thought I could keep her hidden, but I hadn't reckoned on the smell. She wasn't house trained and had a bad case of diarrhoea. After an hour the office was putrid. The nose wrecking smell wafted through the room. A colleague who came in screwed up her nose in disgust and told me I'd better clean the place properly before the boss came in. She liked Phoebe, though. Who could resist that white muzzle with brown freckles over it?

That night, the importance of buying a dog from a reputable breeder became even more evident. Phoebe had a fit. She shook her head violently, her eyes rolled, she whimpered and moaned and started to slobber. I had to get her to the vet quickly. The vet told me that she had ear mites, and the excruciating pain of these microscopic, white, wingless demons burrowing into her ear canal had caused the fit. The ears had to have drops put in, and the black discharge cleaned from them regularly. I was afraid that she might be epileptic as a result of this condition, but she recovered without any permanent side effects.

People advised me to put the dog in a kennel in the backyard, but I couldn't help myself. For the first few weeks, the house was wall-to-wall newspapers. Phoebe was very unreliable. There were puddles and piles everywhere. I tried to predict them, but it wasn't easy. I'd take her outside and she'd waddle happily around sniffing everywhere, so I'd think it was safe to bring her inside. Three minutes later - spurt, splosh, oh no!

She was totally dependent on me, so when I went for a trip north I worried. I had to stay in a motel overnight, and I wondered how Phoebe would go sleeping in the car for the night. I thought she might cry and bark, and keep everyone awake, so I consulted the vet. He prescribed some sedatives to make her sleep. "Just give her one or two about an hour before you want her to settle down," he advised.

But they didn't put her to sleep, they just made her confused. Believe me, a confused cocker spaniel is real trouble. I let her out for a walk and she wobbled and weaved all over the place. She couldn't stand up properly, but rather than settle down and go to sleep, she whimpered and looked forlornly at me. I debated giving her another tablet, but was frightened to give more than the prescribed dosage. So I had to sit in the car with her for ages till she went to sleep. I've never closed a door so softly as I did that night when I left her sleeping soundly.

It's said that cocker spaniels are not the most intelligent of dogs, and I have to agree. Phoebe has always been paranoid. When someone comes to the front door, she barks and howls and leaps at them. It looks frightening, and is very embarrassing. "Sit!" I tell her in my firmest voice, but she's convinced that any visitor is a homicidal maniac who is here to kill everyone in the house, and that they have to be frightened off. What's even more embarrassing is that she treats me the same way when I come home. "It's me, you stupid dog!" I call through the door, but it doesn't make any difference. I bought a book about cocker spaniels and it talked about coming home to be met by the dog's " warm and flattering greeting." Well it certainly is that. I smiled at the thought of thousands of spaniel owners all over the world arriving home and being harangued by maniacal dogs at the front door. The amazing thing is, when you open the door, she doesn't jump all over you, she runs into the front yard and chases birds!

The car is the worst place. She loves to go for a drive, not so much because she enjoys the experience, but because she can't stand the thought of anyone going somewhere without her. As soon as I pick up the car keys she's there, leaping and barking around my legs. But when we stop anywhere, there's trouble. She sits quite happily in the car until someone comes to the window. "What a beautiful dog," they say, putting their face up to the window and smiling at her. Phoebe, perhaps frightened by their reflection, leaps snarling at the window and bashes her nose against it. The unsuspecting victim inevitably recoils in shock. "She's just frightened," I say apologetically. The victim nods and gives a weak grin. I leave as soon as I can.

She loves to go for a walk. At five o'clock every night she sits and stares at me, whimpering softly. If I stand up, or move, or pick up my headset radio, she starts to dance. Zorba the Greek has nothing on Phoebe when it's walk time!

Cocker spaniels are hunting dogs, and they love water. Phoebe can't wait to jump into a river, flop into a rock pool, stand in a fish pond. She laughs and pants and her eyes light up when she finds water. But spaniels also have fairly long hair. Phoebe's hair becomes full of weeds, seeds, water, mud, thorns, sticks and lumps of indescribable things that she has rolled in. At least now she knows she has to be washed when we come back from a walk. "In the bath!" I tell her, and she trots down the passage to the bathroom and jumps into the tub.

She has a high sense of duty. Once she decides that something has to be done, nothing can deter her. Once I bought a side of beef to have at a spit roast the next day. I kept it in the bath because it was too big to put anywhere else. I had to get up at 5 o'clock the next day and get the spit going. Phoebe sat in the bathroom all night. She knew she wasn't allowed to have that meat, and she was going to make sure no-one else had it either. Whenever there was any movement in the house, Phoebe growled menacingly. A burglar could have taken the television set without being bothered, but that side of beef wasn't going anywhere without Phoebe's permission!

Phoebe is getting old now. She's eleven. Her back legs started to wobble recently and when we took her to our vet, he recommended an immediate operation. He referred us to a veterinary surgeon, who told us that a disc in Phoebe's back had "blown", and was pressing against the nerves in the spinal column, causing the message between brain and back legs to be lost in transit. One course of action would be to confine her completely - put her in a cage - for three or four weeks, in the hope that the swelling around the spine would go away. There was only a small chance, he said, that this would solve the problem. He said that surgery was more likely to fix the immediate problem and prevent further damage. When a dog has been your best friend for ten years, you do what has to be done. The vet operated that day.

The amazing thing is, after Phoebe came out of the surgery, her mind was just the same as before, even though her body isn't (nerve damage tends to be permanent, and its effects can't be completely reversed). She still leaps around at walk time, she still hates it when someone tinkles the front door bell; she still follows me all over the house no matter what I'm doing; she still gets upset when I go out without her; she still laughs and smiles when I chase her round the back yard; she still comes up to me when I'm lying on the couch, sits, lifts her ears, then hits me with her front paw until I pat her. She's still my best friend.

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