Poppy and Scruff
About a year after Poppy, the poodle, came into our lives, Peter and I stood entranced outside a pet shop in Ealing. A small white fluffy puppy was doing its best to attract our attention – and succeeding. We’d seen a Sunday Times photograph of a dog we admired in the arms of a well-known actress, an actress whose name I now forget. Was this the same breed? Those were the early days of The Drama Studio in Ealing: a life of students and teachers and the day-to-day running of the school. Naturally we lived and breathed acting and actors so it was natural we’d notice what dogs they owned. [To digress, I was chuffed to see that Forest Whitaker, who’d been a student at The Drama Studio many years after Peter and I split up, won the 2007 Oscar for his amazing portrayal of Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.] Peter and I, happily, are still great friends.
Back to the puppy in the pet shop. The owner of the shop told us it was a West Highland white terrier. He agreed to keep it whilst we went home and found the photograph in the newspaper. We always kept back copies of the Sunday papers - doesn’t everyone? Could we find it? Of course we couldn’t. Regardless, we went back, bought the puppy and named her Scruff. A week later we found the newspaper, found the photograph of the famous actress and discovered that the puppy we’d admired was a Maltese terrier. Wrong breed! Duh! No matter, Scruff was adorable and she and Poppy played together. Our doggy family was happy and so were we.
So why did we get those two breeds? Well, Poppy was bought for someone else, Scruff was bought because, I’m ashamed to say, we were influenced by the newspapers. A bit like people now buy a Chihuahua because they’ve seen Paris Hilton holding her dog, Tinkerbelle, as if it were a fashion accessory. Not necessarily a reason to choose a dog.
Time passed and by then Peter and I were, I suppose, what were called Yuppies in those days. Young, Upwardly Mobile …I forget the rest. Habitat furniture, a Volvo, the Good Food Guide and visits to trendy London restaurants. Always though, I noticed dogs. Once we saw a sports car with two people in front and then realised that the passenger wasn’t a person but a large fluffy dog. We were both captivated and recognised it as a dog we’d seen in the Dulux paint advertisement, an Old English Sheepdog. Sometimes I can’t believe that the breed that was to become the ‘breed of my life’ was chosen because of a paint advertisement. Maybe that’s not a bad thing – it certainly wasn’t in my case - but often people do buy a breed because it’s fashionable and then lose interest when they realise it’s all in the too hard basket. I was lucky - I fell in love with this breed and it’s been that way ever since.
Sloopy, the first Old English Sheepdog
The habit of looking at the pet section of the Evening Standard continued from the time we found Poppy and so, one day, what should I see but an advertisement, again way out in the East End of London, for a six month old Old English Sheepdog who’d apparently outgrown her apartment. This time, rather than taking the tube, I drove and some hours later returned with an enormous grey and white dog who’d been sick all over the back of the car. We called her Sloopy. We thought her perfect and it wasn’t until I got to know more about the breed, that I realised she was anything but – she was long in body with cow hocks, she had a narrow head and her coat was thin and tended to brown. To us though she was perfection, she was the first and she had that beautiful Old English temperament.
But it wasn’t to finish there. Suddenly three were a crowd. Two would play and one would be left out. Logical to get a fourth? Of course. But this time we decided we’d give a home to a refuge dog so long as it was female and large and fluffy. We didn’t mind what. The refuge, somewhere north of London, had dogs tied to trees, stuck in pens, not a good situation but the man who ran it wouldn’t let us have a dog. He told us that we had three young well-adjusted females and that he didn’t have another who was suitable for us. He told us they all had histories and problems and needed a one-person home, so we left somewhat dejected but looking back, he was right.
So, sometime later, again via the Evening Standard, I saw an advertisement for 10-month-old female Old English at Chalfont St. Giles, in Buckinghamshire. Off we went - I knew nothing about puppy farms in those days but that’s what it was. There were puppies of every imaginable breed. Most were in large clean dustbins – you peered down and in the gloom at the bottom would be three or four puppies looking up, crying for attention.
We were shown an enormous run containing around 15 or so adult Old English Sheepdogs. We wondered which of these was the 10-month old bitch we’d come to see. The dogs bounded back and forth, throwing themselves against the wire fence. I’d have been happy with any one of them. Then I noticed a shy little bitch in the far corner who didn’t move. Yes, you guessed it - she was the one for sale - Tara. We changed her name to Muffin. As luck would have it, Muffin had been bred by Colonel Bury Perkins, the Chairman of Bath Championship Show. She was a beautifully made bitch with an excellent pedigree who was to pass on her good qualities to her offspring.
Muffin and her daughter, Peggotty, my first showdog
So there we were with our four dogs: a crossbred poodle, a Westie, who should have been a Maltese terrier, and two Old English Sheepdogs. Twice a day, Peter and I (or just me) walked the dogs in the park alongside Ealing Studios until one day something happened that changed my life. I met Maria, who was walking her three Old English in the same park. We became friends and she taught me how to groom and care for an Old English Sheepdog and then, one day told me she was going to a dog show and asked if I’d like to go with her. I told her I thought it was cruel as ‘didn’t they walk the dogs round and round in circles?’ Well I went and the Old English Sheepdogs I saw at the show that day didn’t resemble my two scruffy bundles in the least. These dogs were immaculate, they were stars. You know how a good football match can be a theatrical experience – well so was this dog show. I was stunned by the beautiful bitch who won that day. She stood there, head in the air, saying to the judge, ‘Me, look at me, I’m the best.’ And she was. I went to two more dog shows after that, the last of which was Crufts, the biggest and most prestigious dog show in the world. At this show, that same bitch won and on that day I vowed that one day I’d breed a dog good enough to win at Crufts. And nine learning years later, I did when Champion Pelajilo Milly Mistletoe won Best Bitch at Crufts, 1981.
Champion Pelajilo Milly Mistletoe
I won’t fill this posting with stories of the Old English Sheepdog part of my life as it went on for years and it continues to this day, as I still judge the breed from time to time. Indeed last year it was my tremendous honour to stand in the middle of the ring at Crufts and judge the Old English Sheepdogs. Circles of life.
Judging Crufts 2006
When Peter and I split up, I moved to Wales, where I lived for six years. Slowly my kennel of Old English increased in numbers – and quality. More Westies got added to the mix. My wedding present to Micky (yes, another husband) was an Irish Wolfhound from the Irish Wolfhound Rescue Scheme. Zelda. What did I say in the last posting – that I knew nothing about hounds? I’d forgotten sweet Zelda, a wonderful creature, more a person than a dog.
And later, living alone in Australia, when Mistletoe, the last of my precious Old English Sheepdogs died, I went to a refuge in Cairns and came home with a mutt – probably more hound than anything else – what is it about a hound? She didn’t last long as she continually jumped the fence when I was out attempting to sell Real Estate. The police got fed up with this dog and suggested I find a more secure home for her. Luckily I did and she lived happily for years on Holloway’s Beach with an old lady and behind a higher fence than I had. At least she was out of the refuge.
UK & Australian Champion Bumblebarn Scramble of Pelajilo on Bondi Beach, Sydney, 1985
So many wonderful dogs, so many doggy love stories but the dog of my life wasn’t an Old English Sheepdog at all but an American cocker spaniel called Milou. And I didn’t choose him. The chauffeur of the lady who owned him brought him to Pension Milou (later named for Milou) when he was three years old. She was sick and eventually died and he became my dog and lived with me for 12 wonderful years. I still miss him and I always will. You can read his story here.
Milou, aged 4 when we lived in Roquebrune
Flavia, a Labrador and a retired guide dog for the blind, came to Pension Milou too and never left, but again I didn’t choose her. I’ll write her story another time. She lived with me for about 6 years and when she died, soon after Milou, I vowed no more dogs. Milou’s death in particular had knocked me for six. And then, there I was last year, driving home with a needy hound in the back of the car. So why?
The truth is I don’t know the answer. I can only think it has something to do with the soulful look in a hound’s eye that appeals to something deep within me but then, not all hounds, just particular ones – mine! You see I can’t answer the question I posed. It probably has nothing at all to do with the dog being a hound or any other breed, come to that – more a connection between an individual dog and me. His soul reaches out and I’m there. We fill a need in each other.
Isn’t that why you chose your dog – or he chose you?