Whippets and wolfhounds

2013-07-03 00:00

THE British love their dogs. They love lots of things, for sure, including beer, cricket, and bacon and eggs, but they have a special place in their hearts for dogs. Peer across any green space in a large city, or down a quiet alley in a little hamlet, and you are likely to see someone wearing long pants, boots and a windcheater with a well-behaved pooch on a lead tucked in close. And like their owners, they are usually controlled, well-behaved and understated, and often prefer their own company. Dandie Dinmonts, Cavalier King Charles spaniels and whippets, they all trot around demurely, cocking haughty snooks at passers-by. They generally don’t snap at strangers but will not shy away from an ear rub without expressing excessive exuberance. I recently saw a large, imposing, white pit bull trotting past within sniffing distance of a dachsie in the main pedestrian thoroughfare in Cardiff, without so much as a passing glance towards him. Try that in Church Street, Pietermaritzburg. It would be like a sardine dangled in front of a great white.

I assume their restrained demeanour is largely the result of them being bred for companionship over many generations and not for security. Also, I think, the activity of the dogs mirrors the type of society they live in. Orderly and well-organised, First World, I guess. Misbehaviour will not be tolerated and most people (and their dogs) comply with rules and regulations. Those mutts that did not toe the line would have been sent to dog heaven many generations ago.

Seeking lunch, my family and I entered an ale house in Beddgelert, a quiet village nestling in the green hills of Gwynedd, Snowdonia, northwest Wales, and comprising a couple dozen houses, six pubs and a church to cater for the sins of those who frequented the pubs too often. The place was packed but we secured seats somewhere in the middle. Very few people made eye contact and those who did, acknowledged our presence with a nod of a head, before continuing to stare out the window or deeply into their pint of local brew. Even the dog under a chair at the counter barely raised its head during the short period of time we were there. A dog in a pub, you might ask? Imagine the average South African canine in the Keg or at Frankie’s. It would be chaos. The thought of our own mutts running amok over tables laden with bottles of Old Speckled Hen and Fiddlers Elbow produced intractable giggling from the two female members of my family that echoed around the smoky walls and threatened to upset the placid stupor. I eventually led them out of the place to prevent upsetting international relations. The Scotty under the chair cocked an eyelid as we traipsed past as if to say good riddance.

They weren’t always like that, of course. British history is littered with stories of conflict and mayhem, and their dogs were bred to match their barbaric intent. Mastiffs and foxhounds were the corgis and Cairns of today. Gelert, the story goes, was a dog of great stature, a magnificent wolfhound, with the strength of a mule, an appetite for a fight with the wolves that abounded the area, and yet as gentle as an angel with the family cat and with children. He lived long ago when even the gnarled and warped oaks, ashes and alders in the surrounding woods were young. Llewellyn, a Welsh national, had the great fortune of marrying the daughter of the English King John. Gelert arrived as part of the dowry and the two became inseparable companions. Befiting his new status, Llewellyn built a hunting lodge in this green and bountiful valley. One day, apparently, when Llewellyn was out hunting, his faithful hound went missing. On returning to the lodge, the prince found Gelert, his fur matted with blood, his jaws drooling and panting with exertion. And in the far corner of the room, the cradle of his son was overturned and empty, the bedding torn and shredded. Assuming the dog had killed the infant, he drew his sword and plunged it into the hound. But Gelert’s dying wail was answered by the cry of the child, hidden by the overturned cradle. Next to him lay the body of a wolf, its throat ripped apart by the mighty jaws of the now-dead dog. The mortified prince buried the dog with honour in a meadow and marked the spot with two large stones, one at his head and one at his feet, and then built the church nearby as an offering to God for saving his son. The hamlet of Beddgelert (the grave of Gelert in Gaelic) gradually evolved around it.

Legend has it that from that day on, Llewellyn no longer smiled.

Maybe the patrons of that particular pub were his distant relatives.

• The author is a practising vet with a passion for his profession and a giggle in his heart.

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