For the first time in my life, I have become a dog-ogler.
I’ve always loved dogs, don’t get me wrong. But my attitude towards them changed completely last week from one of restrained admiration to unabashed doe-eyed cooing, after a four-month old Dalmatian puppy called Storm bounced into our lives.
Although the landlord wasn’t entirely happy at the thought of having his place ripped to pieces by an exuberant, young hound, he did kindly agree to her holidaying with us for a limit of five days, while we agreed to pay for any damage, if it came to that – which luckily it didn’t.
And so it was that we became the temporary guardians of one mad dog. And a mad dog with beautiful blue eyes, a feature both unusual and arresting – a real babe-magnet, in fact.
Everyone, and I mean everyone, no matter what gender, colour, race or religion, appeared utterly beguiled by her – and that in a nation that seems to love its dogs almost as much as us Brits. And so streams of passers-by duly stopped to stroke her, to tell me how pretty she was, ask what she was called, how old she was etc etc.
It took hours to get anywhere – I’ve never been deluged with so many friendly people wanting to chat in my life. You could see why her owner, a single male in his 30s, would have got her – a truly fabulous way to make new friends, particularly when you’re new to an area.
The sad thing about those piercing blue eyes though is that they actually signify an auto-recessive gene that leads to deafness – and Dalmatians are the breed most frequently affected by the condition apparently.
In fact, a huge 30 per cent have hearing loss in one or both ears, with blue-eyed beauties being the most vulnerable, a fact that sees them being routinely spayed or neutered – which will presumably mean that they die out eventually.
But we didn’t have any problems in the hearing department with our little Storm-y. And in fact, I don’t know how we would have coped if she did.
The average four-month old Dalmatian puppy is exuberant and unruly enough as it is without not actually being able to hear you when you’re vainly trying to exert a modicum of control.
They also have the concentration span of a flea. So getting her down to Parkhurst’s Verity Park twice a day without having my arms ripped out of their sockets as she sniffed anything she could get her nose on was a quite feat in itself.
Particularly for someone who has never looked after a dog before in her life and could well have done with a few apt lessons on how to become a pack leader.
But once in the enclosed safety of the park, Storm absolutely loved it, particularly if a Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy called Coco, who was about the same age as her, happened to be around.
It’s amazing just how similar they look build-wise when you see them running around and scrapping together – it’s just that one is brown and has a furry ridge up its back, while the other happens to be white with black spots all over.
But I’ve since found out that Ridgebacks were first developed as a breed in South Africa by early settlers in the Cape who crossed their own European breeds with the semi-domesticated, ridge-backed hunting dogs of the indigenous Khoikhoi people.
Although the breed standard wasn’t drafted until the 1920s in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) – hence the name –it did just happen to be based on the vital statistics of those spotty favourites of fur-coat-loving Cruella Deville. So the likeness between Storm and Coco wasn’t purely coincidental, it seems.
Anyway, another thing that I’ve noticed, beyond my new-found popularity and Storm having a doppelganger, is that most people don’t seem to walk their own dogs here, in the mornings at least.
That particular activity appears to be devolved to their maids, gardeners and/or hired hands who stroll or sit under the shade of trees chatting while their charges chase around, sniffing at each other and wearing each other out.
It’s a different matter in the evenings though, and most particularly on a Friday night. Then, it seems, every owner that’s able makes their way down to the park at about 5pm, replete with plastic cups full of wine or the odd G&T in order to celebrate the end of the working week.
It’s a real social occasion and all very South African – laid back, convivial and a great excuse to have a drink.
Now that Storm’s gone though, life seems strangely quiet. No more little shadow following me around as I go about my business. No more little, wet nose poking into places it shouldn’t. And no more having to hold her back physically the minute that anyone comes to the door.
My particular favourite in that department related to Lancelot the postman. He certainly got more than he bargained for when he rang the bell asking for a Christmas bonus – and got an armful of excited, boisterous dog instead.
But Storm definitely was a Yuletide gift, for us anyway. We may only have had her for five days, but she certainly made a big impression. And, for the first time, I really do get why people treat dogs just like another member of the family.