You can’t go dog-walking without a dog, but it would be easy for this project to leave this essential element in visible, as if the fact of having a dog was enough, but the fact of having this dog was irrelevant. In fact, the dog’s (as it were) personality, and the walker’s relationship with it, matter, in subtle but significant ways.
When I first conceived this project we had one dog, Lovejoy; by the time my AHRC funding was approved we’d acquired another, but before long the first had died. We’re about to get a third to bring us back up to two. But it isn’t so much about numbers (though that’s relevant, even on the mundane level of having to keep your eyes on two animals at once, which might affect what else goes on in your mind). Lovejoy, charming and respectful of people as he was, was extremely unsociable with other animals, so he very rarely went off his lead, except on the beach where we could keep a close eye on the horizon and a good grip on his attention with a ball. Materially, I always had a lead in my hand when walking him, and was always aware of any other dogs, cats, rabbits etc nearby. Not very conducive to thinking through creative problems, you might think. Possibly; but Lovejoy knew and accepted the routine, so on the whole he trotted along faithfully by my side. Because he wasn’t off the lead roaming free, it was often easier to keep an eye on him than a better behaved dog, and easier therefore to let me thoughts drift into writing.
Here is Lovejoy chewing something:
The new dog, Cap, is a failed sheepdog, a tricoloured short-haired border collie, the most gentle and submissive dog imaginable. He’s off his lead most of the time; walking with him I feel freer, though there’s a different rhythm to my attention: I look up more often to check on him, I speak to him to baulk his progress and bring him back to me. Inevitably this must alter the space which walking provides for my brain to work creatively, though I’m not sure (yet) whether this difference is either significant or measurable.
More generally my relationship with the dog(s) helps to determine the route, feel, conditions and events of the walk. I’ve already said that I might be holding a lead (or not); the number of hands I have free might determine whether I can feasibly write in a notebook mid-walk (I don’t, on the whole). But my decisions about a walk’s route are also determined partly by the dog and my relationship with it. Dogs learn habits just as we do, so my tendency to go over the same few routes is reinforced by the dog’s expectation that that’s where we’ll go, and to lead me there. At times, too, when we get to a junction, I’ve experienced the dog ‘asking’ me to go a certain way, facing in that direction and turning to look at me. (I might agree to go that way, or not). Or my knowledge of the dog’s personality might condition me to make certain decisions: because Lovejoy was unsociable, I’ve been even more inclined than I might otherwise have been to avoid busy routes. Now that I have a different dog with a different personality, I’m having to unlearn my habits and forge a new human-animal relationship and walking identity.
For more on human-animal relations, a good place to start is Hayden Lorimer’s article on ‘Herding memories of humans and animals‘.