By Our Dogs We Are Known

Dogs bridge the social divide
By John Verling, November 2020
Dogs bridge the social divide

While standing outside Easons bookstore in Tralee, County Kerry, I see Richard, a man I know, walking through the crowd, head down in deep conversation with an elegant-looking lady. We say a brief hello as he hurries past, and the lady with him glances at me with a look of recognition. I try to place her, but as she’s in close discussion with Richard, I only get a side view of her face.

I’m waiting for my daughter Ruby, who’s buying a few last-minute college things around town before leaving for what will in all probability, be a few weeks away from home. Ruby has been home for the days just gone, but we both know that with the pandemic spreading, it’s for the best that she returns to Limerick until the worst passes. Neither of us is saying anything, but the feeling is there.

Waiting for Ruby gives me time to stand still and watch Tralee go about its business; I think this is the first time since the March lockdown that I have had time to do that. After Richard passes, a few more familiar faces go into Easons or carry on to Penneys. People nod or say hello, but often I don’t recognise them, as most are wearing a mask. Wary of coming too close to anyone, I keep moving, sentry-like, up and down outside the shop.

A few minutes go by, then Richard reappears on his own, with the usual smile on his face. I smile back, happy to see him.

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“How’s Daisy?” he asks.

Daisy is our family dog. A lovable ball of fur who wriggles and smiles when she sees you, she’s small in stature but holds a huge place in all our hearts. I take Daisy for a walk around the town park every morning. We usually leave around eight o’clock, doing two laps of the 35 acres, meeting other dogs and their owners along the way. Who we meet and where depends on what time we leave home. How Richard knows of Daisy and why he’s asking me about her catches me by surprise.

“She’s fine,” I answer, always happy to talk about our little ragamuffin.

“That was my mum with me; she asked ‘Who’s that man?’ when we said hello,” Richard explains, probably noticing the quizzical look on my face. “She meets you every morning in the park with Daisy, when she’s walking Alfie,”

“Ah, that’s why she looked familiar,” I laugh, placing the lady Richard was talking to earlier: Alfie’s owner.

Each day, I enter the park through the kissing gates by Castle Countess. Often, as I walk up the well-worn, poured-concrete steps to the path, I meet Alfie and his owner—if not right at the top of the steps, somewhere close by. Alfie’s infatuated with Daisy; if he doesn’t see her, he’ll stop and not move until Daisy comes along. If they are ahead of us in the park, Alfie will sit down and not budge. Daisy shows little interest in Alfie, but it’s nothing personal. Daisy just loves humans over dogs.

Often, Richard’s mum will be pulling or cajoling him to just move, to little or no avail. The other dog with them takes no interest in Daisy, except maybe to bark before going for a sniff in the leaves. For Alfie, though, it’s love, and most mornings I’ll try rush past, apologizing for delaying the team out for their walk.

Without Alfie by her side, I didn’t recognise Richard’s mum, though we have had many laughs at the hopelessness of Alfie’s love.

It’s the same around the park. We meet Bailey and her master every day, and each time, Daisy and Bailey have a barking match and block one another’s path until one of them blinks and gives way. I’ve no idea who Bailey’s owner is or where he lives, though we have great chats most days. There’s also Teddy, a small black fellow, who’s in love with Daisy too. Like Alfie, Teddy won’t budge until he sniffs at Daisy, much to his owner’s annoyance.

I’ve often spoken with another walker about our dogs, the upset he went through when one died and about caring for his sick father when in A&E one night. I don’t know his name and almost didn’t recognise him this morning when I met him without his dog. I was later than usual, and the man had already walked the dog and was on his way home after doing the shopping.

One of the women I meet always apologises for her Yorkie snuffling around Daisy, but as I tell her, there’s no need. Another who doesn’t know me but whose son is a friend of my wife’s through work, will stop to discuss politics and whatever is in the news, while her new arrival, Scarlett the Beagle, gets to know Daisy. Their tetchy relationship is improving, but Scarlett definitely takes after her movie-heroine namesake at times—not that Daisy is the best example of how to behave in public. We meet at different stages of our walks and are known to each other only by our four-legged companions.

When I come home each morning, my wife will ask who we met and I’ll list off all these people whose names I do not know, starting with “Oh, Alfie and his owner,” (now “Alfie and Richard’s mother,”) or “Bailey and Bailey’s dad,” or “the Polish lady and her funny little dog,” and share a few lines from each conversation.

Now I realize I’m probably a story in another kitchen when morning walks are done. I’m “the man with the beard with Daisy.” It is no doubt the same all over the world. There’s something warming about the simple ways our dogs define how we are recognised. The nod, the chat and the comments on the weather make for a pleasant beginning to a day and start lovely friendships.

What the dogs make of it all is anyone’s guess.

John Verling is an Irish writer and a freelance journalist. His work features in national newspapers, magazines and online. He is a father of three and lives with Lisa and family in Tralee Co. Kerry.

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