My love affair with Oscar: why life’s better with a whippet

My love affair with Oscar: why life’s better with a whippet

Oscar is a 12-year-old whippet who has seen me through the ups and downs of the last decade – and I wouldn’t be without him
Sun 18 Jul 2021 11.00 BST

I love dogs. Duh, of course I do, who doesn’t? It’s like saying you enjoy sitting up in front of a roaring fire or laughter with friends: somewhat basic. They are precision-evolved to delight us and it works: there are about 12m pet pooches in the UK, which means a whole, diverse swathe of the population has decided life is better with a dog curled up at the heart of it, monopolising our affections, sofas and camera rolls.

Over the past year that increased hugely (3.2m pets were bought in lockdown in the UK). The downsides of soaring pandemic dog ownership are well documented: unscrupulous puppy-farming sellers, clueless owners and dog-nappings (the Nottingham police force even has a dog theft tsar); dogs with behavioural problems and separation anxiety triggered by the transition from everyone home all the time to something resembling normal life. Kennel Club research highlighted new owners’ worries about long-term dog ownership, with many admitting they were not prepared for the responsibility.

But let’s, for once, focus on the very real upside: dogs are brilliant (yes, even better than a roaring fire) and there has never been a better time to have one. We live in an age in which 9 million people follow the wholesome WeRateDogs Twitter account, which scores no dog lower than 12/10, and plenty of pandemic-battered businesses keen to cash in on the puppy pound have chosen to agree. It’s not just welcoming cafés with dog treats by the till or pubs that allow inter-species pork-scratching sharing: rarely a week goes by that I don’t get an email promoting dog spas, gadgets or holiday venues. Just as a small sample: a Mayfair bar makes dog cocktails developed with a canine nutritionist and a Knightsbridge hotel offers “dog afternoon tea” (with homemade dog biscuits and dog ice-cream). Drool, a pop-up dog food hall, will open in Bournemouth this summer offering a “lick ’n’ mix” station, dog cakes and dog-height counters (surely a health and safety nightmare).

All of which is extremely silly – most dogs would happily eat a dirty nappy off the street – but for new or nervous dog owners, knowing that there’s a welcoming world out there is reassuring. Some changes are more fundamental and will make a real difference to dogs’ lives. “More and more offices are allowing dogs in and forward-thinking companies are making a dog-friendly environment part of their benefits package,” says Kate MacDougall, devoted guardian of Mabel (“elderly Jack Russell”) and Henry (“small, loud Dachshund”) and author of London’s No 1 Dog Walking Agency, a hilarious account of her time tending to the needs of a diverse assortment of eccentrics and their marginally saner dogs. “Large companies have been doing this for years, but smaller companies are catching on.”

So now you can work, holiday and share a Poochie Colada (coconut water, kale and broccoli, disappointingly) with your dog. That’s great news, but personally, I’d suggest you don’t really need to be particularly adventurous with your dog for them to enhance your life unimaginably. When I first drove anxiously to collect Oscar, my now-elderly whippet, 12 years ago, I confess I imagined he would be a sort of elegant, trouble-free accessory and our life together would be a photogenic montage of chic, urban walks, cuddles on cashmere blankets and posing on Parisian café terraces. Anyone who has ever met a dog will be unsurprised to hear this did not exactly work out. Instead, I have been his devoted servant for more than a decade of glamour-free trudges round a succession of local parks, poo bags and ball thrower in hand. We have only managed to share a café terrace successfully three or four times at most, but we’ve made up for it in quality time in vet’s waiting rooms. If I try to squeeze under a blanket with him, he slowly but forcefully edges me out (he is an undemonstrative sort and hates cuddling), but if I want to eat a sandwich without an intense up-close audience, I have to lock myself in the loo.

Our adventures have been minimal to nonexistent: delicate as a Jane Austen heroine, he doesn’t like the cold, heat, hard surfaces or organised fun, and new experiences make him anxious (same, dog, same). Despite – or perhaps because of – that, Oscar has been a perfect, constant companion. Having a dog is nothing like I imagined, but it’s so much better. His twice-daily walks save my gnarled, desk-bound body and unhelpfully whirring brain on a daily basis; his idiotic, undignified contortions and insane war on bluebottles make me laugh every day, too. But more than that, there is something profoundly calming about having this small, absurd, loving soul at the heart of my home. Even more so over the past year. As MacDougall says: “When so much of our lives felt out of control, their familiar routines and habits were an anchor.” Oscar is the beloved punctuation around which my life has been shaped – he’s endured four house moves, watched me lose my mind, change my life and get married, and seen my sons grow from small annoyances to giant, ball-throwing gods. He has been here for me through even tougher times than these and he’s behind me as I type, curled into a neat comma waiting for me to finish – it’s time, yet again, for his walk.

Emma and Oscar’s best doggy picks

1. Book For a practical guide to dog ownership, India Knight’s The Goodness of Dogs strikes the perfect tone. She writes like a dream, funny and engaging, with just the right degree of bossiness and every recommendation is spot on.

2. Gadgetry Owners of the hairier types of canine swear by FURminator combs to prevent the swirling, choking, clothes-coating tornado of shedding hair that can be a major downside to life with dogs. Kate Spicer, who knows a bit about dog escapes, says the Tractive tracking system (an app and collar tag) is incredible. “It uses OS maps and you can watch your dog’s progress on your phone.”

3. Boredom busting Separation anxiety can be a real problem and requires more than distraction: consider excellent dog behaviourist Louise Glazebrook’s online course if it’s an issue. But for 15 minutes’ peace, or simply to delight your furry beloved, try a rubber mat you spread with soft treats: Lickimat do great ones. The dog-puzzling market leader Kong remains deservedly popular, to the extent it seems to have become a whole lifestyle now, rather than just a rubber shape stuffed with treats. (Speaking of treats, Beautiful Joe ox liver ones are a serious canine crowd-pleaser and the company donates a tin to a rescue centre for every one sold.)

4. Beds My bony old man is always desperate for warmth and comfort: the much-imitated Charley Chau “Snuggle Bed” changed his life. It’s a giant (fake) fur-lined envelope, into which a skinny dog can insert itself for a cosy, swaddling sleep experience. For the less snowflakey dog, India Knight recommends Hindquarters beds with washable cotton covers: “They have the advantage of being nice to look at as well as apparently superiorly comfy.”

5. On-the-go essentials My panel of dog experts all recommend a collapsible water bowl for mid-walk hydration (The Doggy has a good plain one for £3.99). We need to talk poo: for my money, the best eco-friendly bags are Green Poop Bag. Unlike most of their competitors, these corn-starch-based bags are actually, praise dog, easy to open.