I have a daughter called Freya, aged seven, who sometimes makes suggestions for this column but complains that I never take any notice of them. In particular, she is cross with me for never mentioning her dog Lena, a large mongrel that looks a bit like a black curly-haired Alsatian but has on the other hand the sweetest of temperaments. Given this is Christmas, I thought I would please Freya by finally doing so. But I should add that this is not the only reason, for Lena is a dog worth celebrating.
Lena comes originally from Umbria in Italy, where Freya once used to spend holidays with her mother in a rented farmhouse. She appeared at the house one day, starving, emaciated and about to give birth to a litter of puppies. So she was taken in, fed and cared for until the puppies were born and found homes. One might expect an ill-treated and abandoned dog to be surly and suspicious of human beings, but Lena was quite the contrary — trusting, grateful and affectionate. Maybe she wasn’t deliberately abandoned, but was the victim of some mishap. Maybe her Italian owners had been kind to her and missed her. Or maybe even cruelty could not dent her good nature.
In any event, she endeared herself so much to Freya and her mother that they could not bear to leave her behind in Italy when they returned to London and so arranged to have her join them there. So now Lena lives in London, where she seems thoroughly at home. And sometimes she comes up to visit me here in the Northamptonshire countryside, where she has lots of space to run around in and lots of rabbits to chase. It’s a happy ending to what could have been a sad tale, for stray dogs are so numerous in Italy that most can never find new homes, and literally thousands of them die each year from poisoned baits left illegally by hunters to kill the predators of game birds.
But let me get to the point. I have a dog, too; a little Jack Russell terrier called Polly, now about nine years old. I am very fond of her, but she is not an easy dog. She is quite nervous and restless and takes violent dislikes to people for no discernible reason, usually to the nicest and most dog-loving people. She is also ferocious in the defence of any property of mine — old underwear, for example — that she insanely believes to be coveted by others. And you might think that the peaceable, easy-going Lena would find her an infernal nuisance; but actually she rather likes her, since there seems to be no creature in the universe that she doesn’t rather like.
Well, one day I had visitors who asked if they could take both dogs for a walk while I was busy indoors. So off they went together across parkland full of grazing sheep and rabbit burrows. Polly found a burrow among the roots of a dead tree and dived into it enthusiastically. This, apparently, is how Jack Russells often die. The plunge into rabbit holes, kicking up earth behind them until the holes become blocked and they cannot get out again. This was the fate that threatened Polly when one of my guests ran back to the house shouting that she was stuck down a hole and would I come down quickly with a spade and an axe to get her out again.
But when I arrived thus equipped at the scene, I was told I was no longer needed. Lena had carried out the rescue instead. She had widened the hole by scratching away earth with her paws and then further enlarged it by tearing bark from the tree trunk with her teeth. This gave Polly an exit route from which she duly emerged as cocky as ever and without the smallest gesture of gratitude to the animal that had saved her life.
So this is the tale that Freya wanted me to tell you, and perhaps she was right to want me to. For while there are many examples of dogs like Lassie showing great courage and ingenuity in defence of human beings, I haven’t before ever heard of a dog showing such loyalty to another dog. Perhaps this happens often, and Lena is not the unique animal I imagine her to be. But whatever the case, this seems an appropriate moment to point out yet again that a dog is for life, not just for Christmas.