Seeing a poodle on the London Underground wearing a red vest with the words ‘Diabetes Medical Dog’ has given me an idea. I have been trying to think of a job for my working cocker spaniel. Currently she is employed one day a week during the shooting season, picking up pheasants.
She likes the work and has a great talent for it. I was advised to get her into employment as soon as possible because working cockers are renowned for needing an occupation. They like to have their brains tasked and little Cydney is no exception. If I don’t give her something to do, she finds something to do and that can be problematic.
When she was just two, I discovered a pile of all the important letters I had never received, but people swore they had sent me, behind the living room sofa. Cydney had been collecting the post as it landed and storing it in a safe place. Possibly, she was trying to protect my feelings because among the many brown envelopes was a letter from the publishers with my latest book sales figures. At least she tried, I suppose.
Soon after that, I got her into gun dog training, and she started picking up birds. The problem is, the shoot is only one day a week from October to February. I asked the trainer: ‘What are we meant to do with these working cockers for the rest of the time?’
He didn’t really have an answer, except to say that I should continue her training. But I am worried about what will happen if Cydney languishes on the dole for the next eight months, even if she is on a jobseekers’ training programme.
In searching for work for her, I have noted her admirable ability to tidy up litter on Tooting Common when we are not in the country. As anyone who saw my Facebook page the other day will know, Cydney is brilliant at retrieving Heineken bottles from the bushes, and is always ready to pick up beer cans too. I have been warned against this, however, by those who highlight the danger of her handling glass and tin objects. The trainer points out she may get kennel cough from touching objects mauled by other dogs. Fine. But what on earth can she do?
As I watched the diabetes poodle at Victoria the other day, it hit me. She can be a panic dog. Bear with me. I don’t mean to denigrate those who genuinely need assistance from a medical dog, but I do feel I should qualify to put a vest on Cydney and take her everywhere. This is because she can detect when I am about to start panicking, as I am apt to do, and can even prevent the damaging consequences of said panic if it happens.
Cockers are renowned for their ability to help people with conditions such as epilepsy by detecting when a fit is on the way. They are so finely tuned and sensitive that they become agitated at the least change in your mood or physical state. A sudden change sends them crazy. If I sneeze, for example, Cydney will leap up from her basket at the other end of the house, hurtle to where I am sitting and hurl herself on top of me, licking my face.
Any indication that I might be sick or upset elicits an emergency response. If I lie in bed past 7 a.m., I invariably wake to her paws patting my face and her concerned little black face on one side — her curly ears on end, her eyes staring intently at me. I really believe she would manage to jump on the phone and dial 999 if I needed her to.
But what I really need is this: I am apt to have these slightly hysterical moments, as you know. When life gets too much, I often descend into the crazies and this can be upsetting not only for me but also those around me.
The way I see it, if Cydney could wear a red vest with the words ‘Panic Dog’, she could come with me everywhere and work full time as my support team. I would put a card around her neck marked ‘Read me!’ so that when I’m having an argument with a traffic warden, say, or the people at the parking permit centre, Cydney could bark and alert them to the note, which on the reverse would say:
‘Hello! My owner has complex psychological and emotional needs. She is “losing it” right now, and you need to stop quoting petty bureaucratic rules at her. If she does not calm down in five minutes, ring the number marked “Ma” in her phone and try to get her head between her knees. Thank you for your co-operation.’