I’ve just spent a day looking after our one-year-old vizsla and, to be blunt, I have some sympathy with Michael Heseltine’s decision to strangle his mother’s alsatian. Not that my wife is out of town. Rather, I’ve just got a new job as director of the New Schools Network, a charity that helps groups set up free schools, and Caroline argued that because I’ll now be spending so much time away from home I am morally obliged to take on the lion’s share of dog duties before I start.
My responsibilities began with a walk in Gunnersbury Park. Now, to be fair, this isn’t a monumental chore. Gunnersbury Park is one of Acton’s hidden gems. Indeed, it’s so glorious that the people who live within a thousand-yard radius of it deny that they live in Acton and claim to be proud residents of ‘Gunnersbury’. Of course, no such place exists outside the imagination of estate agents, but if I lived nearby I’d make the same boast. It’s a good size for a dog walk — about 200 acres. A brisk stride around the perimeter takes approximately an hour.
In other ways, though, it’s less than ideal. It contains 17 listed buildings, all in varying states of disrepair, and until last year the whole Gunnersbury estate had been largely neglected since it was sold to two neighbouring local councils by the Rothschild family in 1926. That ownership split meant neither side took responsibility for its upkeep. But last December a joint, £40 million restoration project was unveiled by the leaders of Hounslow and Ealing councils, and since then the park has been a hive of activity. Great news for local residents, but not so good for us dog owners since it’s now a giant building site, with plenty of opportunities for mischief.
For instance, there’s a fenced-off area containing a stagnant muddy pool and preventing Leo from squeezing through a gap in the fence and immersing himself in this disgusting primordial soup is next to impossible. It doesn’t help that the local dog walkers — the professionals, who walk half a dozen dogs at once — actually encourage their charges to jump in the pool, presumably because they don’t have to give them a bath afterwards to get rid of the foul stench. That job falls to the owners who have been foolish enough to hire them.
OK, so that wasn’t too bad, apart from Leo ending up smelling like a fishmonger’s underpants. It was the second walk that was the tricky one. Yes, that’s right, Leo is so high–maintenance that he requires at least two walks a day and preferably three. And the word ‘walk’ is misleading because he spends most of his time running at full pelt, usually as far away from his owners as possible. If he does less than three hours of exercise a day, he runs round the house instead, leaving a trail of broken glass in his wake. You think I’m exaggerating, but a couple of weeks ago he ran into the bunk room on the first floor where two of my sons sleep, saw a squirrel in the garden and tried to leap through the sash window. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time. The cost of getting it replaced was slightly under £200 — one of Leo’s less expensive weekends.
So the second walk was on Wormwood Scrubs — another beautiful green space not far from my house. Trouble with the Scrubs, though, is that horses are regularly ridden down its footpaths. For Leo, that means plenty of lovely horse poo for rolling in, and I mean proper, down-and-dirty rolling so that scarcely an inch of his fur remains uncontaminated. But that’s a mild irritation compared with what happens if he actually sees a horse. He launches himself at it like a missile fired from a tank and immediately tries to engage it in a species v. species death match. Invariably, the horse just ignores him, as it might some irksome little gnat, at which point he goes completely bananas. Anyway, on this day it ended as it usually does with Leo being launched several feet into the air by a sharp kick to the ribs. Unfortunately, the brute is completely indestructible. Even ‘Tarzan’ Heseltine might have difficulty putting him down.
On one level, I admire Leo’s indomitable spirit. The eagerness with which he hurls himself into every adventure, no matter how dangerous, is sort of admirable. But on the other hand, he takes up an unbelievable amount of time. It’s like having five-year-old triplets. Thank God it will be Caroline’s turn soon.
Toby Young is associate editor of