Last week my husband and I were looking after the neighbours’ dogs – all twenty of them – for two shifts a day. This may sound like a lot of dogs, but in years gone by there have been more than twice as many. Let me explain. The neighbours used to be professional greyhound trainers. They’ve almost given this up now – they’re both approaching seventy – but they haven’t given up on the greyhounds. You may have read about how racing greyhounds are often maltreated by their owners: beaten, starved, abandoned or put down once they have become useless for the track. Well, our neighbours have always stood by their dogs and taken care of them until they die naturally, sometimes at a great age (in greyhound terms) because they are so well cared for. These dogs live in a greyhound hotel.
There are seventeen greyhounds left now (the other three of the twenty are house dogs), all residing in a converted turkey barn. All but four of them have a kennel each. Then there are two pairs sharing: Tiger and Kim, and Imogen and Bonnie, who are litter sisters. Looking after them takes the best part of the morning each day, starting at 06.30. It would take longer if there weren’t a strict routine which the dogs understand. Nevertheless, they love a rookie and miss no opportunity to get one over on you if they can. For example, Imogen and Bonnie are apt to dash out of their kennel when you go in to collect their food and water bowls, so it has an elaborate strap attached to the door, allowing you to hold the door to behind you while you’re in there. Both sat demurely on their beds watching me struggle with this contraption. If I hadn’t bothered with it, I’m sure they’d have slipped out to race around the barn.
My husband mucks out the kennels while I supervise the walks. First on the rota are three stately old gentlemen, Des, Laddie and Woody. They’re all black (which is why I haven’t taken their pictures: they don’t photograph well), apart from their now slightly grizzled noses. They walk out together, sedately. Unlike ‘the girls’ who come later, they don’t knit their leads into knots as we go round the paddock, twice. All the dogs wear muzzles, not because they’re dangerous to humans (they’re extremely affectionate), but because kennel dogs have a pack mentality and can’t be relied on not to gang up on each other. By the same token, several of them together would chase and kill a domestic dog if they got the chance. When I’m walking them I hope they won’t spot a pheasant; otherwise I know I’ll be flat on my face and they’ll be disappearing over the horizon!
When we return, if the old boys’ kennels aren’t ready, their leads are hung on hooks while they wait. Usually they stand patiently, but on one occasion last week when the four girls – Imogen, Bonnie and Harriet, who are sisters, and Katie – were being prepared for their walk, they danced at the old boys and got them all worked up. I was worried that one might have a heart attack, like overly-titillated businessmen with weak hearts at a lap-dancing session. The girls are much younger than the other dogs – though youth is now a relative concept in the turkey barn. I’ve taken a picture of the girls, and one of Harriet (Hattie) on her own, because she’s my favourite.
Meantime, Charlie, cunning but quite decrepit, and Norman, fairly robust but not very bright, are released into the pen, an indoor exercise area, because they’re not up to going out. Charlie has always been a sickly dog and is usually on some kind of medication: last year just pills, this year a different kind of pill and an ointment rubbed between his toes every day. Charlie is a bit of a lead-swinger and sneaky with it. Because of his sore paws, he has to be led carefully out of his kennel and helped over the kerb on the pavement outside, but when he’s allowed back to eat he’ll take every chance to shoot slyly past me, with a sprightliness that defies expectation, sideways into Norman’s kennel so that he can consume both dogs’ breakfasts.
Finally, there’s the crew round the corner in a row of converted stables: eight dogs in late middle age who are allowed out for a romp round the paddock on their own: Tiger and Kim, Lottie and Pete, Walter and Minnie, Holly and Buster (this last a beautiful dog, a gentle giant who always comes for a cuddle, a prizewinner in his day). These dogs are considered too elderly to leap the fence of the paddock if a rabbit has the temerity to pass in the adjoining field: though I wouldn’t want to put it to the test, especially as they hurtle out at high speed for their temporary freedom!
Breakfast for the dogs is cereal and milk with an egg in it; their main meal, during the second shift, consists of biscuits, meat and gravy with a dollop of margarine. The gravy is a kind of everlasting stew, heated up daily in an old First World War field kitchen boiler. The barn is full of such useful relics: the scoop for the milk is a handle-less saucepan, and this year, as in previous years, I’ve had to hold my thumb over the holes where the handle used to be riveted as I fill it. The dishcloth is recycled from domestic use, and in ribbons. The food is stored in a series of old chest freezers, to deny the vermin.
After the dogs have had their main meal, bowls are collected and washed and the whole of the kennels settles down. There is no more whimpering, squealing, jumping up and down or barking, just a deep sense of peace: all needs met, all dues paid.
It’s exhausting work, but I still look forward to next year, albeit with a certain sadness that some of these dogs by then will be no more. There’s a blackboard in the kitchen in which the food is prepared: it carries an ancient message: ‘Hugo: if doesn’t lift his head and look at you, he doesn’t want his breakfast. Pedro: doesn’t like beef, chicken only.’ It’s an informal memorial to two departed friends (they were brothers) and simultaneously bears witness to the standards of quality maintained in this magnificent rest home for greyhounds.