This excerpt comes from a unique and quite unforgettable book, Olive, Mabel, and Me about two dogs and their chronicler-extraordinaire, Andrew Cotter. The three became YouTube sensations earlier this year. In this chapter, we learn just how daily life at the Cotter household has been transformed by two doggie housemates.
Once upon a time, many years ago, we had nice things. Those halcyon days of clean furniture and smart clothing are now nothing but a distant memory. Please don’t misunderstand me. In terms of companionship and all-around happiness, our lives have been transformed much for the better by Olive and Mabel—it’s just the state of our belongings that is a good deal worse. If you want to maintain a house to perfect, show-home standard, then Labradors are not a sensible option.
The vacuum cleaner runs permanently, but no sooner has it filled than the floor, sofas, dog beds, and any exposed foodstuffs all seem to be covered again in a veneer that is a blend of yellow and black. I can brush and brush the dogs, with fur coming off in clouds, and it makes no difference. In particular with Mabel—except for a molt-free window of about four days in August—it just keeps coming, as if there is no solid dog beneath. I think if I were to persist in brushing long enough, I could comb her away to just a nose, paws, and blinking eyes.
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We also now have no garments that are safe. In the days of only Olive, dark clothes were a good option, as they didn’t show the fur inevitably plastered to them. Now they are claimed by thousands of little blond hairs and as a result all items of clothing suffer.
Also, I’m not quite sure how it happened, but our house now seems to be constructed almost entirely out of dog beds. You can barely move without tripping over one, as if they themselves are following my grandparents’ dog-breeding program. Olive and Mabel have their favorites, and use them on a rotating basis according to the time of day. Mornings in this one, then an afternoon snooze here, evening on the beanbag. Overnight I fancy … yes, this one. But then, quite often, all of them lie empty and unused as the dogs stretch out on the sofas, occasionally kicking with their legs as if trying to get rid of us. They usually have a harmonious approach to bed-usage. However, sometimes Olive will decide that she desires the bed in which Mabel is happily ensconced, and this is where we see clear evidence that our elder dog is: a) not quite as dim as we make out, and b) a bit of a cow. She will suddenly head to the back door or the other side of the room, staring intently at something unseen but apparently fascinating—at which point Mabel feels that she has to rush over and find out what is alarming or intriguing her friend. The answer, of course, is absolutely nothing, and so Mabel trots back to the bed—only to find Olive now there, eyes tightly shut with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging from her nose.
The line is firmly drawn at their aspirations to join us on our own bed, though. And by firmly, I mean really quite blurred. They might occasionally be invited up, but anywhere near the pillows is out of the question. I love these dogs dearly but have always been wary of those who would accept a lick in the face from one of their dogs while cooing, “Ooooo … kisses for Mommy,” when all parties involved know the awful truth of what that tongue has been doing just moments before.
And besides, when dogs are in the bedroom, sleep is tricky. You might imagine that they slumber in a quiet and serene fashion, but Labradors—as we all do from time to time—offer an orchestra of noise throughout the night. Deciding that they aren’t quite comfortable so turning around, then comes a flap of the ears, followed by the snoring at an international competition level.
And, in owning dogs, sleep is another thing I have come to miss. Again, this will be very familiar to those who have young children, but whereas children eventually reach the phase where it’s impossible to get them up, with Olive and Mabel it’s the opposite. Quite simply, our dogs are morning people.
Summers are the worst, when daylight creeps into the sitting room where they sleep, and at about five-thirty in the morning I can hear Olive going through her vocal warm-up routine—a series of low growls and very quiet yips that eventually lead to that full-on “EVERYONE GET UP NOW BECAUSE THIS IS WHAT I WANT” bark.
The best thing to do is ignore her, but then I think of the neighbors and I stumble down the stairs in a wooden, middle-aged, what-in-God’s-name-is-wrong-with-my-knees sort of way, to be met by the two bouncing, happy souls, full of vim and vigor.
“Great to see you! What took you so long? I firmly believe that today is going to be AMAZING!”
The thing that irritates me most about it (and remember I am even more irritable due to lack of sleep) is that after this early flourish our dogs—all dogs—then choose to sleep for much of the day. Olive will be immovable for most of the evening—“Got to be ready to get you up at the crack of dawn!” Elsewhere in the dog world, I am told that greyhounds have a particular penchant for dozing, only staying awake for something like four out of every twenty-four hours. Outstanding speed clearly comes at a price, but I envy their well-rested owners.
Yet whichever the breed of dog, they all have that very special gift of being able to switch from fully awake to comatose within seconds when it is what their minds desire. No brain whirring away, no worries about jobs or taxes or viruses or life in general—it’s just a case of “need to recharge now” and off go the lights. It does mean that we get to see them asleep a lot, which provides its own entertainment as they enter their dreaming state. Writing this now, Mabel is beside me on the sofa (uninvited) with her tongue poking out, eyes and nose twitching, and her front paws starting to gallop. We obviously imagine that she is dreaming of all manner of great adventures, but she’s probably dreaming of being asleep on the sofa.
I know that we should really dictate when our dogs do things, but if we’re honest, quite often a day is entirely run by them. They are creatures of habit, and they have come to expect and indeed demand certain things at specific points of the day.
When we first got Mabel, we were firm about feeding time. Their evening meal was at 5:15 p.m., usually coinciding with the start of the quiz show Pointless on TV (there’s a brief glimpse into the glamor of our lives). The regularity was such that, to this day, Mabel only has to hear the opening few bars of the theme tune for her ears to prick up, but really the inquiries begin long before that.
Despite the fact that she is generally greedier, Olive is much more relaxed about dining arrangements—she is a calmer dog in general and knows that it will happen, so why stress? Whereas for Mabel, stressing is a vital part of proceedings. She also believes that she can make most things happen with a firm enough stare—the impact of it is sometimes lost when she falls asleep in the process, eyes slowly closing, before jolting herself awake when her brain reminds her that she is on a very important mission. So she will fix us with a steely, but occasionally-dropping-off, gaze for at least an hour beforehand—switching to whichever human she believes is more likely to provide and somehow fearful that if she doesn’t do this, there will be no food and it will have been her own silly fault for not reminding us.
Then, of course, there are the requests (demands) for walks. It used to be two walks a day until I made the mistake on one occasion of taking them out for a third, late at night. The next day around the same time they both sat, looking at me expectantly.
“Look, for as long as we can remember we have always had a third walk at quarter-past ten. Now get your coat on.”
And it is on a walk that you realize how much your life really has changed as a dog owner. You see then that even if you thought you were in charge of them, it is quite the other way around, and you dance to their tune now. Perhaps it strikes you most of all as they crouch with rounded back to unburden themselves of their very punctual breakfast or dinner and you wait to perform your menial but important task of keeping the countryside clean and tidy.
The greatest indignity is when you are stooping to pick it up, struggling to get it into the bag as one errant piece keeps escaping, and meanwhile Olive (for it is always her) is covering you with leaves and bits of grass, doing that strange post-defecatory celebration that dogs seem to enjoy, kicking it all up with her back legs. I swear she smiles as she stretches them out.
“You enjoying picking that up, are you? Yeah … pick that up. Who’s the master now?”
While I am talking about such indelicate matters, because of the enormous quantities of grass that Olive eats, sometimes she does not celebrate at all, because the whole process fails to run smoothly. Which only brings further indignity for us. You realize that something has gone wrong when she either fails to reappear from deep in the bushes or you see her dragging her backside along the ground and waddling around, looking at you with eyes that say, “I’m not going to lie, this is not how I expected this to play out.”
So there you are, using a gossamer-thin bag as a makeshift glove, pulling away blades of grass that probably didn’t envisage the last twenty-four hours playing out like this either. You pull and pull and this intricately woven rope keeps on coming, like one of those never-ending handkerchiefs out of a magician’s sleeve. Naturally this is when a non-dog person walks around the corner and the sight that greets them is a sad Labrador in a crouching position and me bent over, holding her tail aloft and rummaging around.
“Hi there! The JOYS of owning a dog!” I shout, in a manner that is supposed to be jovial but probably ends up suggesting genuine enthusiasm for the task, and they shake their head in both pity and disgust before notifying the authorities.
If you are reading this as a dog owner, I’m sure there are parts of it you recognize or understand. Or perhaps you are somebody who was thinking about getting a dog but is now reassessing your options, and a cat is looking far more attractive.
All I would say is that despite the fact that our house is not what it was and the sofas are now a hue that a paint catalog might call “Displeasingly Off-Beige” in their color chart, despite the fact that all clothes are now made of a dog-hair blend and getting more than six hours sleep is a thing of the past, despite the fact that their wants and needs can seem to rule our day, I couldn’t imagine ever living that clean, tidy, sane, dog-free life again.