Saturday 17 August 2019

How Fido became Freddy

The names we give our pooches reflect our changing attitudes towards them

Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny, writer and author. Photo: Tony Gavin
Mary Kenny

Mary Kenny

The world is divided into those who favour dogs and those who favour cats: just now, dogs seem to be winning attention. Dog sociologists like John Bradshaw have observed that we are becoming much more anthropomorphic about doggies. Canine pets used to be given names like Rover or Fido: now they're christened (virtually) with much more human names, like Max or Sam, Hubert or Felicity.

This is well borne out by Andrea Hayes' very touching current book Dog Tales - Heart-Warming Stories of Rescue Dogs. Andrea's tender-hearted concern for abandoned or ill-treated mutts is palpable: not only does each dog she portrays have a distinct personality of its own, they also bear humanoid names like Penny, Claude, Alex, Kelly, Ted, Mick and sophisticated Paris.

Occasionally a traditional doggy name appears - such as Skittles (whose backstory was indeed sad, for her puppies kept dying, even though she made valiant efforts to suckle and care for them).

Dogs aren't just seen as animal companions by Andrea and her colleagues at Dogs Trust Ireland: they are healers of human afflictions, both physical and emotional; they are even teachers of higher values, like loyalty, friendship, forgiveness and taking joy in each day.

They are even therapists: when we pet a dog, it releases the hormone oxytocin, which prompts emotional warmth.

The dog is a comforter in grief. And when the dog, too, dies, he or she teaches us how to mourn. Dogs are our mentors. That's Andrea's philosophy, after many years now of caring for dogs (and presenting TV3's Dog Tales).

And if you love your dog, why not commission its portrait? Sally Muir is an English painter, living in Bath, and over the past 10 years she has been commissioned by devoted owners to paint their pooch's portrait. She has now assembled a gallery of canine portraiture in a pretty book called A Dog a Day. The vivid portraits, often stylish and colourful, depict dogs with such names as Dorothy, Duncan, Declan, Freddy, Perdita and Hans. Some of these hounds are the treasured, and very possibly spoiled, darlings of rich owners: a dashingly decorative poodle has a very upper-class air, and the dalmatians and pugs look well-treasured.

But there are sad dogs painted too - especially hunting dogs rescued in Spain, often cruelly abandoned after they have used up their energy in pursuit of the hare. These are galgos dogs, saved by a dog-lover in southern Spain who has made it her life's work to care for neglected canines. (Greyhounds too are often chucked out once they've served their purpose, their ears cut off so they can't be identified.) Some people worship dogs; others may treat them as mere commodities, for sport or money. Dog breeding is profitable - it's worth €350 million annually in Ireland.

Sally Muir - who is the daughter of Frank Muir, the late television personality and word master - started her professional career painting portraits of children, when her own two children were young. But children can be challenging for an artist. Their parents, or grandparents, may not see the child in the same way the painter does. Gradually, Sally moved to dog portraits.

Americans and Australians often seem particularly keen on having a painted portrait of their adored pooches.

The price for a dog portrait can be anything between £250 and £2,000; an average might be £800-£900. It would depend on whether it's a drawing, a work in pastel and charcoal, or gouache, or a full oil painting, which will take longer.

Sometimes Sally gets commissions to do portraits of dead dogs. That has to be approached sensitively. "You have to try and work out what the owner wants."

Sally is a dog-lover herself (lurchers, greyhounds and whippets, for preference) so she's on the wavelength of dog-lovers. As with Andrea, she sees every dog as a distinct personality, its character discerned in the portrait.

Dogs have been close to humans for thousands of years, and the true dog-lover will tell you that a dog can read the human mind, picking up subtle signs and signals in body language and interpreting them. It's said that the main difference between dogs and cats is that dogs develop a moral sense - they even look 'guilty' when they've done wrong - whereas cats are notoriously amoral.

Some current animal studies claim this is erroneous: dogs don't feel guilt - they just mimic certain human emotions because they know it's in their best interest to do so.

I appreciate dogs, but I'm more of a cat person myself: I like their independence and detachment. But the names that cats are given are also changing: Felix, Kitty and Puss are being replaced by Boris, Susie, Rosie and Sacha. We are seeing our pets more as people, rather than as generalised members of a species.

Andrea Hayes offers some encouraging thoughts about the potential of old dogs. An old dog can be adopted just as well as a younger one; moreover, an old dog will usually be calmer and its personality will be more settled and mature.

And by the way, you can teach an old dog new tricks, if you go about it intelligently. How cheering!


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