Billy and I were sitting outside a pub on the north eastern edge of Dartmoor, inhaling a much-needed pint when the septuagenarian lady in the Barbour jacket approached us. Well, I was inhaling a much-needed pint; Billy, who is a miniature-toy poodle cross, was inhaling some much needed water from a margarine tub beneath the table with “DOG ALE” scrawled on it in black marker pen. Billy had a considerable portion of the moor stuck to his flanks, but that didn’t bother the lady in the Barbour jacket - she was straight in there to give them a good rub.
“Oh, isn’t he delightful!” she said. “Is he a puppy?”
“No, he’s actually two now,” I replied. “He’s got bags of energy. We’ve just walked twelve miles and he still wants more.”
Billy was looking up at her grinning now: a different dog to the one who, three quarters of an hour earlier, I'd had to perform a near rugby tackle on in order to stop him chasing approximately seventy eight sheep into the River Bovey.
“Well, you’re very lucky to have him.”
“Well, you’re very lucky to have him.”
“Oh, he’s not actually mine.”
“Oh, really?” she suddenly seemed nervous. I could see her eyeing my flared trousers, Hall & Oates t-shirt and longish hair and re-evaluating the situation. This isn’t a wholesome rambler, after all; this is the infamous Disco Dancing Small Poodle Thief Of North Bovey. “Does he... belong to a friend?”
“Well, sort of.” I took a slight breath, although perhaps not as deep as the one I might have taken before saying the same thing a month or two ago. “We initially met... online.”
It’s taken a while for me to be comfortable in admitting I met my part-time dog on the Internet, but I’m okay with it now, and so is my dog. Of course, others might have a problem with it, but in the end, it’s their problem, not ours. Way back in the previous decade I borrowed dogs from people I met in real life. There was Nouster, a proud birthday card border collie who lived with my landlord and who I’d walk around the broads near my house in Norfolk. Then there was Henry, my friend Hannah’s cocker spaniel, who liked to roll around in pheasant carcasses and steal chips. But that was a different era, and a different world. Since then, the lives of humans and dogs have become more virtual, and different ways to meet dogs have become more acceptable.
The spring before last, I moved to a completely new part of the country - Devon - but my initial attempts to meet dogs to borrow in the real world there proved unsuccessful. My ad in the village shop (see below) drew a blank. I could borrow a terrier belonging to a friend of a friend but he was only available on Wednesdays, needed to wear a muzzle if he was being walked in an area where there were lots of other dogs and would reportedly attack any cat he saw. A labrador belonging to a hairdresser in Exeterwas available for walks but when I had been to get my haircut there and said “Please can you take hardly anything off at all?” she’d misheard me and thought I’d said “Attack my hair like it’s a hedge in a sunny period in June immediately following heavy rainfall.” “Would borrowing her dog mean a long term commitment to looking like I worked in an insurance broker’s office in 1949?” I worried.
In desperation, I touted my dog walking services on Twitter. There were still no local takers, but a couple of my followers recommended a dog walking site called borrowmydoggy, which, for a very reasonable subscription fee, aimed to connect dog owners who needed minders for their dogs with enthusiastic dog borrowers, and put them in mutually beneficial, committed long term relationships.
On signing up to borrowmydoggy, I felt simultaneously excited and overwhelmed. Here were a large array of eager-looking dogs, all within a ten mile radius of my home, all just a simple message away. I immediately began to make a shortlist. High up on it were Rico and Raffi, two sibling lagotto romagnolos, described as “boisterous” and “gentle-natured” - both of whom looked like they could have easily been fronting a 1970s stoner rock band. I also had my eye on Max, a splurcher with a slight problem in the area of “licking food”, and Indie, a cheeky spoodle who appealed to me in no small part due to her resemblance to the children’s book character What-A-Mess. I felt a bit warier around big dogs. This was perhaps partly due to my dad’s habit of shouting “WATCH OUT FOR THAT - IT WILL HAVE YOUR FACE OFF” every time I went for a walk with him and we saw one. A Short-Haired German Pointer who'd bounded out of a driveway and bitten me on a walk during my first week in Devon had a bit to answer for, too. As a result, I decided the upper size cut-off point in my dog-borrowing criteria was somewhere in the region of border collie. My lower size cut-off point wasn’t too rigid, but I decided I would prefer not to walk a dog I could mistakenly step on, or who was liable be seriously challenged in a fight with a boisterous duck. I also wanted a dog who preferably got on with cats, had no problem with long walks, had hair not unlike Keith Richards did in 1969, and wasn’t called Poppy. I realised that dog borrowing was already doing for me what online dating does for many others: it was turning me into a box-ticker, making me realise I had a “type” when I’d previously considered myself open-minded.
Another similarity between dog borrowing and online dating is that it fosters a vacillation between egotism and anxiety. The first impression is that you are looking at a whole train carriage worth of dogs, all of which are potentially available to you. The gradual realisation follows that there are many, many other people also competing for the train carriage full of dogs, many of whom are potentially more qualified than you for dog borrowing. It is important not to get your heart too set on a dog early on, or build that dog up too much in your mind, but both things are easier said than done. I ‘favourited’ Max the splurcher once, then unfavourited him and favourited him again, in a somewhat undignified bid to get his attention, but, after two weeks, he still hadn’t got in touch. After no reply from Bentley, a young cockerpoo, I found myself re-examining my profile picture, taken in 2011, in which I was wearing a synthetic fur trapper’s hat I got cheap off Norwich market and crouching in a field in Norfolk with my friend Hannah’s cocker spaniel, Henry.
“Perhaps it would be best if I lost the hat?” I wondered. “Had my appearance changed too much in three years? Maybe I needed a more up-to-date, honest photo?” There was also no reply from Indie, the mini What-a-Mess dog, to my opening message, and I wondered if I’ve come on a bit strong, suggesting a first walk straight away - or as BorrowMyDoggy call it, a “welcome woof” - before we’d even got to know a few basic details about each other.
After a fortnight on BorrowMyDoggy, I’d set up three Welcome Woofs: one with an elderly bichon frise called Bess who lived a few miles away on the coast; one with Billy, a toy/miniature poodle cross who lived on the edge of Dartmoor; and another with a family of four spaniels just down the road from me. The illness I'd been suffering from for most of last summer - an especially stubborn urinary tract infection which later developed into prostatitis - was particularly bad on the day I met the spaniels, Charley, Emily, Holly and Coco, not aided by our welcome woof turning out to be more like a introductory dog riot. Walking four dogs, it transpires, is far more difficult than walking one, especially when it involves medieval, narrow-pavemented Devonshire streets and the south coast traffic of a warm summer. By the end, even with help with a couple of the leads, I was a sweaty mess, my T-shirt spattered with all manner of river mud and all-purpose dog paste, and six turds in bags in my pocket, cooking in the midday sun. My walk with Bess a few days later, on the other hand, was a little too sedate: being 11, she was unable walk much farther than a mile.
Billy, however, was a delight: small, shaggy, and relentlessly energetic. A small man in a dog suit, doing all the correct dog things. I’d not had any particular fondness for poodles in the past, but he wasn’t one of those poodles you sometimes get who are constantly worrying about their hair and get uppity if you don’t compliment them on their appearance every six minutes. He had no problem with getting a bit muddy and gave the impression, beneath his wooly exterior, of being made out of strong elastic. His owner - an Occupational Therapist called Susie - and I hit it off straight away and, after our first walk, we took him back to meet my cats. Roscoe, Ralph and George weren’t around but, as was often the case nowadays, The Bear and Shipley immediately came out to say hello. The Bear kept his distance from Billy, eyeing him with ironic disdain from a garden chair, but Shipley strolled over, and a canine-feline stand-off followed. Small black dog and wiry black cat each feinted a few times, like footballers playing mind games with one another, until Billy sprang forward, chasing Shipley into a bush. Susie and I raced after them but before we could reach the bush there was a violent rustle of leaves, a loud scuffling sound and a couple of violent expletives, and a moment later, with an almighty wimper, Billy twanged out of the bush backwards, as if propelled by a catapult. Shipley followed about twenty seconds later at a more sedate pace, then rolled over on his back on the front step, stretching one casual paw out in front of him. As opening encounters go, it could have been worse, but I resolved to keep Billy apart from the cats as much as possible in the future - perhaps as much for his sake as for theirs.
I still felt weakened by my infection, suffered from chest pains and winced with rusty dagger pain every time I did a wee but I was determined not to let it stop me going out and enjoying the summer in this endlessly green new place I felt so fortunate to live in. The mere idea of not being outdoors in summer in here felt like slapping some benevolent Pagan god in the face. Every Tuesday last summer Billy and I walked until we (okay, I) couldn’t walk any more, stopping to swim in rivers and, inadvertently, at one point, the clear sea just off a nudist beach. It was at the latter location that I faced my first big challenge as an Internet dog borrower. As I swam in the warm sea, enjoying the rays of a giant sun that felt like it was only a few hundred yards above me, I noticed that Billy, back on the shore, was taking a great deal of interest in the more delicate part of a naked hippie’s anatomy. I weighed up the situation and decided I was faced with two options: charge out of the sea and remove him from the area in question, or shout “Hey! Leave that man’s genitals alone!” in my new, commanding Dog Walker’s Voice. Having given both paths some serious consideration, I decided instead to pretend he wasn’t my dog and carried on swimming. Fortunately, after a few more nervous minutes - for both me, and the hippie - he moved on, spotting a King Charles spaniel further down the beach and stealing its ball. This was a blessing in disguise as it eventually got me talking to the spaniel’s owner: a woman from Kent who recommended me two really good novels. Dog borrowing had made this happen, and I was thankful for it.
In the year since then, Billy - who is now also known as The Blackberry, since Susie's lodger pointed out that he looked like a blackberry - and I have become even more comfortable about admitting the way we got together when talking to strangers. “Us? Oh, we met on the Internet,” we’ll announce confidently, in the knowledge that we live in a brave new era when that sort of thing isn’t taboo any more. We have now walked hundreds of miles together. I genuinely believe that, by meeting him, I’ve won the dog borrowing lottery, so well-suited is he to my walking needs, so happy-go-lucky is he of temperament.
Sure, I’ve realised that there was a dastardly twinkle in his eyes hiding under that stoner rock fringe, and I have to keep him strictly on the lead around sheep and cows, but I feel honoured by the excitement he seems to feel when I pick him up from Susie’s house. At weekends, he runs along Devon’s beaches with vast packs of Susie’s friends’ dogs, like a dog living in some idyllic Chariots Of Fire dog dream, yet our considerably more sober walks - during which I would lecture him on cromlechs, Dartmoor folklore and Iron Age hill forts - still appear to constitute an important part of his week, and I cannot help but be touched and flattered by this. I noticed a little while ago that Billy’s profile was still active on Borrowmydoggy, but I was sure it must have been just because he hadn’t had time to taken it down. We agreed a while ago that we are now exclusive and I know he wouldn't do anything to hurt me.
Read more about Billy in my new book Close Encounters Of The Furred Kind.