It’s a Dog’s Life
by Josh Swarbrick
Dog lover Clare Balding talks to NorthernLife about her new book 'Isle of Dogs'.
Each year in March, dog lovers gather in front of the television in anticipation to see which good boy or girl will be awarded the coveted Best in Show. Crufts is renowned worldwide for its celebration of ‘man’s best friend’, with featured dogs stunning us with their agility, training, and obedience.
Showcasing dogs in competitions can be a challenging endeavour. Owners have had to deal with their fair share of mishaps, with some even caught on camera. There have been instances where owners have had to chase their show dogs with plastic bags in hand after an accident. Additionally, some dogs have managed to impress the judges with their agility, only for their owners to stumble on the last obstacle. Moreover, some dogs have grown tired of the entire experience and bolted out of the competition altogether.
For nearly two decades, the ups and downs have been narrated by the familiar voice of Clare Balding. The 52-year-old presenter is known for her sports journalism, writing, and love of dogs. Her new book, Isle of Dogs, invites readers on an enchanting adventure through Britain to explore her profound love for our cherished canine companions. This deep connection developed from an unusual childhood belief – she thought she was a dog!
“Dogs have surrounded me since I was born,” she explains. “I grew up with boxers and lurchers, and I think that influence from very early in my life helped me understand dogs. I still believe in the mantra of ‘be more dog’ by focusing more on the simple things that can make us happy. Dogs have got that nailed: food, love, play, sleep, exercise and being present. And I do think that is a good thing for all of us – to enjoy the moment that we’re in right now and not worry so much about what’s coming or the consequences of the big decisions we’ve made. There is a lot to love in the moment. I think we have a lot to gain from that, and I learnt that very early on from being around dogs.”
“That’s a huge benefit to bringing a dog into your life; it’s a good way of reaching out and creating a community.”
Her book celebrates the impact dogs have had on her life and the lives of pet owners across Britain. From our daily routine to our homes to our jobs, having a dog influences every aspect of our lives, including our friends. Dog owners will be familiar with the strangers we connect with on each walk – the bloke who always wears that awful red leather jacket with the lolloping Labrador, the fashionable older lady with the sunglasses and pair of poodles – we may not even know these strangers’ names, but we know their dogs! Our dogs forge connections with a quick pause that forces us to engage. A strong connection between dogs often means a friendship between owners.
“If you can get dog people together, you can make friendship groups,” she beams. “That’s a huge benefit to bringing a dog into your life; it’s a good way of reaching out and creating a community. They can just have a hugely positive influence by bringing us to different spaces and introducing us to different people.”
Not only can dogs help with connection, but Clare has uncovered stories of dogs helping their owners live more independent lives, doing jobs essential to the safety of humans and even of ordinary pets, saving the lives of their owners.
“I discovered dogs trained to scent drugs or search for missing people or predict an epileptic episode or assist you with putting your clothes on,” she explains. “Dogs can work with dementia patients and be trained to give medicine. People won’t get as cross with the dog as much as they would a partner or carer.”
Clare’s motivation for embarking on this journey was to celebrate the incredible things dogs can do and to pave the way for a new addition to her family – a dog. Clare didn’t undertake this journey alone; she was accompanied by her wife, Alice Arnold.
“If I’m honest, Alice joined me quite reluctantly! Right from the beginning, I told her that some of this would be fun for us to do together, and she did enjoy it more than she perhaps let on! Her chapter is very funny, especially as I ‘take the Mick’ out of her all the way through the book, so it was great to give her the right to reply. It’s only fair! It was so much more fun because we got to do it all together. She has a very different outlook to me and will ask very different questions. She’s sort of the insurance broker of the relationship. She thinks about the worst-case scenario. I think many relationships are like that; one’s the dreamer, and one’s the realist.”
Tempered by Alice, Clare’s search for her family pet led to a captivating exploration of different dog breeds and their unique traits. “Different dogs need different things. If you have a Border Collie, it’s going to want to herd because that’s its instinct, or certain dogs will want to guard because that’s their instinct. I gained a deeper understanding of their psychology.
Even after 20 years at Crufts, Clare is still discovering more about the nation’s favourite pet.
“One thing I found interesting was that there are areas specific to certain groups of dogs and what they were bred for. There’s a divide between the dogs the landed gentry had – the big hounds, the dogs that lived in kennels, the companion dogs that would sit on their lap, and then the dogs that everyone else had that could either live in a kennel outside or go to work with people and eventually ended up living in the house – which only really started to happen at the mid-end of the 19th century. Certainly, in the north, you have your whippets, Manchester terrier, Yorkshire terrier. Some breed types started in certain areas that have spread far outside those areas.”
With all these different breeds, it may be hard to pick a favourite, but for Clare, the boxer breed still holds her heartstrings. Therefore, you may think a new boxer puppy is settling in well with Clare and Alice. Even after 20 years at Crufts, Clare is still discovering more about the nation’s favourite pet. However, after her exploration of ‘Isle of Dogs’, she realised she needed to be more prepared before bringing a new family member home.
Having decided to ‘paws’ her plans for a new pup, when the moment is right, she’ll ensure she has everything in place to provide love, delightful walks, and the perfect home for her future furry companion. She aptly puts it in her book, “After all, every dog must have his day.”
Photo credits: Alex Lake
NorthernLife Nov/Dec 23