Exercising a New Puppy To Imagined Cries of 'Ol!'

There are those, I suppose, who espouse the notion of unpredictability being the spice of life. As for me, a second career as a matador was not on my agenda.

For a start, I do not possess a suitable cloak. No cloak at all, as it happens. And there are other things I do not have that make (presumably) a matador's life a happy one: aggravating pokey things and so forth - you know, and a spangly jacket-thing like colored sugar and trousers so sleek and tight-fitting that they would be just the thing for a waiter in an Italian bistro, and a silly moustache. These things I have not. And I am glad.

But I - no, I mean, we - do have a puppy. This event (and "event" is exactly the right word) was not actually on the agenda either, but there it is. If you haven't had a puppy for a while, you forget what a puppy is like. Weather-words are helpful - boisterous, blustery - but finally they are not strong enough. We are talking whirlwind, tornado, big-bang theory.

She is called Muff. Please don't ask me why. The naming of dogs is an impossible matter, and for two days she had no name of any sort. Neither of us is keen on animal names borrowed from humankind, like Belinda or Muriel. And funny names sound good for a moment, but are not entirely practical. I've always felt Loose-End a perfect dog name, but I had doubts about yelling it across an open space in the event of some canine misdemeanor.

While we cogitated, someone told me of a dog belonging to a friend of her daughter. It was named Burglar (conceptually an altogether reasonable name). But when the said daughter was looking after Burglar one time, and it ran to the far side of the local park, and she tried to summon it by name - instead of the dog returning instantly, two puffing off-duty policemen materialized. They had been jogging and had heard her cries for help.

QUITE unlike her wolfish predecessor, this new recipient of our affections and food is an inveterate stick-chaser. In fact, she is a chaser, pure and simple. Anything that moves or can be moved is OK with her - breeze-wafted almond-blossom petals, jogging constables, feathers, leaves, balls, bicycles, rubber rings, all dogs of any sort whatsoever. But, above all, sticks.

There are special parts of the park where the mown grass stretches wide and long, and these are now Muff playgrounds where sticks can be thrown in any direction and, by demand, continuously.

It is the running that most appeals, not the sticks as such. Nothing pleases her more than to fly like an arrow 100 feet one way, grab the twirling stick, and then notice that I have another stick that I am planning to throw 100 feet the other way. She crouches for a split second in anticipation, and then - swoosh! - she charges straight ahead and past us like a hounded deer, certain that by the time she arrives at her destination, so will the airborne stick.

But often enough I propel one stick as best I can, and then for love or money cannot find another in time for the rebound. Muff spots this failing, and decides she had better bring back to me the stick she has just retrieved.

Now I assume a labrador or spaniel (or whatever breeds are retrievers by nature) understands that to bring a stick back to one's human owner means running with it to them. Muff, who has no breed to name, does not see much point in this. When she runs back with a stick, she accelerates as she approaches and then does not stop. She simply throws herself - dog leapant, stick in mouth - at you. It's an exhilarated, joie-de-vivre kind of business, but to be frank, it is destabilizing.

The first time it happened, from behind, I was shifted from vertical to horizontal without the passage of time being in the least involved. Since, on consideration, I have concluded that spontaneous recumbency is not my preferred way of going for a walk in a park with a dog on a nice sunny spring day, I am now much more aware of such impending doom when it threatens.

It is even more sublimely terrifying if the retrieved stick, dancing ominously between her teeth like horns, happens to be one of her favorite tree-trunks - that is, elephantinely large and weighty. (Incidentally, can anyone tell me whether all puppies lack a sense of proportion? Muff seems to feel that an ancient oak bole is just as suitable a plaything as the merest leaf stem.)

So I have found it essential to develop certain side-stepping tactics. They are almost balletic in their grace and suave beauty. They have to be at the very last minute. If Muff sees them too soon, she changes direction like a heat-seeking missile in order to be right on target.

At the crucial, make-or-break instant, in the flick of an eyelid, with a resplendent swish and a neatly calculated twist of the hip and thigh, my teeth flashing suddenly in the fierce noon sunlight and a crowd-arousing shadow of equine arrogance palpitating my fine nostrils, I take the thundering foe utterly by surprise. My extravagant evasion is superb, a masterpiece of improvisational deftness. The dog goes leaping forward with dolphinlike abandon, wondering what on earth has happened to her brakes. And my life is saved once again.

In short, I have become a matador.

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