Befuddled by a dog-walking encounter

Basil had done this before. He lives at the top of a bank and this gives him an added impetus. Fortunately the road outside his front gate, a dead end, has few cars belting along it.

This quietness appeals to my two dogs and me on our nightly stroll. But it doesn't appeal to Basil, a dog in search of adventure. He lies in wait. He knows my dogs are on leads - giving him a tactical advantage. He throws himself down the driveway and into the road, barking gleefully. A middle-size mongrel, he has inherited a slightly hungry look from his previous, perhaps vagrant, career. Now he lives luxuriously in a big house. But his hunger lingers, and as he begins to circle round us, he clearly plans to eat us.

But to date Basil has never attained his dinner. His noisy antics alert his humans. They rush down after him, risk management on their minds. Basil is grasped. Everyone calms down. He even allows me to scratch his nose. The last time this happened, Basil's mistress stayed on for a chat. It is typical that while I know Basil's name I have not yet learned hers.

After about half an hour, talking there in the street, the dogs at peace, we parted amicably. Maybe Basil would be more friendly next time.

Tonight, however, like a one-dog herd of buffalo, Basil stampeded out of the gateway. We braced ourselves. But he ignored us and flew, yelping, through someone's gate on the opposite side of the road. The husband-and-wife rescue party appeared. Basil, fox-focused, had vanished.

So we launched into another nocturnal chat. Basil eventually reappeared two gates along, spotted us, and spontaneously substituted us for his mislaid prey. After a dramatic scramble, the lady of the house succeeded in grabbing him bodily, wedged him between her knees, and discussed matters with him severely. He looked sheepish.

Half another hour's chat later, they left with Basil for his official walk. And we headed home. But it had been a rather surreal conversation, like ships passing in the night. It puzzled me.

They said they had just come back from a holiday on Tiree. This challenged me geographically, and I jumped to a wrong conclusion. Tiree sounded Irish to me - probably because I had just been watching a television series tracing the British coastline.

"Have you been watching 'Coast' on TV?" I asked. "Tonight it was the Northern Ireland coast."

No, they hadn't. They probably wondered why I introduced this topic, but were too polite to say.

Their talk went back to Tiree, its windsurfing, its beautiful white beaches, its azure sea and azurer sky.

But my ignorance was obstinate, and I carried on about Ireland. "I hadn't realized," I said, "that at the closest point Ireland is just 12 miles from our Scottish west coast."

The husband was not to be deterred, though. "It's four hours by ferry from the Isle of Mull to Tiree," he announced.

"Four hours? That's long," I said. "Who looked after Basil?"

"Oh, we took Basil with us," said the wife.

"Ah. No need for a pet passport then?"

"Not yet," said the husband with a laugh.

"That's the advantage," he said, "of taking a holiday in Scotland."

Ah, I thought, Tiree must be in Scotland. How stupid could I be? And then, while I was thus berating myself for being inattentive, I came back to the conversation to find it was now about ... Alaskan marmots. Or so I thought.

"They are gigantic," the husband was saying with awe. "Like small horses. Two people would be needed to take one for a walk."

"And I thought they were small Swiss rodents that sit up and whistle," I said.

They pretended not to look at me oddly. It became evident they were talking about a breed of sled-pulling dog.

"Are they as big as Irish wolfhounds?" I asked, Ireland creeping in again.

"Far bigger!"

Then I started wondering what possible connection there might be between gargantuan dogs and Tiree.

Internet investigation later answered some of my questions. The giant dogs must be malamutes - something like oversized huskies. Tiree is indeed Scottish, an Island in the Inner Hebrides archipelago. Not even slightly Irish.

But why would this island in the warm Gulf Stream, known as the "Sunshine Island of the North" and quite unfamiliar with snow, be home to even one Alaskan malamute? I was still puzzled.

My only hope of an answer, I believe, may lie in another timely, if alarming, intervention by Basil. It might be worth it.

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