My two-faced dog

We read too much into dogs’ faces. It’s impossible not to. If you hold hands with your partner, and your dog looks up at you and tilts its head, widens its eyes, you will think, She’s jealous. You may later correct this thought, because you know dogs probably don’t experience emotions like jealousy, at least not in the way we do. But you can’t stop yourself from feeling it. Believe me, I’ve tried. You even feel guilty about any mental corrections you make — as though, by acknowledging her emotional limitations, you’re not showing enough faith in your most faithful friend.

My degree was in psychology and zoology. Rationally, I know how small a dog’s brain is, how limited its understanding of the world. But if you ever told me that my dog, Waffle, didn’t feel love, or pride, or exasperation, I’d probably say something like, But LOOK at her face!, and then make whimpering noises. And then hug her, to show I didn’t believe your wicked words.

From birth, we’re trained to read human faces. Most of us are very good at it. In fact, we’re too good at it: we see expressions where there are none to be seen — in the sides of buildings, in clouds, in woodgrain. Selective breeding has given different dogs wildly different faces, many of which suggest a particular emotion, even if the dog in question is experiencing no emotion at all. We lap it up. To us, Siberian huskies look stern. Pugs are always sad, and corgis always happy. How they actually feel is irrelevant.

Some dogs have a special trick. When they close their mouths, they look desolate; when they open them, they seem boundlessly joyful. This is true of many breeds, but it reaches its zenith in Waffle’s breed: the golden retriever. A golden retriever walks around with two Greek theatre masks in its pocket: one happy, one sad. It doesn’t have a resting bitch face, and it never has to turn its frown upside down. If a retriever wants to fill the world with joy, it just has to pant slightly.


The beginning

My family loves animals. That’s a common enough trait, but I can tell you we were — we are — extreme examples of the genre. I chose my degree around my love of animals; my brother now works in conservation. To celebrate their retirement, my parents fulfilled a lifelong ambition of visiting the Galápagos Islands.

We’ve always had pets: bunnies, hamsters, rats, guinea pigs. We didn’t have a dog for most of my childhood, not because we didn’t want one, but because a) my parents had a lot on and b) we knew we would love it too much. Above all other pets, dogs are special. They demand far more of your time and attention than other animals. You have to walk and feed them once or twice a day; if you go away, unless you have a very understanding friend, you have to take your dog to what my family call Doggy Prison, and pay through the nose for the privilege. Dogs don’t live for quite as long as cats: 10 to 13 years is typical, as opposed to 15 or more. But for those 10 to 13 years, you build your life around them.

So, no dog. But then, as I became a teenager, things started to change. My older siblings both left for university. My dad finished the PhD he somehow managed to write around a full-time job. We had a little more time, and a little more money. My family are cautious and practical to a fault: we never do anything unless we’ve ruled out every reason to not do it, even if it’s something we really want to do. Slowly, the reasons not to have a dog dwindled.

At this point, I should mention my eating disorder. This is not the time or the place to go into depth, but suffice to say, in my early teens, I was pretty ill. My condition pruned my friendship group, and made me shy, withdrawn and moody, even moreso than your average teenager. I actually sorted out my eating relatively quickly, but as with most mental illnesses, there was a long tail. More than anything else, I was lonely. I listened to a lot of intense heavy metal. I cried. I wore eyeliner. I wouldn’t really grow to like myself for another decade.

All of this was significant because, if we did get a dog, I’d probably end up spending a lot of time with it. If you’ve never had a puppy in your life, let me tell you: the first person home of an afternoon will end up feeding it and walking it, or at least giving it an awful lot of attention. In the puppy’s mind, it’s non-negotiable. Well, I never went anywhere after school: I raced home as quickly as possible, shut myself in the house, and did all my homework in a kind of neurotic rush. School finished at 3, and I was often home by 3:15, even though I lived a good 20 minutes’ walk away. My dad got back at 5 or 5:30. For the first two hours of every afternoon, the dog would be my responsibility.

My parents asked me how I felt about the idea.

“I’d love a dog,” I told them, truthfully.

They talked to me about the practicalities, the compromises and responsibilities, none of which dissuaded me. Like I said, I was lonely. The idea of there being someone in my life who actually wanted to spend time with me — who I didn’t even have to talk to; who wouldn’t laugh at me if I said something stupid — was too exciting to describe.

And so, a few months later, we got Waffle: the golden retriever who never went golden — she went from cream to buttermilk, and stayed there — and who never learned to retrieve. Our lovable failure.


One boy and his dog

Puppies, in case you didn’t know, are both gorgeous and frustrating. They run around doing things they aren’t supposed to: chewing things, licking things, licking people, stealing people’s food, peeing and pooing just about everywhere. Teenagers are perennially frustrated, and for teenage me, you can multiply that baseline frustration by ten. When we first got Waffle, we also got one of those gates you use to stop toddlers toddling down the stairs to keep her in the kitchen. But she was too small: she squeezed between the bars. You would take her for a walk, and she would wouldn’t go ten yards before stopping to eat grass, to dive after a thrush, to pee. If you dared to leave her in a different room to you, she barked like it was going out of fashion. All of these things drove me insane. I loved her, and always looked after her — but at the same time, I found myself resenting her. And then feeling guilty about resenting her. I still feel guilty about this, fourteen years later. Dogs do that.

Slowly, I adapted. I’ve always attributed this to me growing up, but I recognise now that there were other factors. One was that Waffle herself calmed down a bit, though she would always be a bouncy idiot. Another — one that I’d never really thought about until recently — was that Waffle changed me. Before her, I didn’t really talk to strangers. Remember, I wore eyeliner, and listened to metal. I was also the second-fastest runner in my school. I repelled most people with my carefully cultivated aggro-teenager aura. And I could outrun the rest.

Waffle changed all that. Because if you have a young and beautiful golden retriever walking alongside you, people will talk to you. You don’t have a choice. Even if you look like Marilyn Manson’s geekiest offspring, builders and grannies and pretty teenage girls will come up and scratch her ears (the builders), or pat her on the head (the grannies), or hug her (the teenage girls). I hated this at the time, but I now recognise that it played a big part in bringing me out of my shell. Waffle taught me how to talk to strangers. Later, when I went to university, she was my go-to ice-breaker. Golden retrievers are crowd-pleasers; you can bring them up in any context, and people will be thrilled. They’ll ask to see pictures. They’ll assume you’re a nice person by mere association. Today, my Twitter profile is mostly devoted to Waffle, and strangers regularly tweet me, out of the blue, to tell me how gorgeous she is.

By the time I went to university, I loved Waffle about as much as it’s possible to love another living thing. For the next decade, trips home would be about Waffle first, and my parents second. My family home is half an hour’s walk from the local train station, and my parents usually came to pick me up. They always brought Waffle with them. I developed the habit of keeping some dog biscuits in my coat, so whenever I saw her, I could give her a biscuit straight away. Each time, before I left home, I would restock my biscuits, so I was ready for my next visit.


The end

Waffle started slowing down a few years ago. Throughout her life, she had been a remarkably healthy dog. Yes, we were careful about her weight and exercise, and we got her from a reputable breeder. But we were lucky, too.

Around the age of eleven, we started giving her ibuprofen for her bad joints. A little later on, she started going to hydrotherapy. (Please pause here to look at some photos of her doing hydrotherapy: it’s the most joyful thing you will ever see.) It was brilliantly effective: she bounced around like a young dog for another year.

And then, this spring, she took a turn for the worse. She was bleeding, she wouldn’t eat, she could barely walk. The vet gave her some new drugs, which helped a little — enough that, for a few weeks, she seemed pretty much her old self, if a lot slower. My brother and sister and I all got the chance to go home and see her. When I got to the station, pocket full of biscuits, she was as excited as she’d ever been. I topped up my pocket when I left, though I knew I probably wouldn’t get the chance to feed her again.

Waffle died this weekend. She would have been fourteen on Friday: a remarkable stretch for a golden retriever, who breeders will tell you are on borrowed time as soon as they turn ten. We got Waffle when I was fourteen, and she lived for fourteen years. I spent half my life with her.

When I got the news, I wasn’t shocked. The shock all happened a couple of months back, when I first found out she was ill. This weekend, as soon as I saw the call from my dad, I knew what was coming (though later, I did dream that my dad called me back and told me he’d made a mistake: that she’d got up from the patio and was now bouncing around again).

Waffle, like all retrievers, had two faces: the happy one, with lots of tongue, and the sad one. She could switch between them in an instant. She could make you feel a hundred different things without even realising she was doing it. Now though, my emotional slate has been wiped almost clean. Guilt and pride and jealousy and disgust, all the emotions she’s made me feel over the years — right now, I don’t feel any of them. There are just two things left: happiness, because I got to spend half my life so far with her, and sadness, because it’s over.

There is an internet meme where people post pictures of dogs doing cute, noble and kind things with the caption, We don’t deserve dogs. That’s how I’ve always felt about Waffle: not just that I was lucky, but that I was too lucky. Something had gone wrong in the fabric of the universe, when I was at my most selfish and most angsty, and delivered me a dog that I truly didn’t deserve. Now, that feeling is a little purer. I’m just happy. I’m just thankful. Because that dog made me a better person. She changed my life.

Rest in peace, Waff.