Fifteen months ago, I welcomed my sixth and latest guide dog, Cosby, a curly coat retriever/Labrador cross. You may remember that I revealed my initial duel of wills with this lovable giant of a dog in Radio Times last year. A few months ago, the local day school in the Leicestershire village of Cosby contacted me to say that they were raising money for Guide Dogs for the Blind and asked me if I would take Cosby to Cosby! How could I resist? After all, the pupils had raised £1,000 and the staff an additional £500, which will go a long way towards helping someone else have the independence, dignity and mobility that I have enjoyed over what is now almost 45 years with a four-legged guide. It’s the sort of story that fits in ideally with this week’s British Animal Honours, which recognise the achievements of some extraordinary animals – and the people they work and live with.
Cosby took over from my previous faithful companion, Sadie, who sadly died last July. At nearly 43 kilos (95lbs in old money) Cosby has just celebrated his third birthday, but at heart he is still a puppy. Nothing suits him better than being thrown a ball. In fact he is prepared to go without his favourite biscuit while he carries the ball, which appears in all sorts of strange places – I wouldn’t be at all surprised if one day I find his ball on the train between London and Sheffield.
After some effort, it has been possible to reduce one element of Cosby’s behavour – namely scavenging from the kitchen – that can be a nightmare. When a dog is as tall as he is, there’s no need for paws on the work surface. He literally just lifts off anything that takes his fancy from the breadboard, table or top of the fridge, so we have to be extremely careful.
Part of the problem, as dog owners will know, is actually catching them at it. As I understand it, there’s no point in punishing a dog long afterwards for something that they will not actually remember having done. That said, quite often the dog ends up in in his bed, in Cosby’s case with his paws over his nose, when something untoward has happened, trying to pretend it has absolutely nothing to do with him.
We thought we had cured him of other misbehaviour he must have picked up as a puppy – such as slipping upstairs to find a spare room with a bed to sleep on. There is no room to do this in my flat in London, but in Sheffield the patter of not-so-tiny feet in the morning gives the game away as Cosby tries to get downstairs before he’s spotted coming out of the bedroom occupied by one of my step-daughters, who is currently at university. We will probably have to fit a child gate, as he obviously thinks this is not only great fun but much more comfortable than his own very large bed.
But, of course, Cosby’s real purpose in working with me is to be a guide dog, and he has grown into the job very well. He sometimes has an off day when he will mooch along, usually when he doesn’t fancy returning to my office time and again after several votes in the House of Commons. Mooching takes the form of shuffling along at about half normal speed, as if to say, “Do we really have to do this again?”
The opposite to mooching is deciding that it is home time – sometimes when it isn’t – and the acceleration that can come from a powerful dog has to be seen to be believed. I’m developing muscles where I haven’t had them for a very long time. Unfortunately they are not always where the toughening up is needed most.
With the Kennel Club having decided that perhaps some types of cross breed will be allowed into Crufts, it may be possible for curly coat retriever crosses to appear in future performing slightly different acts than the responsible job of ensuring that guide-dog owners don’t find themselves down a hole in the pavement or under the local bus.
But much as children in every school I have visited love to stroke those silky ears and ask endless questions about how training is achieved and what sort of food and toys the dog really likes, there can be pitfalls.
I will never forget when, as Education Secretary, I visited a primary school and was taken aback to be asked to tell the children a story. They had notified my office that I would be asked but it had slipped through the net of the formal briefing. To make matters worse, the local BBC radio station was present. So I had to make up a story on the spot, using my guide dog Lucy and a little girl in the class, also called Lucy, who I knew had a pet rabbit.
The story was about how her rabbit was attacked by a fox, and her Uncle George, who only had one leg and was leaning out of the window when Lucy the dog came to the rescue, almost shot Lucy instead of the fox, but all was well in the end. But the coup de grâce came when little Lucy introduced me to her mother and told her about the story. I was astonished to learn that she had a brother called George, who only had one leg!
Sometimes in public life, I wish the floor would open up under me – but, of course, it is Cosby’s job to guide me round it!
Haatchi the Hero – meet the three-legged rescue dog who brings joy to seven-year-old Owen
When Haatchi was five or six months old, he was tied to a railway in north London and hit by a train. By the time the RSPCA came to his rescue, his back left leg and tail were so badly damaged they had to be amputated.
Arriving at our house a couple of months later, Haatchi occasionally fell over because he was still getting used to only having three legs. But when we introduced him to my seven-year-old son Owen, it was as if Haatchi knew something wasn’t quite right. He instinctively slowed down and gently put his head in Owen’s lap to be stroked. There was an instant bond and they became inseparable.
Owen has Schwartz-Jampel syndrome, a rare genetic disorder that means his muscles are always in a state of tension. He needs a wheelchair to get around outside, which he used to hate because people stared. He’d curl up in a ball because he didn’t want anyone to see him.
That all changed when Haatchi came along. Within a week or two Owen was asking to take him out for a walk and talking to people about his three-legged pet. He’s now much more outgoing and he loves showing Haatchi off.
Claire Webb was talking to Will Howkins, Owen’s dad and Haatchi’s owner
Haatchi has been nominated for the Braveheart Honour for rescued animals that have gone on to flourish and care for other animals or people.
Paul O’Grady hosts The British Animal Honours – tonight at 8:00pm on ITV