I love this photograph. It is of my little brother and our dog Digger; and captures a thousand tales of our childhood. The one I am going to tell is how our dog was always there for us; just as he is here when my brother felt like the whole world was against him. He often felt that way when he was little; and with the benefit of hindsight I can see why. We moved from a tiny fishing town in the far North of Scotland to Cardiff. No two different places could there be from our perspective as kids. At the age of 4 he was plucked from the safety and security of our very small world and tight knit community, and sent to school in Ely where no one could understand a word he said. He would be peeled off my mother every morning; as hard for her as it was for him.
I found the transition much easier after I got over the shock that we weren’t living in grass huts on a beach. My father, who worked in shipping, was offered two postings – one to Cardiff and one to the Christmas Islands and I got them both confused in my head. I was 7, and I was a performer (or show off as my mother would say) and so I loved being paraded around the playground and asked to say words in my strange accent. For some kids that would have been a nightmare, of course. My older brother, aged 11 at the time and starting in a big comprehensive school, coped differently again, but that is another story.
Digger had come to live with us as a puppy when I was new born. We had been visiting relatives on a farm when my mum heard that he had failed the ‘working dog’ test as he wouldn’t go out in the rain. Without further ado she brought him home; not daring to ask what might have happened to him otherwise. I realise now that far from failing, he simply knew that his vocation lay else where. He often went out in the rain with us kids. He quickly became my older brother’s shadow and could not have arrived at a more important time. Aged four and with a tiny baby in the house he now had a playmate and constant companion, and I don’t think I can remember a photograph without them side by side. It was back in the day when children were free to roam and dogs were too. Hard to imagine now.
When I grew older my brother would often be asked to let me join him with his friends, which he did reluctantly but Digger kept an eye. By ten he rejected that idea altogether and so Digger and I were left to make our own fun. Again, in hindsight, I realise that the last thing my brother wanted was a little sister telling tales; and a dog whose fur smelt of cigarette smoke. Digger coped well with the change in arrangements and new adventures emerged that often involved fancy dress or playing house or schools. I remember the pride I felt when I taught him ‘ready steady go’ and he would rush to the start line in our pretend sports day game. A classic example of a kid re-imagining through play difficult experiences in their life!
By the time we moved to Wales Digger knew it was time to move on to my little brother, as he needed him most. Constant companions, they would lie side by side as Digger comforted him in his sadness. He used to suck his thumb, and would pluck lumps of loose fur from Digger and roll it with his finger tickling under his nose as he sucked. We knew if he was having a particularly bad time as there would be a black fur moustache stuck to the tears and snot. As he settled and made friends Digger became their play mate too, going out for hours on end and only coming home before dark. On days when friends called and he didn’t feel like going out, Digger would go anyway. It kept that connection and meant friends didn’t give up on him. When he was at school, Digger still had work to do. He befriended an elderly neighbour and would spend all day at his house, scratching the door at three so he could be let out to wait at the bus stop for my brother’s return. It does make me wonder what our dogs could contribute to the loneliness epidemic if they were free to do their own thing as Digger was. His intuition and ability to attune was extraordinary. It’s a shame we have medicalised even this with ‘therapy dogs’, hugely valuable as they are.
Digger died when we were both 16 years old. Tuned into our needs to the very end, he waited until we were all awake and able to say goodbye before he took his last breath. By this time my brother had discovered his passion in music – first as a trumpeter and then as a drummer. Never comfortable in more formal music arenas he gave up the trumpet when he was asked to play solo in a concert that required him to wear scratchy clothes. He now works as a very talented musician, composer and producer, together with his wife. They work from home and he rarely wears trousers – and definitely not scratchy ones. They have a dog, of course. There is still a painting of Digger on the landing above the spot where he slept. Even now, nearly 40 years later, if I rush down stairs at my parents house auto-pilot kicks in and I step over him.
I tell this tale firstly to honour the dog who gave our family so much; and secondly to recognise that my own children will have their own tales to tell about how our dogs have got them through tough times. Thirdly, and most importantly, I tell it because it makes me think about the qualities we all need in being there for children when they are struggling most. Let’s not make this more complicated than it is. Digger’s rule of thumb was that he kept an eye out for whoever was most vulnerable; and made sure he was always in their corner.