ME AND RYAN                                                                                                Pontevedra, March 2001


Ryan is my dog - a border collie. We live together, as it were, in Galicia in Spain. I moved here after separating from my wife last October and Ryan joined me in December.


I’ve recently read that it’s easy to take a dog out of the UK but difficult to bring one back in. I go along with the second of these views but demur on the first. I thought it would be easy to get Ryan to Spain, essentially because the advice of the British Consul in Vigo was that Spain - recognising that the UK was rabies free - made no particular demands. But this was to overlook the capacity of bureaucrats anywhere to make things difficult in Area B where their jobs have been endangered by relaxation of rules in Area A. In the UK the Pet Passports Scheme introduced to replace the 6 months quarantine requirement has been a godsend in this regard for civil servants in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries (MAFF).


When I left the UK, I put Ryan in the capable hands of my brother and expected to see him in a matter of days. Ryan, of course, not my brother. But the first problem we ran into was confusion on the part of all concerned as to what the export requirements now were. Then we ran up against stipulations dictated in the UK that were far more onerous than those demanded by the Spanish authorities. Then we had the distraction of a detour aimed at avoiding these problems by sending Ryan to Portugal and driving him across the (totally unmanned) border with Spain. But in the end we gave up and simply went along with the significant effort and cost involved in going through the paper chase required by the MAFF before it will allow a perfectly healthy dog to leave a country which has no rabies in order to enter a country which does. This, of course, involved injections, health checks and the production, signing, countersigning and stamping of a number of official documents. All of the latter were placed in a large envelope for the attention of the Spanish authorities at the airport of Santiago. Suffice to say that when the employee of Iberia handed Ryan over to me at 1.30 in the morning, he commented only that he was ‘a bit fat’ and gave me the said envelope, completely unopened and unchecked. Ryan could have been a rabid wolf for all his apparent concern.


Anyway, back to Ryan. Being a border collie, he is naturally intelligent as far as dogs go. There’s a tendency to exaggerate this but he’s probably even intelligent as far as border collies go. Certainly, he has always been very ‘biddable’ and extremely obedient. But in the last month or two, he appears to have developed an attitude problem and this is beginning to get to me.


The first signs of this was evidence that he had been sleeping on the furniture at night. Over the years, I have once or twice suspected him of this but he has always been smart enough to get off the settee or whatever as soon as he heard anyone descending the stairs. He would then try to disguise his malfeasance by doing a long stretch, as if to say ‘These floors are pretty uncomfortable, you know.’ I was pretty sure that he was getting up to his old tricks here but couldn’t catch him, except at stretching. And then one morning I did find him getting down from the settee and played hell with him. My surprise that he had allowed himself to be caught in flagrente delicto turned to astonishment a few days later, when I came down to find him curled up in one of the armchairs. Worse, he made not the slightest attempt to move and lay staring at me with the canine equivalence of dumb insolence on his face. This time I was beside myself and he was severely reprimanded. As far as I am aware, he has not been back on the furniture since but his campaign has clearly moved onto another battleground.


In order to get rid of some, at least, of the significant extra weight gained after his castration a few years ago, I take Ryan out twice a day and give him the pleasure of chasing a ball up a long and pretty steep hillside. And he obviously really does enjoy it, as he always has. In fact, his pleasure is so great that he makes it quite clear that he resents turning round at the top of the hill and coming back home. Initially, he expressed his feelings by being a tad desultory in retrieving the ball on the return journey. But a few weeks ago he started to develop what can only be called a ‘routine’, designed to show his dissatisfaction and, if possible, to get me to retrace my steps and give him some more throws. Essentially, he makes only a pretence of retrieving the ball, dropping it when my back is turned and then coming up behind me without it. When I angrily tell him to go and get the ball, he does so but at a snail’s pace. He then walks around it a few times before condescending to pick it up and bring it to me. He then repeats the process for as many times as I care to throw the ball. When he first started doing this, we would be a hundred yards away from the house but the distance has gradually increased so that now he starts the nonsense about four hundred yards from home, making the last leg very slow and irritating.


As I say, this has started to get to me and I have begun to theorise about what is really going on here. It seems to me very relevant that this is the first time Ryan and I have been the only two males together. Previously, he has lived as part of a large-ish human family. In addition, after a few years as the sole canine, he was compelled to fit in with one or two other dogs, involving a loss of status from being top dog to being just one of the pack. I now suspect that he is both taking revenge on me for this and, at the same time, seeking to achieve Alpha Male status in the very small pack we now comprise. He now has an opportunity not given to him before and he means to seize it to achieve domination over me. To him, I am just a flock of sheep. Or perhaps a single, ageing ram.


Most pertinently, I think his border collie brain realises that – having been born 7 human years ago this month – he is now 49, against my 54. He is keenly aware that, this time next year, he will be 56 and I will be only 55. Age will no longer be on his side and things can only then get more difficult for him. So it’s now or never.


This battle could run and run. It’s the ultimate test of intelligence for me; have I got what it takes to outwit a border collie in his prime? I fear not.




Immediately after finishing this, I took Ryan for his afternoon exercise session. Since it was raining, I decided to follow my usual bad-weather practice of staying near the house and throwing the ball in the large car park of the nearby School for Granite Carvers. This is on a steep slope and provides plenty of scope for making Ryan run uphill, while I more or less stand still, under an umbrella. We have done this many times before, during this very wet winter.


Ryan was as excited as ever to be going out and ran energetically for the first two or three throws of the ball. Then he simply stood and watched it as it reached the extent of its trajectory and ran back down the hill towards me. After this had happened three times, I remonstrated with him, whereupon he simply turned and walked slowly away towards the house, flagrantly ignoring my orders to come back. This is unprecedented.


Things have gone on to a higher plane. The wheel had been cranked. He has opened another chapter in his campaign designed to wear me down.


My suspicion is that he has read what I wrote about him earlier and is furious that I realise what his game is. Now it's to the death!

ME & RYAN - WAR                                                                                                     Pontevedra, March 2001

I am engaged in a war of attrition with my dog, Ryan.


You will recall that he is a border collie of some 7 years of age. And smart. Very smart. And he likes his own way.

I’ve said before that Ryan seems to view me as a flock of sheep or, more likely, an ageing, recalcitrant old ram. Which is the way quite a few people regard me, apparently. Anyway, notwithstanding his instinct to control my sheep persona, he accepts that I have a claim to authority over him. But he regards this as weak at best. And he is determined to reverse our positions, even if it kills him. Or me. Perhaps you will get some idea of what this can be like when you hear that – after Ryan joined me here in Spain – my brother’s six dogs (with whom he had lodged) threw a party straight after his plane took off. It was quite something to see in the airport, from all accounts.


The battle between Ryan and me has been raging for 5 months now and I thought I was getting on top. I hadn’t caught him on the furniture for 3 months and nor had I found any evidence that he was taking comfort there during my absences. And he was obeying – though with all-too-obvious disgust – my injunctions against entering the kitchen or going upstairs, where his long hairs are very visible on the tiles and the polished wooden floors. And I have been steadfast in refusing to fall for his stupid little tricks when we come towards the end of our morning walk and he tries to prolong it by hiding the ball and pretending not to know where it is. But I have recently made a strategic blunder of enormous proportions and suddenly I am now in retreat on all fronts. You see, I have unwittingly brought into the house visiting animal lovers with whom he can form immediate alliances against me. You may feel that this is a far-fetched notion but the speed and intelligence with which he goes about this business allow of no other conclusion.


First came my friend, Elena. Now, Elena is really a cat lover and Ryan and I despise cats. But this was a detail he was prepared to overlook as soon as he discovered that I  might not countermand anything that she would allow him to do. So, before I could blink, he followed her into the kitchen and lay down under the table. From there he looked at me with a smirk of contempt and a look of utter defiance on his face, as if to say, ‘Go on, then. Show your new friend that you’re not what she thinks but the heartless bastard I know you to be’. Off course, I was quite powerless. And still am.


Then came my elder daughter, Faye, whom Ryan greeted as an old friend and ally. Which, of course, she is. For him, Faye was the route to the bedrooms and - as with Elena and the kitchen - he was after her like a flash, only stopping fleetingly to cast a backwards look of triumph in my direction. Worse was to follow. Last night, during my absence in town, Faye came downstairs to find him stretched out – upside down – on one of the settees. Her presence – which he was good enough to acknowledge from his supine position – did not to any degree motivate him to get back to his designated place on a towel on one of the rugs. So she was forced – through tears of laughter – to order him off the furniture. He accepted the minor setback of a tactical retreat with his customary aplomb.


But this is not all, folks. Emboldened by the occasional presence of two allies in the house, Ryan has decided that the dry food he has been getting for years is just not up to the mark. So he has now gone on hunger strike in pursuit of something considerably better. In fact – as Faye has observed – he appears to be willing to eat only what we eat. In short, she says, he has decided that he is human and deserves to be treated as such! So he and I are now engaged in a titanic struggle which may, indeed, be to the death. But his, not mine. I am going to extraordinary lengths to disguise the dry food to get him to swallow it but he is having none of it and hasn’t eaten now for 4 days. Given that he is still a little overweight, I am less concerned about this that I might otherwise be. But something has to give. And I have the gravest concern that it might be me. If he doesn’t eat me first.


Meanwhile, nessun dorma.


ME AND RYAN – VICTORY!                                                                                Pontevedra, May 2001


Those of you who are still with me will know that my border collie, Ryan, and I have been engaged in a lengthy struggle for domination of the household. In this, he has been handicapped by the fact that, although he has a high degree of canine intelligence, this is no match for my mix of tactical and strategic genius. Nor can he belt me across the ear when I don’t do what he wants. So it will come as no great surprise that – after a vicious campaign on two fronts – I have emerged the complete victor.


The first front opened up was in the area of food. Ryan succumbed to a dose of flu or something, during which he ate nothing at all. After four or five days of this, more progress had been made in reducing his excess weight than through all the dietary efforts of the last 5 months combined. But I was a tad concerned – not to say annoyed – when, after his recovery, he refused to even consider the dry food he had been eating for the past few years. Presumably he had fingered this as the cause of his illness and was determined to get his diet changed. But I declined to get involved in the messy and time-consuming business of buying and dispensing canned food and simply dished out his dried stuff and left him to it. I was very determined about this and totally unwilling to compromise. After a further four days of a starvation diet, Ryan was down to a more-than-acceptable weight and I decided to soften a little and mix his dry food with canned stuff. I went to great lengths to disguise the presence of the former but he wasn’t having it. In the end, I resorted to reducing his daily feeds from two to one and he caved in. He now has 50 per cent dry and 50 percent canned food. A victory for me, I think you’ll agree!


The second front was in the area of Ryan’s sleeping arrangements. Although I have not caught him a second time on the furniture, there was convincing evidence that he had taken to sleeping on the settee at night, finding it no problem at all to circumvent the measures I took to prevent this – mainly piling small things on the settee to deny him space. I briefly considered confining him to the front porch but decided against this as it would negate his ability to guard the rear of the house.  So for three nights I cunningly arranged chairs in a horizontal fashion on the floor between the dining and the sitting areas so that he would have to stay in the latter. To my great annoyance, this proved notably ineffective as his reduced weight allowed him to leap over the amassed furniture like the puppy he used to be. Luckily for me, I had some guests staying and they hit upon the clever idea of placing a dog blanket on the settee at night and fooling Ryan into believing that this was his bed. In this way, not only would he be deceived into giving up his campaign but I would secure success in my attempts to keep his hairs off the furniture. Another comprehensive victory!


I read recently that, as dogs age, one would notice that they get wiser with the passing of the years. I also read that it wouldn’t be a bad thing to indulge an old dog a little. I reject both of these contentions out of hand, though there’s growing evidence that Ryan has read the same passage and has different views. Indeed, there is a thesis gaining ground that Ryan’s problem is that he no longer regards himself as a dog but as a human. This was first put forward by my elder daughter, Faye, who noticed that – during the Great Food War – he was prepared to eat whatever we were eating, so long as it was given to him in the kitchen. She also pointed out that, when I laid out five towels for five people on the beach, Ryan immediately lay down on the fifth one as I was straightening out one of its corners.


From my position of unchallenged victor, I dismiss all this as stuff and nonsense.


On the other hand, if it’s true, who is writing this article, do you think?