“The best thing a man has is his dog.”
Nicolas Toussaint Charlet
THE WAY HOME
It’s a dog eat dog world… Very clever. In other words, selfish and ruthless. Oh yes, well done. You humans! I wonder what you would say if we were to start using the same phrase in reverse… Imagine the situation: I come home after a hard day at work and the dog next door asks, “So, how’s it going?” And I reply, “It’s a man eat man world out there…” What do you think of that expression, eh? I don’t think you’d like it very much. Well, same here, my dear two-legged friends. You have to agree, dogs are conclusive evidence of human ingratitude.
But never mind that, I wanted to talk about something else. This is the sort of thing I have to put up with: people grabbing my ears, ruffling my fur, shoving food in my muzzle… Can I say ‘face’? They shove all sorts of rubbish in my face… Actually, I should rephrase that: it’s not rubbish, far from it! They often offer me such tasty treats that I almost choke on my own saliva. Once I nearly succumbed.
So, I’m standing by a pedestrian crossing with my first charge Ivan Savelyevich (may he rest in peace), waiting for the lights to turn green. My task is to make sure that the cars have stopped. Not just that they’ve stopped, but that they’ve stopped in the right place. Do you think the painted lines in front of traffic lights are there just for the sake of it? I’d like to take this opportunity to ask all you drivers out there: please don’t cross this line. It’s alright for a sighted person, he can just skirt round your car bonnet and continue on his way. But my charge might not understand straight away what I want him to do: we seem to have started crossing the road, but then his guide dog starts pulling him off to one side. Do you see what I mean? I can’t explain it in words so I start to whine, I pull on the lead, sometimes I even have to bark. My charge becomes flustered and stops, trying to work out what I’m up to, going tap-tap-tap with his stick. Some drivers all but lean out of their windows to shout, “Watch it, you moron, you’ll scratch the car!” Why is he a moron? He has to figure out somehow what’s in front of him. He can’t use his hand, or he might not get it back.
Basically, while he’s still working it out the traffic lights start flashing and the cars are revving their engines, getting ready to go. Impatient drivers with their feet on the accelerator, that’s not such a big deal. But there are some idiots who start sounding their horns and shouting things like, “Come on slowcoach, get a move on!” Or whistling at me, making noises, hurrying me along. If only you people knew how my affection for you cools at times like this. Sometimes I look at you and think you should be ashamed of yourselves. There but for the grace of God, and all that. Does gaining a few extra seconds at the damn traffic lights really make you happy? People, I beg you, when you see a blind person with a guide (one like me, I mean) please try to be as calm and quiet as possible – don’t distract us, don’t cause any trouble for us. OK?
So anyway, we’re standing by the zebra crossing, and suddenly my right nostril detects a wonderful smell. My stomach aches in recognition of this smell, from the time we walked past a takeaway food stall with the sign ‘Grilled Chicken & Kebabs’. Trying to keep my mind on the road, I sneak a look out of the corner of my eye and spot the tastiest piece of chicken, all golden, crispy and aromatic…I still don’t know how I managed to control myself at that moment, how I managed to resist snatching such a delicacy. It just goes to show how much they teach us at dog training school.
Thank you, of course, for your kindness, your strokes, all the treats… but people, I’m at work! Don’t you understand? I’m not some pampered lap-dog or poodle being taken for a carefree stroll by my owner, sprinkling the little posts out of boredom. I’m working. Seriously, I’m not just out for a walk with a blind person, I’ve got a job to do and believe me, it’s not an easy one. My task is to lead my charge wherever he wants to go and make sure that on the way he doesn’t bang his head, stumble, fall, or even step in a puddle. I have to warn my charge about every obstacle and stop in front of any impediment, so that he can use his stick to check what’s in front of him. If the obstacle sticks out into the road I veer to the right or the left and lead my charge around it, whilst at the same time making sure that he doesn’t walk into any low-hanging branches or anything else that might pose a problem. My task also includes making sure my charge doesn’t bump into other people. If we’re travelling on the bus or the tram I show him where to get on, and then where to get off. Basically, I’ve got more than enough to keep me occupied.
Can you even begin to imagine what it’s like, working as a guide? If you say yes, I’m sorry but I’m going to have to bite you. Don’t be so arrogant and hasty. Don’t say yes straight away. In order to imagine and understand what my job is like, you would need to spend a couple of years strapped to a harness following one of these helpless ‘masters’ around. Did you notice how I used the word ‘masters’ in inverted commas?
Yes, some of them think they are our masters, even though they wouldn’t be able to take a single step without us. If I (incidentally, I’m a pedigree Labrador, they even say that I’m related to a dog belonging to a famous politician) wanted my so-called master to bump his head on a wall, for example, or walk into a lamp-post, a moment’s distraction would suffice, the time it takes to pee on a bush. But I’m a professional, a specialist. I studied at a special dog training school for two years, which is the equivalent of about ten of your human years. You could get a couple of degrees in that time, a doctorate even. Of course I would never do anything as despicable as endangering my charge. My task is to keep him safe from such perils. But it does upset me when people say ‘your master’. Those I escort are not my masters. They are my friends. And believe me, I am a more devoted and selfless friend than any human could ever be. You can pull a face, smile, roll your eyes, even kick me if you like, but it won’t change a thing. It was you who came up with the phrase, “It’s good when a dog is your friend, but bad when your friend is a dog.” You thought it up but didn’t think it through, even though God gave you common sense and the capacity for rational thought. What’s so bad about your friend being a dog? Don’t worry, it’s alright… I know what you meant. I won’t hold it against you.
Anyway, if you’d like to hear more I shall continue. I’m already five years old – in human years I’m twice as old as my charge (Sasha is thirteen human years old). I used to work for a blind pensioner; Ivan Savelyevich was a wonderful person, and my friend. He sometimes even let me lie on his bed. We would come home and after taking all my guiding paraphernalia off, feeding me and brushing me Ivan Savelyevich would say, “Go on, Trisong, put your feet up.”
You think it’s easy wearing this harness? When I get rid of it at the end of the day all I want to do is lie on my back with my paws in the air, have a good old stretch, then jump about and chase a ball. Ivan Savelyevich never told me off, even on the unfortunate occasion I broke a vase. The old chap knew I hadn’t done it on purpose. I was mortified, though. I pressed myself against his leg and whimpered. Ivan Savelyevich stroked me and said, “Don’t worry about it, Trisong, it’s not worth getting upset over. Broken crockery brings good luck, as the saying goes!”
I still don’t understand how a broken vase can bring good luck. I’ve never heard it mentioned on television. Anyway, my Ivan Savelyevich died. He died, and I was sent back to school. I missed him so much. I had a lump in my throat that I just couldn’t swallow. I kept wondering who they were going to give me to next.
I don’t know what paths, what turns of fate led him to me but somehow my current master… I mean, charge, Sasha, found his way to our school.
If you are able to see and have never experienced any of the problems faced by blind people, then I’d better just explain something. Before we (us guide-dogs) are given to new masters (damn, I can’t believe you’ve got me saying it now too)… I mean, new charges, we have to spend some time together. To get to know one another, get used to the look and smell of one another. Mind you, how can they get used to the look of me if they’re blind? I’m the one who has to do the looking. They have to get used to the sound of us, the smell of us and yes, even the feel of us – just to be on the safe side, to make sure there are no allergies or other such nonsense. You and your human frailty. We’re far more robust.
Having said that, sometimes we also have to make a stand. Yes, indeed. Lada, a German Shepherd from the seventh enclosure, just didn’t get on with her new charge. The woman returned her to the school. It’s an excellent guide-dog school, by the way, you should bear it in mind if you ever need one. Of course I’m not there any more, but I assure you my friends won’t let you down. Do you have any idea how rigorous the standards are? We have to take all kinds of tests, exams, the works.
In other words, they don’t take just anyone. We – the students of this university – all have a balanced psyche, block out extraneous noises (at least, we try our best) and don’t even notice those loathsome creatures known as cats. Well, of course we notice them (how could we not?), I mean we ignore them. No, that’s not true either, we can’t ignore them. But we’re not allowed to react to them, a fact that these green-eyed pests often exploit to their own advantage. I kid you not.
Here’s a recent example for you. I was leading my Sasha into the entrance to our apartment block (there are a lot of steps, and you have to be extremely careful), and just at that moment this Persian princess (or puss, if you like) came out through the door, all airs and graces, with an idiotic pink bow round her neck, manicured claws, a fluffed-out tail and ears like little aerials (sticking up in different directions). I swear on my canine conscience, it hadn’t even occurred to me to growl at her, let alone bark. But this white fluffball hissed, puffed up her tail, arched her back and – whack! – swiped my muzzle… I mean, my face with her paw. I can’t begin to tell you how upset I was. If it weren’t for my Sasha, if I weren’t a professional with responsibilities, I would have bitten her impertinent tail in a flash. Honestly, I was so upset I nearly cried. I couldn’t help whining a little bit – even with manicured claws, this home-bred ‘baroness’ had still managed to draw blood. I licked a salty drop from my nose and led Sasha home. What else could I do? I can’t let myself be distracted by these foolish felines…
Before I arrived, my Sasha lived with his mother and grandmother. His father was killed in a car accident. Apparently Sasha was with him on that fateful day; he was eleven at the time. According to the doctors’ verdict, the iris and crystalline lens were damaged beyond repair. I don’t understand the details, but basically the boy lost his sight in the tragedy. There is talk in the family of a famous doctor who might be able to restore Sasha’s sight… but no one seems to know when it might happen. So for the time being I’m his doctor, his eyes and his friend.
Sasha and I got on straight away. He did upset me in the beginning, though. Just a little bit, it wasn’t really anything serious. See what you think... As you already know, my name is Trisong. That’s what he called me when we were training together at school, and everything was fine. Sasha passed the exam. Mind you, that’s hardly surprising; I could get any novice through the exam. I don’t just carry out my charge’s commands, you see, I have to use my own initiative. When it’s appropriate, of course, and within reason.
So far, so good. We came home (Sasha’s mother was with us too) and met his grandmother, Elizaveta Maksimovna. She also greeted us warmly. Incidentally, I only found out Nana’s name by accident – a neighbour came and called her by it. For some reason everyone calls her Nana at home. I’ve noticed that humans have such foibles. Fair enough for Sasha to call her that, but Svetlana Sergeevna does too. I always think: how can she be your Nana if she’s your Mum? Sometimes it’s hard to understand you humans. But anyway, that’s not important.
So as I was saying, my name’s Trisong. Do you know where the name comes from? Well, I’ll tell you! I’m not just any old spotted Rover or clumsy Rex. Ivan Savelyevich told me all about my name. I’m not only a pedigree dog – I have a significant name into the bargain. It was the name of a Tibetan king, Trisong Detsen, who many, many years ago came to the conclusion that enlightenment can only be achieved through the attainment of moral and spiritual perfection under the guidance of a master. I’m not bragging when I say that I was trained at school by a consummate master. Do you see what I’m getting at? An enlightened Labrador is a force to be reckoned with!
And suddenly out of the blue Sasha started calling me Trisha. I didn’t realise who he was talking to at first. He woke up one morning and started groping about by his bed, looking for me. But I’m not stupid enough to lie right under his feet. I was lying at the end of the bed, so that Sasha didn’t tread on me by accident in the night. I raised my head and barked gently, to let him know that I was there. I heard him say: “Tri… Trisha, where are you? Here, boy.”
I sat there, thinking: maybe he’s looking for one of his toys? I had a look around but couldn’t see anything that might have been called Trisha. There was a stuffed bear in the corner, but Sasha himself had told me the day before that his name was Teddy. Where, and what the hell was Trisha? I didn’t understand. Then Sasha sat on the edge of the bed and called, “Trisong!”
Now that was me. I ran up to him, bumping my nose into his knees. He stroked me and repeated, “Trisha, good boy, how did you sleep in your new home?”
I was flabbergasted. It turned out that my Sasha was calling me Trisha. What a turn up for the books! Do I look like a Trisha to you? What’s the matter with you, boy? But the worst of it was that there was nothing I could do about it. He started calling me Trisha one morning, just like that, and I’ve been Trisha ever since. As well as Sasha and Svetlana Sergeevna, now even Elizaveta Maksimovna calls me Trisha. At first it used to bother me. Whenever anyone called me “Trisha” it would make my fur stand on end; I would have done anything to get rid of the name. I had been a king, and now I felt like a stuffed toy.
You should see me. I’m not just sandy-coloured, or yellow, I’m more of a golden colour. You don’t believe me? Look at me closely on a bright, sunny day, particularly when I’ve just been in the shower. You won’t find a more beautiful dog. You would burst with pride if you had a pedigree like mine. My ancestors were the dogs of Vikings and Basques, who lived on the island of Newfoundland; Labradors were not seen in Europe until the eighteenth century. Incidentally, seafarers have always considered us a mascot for a successful voyage. And if you think that’s just a second-rate superstition, you’re very much mistaken. My ancestors always helped people. Whenever a ship was wrecked, Labradors would pull a rope to shore to enable everyone to swim to safety. And my ancestors would carry straggling sailors on their backs to dry land.
The sailors of Newfoundland took a couple of dogs with them on every voyage. My breed, of course. And they had such great names! Like Wave, and Surf! You see what I’m saying? Wave. Surf. And then some girl’s name like Trisha. The shame of it. But you know what? I stopped letting it bother me a long time ago. What the hell, you can call me whatever you like.
Some old chap, a friend of Ivan Savelyevich, once got his patronymic wrong: he said either Savich or Stepanovich instead. I would have corrected him straight away, as I’m sure you can imagine… But Ivan Savelyevich paid no heed. And the old chap kept using the wrong name, again and again. Then suddenly he came to his senses. He was so apologetic, smacking his own forehead and saying, “Oh, Ivan Savelyevich, I’m so sorry, my memory has completely failed me.”
“Don’t worry about it, Timofei Ivanich,” said my charge. “What difference does it make, at our age? Call me an old crock if you like, just don’t stick me in the oven!”
I remembered my old friend and stopped being cross with Sasha. Trisha it is, then. Call me an old crock if you like…
If you’re interested, I can briefly explain where the name of our breed came from. Ivan Savelyevich told me that there are three versions. According to the first version we’re named after the island of Labrador, which is not far from our homeland. According to the second version (my favourite of the three) our name comes from the Portuguese word labrador, meaning ‘worker’. The third version is rather absurd, but now I’ve started talking about it I might as well tell you: there’s a black mineral with dark blue tint, which is called ‘labradorite’. Why don’t I like this version? Because although my ancestors were black, these days you can get golden Labradors, like me, and even chocolate Labradors. No, I won’t hear of any minerals or islands. Our breed was named after the Portuguese word. A worker is a worker the world over, as my Sasha says.
We made it to Russia at the end of the 1960s. Ivan Savelyevich once told one of his guests once that President Carter of the United States gave the then President Brezhnev a Labrador, and the Canadian writer Farley McGill Mowat gave one to Prime Minister Kosygin. They were statesmen in the USSR. At first we lived only in Moscow and Riga, but now my colleagues can be found throughout the country. As for me, I was born in Moscow. And, although Labradors are one of the most popular breeds in the USA and England, I want to stay here in my motherland, working and helping people here. Do you realise that we’ve been helping you since time immemorial? Our breed gets on well with humans. Take it from me, we’re easygoing and highly intelligent. Our primary qualities are our friendly nature and our desire to help people. Although if you read this story to the end you’ll realise that sometimes we have no choice but to put these qualities on hold. But as they say, there’s an exception to every rule. Moreover, if it weren’t for the kind of people you’ll be hearing about later we wouldn’t need to make these exceptions in the first place. And that’s the dog’s honest truth. A Labrador’s word of honour!