How tough do you think you are? Try this.
Newspaper editor Jill Baker lost her husband George and weeks later was diagnosed with breast cancer. She needed to find something to make life worth living.
But could that really be a crazy, howling, snoring, digging, chewing, barking orange pup like Harry. Turns out it was.
In this extract from the new book A Dog Called Harry, Jill tells of the bumpy start to a beautiful friendship.
‘Jeez, look at you,’ my girlfriend said. ‘You hardly smile. You used to be hilarious but I haven’t heard you laugh in weeks.’
When I was diagnosed with cancer, I worried I would die. When I lost my husband, I wondered how I would live. I needed something to make life worthwhile. Somehow, I ended up with Harry.
Not the dumbest dog in the world, but not the smartest either. A friend called out Harry on day one: ‘He’s a dropout dog, not a university dog.’ And he was. He wouldn’t sit or stay. Plain refused to fetch a ball. ‘Wotsya dog up to?’ a guy at the park barked as I picked up the ball for the thousandth time. The short answer was, ‘Not much’, but where to start with a pup like Harry?
To my untrained eye, he wasn’t quite the dog he was meant to be. Chest too thick, ears that flopped and a stomach that expanded when he was in the same room as food. Harry’s vet had none of my misgivings. He wrote ‘very lovely puppy’ in spindly letters on Harry’s vaccination record. And then he said something that floored me: ‘I’ve never met a dog more like a teddy bear.’ Some teddy. Harry liked socks and undies and David Jones silk shirts still wrapped in tissue, which he tried to bury in the garden. Most days he liked couches too. Dog v. couch. Dog wins every time.
The recommended guide had made it sound so simple. Lesson one: Teaching your dog to come when called. ‘Begin this in a quiet place, such as the kitchen or the living room. Be sure there are no distractions to compete for your dog’s attention. Say his name in a clear voice. If he turns to look at you, immediately say yes and toss him a tasty treat. You must have been joking. I think the vet thought Harry was one of those zen dogs. Harry’s idea of zen was opening his eyes at 5.13am and sitting still until 5.14 before making the hole in the doona bigger.
It was my doctor who had thought a dog might heal me. When his poker face dropped, I could see he knew I was living on the edge. My husband had died suddenly and weeks later I was diagnosed with cancer. I needed something to give my life purpose, but could that really be a snoring, howling, digging, chewing, barking non-university dog like Harry?
Harry spent half his life begging for food – the rest he knew he had wasted. For him, getting fed was a process. Nothing happened unless you followed five simple rules. 1: Congratulate her on having found her way home with the shopping. 2: Show her to the fridge. 3: Somersault as the door opens. 4: Trip her as she grabs the dish. 5: Walk to the back door on hind legs – backwards.
I thought all dogs loved walks but Harry had no idea what all that outdoorsy stuff was all about (far too far from the fridge). He believed the walk to the park was far enough to need to chauffeur. Once there he had his schtick down pat, working the place like a politician at a party. Every hand a cuddle. Every pocket surely a treat. Some days I thought he must have a slogan: Can I eat my own bodyweight in treats before we go? YES, I CAN. To watch him was to see pure sales genius. If every deal has a unique selling proposition, his was killer: Come on, she doesn’t feed me. Look at me – the only skinny mutt in the park.
My miracle dog moved in a few years after I finished chemo. He had longer hair than I did, a tiny cat’s collar and a recipe for homemade meatloaf that I was meant to cook for him each day. He trembled when I touched him and howled when I shut the bathroom door at night. But he soon learnt the important things in life – which way the fridge door opened, how great garbage was and why humans spoke in that stupid voice when they got the lead and said, ‘Walkies’.
Harry tried to be the perfect dog, and every year or two he was, but some days I wondered how this dog had a hope in hell of saving my life when he couldn’t get his own in order. He had his own take on eating me out of house or home – shoes, socks, undies and much, much worse. He gnawed the back door and ripped flyscreens to make sure he was never left outside. Friends – who considered takeaway when Harry made short work of their dinner – suggested behaviour modification classes (aka puppy school) and then heavy-duty brainwashing (obedience classes). If brainwashing was trying to change the thoughts of another against their will, then it had met its match in Harry. First the affirmation method (what trainers called ‘Just do it’). Harry said let’s not. Then the education method (Do it because I told you to do it’), which Harry dismissed as nonsense. I went to lesson three with a heavy heart. We tried the persuasion method (‘Do it and you get a treat’), and suddenly my dog was hooked.
The tricks that had eluded him eventually came thick and fast. Shake hands – no problem. High-five – you betcha. Play dead – how long? But he also had more than his share of shockers – like the day he played dead in the middle of a highway and, of course, the night before Christmas.
When I told a friend about that terrible night she jokingly asked whether this crazy non-university dog of mine might be my third dose of bad luck. I wasn’t sure ‘bad luck’ was the way I would describe what Harry did that Christmas Eve. Bad management – possibly. Bad owner – probably. Bad dog – undoubtedly. If Harry was one of those social media hounds whose owners put a sign around their neck listing alleged crimes, his would have read: I stuffed Christmas. I hope Mum will forgive me one day.
Christmas Eve was party time at my friends’ house. Everything I loved to eat and drink was on the stone table outside. Guests were set to arrive. The sun was fading after a perfect day in the pool. Silk dresses, sunnies and bare legs were the dress code du jour. All was right with the world. Harry was locked down the side of the house. I might have fibbed a bit when friends had asked how he would go at the party. Could he be tied up outside? Sure. Would he bark if left on his own? Never. Had he ever tried to escape? Of course not. He wasn’t that sort of dog.
I guess I should have worried when it was so quiet. Too quiet. When the carols stopped, there was no sound. No barking, howling, yelping, snorting, whining. Nothing. Then I saw it. A curly, muck-dripping orange streak. Harry had made an unforgettable entrance. After tunnelling out of puppy prison, he wanted to join the party. There was gunk from here to kingdom come. Looking like an escapee from one of those kooky new-age mud spas, he tore around the garden. He oozed sludge near expensive shoes, wanted to plant muddy paws on silk frocks – and then turned his gaze to the food.
‘HARRY – Noooo!’
I can’t remember who coined the nickname, but one thing was certain: it stuck. And every year the night-before-Christmas story was told with a little more embellishment: how the dog that was meant to save my life became known as Dirty Harry.”
This is an edited extract from A Dog Called Harry by Jill Baker. Published by Hachette Australia RRP $32.99.
Jill and Harry are self-isolating in Melbourne these days. Harry thinks it’s the best thing ever. He’s just been given a big promotion. He’s VP of Lifestyle Management at Jill’s house. Job Description: Head of pantry logistics, chief ball skills coach and head of security to vet the postman. Wish him luck.