Fed up to the canines

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The Independent Online

I haven't been able to think much about culture this week. As The Fast Show's Jesse might have put it, "I are been mostly thinking about dogs" - or, rather, one dog in particular, a hairy academic bribe that I was injudicious enough to offer to my eldest son about a year ago.

I haven't been able to think much about culture this week. As The Fast Show's Jesse might have put it, "I are been mostly thinking about dogs" - or, rather, one dog in particular, a hairy academic bribe that I was injudicious enough to offer to my eldest son about a year ago.

Actually, "injudicious" barely begins to do justice to the scale of the miscalculation, which has been brought home with particular force recently, ever since the dog in question embarked on a sort of canine "psy-ops" programme designed to break my sanity. Initially a moderately tractable beast, he has taken to bolting for freedom whenever the front door is opened; and, though I could happily wave his furry little butt goodbye, the knowledge of the howling Gehenna that would ensue if the children discovered his disappearance forces me to bolt after him.

This is not dignified, particularly when I'm obliged to dive into the French lavender to pin him down. Even worse, he has acquired the habit of stealing into our bedroom, if the door is left unguarded, and relieving himself over the duvet - an event that provoked a Richter-scale-seven tantrum when it first occurred, and went right off the scale on the second and third repetition. The fact that he invariably drenches my side of the bed has not escaped my attention and, although this has proved oddly diverting for my wife and the lady at the local dry-cleaners, it has left me feeling murderous.

I was, anyway, in a receptive mood for the rather audacious running gag that graced the last episode of the current series of Shameless. Frank, the dark-matter anti-hero of Paul Abbott's drama, accidentally acquires responsibility for a dead man's dog; and, since Frank and responsibility are mutually exclusive concepts, he has to find some means of shedding it.

His first attempt has him luring the dog into a sack, which he then drops into the local canal. But a little later the dog trots up to him in the pub, dripping wet, and does that doggy car-wash thing. His second attempt involves throwing a tennis ball onto the fast lane of a nearby motorway, which results in a loud offscreen crunch but eventually proves no more effective at solving the problem. While I have no intention of adopting either strategy with our dog, I have to confess that I found the fantasy of revenge distinctly soothing.

It struck me, too, how rare such scenes are, so powerful is the received opinion that dogs are lovable and that anyone who doesn't love them is psychologically flawed. Indeed, I did wonder whether Abbott was retrospectively trying to tweak his character back into line; lots of viewers have been taking a sentimentally indulgent view of Frank's fecklessness, but drowning a dog isn't the kind of deed that is easy to dismiss as mischievous or roguish. That's Bill Sikes territory, that.

There is a lot of dog-loving in the arts. The fictional dog is an essentially noble creature: the rescuer of fire-trapped babies, the stout defender of the vulnerable, and the possessor of a domestic fealty so powerful that it can find its way across a continent should it inadvertently be left behind. The fictional dog rarely smells bad, and appears to have no anus. It is also a living, breathing character-reference for the fictional character who treats it affectionately.

The subject of dog-loathing, by contrast, is small and essentially fugitive. Jack Nicholson, in As Good as it Gets, dislikes his gay neighbour's dog with an inspired passion - but then, that's just another symptom of his character's mental instability, along with his pathological fear of pavement cracks. Ted, the lovelorn geek in There's Something About Mary, pitches a speed-crazed poodle out of an upstairs window - but this apparently decisive response to the dog's unprovoked attack is actually a hapless accident.

Howard Jacobson did recently expand the genre with his very funny novel The Making of Henry, in which his lead character explores his dislike of dogs with great verve and wit. But even The Making of Henry ultimately capitulates to the powerful cultural prejudice in favour of dogs. Henry ends by cradling a dying dog in his arms, an act of intimate canine contact that would have been unthinkable a hundred pages earlier.

That's the point of dogs in art. They're a kind of shaggy litmus paper that let us know whether a character is emotionally whole or not. What the point of dogs in life is, I'm not sure - but I've realised there's little point in fighting the cultural momentum in their favour. I'm going to surrender - just as soon as I can work out what form of capitulation will satisfy the malodorous brute.

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