I'm leaving cats behind and getting a dog

An attack mongrel is exactly what I need to make my life fuller. I could call it 'Hain'
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The Independent Online

Good old Peter Hain has played a telling, if minor, part in a small personal crisis I have been undergoing. He was the top-of-the-bill act on theToday programme at the weekend and was speaking up for the importance of integrity in politics. He did this by claiming that Michael Howard was "an attack mongrel" on every issue, and that he was prepared to put his wife and family at risk from terrorist bombing in order to score party-political points.

When they sneak up unannounced, moments of genuine unpleasantness like this can have a terrible effect on morale. The combination of elements - the smooth and reasonable voice, the sanctimonious tone, the distortion of fact and the low personal spite - was bad enough without the memory of what Hain once was. The uncompromising, donkey-jacketed protester of old has mysteriously morphed into a sinister, pin-striped spokesman for the new nasty party, prepared to deliver any cheap shot that will help his party hold on to the power that has done such harm to its principles.

But, what the hell, it was the weekend. A kingfisher had just appeared on the pond, confirming that spring was under starter's orders and ready to burst forth at any moment. The world was bigger and stronger than the sneers of a poison-tongued minister. I was about to put Hain's words out of my mind when I realised that, in a perverse way, they were offering me guidance.

An attack mongrel - that is exactly what I need to make my life fuller and more interesting. I could call it "Hain", or even "Haine". It would be a bit of bruiser - more a John Reid or Charles Clarke than a yappy Peter - but, over time, it would become gentle and loving. Every morning it would need a walk - at about the time when government ministers were appearing on the Today programme.

To be fair to the unofficial pet consultant of Westminster, his advice was unusually well-timed. Following the death of an old feline friend - a companion, therapist, hot water-bottle, back support and much else - there has been a bit of a pet crisis going on around here. The question of cats and dogs - cats versus dogs - is in the air.

It turns out that these are sensitive issues. More than a house or car or even friends, the type of pet we choose helps define who we are. I was brought up with dogs but for years have moved in largely feline circles. My friends and family have been quiet, self-contained types whose temperaments have been complemented by the emotionally semi-detached nature of a cat. Feline people share characteristics with their pets, being introvert, subtle, private, sometimes rather difficult to know.

The pet dialogues have revealed that these people have an attitude to dog-owners which verges on the snobbish. Arguments against moving from cat to dog - seen as a sort of species betrayal - have ranged from the practical to the financial, from the environmental (from cat owners!) to the frankly faecal. Behind the case against canines is the sense that those who own dogs tend to be less nuanced, complex and interesting than their feline-favouring counterparts.

At best they are hearty outdoor types whose idea of a good time is a spot of ratting in the woodshed and, at worst, inadequate people whose Hain-like bitterness against the world is expressed by a slavering, stinking mutt tugging at its lead.

There is a certain amount of truth to the argument. The dog world is not an obviously attractive one. Its image is unfortunate, from attack dogs terrorising children and pensioners on housing estates to fluffed-up pooches whose owners pay not only for canine therapy sessions but for face-lifts and, for that male dog who is slightly lacking between the hind legs, fake testicles.

Compared to the discretion and sleek delicacy of owning a cat, there is something vulgar, even exhibitionist, about dog ownership. According to a YouGov survey that was published last week, the average cost of looking after a dog, even without prosthetic private parts and Botox injections, is mind-boggling. A Great Dane will cost £31,840 over a 10-year lifetime while even a little Jack Russell scurries in at a cool £17,476.

On the face of it, a move into the dog world is almost an admission of lack of seriousness. Few successful novelists will own up to having a dog and no poets. Canine role-models tend to be people who use their dogs as wishful character extensions - Peter Mandelson totes a silky, soft-eyed retriever while Roy Hattersley's alter ego is a butch and bloody-minded Staffordshire bull terrier.

Dog-owners tend to be highly aggressive when defending their own territory. When the novelist Paul Bailey wrote a memoir called A Dog's Life, Hattersley's review of it - the work of an attack mongrel if ever there was one - complained that there was too much about humans in the book and that the average dog-lover would feel cheated.

But our culture as a whole is more breezy, open and generally canine than it used to be. For all the perils of dog ownership (for me, not for the dog - which will have the life of Riley), I feel the moment has arrived for a change of rhythm, a switch of personality. It's mongrel time.