There's no better place to start blogging ...
I remember sitting in the back of the car holding in my arms this pudgy little black puppy with a soft pink belly. She was wrapped in a towel infused with the scent of her mother to comfort her in this moment of separation, and despite the thrill of excitement at finally having a puppy of my own, I remember feeling deeply moved watching her spend her final moments with her mother.
On the journey home I expected her to be unnerved and anxious and in some way searching and looking back for her mother and fellow pups. I expected wriggling and whining. And yet she was quiet and content to snuggle into my arms, peeping at the world whirring by through the car window. The date was the 19th November 2005 and I was in love with a Black Labrador called Coco.
But before I tell you about Coco, let me wind the clock back a little further to my childhood in the 80's and 90's, because dogs have been a constant throughout my life. Growing up in East Boldon in the North East of England we always had a family dog; Firstly, Sam a fiendishly clever Border Collie - so clever he used to help me with my homework - much like Hobbes does for Calvin in Bill Watterson's brilliant cartoon creation , and then Jasper a 'Heinz-57' Collie-Springer-cross.
And now my own dogs; Coco nearly 13 and her stablemate and fellow Black Lab Maggie who will be 2 in April.
Within the frame of my childhood pictures - there is always a dog. The memories are clear and warming;
I remember walking the short walk to school with Mum through East Boldon Park; Long summer evenings playing football; Holiday walks up hill and down dale in the Lake District; long car-journies packed into our Space Cruiser with my 3 siblings - and always by my side, a constant companion - Sam Dog and later Jasper.
Both Sam and Jasper had a little of the 'Lothario' about them and I look back now with some horror at our completely lax attitude to their many and varied conquests in the back-lane behind our house on The Hawthorns and in the Park when the female of the species were on heat.
Because we always had a dog, 'coming home', be that from school, university or work - became synonymous with being met at the door by a four-legged friend; tail wagging, crazily charging round the house, soft toy in the mouth, eye's glinting, jumping, hugging, scratching, stroking. Many a weary and trying day has been lifted by that homecoming.
I recall too the intense grief felt at loosing our dogs. I remember taking Sam to the vets and holding his paw in the back of our Space Cruiser when he was finally put-down at the grand old age of 16.
I do believe that part of me, my tactile character (I am most definitely a 'hugger') can be partly traced back to the hours spent cavorting, playing, resting and finding comfort and solace in the warmth and constancy of my dogs.
I know, I know, this might all sound a little squiffy and sentimental - but there it is.
So, if you will indulge me for a moment, let me just return to that puppy with the pink belly held in my arms on a Saturday in November nearly 13 years ago. Because Coco is getting old now. Her muzzle is as grey-white as a winter sky, her back legs are I'm afraid as weak as the red dogwood blowing in the chilly February breeze. That belly of her's is just a little too rotund and as many a Labrador owner will testify, she is a lumpy old soul now riddled with lipomas. She has to be lifted into the car and up to her bed and in the fading light of her eyes and the willful deafness of her ears there is a vague and blurry senility beginning to manifest itself. At night, she pines restlessly to go out into the garden - and when out there stumbles to the edge of the deck, rocks her regal head back and barks gruffly and wheezily into the night sky. There is something primeval in that. Like she's barking into the darkness to call on her ancient ancestors and waits to receive a response.
She has been a gentle, sweet, kind, loyal and quite beautiful companion and friend. I was reading recently Ben Fogle's book; Labrador, in which he talks about the three Labs he has had; Inca, Maggie and Storm (Incidentally, if you want a more potted version of the book check out this recent article he wrote in the Telepgraph; https://www.telegraph.co.uk/pets/Ben-Fogle-labradors-dogs-pets/ ) and much of Ben's memories, recollections and observations chime with mine. He says at one point that 'kindness is built into a Labs nature' - and that is certainly true of Coco.
The quietness in the back of the car on that first journey home has played out in her life. She came into a family and circle of friends who nearly all had dogs and Coco immediately adopted a subservient role - quite literally - when other dogs approached she would invariably role onto her back in a gesture of submission. She is and always has been a bringer of peace
When I come home to Coco she always rushes to go and find her favorite toy 'Red Dog' and plays her own little teasing game, where she will bring Red Dog just within reach and when I try to grab it she moves it just out of my grasp.
Gone are the days when I would take Coco out into the Mountains of the Lake District. Two years ago, I took her on a walk up Haystacks - Wainright's favourite Mountain - and on the way down she kept stumbling and at one point sat down and would not carry on. I recall carrying her most of the way down the mountain. It was an upsetting wake-up call to me - that my beloved Coco was moving into her later years and would need careful management from now on.
But in her younger years she was so strong, lythe, agile and biddable. Labrador owners talk about the 'biddable nature' of their dogs and one of my happiest memories with Coco - climbing Helvellyn together - bares testament to that. Anyone who has climbed Helvellyn (and if you haven't then pop it on your to-do list) will tell you that it can be a pretty challenging experience with the sharp and craggy final approach to the summit taking you over the famous Striding and/or Swirral edges - ridges of rock circling round Red Tarn far below with sheer drops either side. Walking it with a dog could present quite a task - but not with Coco. I had her on the lead - but at no point did she pull. She stayed exactly by my side. When we came to parts of the ridge which required us to climb up using hands and feet, I would lift Coco up above my head onto the plateau first and then climb up after her. I can see her now, looking down at me intently from the plateau. Not moving. waiting for her master. Waiting for the next instruction.
Yes, she is a food-fiend. Food is king, Queen, Jack, Ace and the whole rest of the pack of cards as far as Coco is concerned. She can appear to be in a state of blissful, lazy, sleepy slumber out of which the hounds of hell couldn't wake her - but as soon as I move into the kitchen and start to prepare a bit of food - a graying wizened old furry face will appear looking up at me with misty and twinkling brown eyes and a drooling muzzle.
Coco has been an angel to me at times. She has such a sensitive nature and sensibility. She knows instinctively if all is not well and her wet nose is never far away from nudging my knee and lending me her soft old bones to hug and find comfort. I love strumming gently the Foy Vance song 'Coco' and singing it quietly to her, asking the question; 'Coco - what do you know? Tell me do you know Coco?'
So, I make no excuses for continuing to draw Coco as much as is feasibly possible as my commissions come in thick and fast - because I want to preserve her character in the way that I remember her best. It is one of the main motivations behind my art work; I find great pleasure in connecting with people through my love of dogs. I understand the bond. I understand the particular angle of the head, placement of a paw, languid outstretched leg, gummy toothy 'grin'. All of these poses particular to your own beloved pet which I am passionate about capturing because I understand the memory or remembrance that can be sparked and the enjoyment and inspiration that may follow.
As for Labradors as a breed and whether I would recommend them to folk looking to get a dog - well, I'll let you draw your own conclusions...but the answer is most assuredly...yes.