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A day out with Ailsa

Mal walking AilsaWe first met Ailsa soon after moving to our house in Carrradale as she is a frequent passer-by in the company of her owner, Betty, and immediately we fell in love with this affectionate animal. Unless, of course, you are one of those who believe in not ascribing human emotions to pets and other animals, in which case you would have to say that Ailsa is irrevocably drawn towards humans and would stay forever with someone who treats her right, which in her book means being fed and having her thick coat tussled and ruffled regularly. Get the behaviour just right and sooner or later you are treated to the full tummy exposure where she lies supine, head back and eyes half closed, in a position we humans would only describe as expressing sheer contentment.

So, borrowing Ailsa for a few hours one afternoon I set off down to the burn then across the playing field towards the path up Deer Hill. I am looking forward to the chance to stretch my legs up to the summit of our local hillock from where Kilbrannan Sound can be viewed from end to end and Arran’s dark mountains spread across the horizon. Walking in Ailsa’s company provides just the excuse I need. This is a route she follows almost every day so her lead is soon off and we traipse across the village football field to a gate which opens onto the forestry track, then onto a narrower path rising to the left steeply through mixed conifer and deciduous woodland. This part is a section of the Kintyre Way, marked with carved green posts and well maintained, the tough grass underfoot being regularly cut back and drainage channels kept cleared to reduce erosion. But despite this being familiar ground for her, Ailsa is strangely reluctant to follow me and seems totally unmoved by my calling her name. She stands looking at me as I walk on, as if to say, ‘Well I don’t think much of the way this walk is going just now. You really have no idea how to go for a walk, do you?’ Rather than follow my lead she galloped off in an instant when she spotted a family using the swings in the playground so that I had to chase her and apologise for my lack of control of the animal. What am I doing wrong? Perhaps there is more to this dog-walking lark than I thought. Here we are marching along enjoying the scenery, the fresh air, feeling the wind on our faces, the rough ground underfoot, the sun on our backs, surely this is enough to please anyone. What more could a dog possibly want?

My voice is getting hoarse from calling her name, to no effect, and I may be imagining this but it rather seems that her facial expression, or the canine equivalent, is registering something close to boredom, possibly verging on disgust. Then I recall Betty saying something about stones and it slowly dawns on me that Ailsa is a Golden Retriever whose natural inclination must be towards, well, retrieving. I cast about and bend down to pick up a rounded stone, of which there are plenty to be found, and immediately there is a transformation in Ailsa’s behaviour. The moment the stone is in my hand she bounds up to me, tail wagging and mouth open (could this be a smile?) then she rushes on ahead before glancing back at me to check that I have finally twigged what this is all about. I toss the stone ahead of her, exactly the right thing to do, for straight away she bounds up to it, skids to a halt and picks it up in her mouth, briefly juggling with it to get her teeth safely around it, then marches on again up the path, no longer following me reluctantly but now taking the lead with her head held high and her hind quarters gyrating magnificently behind her. Ah, so this is what we do then. It has taken a while for me to catch on but now at last I have grasped what walking this particular dog is all about.

Eventually she slows a little so I can catch up then quite casually she places the stone on the ground and looks away, as if temporarily distracted, so that I can reach down and pick it up again. Once again this is the trigger. She springs to life and barely waiting for the throw, she is off at speed up the path, chasing the stone even when it bounces off into the heather to one side. She uses her front paws to dig away at the undergrowth until she can grasp it in her teeth then bounds away, this time choosing the deep drainage ditch beside the path where water from yesterday’s rain still gurgles and bubbles. Perhaps the water cools her down, for this must be exhausting work, or maybe she has developed a thirst after all the exercise. I can see that this creates something of a problem for her as with the stone in her mouth she cannot use her tongue to lap up moisture and she is not quite ready, at this point, to surrender the stone. Perhaps she even realises that I might not be inclined to go ditch-diving after her for the sake of one stone.Ailsa in the mud I look away briefly then notice she is drinking vigorously from the stream and I assume, therefore, that another stone will be needed if correct dog-walking behaviour is to continue. I cast about for something suitable but then I notice her climbing up out of the ditch with a stone in her mouth. On inspection I realise that this is the same stone as before and she must have placed it somewhere safe so she could take a drink then reclaimed it afterwards so that the ‘walk’ can continue in the proper way. She at least knows exactly how to behave, even if I don’t.

I know it is wrong to use the word ‘game’ but I don’t think we really have anything more appropriate in our vocabulary. I cannot help but feel, though, that this is not a game for Ailsa, it is the real thing. It is what life is all about – retrieving and carrying stones thrown by humans. By trial and error I establish that stones are her ‘thing’ and throwing sticks evokes slightly different behaviour. The chase is the same but instead of picking up the stick Ailsa lies down and begins to chew on the end, clearly a complete contrast and gauging from her tail’s activity I would say an inferior pastime too. For dogs like Ailsa, only stones will do.

Suffice to say that with all the splashing about her coat is soon soaked and since she makes no distinction between clear, fast-running and still, muddy water she is soon caked in black stuff right up to her armpits, so to speak. Mal & Ailsa on Deer HillHer energy, though, is boundless just as long as the supply of stones keeps coming and I struggle to keep up with her as she charges on ahead. She knows exactly where to turn at the final rise to the summit where we rest awhile, both our tongues lolling, and catch our breath. We are almost equally mud-splattered now as we gaze out at a view which is partly concealed behind the light mist that swirls around us. ‘Deer Hill’ may be how it is known locally but we both know that the Gaelic name, Cnoc nan Gabhar, really means Goat Hill, although the hoof-prints around us in the peat are of deer just the same.

Then, casting about I realise that we are stone-less – she has dropped the latest one somewhere along the way – and heather and peat have covered any surface lying stones here. I rise to begin the descent and once again she gives me that look, the ‘Well?’ one that she does so eloquently, as if the obvious doesn’t need to be said. So I grovel about to unearth a small stone and we are off downhill together once more.Wet ailsa Ailsa dashes off into the heather and when she disappears from sight I begin to realise that I might easily walk on ahead and leave her behind out here in this wilderness. I need to think like her to discover where she has gone so I listen to the noises around me. There is the wind softly rustling the heather and then there is something else too, running water, a burn bubbling beneath, cutting its way down to the bedrock, a ditch fit for a water-loving dog perhaps. And there she is, paws fully immersed, loving every minute of it and tempting me to join her. Muscles straining she heaves her bulk up beside me and lollops away downhill, back below the treeline towards home.

The finale takes place in the small burn just beyond the bottom of our road which the rains have swollen with brown peat-stained water almost deep enough to swim in. Ailsa knows exactly what to do here. She runs ahead and is standing knee-deep in the water before I catch up, gazing up at me with that same expression, the one that says ‘Come on then’. On the bank she has carefully placed the latest rounded pebble ready and she is waiting so that I can perform my part, tossing it into the deepest part of the burn for her. Does she know that in human terms this is where she cleans off the mud from her thick coat, where she takes a bath so she is fit to be brought back indoors again? Who knows, but she emerges from the burn a shade or two lighter in colour albeit dripping wet. Whilst knowing exactly what happens next, the doggy shake, I cannot allow her to wander off so I bend to attach her lead as quickly as possible. The inevitable happens, of course, and the shake comes just as I am standing close, thus transferring most of the water from her legs to mine but this is a small price to pay as I have enjoyed her company enormously for the last hour or so.

We say farewell back at Betty’s house after a good towel down, for Ailsa. The look she gives me now is a different one; I sense that perhaps I have passed the test and she is giving me some sort of approval rating. Maybe she’ll even take me for a walk again some time soon.

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