Ireland the Labrador greets me by jumping high in the air whenever I come to take him for a walk.
The two of us met about six years ago through The Dogshare Collective. One of his human family had suffered an injury at that time and needed help with his care. I started taking him out in the afternoons, and continued doing so long after his owner’s injury had recovered.
Ireland was bred to become a guide dog for the blind, but due to a minor defect in his own vision he was withdrawn from training and made available for adoption as a family pet. Large, friendly and exuberant, he loves playing with other dogs and like most Labradors he has an insatiable appetite. We have enjoyed many outings and adventures together (search the Animals section of my website to see illustrated posts about my walks with Ireland, also with my other dog share Buddy).
Having a dog brings great benefits – physical, mental and social – also involves great responsibilities. There are many people who are not in a position to have a dog of their own but would like to have a relationship with one. And there are many dogs who, often because their owners are out at work all day, need additional exercise and company. Within New Zealand The Dogshare Collective exists to put people from these two groups in contact with one another.
Although I don’t have my own dog, I have the pleasure of knowing several local ones, and regular “dog sharing” arrangements with two of them: Ireland the Labrador and Buddy the Cavoodle. This involves taking them for walks, and sometimes keeping them company while their owners are out. I love both dogs equally, but they are so different from one another it can be hard to believe they belong to the same species, canis lupus familiaris.
Ireland is a confident, exuberant big black Labrador nearly six years old. He loves everything life has to offer: going for walks, playing with other dogs, riding in cars, and most of all he loves eating – almost anything except kidneys. His only fault is a tendency to bolt towards any source of food, such as a picnic or a discarded pie, which he can smell from far away. I have been walking him for about four years now and his joyful greeting when I come to see him always makes my day.
Buddy, a second generation Cavoodle just coming up to his first birthday, is a more sensitive soul and prone to anxiety even though he has been raised with the utmost kindness. He is gradually becoming more confident, and now enjoys going for walks although he was previously reluctant to leave the house. He still hates car travel, and in further contrast with Ireland he is indifferent to food, and often has to be coaxed into eating. Buddy is a very handsome dog, with an affectionate nature. He loves cuddles and is still small enough to sit on my lap.
The characteristics of Ireland and Buddy are typical of their respective breeds. For example it is well established that Labradors are obsessed with food, and that Cavoodles are prone to separation anxiety. Although the way that dogs are treated and trained has a big influence on their development, research has shown a clear genetic basis for inter-breed differences in personality, behaviour and intelligence. https://theconversation.com/genetic-research-confirms-your-dogs-breed-influences-its-personality-but-so-do-you-196274. Doing similar research on humans would be considered racist and unethical nowadays.
Although I’m including this post in the Devonport walks series, it actually relates to a different part of Auckland. This is because Ireland, the dogshare Labrador I’d been walking most afternoons for four years, has moved out of the city with his owners’ family. Contact is less frequent now, but our bond continues unbroken, and Ireland greeted me ecstatically when we met halfway for a visit to the Normanton Reserve in the Wairau Valley suburb.
I had driven around there many times in the past for business purposes, not for pleasure because it is a rather unattractive industrial area prone to traffic congestion. I had no idea there was a peaceful green reserve close by, hidden away at the end of a cul de sac.
The large flat grassed field on the lower level of Normanton Park offers activities for both adults and children. On the path that encircles the perimeter there are a series of exercise machines – I did not try these. There is a playground, a small basketball court and a small skateboarding park, a picnic area and toilet block, all clean and well maintained.
On an upper level, reached by a short flight of steps, is a large field in a more natural state with plenty of room for a dog to run free.
Ireland’s departure has been a loss but I will certainly keep in touch with him and meanwhile, with other local dogshare opportunities on the cards, have had the gaps in our garden hedge sealed off …
As Auckland’s lockdown continues and we are told to stay within our own postcode area, the highlight of my daily routine is a walk with my dogshare Labrador, Ireland. There are several interesting places nearby and one of our favourites is the hill called North Head, or Maungauika, which forms a prominent landmark at the end of the Devonport peninsula.
The hill is encircled with a network of paths and from the higher ones there are spectacular views of Cheltenham beach to the north, Rangitoto and the islands of the Hauraki gulf to the east, the Waitemata harbour and Auckland’s CBD to the south. It was a wonderful location for watching the yacht races during last summer’s Americas Cup.
North Head was formed by a series of volcanic eruptions about 50,000 years ago. About 1,000 years ago it became occupied by a Maori tribe, then after European settlers arrived was put to use as a coastal defence site. During the late 19th century a number of large guns were installed to deter a feared Russian invasion. Fortifications including more guns, searchlights, tunnels and underground rooms were added, using prison labour, to cope with subsequent threats during the two world wars. The army left the site in the 1950s but a naval training school remained on the summit until 1996. The site is now managed by the Tupuna Maunga Authority and open to walkers and their dogs (on lead).
Remains of the old military installations can be seen around the site. Some of the tunnels are open to the public, others shrouded in mystery and rumoured to contain aircraft or military secrets. At present however all the tunnels are closed due to Covid restrictions, as is the colourful toilet bock.
I find North Head a fascinating place which carries an air of mystique. It features in Carmen’s Roses, the first short novel I wrote after coming to live in Devonport.
For three years after the death of Khymer I was without a regular canine companion to walk, but am now having daily adventures on the beach with Ireland – a big black bouncy Labrador.
There is plenty of evidence that dogs are good for the wellbeing of humans. They provide loving companionship, a stimulus to take exercise, and opportunities for social interaction. Dog owners tend to have better physical and mental health than those without a dog, for example lower rates of cardiovascular disease and depression. These benefits as reported in many research studies are undoubtedly real, although they may be over-estimated to some extent because less healthy people are less likely to get a dog in the first place. Dogs have an established role as therapists: guiding the blind, visiting residents in care homes, supporting disabled children and adults, predicting the onset of epileptic fits or hypoglycaemic episodes, even sniffing out the presence of early-stage cancers.
Dogs can also present hazards. Falls are one danger, as I know to my cost: on one occasion when Khymer was forging ahead along an uneven pavement I tripped and broke my arm. Over-enthusiastic dogs often want to run up to strange people, or other dogs, and can easily knock them down. Constant vigilance is required during off lead walks.
Dog ownership is a significant responsibility. Leaving aside the dreadful cases of neglect and cruelty I have seen at the SPCA, many otherwise well-meaning owners leave their dogs alone at home while they are out at work all day, never realising how much they suffer from the lack of company and exercise. An ideal solution, as promoted through charities such as the the Dog Share Collective through which I met Ireland, is linking up such owners with people like myself who would love a relationship with a dog but for various reasons cannot have one of their own.