“Don’t they have Schnauzers in London?” asks my husband, when he finds out that the breeder I want to visit is a two-hour drive away.I’m sure they do, but there are quite a few bonkers dog breeders out there and I think I might have found a sane one that I like. And most importantly, who likes me, which is half the battle: breeders vet you (these are their babies) as much as you vet them. It all requires careful negotiation.
I make a list of our plus points that I think may appeal: back yard (tiny, but a space nevertheless), close proximity to Hampstead Heath, always at least one adult working from home, children old enough to play, not bait. Would the fact that we are driving for a couple of hours to see if his current collection of spoken-for pups bring on an allergic reaction in our son, count in our favour?
On the way there we prepare for Schnauzer mania. A good breeder tends to love the breed they’ve chosen to distraction. This breeder shows his dogs, judges other people’s and is a board member of one of the national Schnauzer societies. We prepare for a house that smells deeply doggy, hemorrhaging hair (I carefully don’t wear black). The Schnauzer ornaments, photographs, oil paintings and memorabilia in the front room proudly declare the family interest, but I can’t see any stray hairs and the house doesn’t smell the tiniest bit doggy. Even when eight friendly, be-whiskered females join us, sniffing feet, licking hands and happily jumping into our laps. The vibe changes – and accidents occur – when several jaunty males enter the room and, eager to impress the girls, lift their legs. But after some benevolent chiding, and the liberal use of a magical carpet spray (must buy), the frisky boys are removed, the mood is serene once more and we can talk puppies.
I tell the breeder that we’d like a calm, biddable female. He has other ideas: “With two young boys in the house, I’d give you a bolder pup, one that could cope with having his tale trodden on,” he says. And that makes perfect sense. As he knocks my other questions into touch, I accept that while I may have read every dog book known to Hampstead Waterstones over the last two months, this man is an expert.
After two hours playing with many Miniature Schnauzers in one small front room, putting his face in their fur and their paws on his shoulders, our asthmatic son has not had a hint of wheeze or any allergic wheels. Our youngest – cured of his cat fixation – proudly cradles a puppy that doesn’t want to leave his lap.
On the journey home we agree that one of these surprisingly hefty little pups, all plastic toy noses and curly grey fur, would be the ideal dog for us. Their model mothers, who were calm and friendly even when crowded together with their pups on our laps, convince us.
I call the breeder when we get home (keen, moi?) to find out the next step. He is going to breed two girls in two months, add to that the sixty’ish day cycle of pregnancy and, if we are lucky, the puppy should be ready in the autumn. He tells us rather tantalizingly, “You’ll just have to put your name down and hope.”
I itch to email him when we are on our summer holidays and spend far too much time with a calendar trying to work out when the breeding will take place, and when won’t be considered too pushy to get in touch – we don’t, afterall, want to get nixed from the wait-list. I bite the bullet when we return from our holiday, and am rewarded with the news that the puppies have been born and are doing well. Absurdly sweet photos follow – small dark furry logs of dogs – and I start to plan for a puppy in October.
If you are considering owning a dog and mulling over the right dog breed for you, take a walk across Hampstead Heath to the café at Kenwood House. Apparently it’s the Sunday morning jaunt of choice for every dog owner in North London. Recently we counted 126 canines in the 20 minutes it took to get there.
Having spoken to (‘accosted’ says my husband) various dog-walkers and asked them about their hounds, the resulting consensus is that we should have a Cockerpoo. The popular Cocker Spaniel/Poodle cross is meant to shed less and therefore nix the potential for allergic reactions. Our eldest son has asthma and is supposed to be allergic to dogs. But when sleeping at his grandparents’ house, their gentle old Greyhound occasionally comes to share his bed with no ill effects.
Being sensibly cautious, a non-shedding breed is probably a good idea, but because my heart leans towards a sleek, clever Lurcher, I’m not naturally wild about a dizzy-looking Cockerpoo. Apparently, if you are concerned about allergies, a pedigree dog that allows you to meet the parents also allows you to assess the allergy potential. So, no trip to Battersea Dogs Home for us.
We browse dog encyclopedias over breakfast, lunch and dinner. Despite our youngest son campaigning for a Chihuahua (it’s the size of the cat that he really has his heart set on) and our eldest for a Pyrenean Mountain Dog (all that drool, all that fur and how many poo bags?), we settle on a Miniature Schnauzer: bright, hardy, non-shedding, odourless (really?), can cope with little or lots of exercise and good with kids. And then there’s the clincher: a pair of the most ridiculously expressive, large, twitchy eyebrows. Even the child with the cat fixation approves.
We come across My Name is Moose, a book by Martin Usborne: the story of a photographer and his Mini Schnauzer in groovy East London, it is sweet, funny and incredibly winning. Having found another tome that is clearly the Schnauzer bible on Amazon, I Google the author and after a 45 minute telephone conversation with him about the merits (so many) and downsides (but a few) of the breed I make an appointment to go and see his breeder partner and have 14 of the little darlings jump all over us. Ventolin at the ready.
I cannot remember the crux of the matter – nor can he – but our son was upset. When I tried to talk it through, he muttered, rather hopelessly, “If I had a dog, he would understand.” And the seed was planted.
Several months later and the distress has disappeared – as it does when you’re 8-years-old – but the dog remains firmly on the agenda – as, of course, it would. Just 5 weeks, in fact, until one carefully picked pup arrives under our roof.
Only now, it appears I am more excited about it than anyone else in our house. (Perhaps I should mention that I have really, really wanted a dog ever since I can remember.)
I have always been more enthusiastic than my husband, who grew up with dogs, and has recently been inclined to offer comments such as, “We don’t have a proper garden,” and, “It’ll need to be walked, even in weather like this”.
Yesterday, our 6-year-old breezily informed us that really, he would much prefer a fluffy marmalade cat. And having heard about a puppy who bulldozed, then chewed over a friend’s highly prized Lego Star Wars fleet, even his big brother is now a little less gung-ho.
I admit to the odd doubt-filled moment, but only because I have high hopes of our new family member. I don’t want the puppy that my dog-owning friends delight in warning me about. The dog that cries all night, poos everywhere, chews everything, soils sofas, nips ankles, steals shoes (or just vomits into them), whines incessantly, makes the children vie for attention and inevitably turns me into a crashing dog-bore does not appeal.
It will take some effort – and as I work from home, largely by me – but our puppy will keep off sofas, stay downstairs (people say it’ll end up in our bed – they cannot know my aversion to dog’s bum on pillow), walk obediently off-leash, manage not to terrorise children, ours included, and most importantly, learn to bark and poo on command. (You think I’m joking? Apparently it’s possible and I am so signing up for that.)
Now I’ve just got to make it happen. And I will. Our puppy will be a positive addition to the family. The idea of it provided light relief for my son, and for me at the same time, when my father was ill. Shortly my children will have a faithful friend who listens without prejudice (and hopefully the youngest will learn why dogs rather than cats that are considered man’s best friend); my husband will get to train a dog the way he feels that his parents never did with their sweet but lunatic Beagles; I will finally have the dog I’ve always wanted and my dad, he would have been tickled that we are going to name our puppy in his honour.