My son called a few days before my birthday: “Without giving anything away, dad, would you like a book about a couple of labs who are famous on the internet?” I laughed: “Well, without giving anything away, son, I’ve been hoping you’d give me a book about a couple of labs who are famous on the internet.” And so, on my birthday, I was delighted to unwrap Olive, Mabel & Me.
In addition to books, I love dogs, and specifically labradors. And his is what drew me to the Olive and Mabel videos on YouTube. No offence, but I wouldn’t have been interested in them if they’d featured pugs, poodles or Portuguese water dogs. (But hey, owners of those breeds no doubt feel the same about labradors.) So, I watched the videos and saw my labs in Olive and Mabel’s antics. And I felt the same when reading Andrew Cotter’s words about his dogs and their adventures together.
I wrote an earlier blog post about the 59 Chapter Challenge I set myself on my birthday to mark turning 59. As I admitted in the post, I am a very slow reader and usually only manage a chapter or two in bed at night before falling asleep with the book propped on my nose. But I’d allowed myself the whole day to complete the challenge. And, for added variety, I spread the chapters across several books. Of course, my son’s birthday gift, Olive, Mabel & Me, was one of the books.
I settled on the sofa with my black lab, Jet, beside me and began my chapter challenge.
My top 20 quotes
I read 25 chapters of Olive, Mabel & Me on my birthday and finished the book in mid-April. As the cover photo for this blog post shows, I used almost a packet of post-it notes to bookmark pages with quotes and observations by Cotter that resonated most with me. And here are my top 20:
1. The early and heartfelt promises I had made, that of course I would feed Humfrey (Cotter’s childhood Yorkshire Terrier) and take him out every day, came up against a fairly impressive opponent in the distracted nature of a child and then the overwhelming laziness of a teenager.
2. Later in life, with the years passing more quickly, you realise that dogs are here only fleetingly in human terms. It is the cruel trick played on us that our companions in life trot alongside for only a short part of that longer journey.
3. In your twenties the world is yours to be claimed and you have the energy and drive to do so. What you haven’t got is the urge to have a dog, as you’re too busy with that grand plan of yours.
4. And so, when we considered all the factors we kept coming back to one name – Labrador. Yes, I can hear some of you stifling a yawn now. Could you not be more original? Did you not want to try something different from the world’s most popular breed? Well, no – there is a reason they have that title. They are just outstanding dogs.
5. Labradors don’t fall in or out of favour. They let the other dogs have their day, living by the canine equivalent of the sporting credo that ‘form is temporary, class is permanent’.
6. I don’t really want a dog which has been utterly conditioned by us, submissive and bent to our will by rigorous training. Yes, I would like her (Olive) to come back a bit more promptly, or indeed at all, when I get frustrated with her grazing on a walk, but I wouldn’t change it.
7. The single issue we had with another black one [when choosing Mabel after Olive] was that they do all rather look the same. I had even had the experience of grabbing Olive from a melee of dogs on a walk once and eased her out with a gentle boot to her backside while shouting ‘Come ON – get MOVING’ before realising that Olive was fifty yards away and it looked to all concerned that I was both abusing and stealing somebody else’s dog.
8. Olive is a destroyer – always has been. There is just no point in giving her toys unless they are constructed from strange materials developed by the Soviet Union at the height of the Arms Race. Otherwise you may as well throw her a £20 note and tell her to tuck in.
9. If nineteenth-century aristocrats had had access to a smartphone no doubt they would have had thousands of photos and videos clogging up the memory, just like mine. Those who love their Labradors seem to have been as devoted to them 150 years ago as we are today.
10. Once upon a time, many years ago, we had nice things. Those halcyon days of clean furniture and smart clothing are now nothing but a distant memory.
11. One thing [Olive and Mabel’s fear of the Vet] confirms for me is that when the final day comes, however nice everybody is who works here, I will not be bringing a dog in for their last moments. It will happen on a favourite bed in a familiar, happy and comfortable place and I will sell my own limbs if necessary to make it so.
12. It didn’t matter where I might be in the world, I would always be happy to find a dog. No language skills are required and nothing is lost in translation – there is no cultural boundary to overcome. Where we may be, in whatever country, dogs will simply treat you as dogs always do – show them a bit of kindness and love and they will gladly return those sentiments. There’s probably a lesson for all of us there.
13. Quite often in the mountains you don’t have to believe in anything to still feel something.
14. These stories [of mountain walking companion dogs] confirm that a dog will do what you ask of them. It is extremely unlikely that a single cat has ever climbed a Munro (any mountain in Scotland over 3000 feet), as they would be prone to say, ‘Now what, in the name of God, would I want to do that for?’
15. Overwhelmingly, the recent story of Olive and Mabel has been a positive one. From the messages we’ve had in the strange and strained year of 2020, they have played a real part in keeping people’s spirits up, just when it was required. And in answer to a child’s question [‘What do they do?’], that is what they do – nothing special and yet everything.
16. In this dream, Olive turned to me and said, with a very calm, reassuring tone: ‘You do know that I’ve always loved you.’ As with most dreams it came just before waking and when that happens you carry the feelings created by it into reality for a few moments. But this one stayed with me far longer and left me reasonably emotional, so I headed downstairs, found Olive and wrapped myself around her while she asked just what the hell did I think I was doing?
17. The only problem is that, in relation to our own, dogs seem to be living their lives on fast-forward. Olive is snoozing alongside me now with a little bit of salt sprinkled in the pepper of her chin and flecks of white are scattered across her chest. Every day there seems to be more and every day I have a small moment of sadness as I think about what it means. I can cope far more easily with grey in my own beard than in hers.
18. I love my dogs dearly but couldn’t necessarily see how explaining that relationship and affection might stretch out more than a couple of pages. Yet in writing about dogs you very quickly realise that you are writing about all aspects of your life, because there isn’t really a part of it that the dogs don’t touch.
19. The fact that those videos soared into the [social media] stratosphere was down to the simple truth that dogs played the starring roles. Any dog owner who watched will have recognised in Olive and Mabel something of their own companions.
20. Let us, in the way of Labradors, be upbeat and optimistic and think more about what dogs bring us than what they leave. We will always hold on to the memories of the ones we have had but also let another come in, one who will pick things up as if to say, ‘It’s okay . . . it’s my turn now.’ And that is the real power of a dog.
My First Dog
Of my favourite quotes and observations, there were three that Cotter could have written about my dogs and me, appropriately starting with the first quote:
The early and heartfelt promises I had made, that of course I would feed Humfrey (Cotter’s childhood Yorkshire Terrier) and take him out every day, came up against a fairly impressive opponent in the distracted nature of a child and then the overwhelming laziness of a teenager.
Like Cotter, when I was a 10-year-old, I pestered my dad into letting me have a dog. I researched breeds in the library and decided on a yellow labrador. I was in boy heaven when we brought home my new puppy, who I named Duke. However, by my teenage years, the responsibilities of dog ownership had become chores that I increasingly skipped.
And I left Duke to live out his long and comfortable life with my dad (and his cat companion).
My Good Dog Muse
The second special quote was from a chapter titled, The Place That Shall Not Be Named, about Olive and Mabel’s fear of the “vee-ee-tee”:
One thing it confirms for me is that when the final day comes, however nice everybody is who works here, I will not be bringing a dog in for their last moments. It will happen on a favourite bed in a familiar, happy and comfortable place and I will sell my own limbs if necessary to make it so.
I got my next dog in my more responsible late-30s. And like Olive and Mabel, dear old Harry also hated the “vee-ee-tee”. As soon as he realised we were heading to the Vet, Harry would drag me away from the door, and he was a cowering mess of fear in the surgery. So, when his “final day” came in 2011, I organised with the Vet to make a “house call”. And Harry passed away in our favourite position, with his head resting on my lap.
It took a couple of years to get over Harry’s death, and ten years on, I still get weepy when writing about him (like today!).
A Forever Home
The third quote reflects my changed views on “conditioning” dogs, as I’ve got older and more experienced with dogs and dog training:
I don’t really want a dog which has been utterly conditioned by us, submissive and bent to our will by rigorous training. Yes, I would like her (Olive) to come back a bit more promptly, or indeed at all, when I get frustrated with her grazing on a walk, but I wouldn’t change it.
I adopted my current dog, Jet, in 2014. He was two-and-a-half years old, we were his fourth family, and his rescue dog “baggage” soon became apparent. And after the first stressful week, and with memories of pliant, well-trained Harry, I was ready to return Jet to Labrador Rescue.
But my son burst into tears and shamed me, “You’re an instructor at the local dog club. If you can’t sort out Jet’s problems, who can?”
Seven years later, the photo of Jet beside the sofa proves my wise son was right. Granted, Jet’s not as “well-trained” as old Harry was, but I’ve learned techniques to manage the “baggage”, and he’s become a good family dog and companion. And I’ve shared the lessons I’ve learned from him with other owners who’ve adopted “reactive dogs”.
Oh, and as an example of how dogs have individual traits, unlike Olive and Mabel and Harry, Jet LOVES the Vet. And he drags me through the door into the surgery!
The real power of a dog
I could have picked more than 20 quotes from Olive, Mabel & Me. Because it was the perfect birthday gift for me, combining my love of books and dogs and I enjoyed reading it immensely. And while I share Cotter’s sadness that “in relation to our own, dogs seem to be living their lives on fast-forward”, I find comfort in his words in the final chapter, The Power of the Dog:
Let us, in the way of Labradors, be upbeat and optimistic and think more about what dogs bring us than what they leave. We will always hold on to the memories of the ones we have had but also let another come in, one who will pick things up as if to say, ‘It’s okay . . . it’s my turn now.’ And that is the real power of a dog.
So, thanks, son, for buying Olive, Mabel & Me for my birthday. Thanks, Andrew Cotter, for posting videos of Olive and Mabel on the internet and writing a book about them. And thanks, Olive and Mabel, for being “two very good dogs”.
But first and foremost, thanks, Duke, Harry and Jet, for being my dogs. Like Cotter and his dogs, I’ve loved you all and still do!
© 2021 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another piece I shared about my dear old muse, Harry, A Dog is not just for Xmas.
Note: This post also appears on the Tall And True writers’ website.
Welcome to the blog posts and selected writing of Robert Fairhead. A writer and editor at the Tall And True writers' website, Robert also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads podcast. In addition, his book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media, and he's published several collections of short stories. Please see Robert's profile for further details.