Up The Hill (With Companions)

man, walking, dog in rucksack on back,

The first one we saw was running. Running, skeetering, feet flying and mouth open panting, going downhill at a speed that clearly worried their companions, who were shouting, ‘slow down!’ and ‘careful!’

The next one was half of a comedy pair: similar but not identical – not siblings or even cousins, but visually assonant. Both were heavy-footed and slower to move. They seemed to be caught up in appreciating the environment – lifting their heads, sniffing, looking around happily.

As we climbed, we saw more and more. A lot of them resembled each other.

Jack Russells, Beagles. And Spaniels, many of them. Most of them apparently Cocker type.

No French Bulldogs, or any of the other brachycephalic kinds. Breeders have rendered them unable to enjoy this hilly fun, poor things. Where are they, this morning? Down at Coast Cafe, enjoying a sunshine bask and the admiration of passing walkers, after a gentle stroll to the beach, perhaps. (No hill-climbing or downhill running, thanks). Or are these choices a result of companion-preference? Is the human who selects a Frenchie to hang out with more likely to be found along the prom than up the woods?

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None of those huge types here, either. Given the narrowness of those winding paths, it’s probably just as well that we didn’t have to jostle or dodge any Briards or Akitas. The Labs on this path are already enough – contagiously enthusiastic in their desire to share the joy, but also threatening to unbalance or disorient simply by their energy. And not a Whippet or Greyhound in sight, which is something we’re not used to. (There seem to be so many around our neighbourhood). Maybe they don’t do hills, preferring to run on the flat?

Not a Staffy to be seen here today either, but so very many Spaniels – a dog we rarely see around our local park. This prompts thoughts about the sociology of dog worlds.

We know that dogs convey social class.

And the very notion of ‘breed’, of course, is hopelessly entangled with some terrible histories of ‘race‘. How do we feel, in 2019, about all that dog-talk around breed, selection, inherited characteristics?

Last time I checked, there were around thirty varieties of ‘oodle’

And what, too, of our increasing neglect of the old-school mutt, the allsorts Heinz 57 dog and the rising preference, on the one hand, for ‘purebreds’ and, on the other, for quirky new mixes? Last time I checked, there were around thirty varieties of ‘oodle’, from the now-banal Labradoodle through various kinds of Spoodles and on to improbable combinations like the Doxiepoo or (oh, sweet Jesus!) the Pugapoo.

The lure of Oodles is no mystery. The appeal of the fluffy teddy look has been well documented. Neoteny and its appeal make biological anthropologists smirk at puppy-love.

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But there’s also a couple of English folk discourses that get drawn upon that might be relevant here. Myths we hang on to.

First is the notion that, somehow, a ‘hybrid’ is more robust and worthy. This still gets spoken about in pragmatic pseudo-science terms (see page 31 onwards of Strathern’s famous work on English kinship for some eye-watering examples).

And second, that a hybrid is more interesting. It catches the eye – is appealing, unusual. (This is something that folk with blended heritage know to their cost).

Lately, the dog-breeding world has started to get uncomfortable with notions of ‘pure blood’ and ‘breed typicality’ and has taken a look at itself and its discourses – their roots, the ideologies they carry. (About time, you may think). This is apparently changing dog breeder practice towards a focus on dog health, which sounds like a good thing. Maybe eventually we’ll see less ‘pure’ dogs, less ‘bi-breed’ dogs and get back some of those non-specific canines into our stories of companionable species.

Cissbury Ring. A heart-lifting place for a Sunday walk in the sunshine. And a few sociological thoughts about Englishness.

Published by Caroline

After 30 years as an academic anthropologist doing ethnography in India and the Gulf, Caroline now avoids airports and spends a lot of time walking, cycling or quad skating around for conversations and stories in their adopted home of Worthing. Caroline writes, coaches postgrads, and does public sector consultancy work and project evaluation, using creative research methods.

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