As a subject in literature, dogs have had a ‘ruff’ ride. OK, we’ll leave the canine puns to one side for now, but it is true that good books about dogs are thin on the ground.
Only the deeply peculiar literary figure JR Ackerley managed to weave magic in his 1956 memoir My Dog Tulip, about his equally strange Alsatian bitch. Far from being the cosy, loyal, cuddly pet many people dream of, she was difficult and dangerous. She was prone to biting at will and soiling carpets but Ackerley adored her, despite having come to dog ownership late in his bachelor life.
He took her everywhere, much to literary London’s annoyance, and the invitations soon dried up. Ackerley didn’t care. She was the love of his life, and his book is a must-read for anyone who shares that deep and unwavering respect for an animal. As the critic Elizabeth Marshall Thomas observed: ‘Who would imagine that the bodily eliminations, impacted anal glands, and sexual dysfunction of an ordinary dog could inspire a story so delicate, so sensitive, so clearly understood, and so purely and delightfully composed as to rival an Elizabethan sonnet?’
Something similar could be said about Top Dogs: A British Love Affair, a beautiful new book that celebrates the unique bond between humans and dogs, including a touching tribute by HM The Queen Consort. It was written by Georgina Montagu and photographed by Dylan Thomas over an 18-month period and features more than 30 figures from the worlds of society, fashion, art, design, and business alongside their dogs, mostly photographed at home.
It captures in words and images that intense love that can exist between our two species. I say ‘can’ because not everyone, of course, is a dog person. Montagu is, but Thomas is not. He is a respected and successful photographer of interiors and people, who started his professional life as Lord Snowdon’s assistant. Is he a relation of the poet who shares his name? Gnomically, he won’t say, but what he will admit is that he is allergic to dog hair, which must have been inconvenient, to say the least. ‘My glands swell up,’ he says. ‘The waxier the coat, the worse it was. The worst reaction I had was to a mastiff called Vinnie.’ And yet as you turn the 300 glossy pages of his latest work, it becomes clear that Thomas has overcome his personal prejudices to capture and distil that love and affection which exists in the happiest of doggy unions.
‘There is a remarkable love between the owners and their dogs,’ he says. ‘I was fascinated to see how these people had let a dog into their lives. These are often people with families and they have a connection with their dog that they don’t have with their children. Some of these people are also incredibly private, but they would open up their most intimate stories in relation to their dogs. They will gladly talk about the extravagant costs of presents or the lengths they will go to to make sure the dog is looked after.’
Perhaps the greatest coup is to have persuaded the Queen Consort – who was then still HRH The Duchess of Cornwall – to be photographed alongside her two Jack Russell terriers, Beth and Bluebell; and she graciously wrote a foreword to accompany the book (also completed in her previous role). As she notes, it is fascinating how many idioms in the English language are connected to dogs: let sleeping dogs lie; his bark is worse than his bite; puppy love, and so forth. We also learn that her own dogs were rescued from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in 2012, Bluebell having endured a horrendous puppyhood (see the Queen Consort’s foreword, below).
A love of Jack Russells is one of many things she shares with King Charles III, who has always been a fan. Thomas says that if he were ever to be persuaded to have a dog, he too would choose a Jack Russell. What the choice of breed says about a person is one of the subjects that Thomas was most interested to explore. ‘It’s remarkable, that connection of human and dog,’ he muses. ‘How you can look at [art dealer and broadcaster] Philip Mould and his whippet and it works, whereas Philip Mould with a pug just doesn’t.’
In selecting the subjects of the book, Thomas and Montagu tried to find as many different species as possible. So there is everything from a pug to a poodle, and the personalities of their owners are equally varied. Carole Bamford, founder of Daylesford Organics, is photographed with her five shih-tzus, Bellini, Sugar, Spice, Margarita and Tequila. Sadly Bellini, her oldest and favourite, has since died, and there was talk of dedicating the book to her. Self-described ‘cat man’ Andrew Lloyd-Webber is captured with his Havanese, Mojito. Then there is Nikki Tibbles, the Notting Hill florist who says ‘dogs find me’, and has a constantly changing number of rescue dogs living with her. Two she adopted in Puerto Rico, though after flying Lily home via Paris and LA, she died of leukemia.
Indeed, death is, says Thomas, one of the great drawbacks of growing attached to a dog. ‘It’s heartbreaking for people,’ he says. ‘These dogs are so integral to their being and people go through emotional challenges. Yes these animals pass through in a relatively short time frame, but love does last for ever – as an emotion, as a feeling.’
Some of the subjects photographed have an affinity with their animals that goes beyond the usual. Tibbles, for example, is almost married to her dogs. ‘I generally take the ones nobody else will take,’ she says. ‘I believe that with love, patience, security and routine, dogs are all extraordinary.’
Even more extraordinary are the working dogs like Shadow, the sheepdog belonging to Alison O’Neill, aka the Barefoot Shepherdess. Thomas found that Shadow would refuse to look directly at the camera, and in the end the best photograph of him was taken at the end of the day when he fell asleep by the fire. ‘A lovely dog asleep by the fire – that’s what we all dream of,’ says Thomas.
But the reality of photographing dozens of dogs was often less easy. One of the hairiest moments occurred early one morning in Horse Guards Parade, as Thomas tried to capture the majesty and dignity of Seamus, the Irish wolfhound mascot of the Irish Guards. No sooner had they set up the shot than Seamus bolted. But as anyone who watched Seamus on parade with the Irish Guards, as during the Platinum Jubilee celebrations last June, knows, it is impossible not to fall in love with this wonderful creature, whose warmth and nobility and connection with the troops seems to transcend the limitations of his species.
For it is one thing to love a pet, but dogs that can work in tandem with humans are truly remarkable in their intelligence and empathy. There are those that sniff out illegal drugs or weapons at airports, and others that are invaluable in helping forensic police departments. Then there are the truffle-hunters, who can not only find this most elusive of foodstuffs but can also tell the difference between a good truffle and a bad one (I once watched amazed as a truffle-hunting dog in Tuscany pawed the ground with one paw to indicate a bad truffle, and with both paws to show he’d found a good one). In the book there are several hunting dogs, like the conservationist Jake Fiennes’ cocker spaniel Logan, and retired master of hounds Daphne Thorne’s splendid Barony basset hounds.
But perhaps most remarkable of all are the dogs for whom sales of this book will be raising money, the Medical Detection Dogs. These incredible animals have been trained to sniff out disease in humans from samples of urine, sweat or event breath. They are at the forefront of research that is helping the charity to achieve ever-earlier diagnoses of cancer, Parkinson’s and bacterial infections.
And yet for most of us, the main thing a dog can offer is love. It is unconditional, and comes with a lifelong loyalty. Dogs are the companions who don’t answer back, who love you no matter who you are or what mood you’re in, and are capable of lifting you out of depression and into joy.
They are also often extremely amusing. I couldn’t help but laugh at the photograph of architectural designer Charles Rutherford, pole-dancing in nothing but a pair of budgie-smugglers, being watched intently by his dog Romeo. Romeo is a Basenji desert dog – they do not bark and are known for displaying extreme loyalty to their owners, even when twirling around a pole. Other dogs were less amenable to being photographed. Thomas had to be alert when shooting modern art dealer Ivor Braka and his partner, the American supermodel Kristen McMenamy, for example. ‘Ivor warned me to be careful around his dogs, and it’s true that one of them was very prickly,’ Thomas says. ‘I definitely wouldn’t cuddle up with his dog.’
Inevitably, this leads one to ponder the question: are dogs really like their owners? Why do people choose the breeds that they do, and in most cases remain fiercely loyal to them throughout their lives? In some cases, it is easy to understand. Take the whippet, for example. Their owners tend to appreciate their ability to go for long stints without needing exercise and then expend an awful lot of energy in 10 minutes. It’s why artists like Lucian Freud would choose them, as they make for good studio companions. Historically, they were also favoured by poor families in cold parts of Britain, as they are happy to act as hot water bottles, one of few species that will get under the covers, go right to the bottom of the bed, and stay there all night.
But one must tread carefully when likening owners to their dogs. Google the characteristics of a Jack Russell, for example, and we learn from jackrussellowner.com that they are ‘stubborn, intelligent, clownish and energetic’. Any similarities with King Charles III? Only those who really know him can say.
As for the aesthetic question, well, here we really do have to tread carefully. There are certainly some clear likenesses, such as the elegant long-faces and flowing hair of Ivor Braka and his Saluki, Sami. But nobody could say that the delightful fashion designer Serena Bute bears any resemblance to her British bulldog. And yet perhaps this juxtaposition between beauty and beast is part of the allure.
Then there’s the question of how a dog will fit into a lifestyle. There’s a rather brilliant picture of architect John Pawson’s Cockapoo Lochie blending seamlessly into the sandy pebbles of his driveway. As for designer Jasper Conran, he could have any breed and it would work, says Thomas: ‘He’s a bit of a polymath. Any dog would sit well with him.’
As the range of people photographed suggests, this book is about more than just pets. It is a celebration of eccentricity and Britishness, two things that are often manifested through dogs. Would a book called Top Dogs have legs in the US or France? Probably not, although one could see versions of it working in places like Germany or Japan, where eccentricity and animals often collide. Consider the latter’s tendency to populate islands entirely with cats or dogs, which memorably inspired Wes Anderson’s stop-motion animated film Isle of Dogs. But no island has a greater love of dogs than this one. It was we who invented the dog show, the most famous and longest running being Crufts, first held in 1891 and to this day one of the most enjoyable celebrations of breeding (and weirdness) you will ever see.
And yet, for all that Thomas has immersed himself in this world, he remains resolutely dogless. He clearly struggled with some of the intimacy exhibited between his subjects and their dogs. ‘I was always amazed that they were happy to let them sit on their laps, on their sofas, even on the table,’ he exclaims incredulously. ‘And there’s always a moment when those dogs get into their beds…’ He loved photographing Carole Bamford and her Shih Tzus, but can’t get over the fact she let them lick her face. ‘The dog can lick her face! I don’t think I would particularly want one of my children to lick my face.’
Proof perhaps that when it comes to dogs, you’re either all in or not at all. Thomas’s three daughters have been begging him to get a dog ever since the project began, but I fear there will be no puppies in their stockings this Christmas.
‘I cannot imagine life without them’
By the Queen Consort, formerly the Duchess of Cornwall, Patron of Medical Detection Dogs
Dogs have, for generations, been a vital part of our lives: both as working animals; and, quite simply, as faithful friends. It often strikes me how many idioms in the English language are rooted in our relationship with our canine companions: to let sleeping dogs lie; his bark is worse than his bite; puppy love; every dog has its day…
Of course, as well as their wonderful natures, dogs have amazing gifts that have benefited so many of us: as police dogs, guide dogs, therapy dogs, military dogs or herding dogs. The Medical Detection dogs never fail to astonish me when I visit their headquarters, as they use their incredible sense of smell to unerringly sniff out a huge range of diseases. Equally as impressive are the stories I hear from those who have assistance dogs: these dogs are trained to detect minute odour changes emitted prior to an emergency (for example, a severe allergic reaction or a diabetic hypoglycaemia) and alert their owner to take preventative action. The difference this makes to patients, or to parents whose children have life-threatening conditions, is, literally, the difference between being a prisoner at home and being able to lead a near-normal life.
My own dogs, Beth and Bluebell, cannot claim to have saved any lives, but I am, nonetheless, very proud of their resilience. I adopted them from Battersea (another charity of which I am Patron) several years ago. Beth came from a family who could no longer care for her and poor Bluebell had been found abandoned in the woods, three weeks old, starving, covered in sores, with a docked tail and just a few patches of fur. Battersea nursed her back to health and
I fell in love with her when I visited their brilliant centre in 2012. They are both colourful characters – and now I cannot imagine my life, my home or my sofas without them.
Extracted from Top Dogs: A British Love Affair (TriglyphBooks, £60). To order from Telegraph Books for £60, call 0844 871 1515 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk