The current news about COVID-19 is almost impossible to ignore, so I thought about time I wrote a blog about something completely different…
A wonderful escape from the doom and gloom in the tabloids, are my new found companions of the four legged variety. At my house, high in the Eastern Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria, I enjoy tending my garden, growing vegetables, breathing in the clean air and gazing at the spectacular scenery. Only a handful of people live in my sprawling village and my nearest neighbour lives 100 meters away, meaning an extremely quiet daily life. Though not exactly, as there is constant bird song and farmyard animals make their respective noises. Chickens cluck, cockerels crow, sheep baa, horses whinny, cows moo, and the occasional bell tinkles to kept track of the free roaming ones. But without the hubbub of continuous traffic, aircraft, police or ambulance sirens, the old fashioned silence is noticeable paradise.
Whilst spending time alone makes a person strong, isolation has negative connotations and can lead to over thinking and paranoia. I can see the phone mast on the mountain opposite and the internet service in Bulgaria is rated the best in Europe. The excellent signal, even though in a remote location, means I am in regular contact with friends and family, but nothing beats one-to-one interaction. So the two canines, which entered my life for different reasons, have immensely improved the forced isolation.
Firstly a friend gave a tiny puppy, as a gift, to my ageing neighbour. Puppies are without doubt, adorable and I nicknamed her Hapi, which is Bulgarian for ‘Bites’, as in true-to-form puppy style, she mouthed everything she came in contact with.
Understandably, her owner changed it to Lapi, which translates as the far more endearing word, ‘Paws’ and she is growing quickly into a magnificent black and tan hunting dog.
Unfortunately, the treatment of animals can seem cruel by some peoples’ standards, where dogs are seen more as family extensions. Westerners’ lavish love and attention, and often too much food, treating dogs like children and spoiling them rotten. In this bygone region, dogs are still regarded as workers and vital to homesteads because the closeness of nature warrants protection. They cannot afford fencing, let alone fancy alarms. Boars maraud to feast in vegetable gardens, foxes attack chickens for an easy meal, and free-roaming cows trample colourful flowerbeds. The villagers spend their days at their home, so lockdown is of no consequence, and I much prefer the sound of a barking alarm rather than the piercing mechanical ones that don’t stop until a human to turns them off!
Here, owners give the dog basic training and secure, usually to a length of wire so they move about while they guard, and always with fresh water and shelter. They are let off the lead to relieve and exercise themselves and always return to their posts. The age-old, simple method, of food in return for a job, works. Stomachs rule dogs, like most animals, and they think ahead to where the next meal will come from, making them easy to tie-up again. It’s not our idea of freedom but it’s not such a bad life. They usually spend most of the day asleep, just like western dogs do while their owner is at work. Spending the whole night exploring the surroundings and socialising with other dogs is a valuable experience many ‘free’ dogs miss out on.
My neighbour, in his 80’s, has the misfortune of an injured leg that he cannot bend and cannot go far with his walking stick. So just like all the dogs he has owned in his life, he lets her off the lead to do her business. Sadly other villagers didn’t welcome her puppy antics, as overnight she dug up newly planted potatoes. Then one day, at about 5 months old, she found her way into a chicken pen where sadly she lived up to her original name. A commotion was heard and by the time anyone could get to the pen, she caught and bit 2 of the hens. Granted the attack had not been from hunger, simply a young animal wanting to play chase, but unfortunately, chickens are not very robust and the sharp teeth did too much damage. Village consensus was unanimous, that this untrustworthy dog needed tying up all the time.
Which instantly roused my caring nature. From that day forward, I took it upon myself walk her twice a day, far away from the village, where I could let her off the lead to run free and expend her energy. She became my best friend, turning herself inside out with excitement when I arrived each morning before sunrise. At release time, the look on her face was one of ‘Really? Can I go? Are you sure?’ before she bounded off down the mountainside, nose to ground, sniffing every bush and tree, and looking for something to chase. I had no fear that she would catch a wild animal. The deer and hare are much faster than she will ever be and extremely sure footed on these mountain slopes. The sound of her barks accompanied her chases and pinpointed her in the valleys. I tread the same route every day and she always came back to me before I reached civilisation. No doubt to do with the dog biscuits I had in my pocket as, like I said, animals think with their stomachs!
Soon after, another dog joined us. The Jack Russell was a chicken guardian who spent his day in their enclosure. Sleeping most of the time but quick to sound the alarm and trusted to go off on his own at night, as he always came back to resume his duty. When the lockdown warning occurred, and the owner wanted to be with his family in Turkey, I volunteered to watch his flock. In truth I missed having my own hens and 17 birds laid plenty of much needed fresh eggs. Naturally, the little dog realised the change of dog food source and happily accompanied Lapi and me on our twice daily walks. Early in the morning before the chickens needed guarding, and late in the day after the birds were safely tucked up in bed.
Half the size of Lapi, the Jack Russell has bags of energy and his little stubby legs carry him for miles. Although he prefers the flat areas of land, he ventures down the steep slopes when he can’t resist the sound of Lapis’ barking. They always begin the walks in close proximity, never straying too far, looking back to make sure I am following and returning to ‘touch base’ before they venture further away. Usually about an hour, sometimes we go longer and sometimes shorter, depending on the weather. My path occasionally deviates according to the escape route taken by deer and without the dogs, these beautiful creatures would stay hidden from me. Something else that makes me smile, is watching the graceful animals bound across the path in front of me and disappear into the forest, followed by two yapping dogs who will never master the art of stealth.
10 Plus Points of Dog Walking
- Exercising dogs to burn off surplus energy
- Toileting said dogs
- Getting positive pleasure of laughing at their antics:
- playing tag
- chasing each other’s tails
- pretend fighting
- general rough and tumble
- falling over (gets me every time!)
- Exercising me
- Starting the day with sunrise
- Wildlife watching
- Seeing beautiful sunsets
- Collecting dead wood, sticks and pine cones for my woodburner
- Foraging for wild mushrooms
- Giving me purpose in strange times
Whatever the weather; sun, rain, or heavy snow, I never miss a session. Exactly 1 month since beginning and I have toned legs I only ever dreamed of. Much better than using a gym as I keep to the routine and enjoy the workout. I respect the friendly animals for their simple, yet effective, outlook. Give and take. Yin and Yang. They appreciate the good things in life and their enthusiasm brightens mine and reminds me to stay positive.
Of course, I am indulging hugs and loving attention towards them both and my treatment is wearing off on my neighbour. He realises why Lapi loves me so much and slowly I am educating him in modern animal care methods. We have come to a 50/50 share agreement, and even though the jury is out as to whether he will really change his ways, I have seen improvements. I have started dog training therapy so that one day she can be trusted to roam freely again with the rest of the village dogs.
My advice to you all, in these times of house arrest, is to do like I have done, and borrow a neighbours’ dog. There are plenty of animals whose owners do not exercise them so seize this opportunity to do them and yourself a favour. Even if you’re not a dog person or none are available, you are allowed to exercise and daily walking will boost your immune system and increase health, enabling you to fight off any illness.