With 2020 continuing to be nothing but a continuous fuckup, I thought we could do with a warm hug of a blog post this week. So, I’m going to tell you all about my first dog. Her name’s Amber.
How We Met
My dear husband took a job on the outskirts of Madrid and found himself a nice flat, a small red car, and a favourite local drinking establishment, while I toiled away on a pantomime in Belfast. He’d lived in Spain for about three months by the time I joined him and thought I was perhaps, possibly, maybe just being a smidgen on the hasty side when I declared that we were getting a dog immediately, right away, as soon as possible. ‘Do you not think it might be a good idea to take some time and settle in a bit?’ he asked. Foolish Husband. In less than a week I’d unpacked all the moving boxes, Marie Kondo-ed the flat, and got in touch with a local dog shelter to arrange an appointment to come and pick out our new best friend. I’ve never been a very patient individual.
We drove from our flat in the western outskirts of Madrid, to Alba animal shelter in the slightly more outskirted outskirts to the east of Madrid. The journey concluded at the end of a very bumpy half-mile dirt track that wasn’t exactly ideal for our dinky red Fiat 500 but, to quote Jeremy Clarkson, if you believe something will happen it will happen. Luckily, Clarksonian faith saw us through and our little car managed to hippety-hop over all the lumps and bumps and survive the arduous journey.
When we entered the shelter, we were greeted by a lovely little Jack Russell type dog, a very frisky beagle, and absolutely no human beings. So, we had a cuddle with the dogs for a while as it only seemed polite. Eventually some kind people arrived and herded us into an office, where they interrogated us about our experience with dogs as well as our work schedules and financial stability before calmly explaining that whichever dog we chose would almost certainly do its business in the flat when it first moved in with us. Then came the fun bit. Meeting all the dogs.
I’d love to give you a really detailed description of the beautiful moment that we met our first dog and how we instantly knew she was the perfect dog for us. I’d love to tell you a story of our eyes meeting across a crowded dog shelter and love at first sight. But I’d be telling you a big fat porky pie. I don’t remember the first time I saw her. In fact, I don’t remember much about the moment between one of the volunteers saying, ‘shall we go and meet the dogs then?’ and Husband saying ‘yes, we’ll take this pointy one please’.
At the sight of all the dogs, I must confess, I lost my tiny mind.
I like to think I’m usually pretty sensible and reach decisions based on logic and careful consideration. But apparently when I’m introduced to forty or so dogs that all need homes, my brain just repeats the phrase ‘get them all, get them all, get them all . . .’ and logic gets left in the carpark with the Fiat 500. Anyway, before I knew it, we’d chosen an orange pointy dog called Amena and been told to head home and wait for our new dog to be delivered later that afternoon.
We waited patiently and quietly panicked that the dog delivery person would take one look at our tiny flat and laugh in our faces while asking ‘so where are you going to put the dog?’. Thankfully, the dog courier service seemed totally disinterested in our living space and happily handed over a bag of dog food and a dog to put it in before wending his merry way back to the shelter. I assume he lived there. Amena, as she was known then, wandered carefully around the flat looking somewhat wary and generally unsettled. She was so anxious about the whole terrible ordeal that she refused to pee or poop for about eighteen hours after she arrived at her new home. We genuinely rejoiced when she finally relieved herself for the first time on the scruffy patch of grass over the road from our flat. We’d almost convinced ourselves that she would eventually explode, and we’d be faced with a very awkward conversation when the next rescue shelter we tried to adopt a dog from asked if we’d ever have dogs before.
That was just the first in a series of firsts that we all went through together over the next few months as she settled into her new home. First things first though, she needed a new name. Amena was an absolutely lovely name but it sounded terrible coming out of our inelegant English mouths. We called her Amber because it had many of the same letters as Amena and, well, she’s orange. So very orange. Equipped with her new name, she started to settle into our family.
The first time Amber gave us a proper smile was actually quite a weird and slightly frightening event. Whoever wakes up first in our house goes to wake Amber up for a quick cuddle and then both go to say hello to and wake up whoever is still in bed. We fell into this routine very naturally and Amber always seemed to enjoy this little bit of affection before her breakfast and morning business trip to the scruffy patch. One morning, after a few weeks of living with us, Amber not only gave us her usual morning greeting of a happily wagging tail, but also a bizarre and very toothy grin.
This expression did not initially seem very friendly. If anything, it seemed a bit psychotic and rather unnerving. Husband and I both looked at each other awkwardly wondering whether our dog had had a stroke in the middle of the night or if we’d accidentally offended her in some terrible way without knowing it.
‘Is she angry? Her face looks angry. But her tail is wagging. This is weird. What do we do? I’m frightened. Should we hide and wait until it goes away?’
Eventually we saw this strange toothy grin often enough and in different positive contexts to learn that this is just what her face does when she’s really happy. It’s now a badge of honour amongst our friends and family to receive this deranged smile as it proves she really really likes them. We’ve even met other galgo owners whose dogs do the same thing. One of these people even tried to reassure us that their dog wasn’t dangerous and seemed very relieved when we told her our dog did the same thing.
The first squeaky toy we gave Amber did not get the honour of the toothy grin. The whole thing was both adorable and slightly heartbreaking. It was orange, just like her, shaped like a bone, and had the word JUMP spelled out in big cartoonish letters on it. We plonked it down in front of her and waited for her to play with this new exciting addition to her world. We waited. And waited some more. We waited patiently as she looked at us and the toy with a very perplexed look upon her very pointy face. She had no idea what to do with this weird plastic creature. She’d clearly not had a lot of experience with toys before. In order to try and help her along we gave the toy a little squeeze to activate the squeaking feature of her new toy. We hoped this might at least pique her interest if not make her happy. Well, this just added to the confusion. The poor puzzled pupper responded to this by squeaking even louder and for even longer than the toy had and carrying it back and forth between the sofa and her bed. She eventually seemed to get used to the presence of the toy but stuck with the principle of carrying it around the flat each time we squeaked it. She still basically never squeaks it herself and we’re not entirely sure whether she actually likes it or not.
The first toy she actually played with was Mr. Rat, who, despite his name, is quite clearly a squirrel.
When I look at Mr. Rat now it’s bloody obvious he is a squirrel but when we bought him, we immediately called him Mr. Rat. Amber doesn’t give a shit if he’s a rat or a squirrel. She loves him either way. When we introduced her to Mr. Rat, she gave us her usual generally unenthusiastic response to toys. However, after a bit of investigation she realised if she grabbed Mr. Rat by his very squirrel-style tail and flicked her head back, Mr. Rat would fly across the room in a beautifully elegant arc before landing somewhere else, ready to be pounced on and flung again. This turns out to be the secret to finding toys that Amber will like. They must be soft, flingable, and preferably resemble a small dead animal. How sweet.
The Life Of A Galgo
Really, this should have been an easy conclusion to come to considering her origin story. Our pointy orange friend almost certainly had a pretty shitty start in life. Amber is a galgo, which is a Spanish breed similar to a greyhound. Across Spain, this breed of dog is bred in huge quantities and the best dogs are kept for further breeding, racing, and hunting hares in the Spanish countryside. At the end of each hunting season, thousands of these dogs are killed or abandoned.
The lucky ones will be left at shelters and rehomed. The middlingly lucky ones will be abandoned somewhere and picked up by shelters and rehomed. The unlucky ones will be killed or left for dead and never rescued. I’ve read a lot of different estimates for the number of galgos that are killed or abandoned every season, from 50,000 to 100,000. Whatever the actual number is, it’s far too fucking many. If you want to learn more about the life of a galgo I would highly recommend watching the film Yo Galgo. It’s an insightful, fascinating, and heartbreaking film about what life is really like for the people and dogs involved in this world. I’ll add a link to the production company’s website at the bottom of this post so you can check it out.
Our Amber was one of the middlingly lucky ones. She was found by a road and taken to Alba rescue centre, where they looked after her, built her confidence, and found her a forever home. The physical and emotional effects of her previous life are clear to see on her body and in her behaviour, though she has developed into a much happier and more confident dog since she arrived in our home. She has several scars, most of them on her sides, one on her face and a few on her boney elbows and knees. On one of our walks around our little Spanish town, someone told me that her scars were probably made by shrapnel or sparks from gunfire. I don’t know if that is true, but she is extremely sensitive to any noise that sounds like a gunshot. Many times, when we’ve been out walking and a car backfires or someone shuts a large dustbin lid with a loud bang, Amber panics and just wants to hide or drag us home as soon as possible. We’ve really worked hard to get her to trust that she is safe with us and that we will protect her. She’s also opposed to walking over manhole covers, distrusting of new and looming men, and not a fan of buses and other large vehicles getting too close to her. Although, to be honest, those last three sort of make sense to me too so I don’t begrudge her the odd rational phobia.
Given her difficult past, whenever she showed trust in us early on in our relationship I was delighted. Over the first couple of weeks of her life with us, she gradually got more comfortable in the flat and with our company. Initially, she was very suspicious of the kitchen and took a lot of encouraging to go in there to get her meals. So, the first time she did this with no nudging or persuasion from us was a big step. She would also not actively seek our attention and affection at first though she gradually seemed to realise we were friendly and just wanted to show her love and kindness. The first time she willingly rolled over onto her back with her lanky legs in the air, ready and happy to accept some belly rubs, known as roaching in the pointy dog community, I was so pleased. It felt like she’d learned that she was safe with us and was actively enjoying our company and the life we were making for her.
The many roaching positions of Amber
When she’s not upside down in improbable positions, Amber is out and about on lovely walks and looking for suitable spaces for zoomies. The first time we saw her run, properly run, was also a wonderful moment, even if I was a little worried that she was running so hard that her legs were going to fall off. We were, and still are, very careful where we let Amber off the lead due to her tendency to take off and ignore all calls for her to return when she sees anything vaguely rabbit-shaped that she deems worth chasing. Initially this meant restricting her to only being let off the lead in a small dog park up the road from our flat. Unfortunately for Amber, who takes after her adoptive British family in her approach to unfamiliar beings, this also meant interacting with other dogs.
I often joke that Amber at a dog park is very much like me at a party; a little bit uncomfortable and desperate for one or two safe and familiar people to hide in the kitchen and drink gin with.
Or in Amber’s case, to sleep quietly on a comfy sofa in front of a fire with. We’d taken her to this dog park before and she’d said a polite hello to a few dogs, but she generally gave the impression that this socialising business wasn’t really for her.
However, on this one magical occasion, she found a dog she decided was safe enough to interact with and, eventually, chase around the tiny park like a dog possessed. This was exciting for two reasons. Firstly, it was amazing to see the speed of Amber when she really goes for it. You can see every aspect of her body has been made for this purpose. All thought goes out the window and she just her allows her body to do what it is naturally so incredibly good at. Galgos are bred to run for a little longer and over less even terrain than greyhounds so they are a bit slower, but they can still reach speeds of around 40mph. Additionally, it was lovely to see her acting like an actual dog and enjoying the company of another dog. As an introvert myself, I don’t worry about her being anti-social, especially as it seems to be very common among galgos in general and this characteristic exhibits itself as shyness rather than aggression. But even us introverts need a bit of companionship sometimes, so it was reassuring to know she could find fun in her fellow canines.
A Trip To A Dog Hotel
The final first I want to tell you about is the first time we left her in kennels, or a dog hotel as this one called itself. Ordinarily we prefer to leave Amber at a friend’s house or have someone come and stay at our flat with her, but this wasn’t possible on this occasion. I was extremely nervous and felt terribly guilty about the whole thing. Amber trotted off extremely obediently with the lovely lady who greeted us at the kennels and didn’t seem that bothered about the whole thing. I cried. She definitely handled it better than I did.
While we were away, we could check up on her via a live webcam showing the outdoor enclosures at the dog hotel. So I spent as much time as was politely possible while attending a friend’s wedding, glued to my phone checking in on Amber. Every time I checked in on my darling doggo she was either sitting still, standing still, or lying still. As this is extremely similar to her behaviour at home, I was reassured that she wasn’t too traumatised by the whole thing.
We dropped her off on Friday afternoon and picked her up on Monday morning. I was ridiculously excited and also a bit worried when we went to collect her. What if she’d forgotten about us? What if she didn’t want to come home? What if she liked all the new humans she had met better than us now? I needn’t have worried.
Normally, when in a large pack of dogs, Amber hangs back and keeps to the edge of the group, avoiding the undignified scrum involved in trying to get the most attention from nearby humans. However, when it dawned on her that it was her humans, not just any old humans, that were drawing the attention of the pack, she abandoned her usual position at the back and shoved her way through all the other dogs to get to us as fast as she could physically manage. She then merrily bounced around the reception area of the dog hotel with her long flailing tail knocking over various displays of leaflets and dog toys as she simply could not contain her joy at being reunited with her favourite people. This kind of encountered makes you realise that, if you’re doing your job right, your dog really will think you are the best thing since sliced bread left to close to the edge of the counter within stealing distance. If I could see myself through Amber’s eyes, I would never have issues with my self-esteem ever again.
There aren’t so many new firsts with Amber now that she’s been part of our lives for nearly three years but the novelty of all her quirks and general adorableness never wears off. The toothy grin never loses its charm. Her confused approach to toys continues to tug at my heartstrings. And I still worry that her legs are going to fly off when she really puts the hammer down and zooms with full commitment. I don’t have a deep and meaningful conclusion to this post. I simply hope that the story of an abandoned galgo, who found happiness with two slightly frightened English people in a strange foreign land has given you something to smile about. It sure seems like we need more things to smile about these days. In conclusion, dogs are great. Especially the orange pointy ones.