Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Caroline Plaisted & Cecil and Sidney

Who is in the photo at right?

Well, the more interesting faces in the photo are Cecil and Sidney my two rather delicious Border Terriers. I’ve lived with dogs virtually all my life with only a couple of years dogless (which was horrible!). When I was a child, my parents kept Poodles but, when I was eight, I was given a Yorkshire Terrier for my birthday. He was quite big for his breed and came from an American service family who were based in London. As a puppy in the litter, they’d named him Sherman after the tank (I told you he was stocky!) and the name suited him so well it stuck. Sherman died not long after my 21st birthday and that left me in mourning for a few years. And then I discovered Border Terriers – and I have been lucky enough to live with this breed ever since. Cecil is the oldest and he is now seven. Sidney is an adolescent at 17 months. Then there is me: I am Caroline Plaisted and I write books – mostly for children and teens; mostly fiction but there is some non-fiction. We live in the UK.

What is it about Border Terriers that you love?

Where should I start? I just adore this breed. I love all terriers because I love their feisty personality and their toughness. I always think of Borders as big dogs in small clothing: their characters are big and they are happy to be lap dogs – but only as long as they’ve had a really long and interesting walk. Life is never boring with a Border and they are very intelligent dogs – but you have to make sure they understand the ground rules otherwise they will soon make idiots of the humans and be quite difficult to live with. Mine have always had
Cecil, sun worshipping
quite good manners but we do joke that Border Terriers should really be called Border Terrier-ists because of their tendency towards turning adventures into mid-adventures owing to their daredevil personalities. There was a recent survey into the breed’s health in the UK and it turned out that the biggest cause of fatalities in the breed isn’t illness but accidents ‘owing to their inherent disregard for their formal training’! Like I said, Borders need firm boundaries. (Which they might well ignore at times.)

What's the occasion for Coffee with a Canine?

Actually, in our lives, it is tea with canines – sorry! Cecil, Sidney and I are all tea drinkers with attitude. It doesn’t take much excuse for us to need a cuppa.

What's brewing?

To be honest, it depends on the time of day. First thing in the morning it is Redbush tea, drunk without milk – and a second one if I can manage to squeeze one in before we go out for our morning walk. Cecil and Sidney quite like this but really prefer to wait for about 10am when it’s time for a small mug of Kenyan tea with milk and very definitely no sugar. Not too milky and certainly not too strong – there’s no Builder’s Tea (in other words so strong the teaspoon stands up in it and it is the colour of American Tan tights – eeuch!) drinkers in this house. I confess there might be a second mug of Kenyan an hour later…

In the afternoon, it’s Earl Grey time – in a large Emma Bridgewater cup and saucer. I’m probably terribly common because I don’t have my Earl Grey with lemon – I confess to putting some milk in mine. Cecil and Sidney pester me non-stop, desperate to have my tea. I’m afraid I make them wait until I have finished most of the cup and then they are allowed to have a little tea each in saucers of their own. Cecil will slurp the tea whatever the temperature but Sidney prefers his to be a little cooler before he sips!

Other times we might go for some Lhapsang Souchon for a change. Ceylon or Darjeeling are also a pleasant change. But Cecil and Sidney do not like Russian Caravan.

Sidney, chilling out
Any goodies to go with the tea, for you or your dogs?

The occasional dark chocolate digestive biscuit slips down quite nicely with the mug of Kenyan in the morning… But Cecil and Sidney definitely don’t get one of those – I have to look after their figures! Mid-morning snacks for them are a small raw-hide chew which keeps Sidney busy for about two minutes and Cecil for a more sedate twenty minutes or so.

How were you and your dogs united?

Ah – I mentioned before that I’ve had Borders for a long time now. My first was George and he was fantastic. When he was about six, he lived for a short while with an English Pointer called Henry. Sadly, Henry died of a heart attack when he was two. So George was back as a singleton for a while and then I heard that his sister had given birth to a litter – that’s when his nephew Percy came to live with us. Uncle George and Percy were great companions but then, after a tragic time during which George was bitten by an adder on the farm where we lived and nearly died, he then slipped a disk and life had to become more sedate for him. We then found he had an inoperable tumour and lost him. It’s that awful experience that only other pet owners can understand. So when Percy was about 14 months old, he was on his own. Percy was gorgeous and so handsome. When I told my breeder about losing George she announced that Percy’s mother had been mated with his father again and that, only the week before we lost George, another litter had been born. So, of course, I had to have Percy’s brother whom we named Arthur. Arthur and Percy were entirely devoted to each other – and to me! They adored each other and shared everything: a bed, a lead with coupled collars, bones (chewing opposite ends of the same one together), toys, adventures, cuddles, racing games, the space in front of the hearth, a love of life. Arthur and Percy never fell out. And then, I can feel a lump in my throat as I write this, Arthur suddenly fell ill with kidney failure. We managed to make his life better with medication and a special diet and I thought, hoped, all was OK for a few months. Then, one beautiful spring day, Arthur and Percy were racing around a field sniffing the scent of some boxing Hares that we’d seen in the field earlier. They had a great time running around being busy for about half an hour, coming back to me now and again to tell me how great it all was. And then Arthur came staggering back exhausted as if the last breath had been taken out of him. Sadly, it almost had, as we lost him three days later. It was the cruelest blow for Percy who simply didn’t know what to do without his baby brother. He sat and howled at Arthur’s grave and was violently sick all that night. We tried to comfort each other but we weren’t much of a replacement to each other for Arthur. I spoke with my breeder again wondering if she had any advice to offer as, at that time, I was not in a position to take on a puppy again and give him the time and attention he needed. And, anyway, Percy was ten and far too old to cope with a puppy pestering him. That was when my breeder suggested that I consider taking on a ‘rescue’ Border: an older dog that had fallen on harder times and needed some TLC. I
Cecil sunbathing
rang Border Terrier Welfare and set the ball rolling but, would you believe it, there were no dogs available at the time. Then it was suggested that I contact some of the reputable breeders in my region to see if they had any older dogs rather than puppies. And that was how I found Cecil. He’d been successful in the show ring but was now older and didn’t like showing any more. He was three at the time and he came home with me to see if he and Percy could get on. Two weeks later, there was no way that Cecil was going to leave us. He’d settled in very nicely to our house and, although his friendship with Percy couldn’t ever possibly match the devotion that he shared with Arthur, Cecil and Percy became contented companions. Percy still missed his brother but seemed more peaceful knowing there was another dog in the house. Amazingly, Cecil’s grandfather was George, my first Border’s father! So I still had relatives together.

Nearly three years later, Percy lost his sight, almost entirely, in the space of twenty-four hours (my suspicion is that he suffered a stroke during his sleep). We made adjustments to our life style but a few weeks later, Percy’s health deteriorated very rapidly and we lost him. So here Cecil and I were with another canine hole in our lives. By now, my circumstances were such that I could take on a puppy again. After a few months of mourning, I began to search for a pup. My much-respected breeder and Border mentor had now retired from breeding. So I felt like I was leaping in the dark. I called everyone I thought could help me, looking for another boy. But, would you believe it, the only puppies being born in a hundred mile plus radius were girls. And then, when I’d almost given up hope, I got a phone call from someone at the Southern Border Terrier Society who told me of a litter that had been born, many miles from me, and of the seven puppies, five were boys! I made a phone call the next morning and two weeks later I went to see a delicious litter of puppies – all of whom had a grandfather who was Percy and Arthur’s father! Another perfect connection. I fell in love with Sidney instantly and he came to live with us when he was eight weeks old.

Do Cecil and Sidney have any influence on your books?

I was going to say no and then I realize that I quite often put animals in my novels. A lot of my characters build up strong relationships with cats and dogs. And, of course, those pets become the one solid, reliable element of my characters life. I’ve recently written one novel where the pet becomes an accidental companion: not actually wanted at first and, in fact, a hindrance, but as the story develops, so does the devotion to the pet.

Watchful Sidney
How did your dogs get their names? Do they have any aliases?

I always like to choose very strong, very traditional men’s names for my dogs (my cats, who share beds with the dogs are called Mabel and Ruby). I usually have a couple of names in mind when I choose a puppy but the final selection is often because the name seems to suit a particular personality. George was originally going to be Henry but then, because he was one of four boys, the breeder had nicknamed them all after The Beatles – hence, George Harrison. George suited the name perfectly. Percy I chose because I had an uncle with that name and, also, Border Terriers come from the border country between the most northern part of England, Northumberland, and Scotland. The Duke of Northumberland is Lord Percy – ta da! Arthur I chose because he had a gorgeous, smiley face and there used to be a British comedian called Arthur Askey. Cecil was a happy settlement as his original name was Thistle when he came to us at three. My children weren’t keen on his name because a friend had a female dog of the same name. Thistle and Cecil are fairly similar in name and over a period of a couple of weeks, we gradually changed the name over. Cecil seemed more than happy to accept it and never thought twice about the change. And then we had Sidney. I had a few names in mind for him and was fairly set on one of them but Sidney’s personality just didn’t match it – Sidney (also the name of another uncle of mine), however, seemed perfect for him and he has lived up to it beautifully.

As far as aliases are concerned, all my Borders have had terribly posh Kennel Club names but we don’t ever use them.

Squirrel, cat, postman...?

Without any doubt it will always be a squirrel. Cecil and Sidney live with feline companions whom they adore but I can’t say they have quite the same relationship with other cats that live in the neighbourhood. That said, they haven’t chased any of them. Squirrels, however, provide interesting sport – and great puzzlement when they disappear up trees… where do they go?

Tennis ball, Frisbee, squeaky-toy...?

Tennis balls are destroyed in minutes: after the ball is penetrated with the teeth, the rubber is then ripped into smaller pieces before the felt coating is shredded in a satisfying manner. Much to my sons annoyance – although he shouldn’t leave the balls lying around in the garden… Frisbees might be caught but certainly will never be returned – what’s the point in that? I have given up buying squeaky toys because they are given a frantic attack for however many seconds they last before sharp terrier teeth destroy them and swallow the squeak. Cecil’s great passion in life are Kongs. They are supposedly indestructible – but Cecil hasn’t read that bit on the package. The red ones last very little time, the black ones a little longer. But I always have to buy the ones supposedly for bigger breeds because they last longer. Sidney isn’t very fussed with Kongs though. But he is very suspicious of the padded Liberty-print covered coat hangers in my wardrobe. He keeps telling me that there’s something not right with them – in fact, I think he wonders if they are snakes. I’ve shown him that they are nothing to be scared of, but he’s not convinced.

Who is each dog's best pet-pal?

Cecil working hard
Sidney is Cecil’s and Cecil is Sidney’s. And they both adore Mabel my sixteen year old black cat. Sadly, Mabel’s daughter Ruby died earlier this year. Ruby found Sidney a rather tiresome puppy and liked to sleep in his bed, twitching her tail, and scaring Sidney…

What's an ordinary day like for your dogs?

We rise at about 6am, to get my son and daughter ready for school. Cecil is hysterical with excitement to see me. Sidney is pleased but would rather stay in bed – he hates early mornings! Cecil runs around frantically with one of his Kongs; Sidney races upstairs and hops on to my bed to go back to sleep there. We go out for a walk at 7.20am. I can be really specific about the time because we are on our way to meet the school bus which leaves at 7.30am (and there is no plan B!). Sidney loves the school bus and quite likes the idea of hopping aboard but I persuade him otherwise and we set off for our walk proper. By now, Sidney is very awake and he and Cecil make me smile every morning at how pleased they are to be going out with me. I sometimes think we could take exactly the same trip every day of our lives and they’d still think it was an adventure. We are very lucky because we live in a glorious piece of the Garden of England. We have a canal and lots of farm land around us – fantastic walking country filled with swans, ducks, lambs, rams, hares, rabbits, frogs, herons, foxes, squirrels, sparrow hawks, owls – the works. There is always something to look at and it all provides great fascination and adventure for Cecil and Sidney. Which makes me love it all the more. Plus, for me, it’s great to see that changing seasons up close.

We walk for over an hour – sometimes 90 minutes. Then it’s back home for writing (me) or a recovery nap (Cecil and Sidney). Cecil and Sidney are great sun worshippers and, if there is any in the garden, they will lie in its heat. Otherwise, they move around the house in the morning to catch the sun’s rays through the windows upstairs and down. After a while, they join me where I am working. A favourite spot is on an armchair by the window: here a chap can do a little snoozing but also keep half an eye out on what is going on in the village. After all, they like to make a pretence of earning their living. As I mentioned before, they join me when it’s time to brew the tea… Then it’s back to work at the Mac.

Sidney working hard
After lunch in the kitchen, for which they join me hopefully, I go back to the keyboard. Cecil and Sidney resume their napping, either on the armchair or in the next room where the afternoon sun often comes through the window. Other times, they might join Mabel for a snooze in their own bed. Late afternoon, we go for a second walk and this is usually is one when we walk through a flock of sheep – so no going off lead. Two thirds of the way round, we stop and wait for the school bus. Sidney, as ever, is extremely excited when he hears the bus coming along the lane before he can see it around the corner: he does a meerkat impression waiting for it. Then we walk along the village to home – where Cecil and Sidney inspect the contents of the school bags which are, inevitably, dumped on the kitchen floor. The occasional left-over lunch sandwich meets it’s end this way. Then it’s a question of sniffing my children to see where they’ve been or if they’ve met anyone interesting during the day before snuggling up for cuddles with them. In the winter, evenings are spent in front of the fire or on a lap. In the summer, evenings are spent on laps with the occasional exploration of the garden. Gosh, life is tough for a Border.

Where are Cecil and Sidney's favorite outdoor destinations?

Anywhere outside really but there is a local wood which is great for exploring. We are 15 minutes drive to the coast which is also loved. And anywhere that Cecil and Sidney haven’t been before. They both quite enjoy traveling on the train too.

What is each dog's best quality?

Cecil is loving and quiet and incredibly placid with humans. I often wonder if it’s his past career as a show dog that makes him so patient with people. I also have to admit that, unlike all my other Borders, Cecil is not blessed with a big brain – which makes his personality quite endearing.

Sidney is quite a clown and very dramatic – his enthusiasm for life (except early mornings, obviously) is infectious. He is very bright and has picked up an understanding of quite a lot of different English phrases. He can also count!

What is the most amusing thing your dogs do? The most frustrating?

Everything Sidney does makes me laugh! But the thing that is perhaps the silliest and most frustrating at the same time is his pretence that he can’t get up on to the sofa without help when you are sitting on it. Note: he only does this in the evening with big, pathetic eyes; he’s quite capable of getting up there on his own during the day…

Cecil snores – loudly! And sometimes he is so deeply asleep that he rolls over and falls out of his bed (you see, I told you he wasn’t especially bright). Then he looks terribly embarrassed. Which means he needs a reassuring cuddle, of course.

Most frustrating thing for both of them at the moment is that they have become a bit too territorial about the garden fence since a Rottweiler moved in next door. We have barking-torture at the fence which has to be stopped. It is getting better. But not quickly enough for my ears…

Visit Caroline Plaisted's website.

--Marshal Zeringue