IT’S 6am and the park, unsurprisingly, is deserted.
It’s bitterly cold, with frost on the grass and steam rising from the river. But a small black shadow beside me is snuffling along quite contentedly, eager to discover just who’s wandered this way before.
It’s a route we’ve already explored a lot, in all kinds of weather conditions and at all times of day and night, but it takes a crisp, sunny morning before we’re actually able to photograph the lively, excited ball at our feet.
Meet Teddy, a four-month-old black labrador who has already seen a lot of upheaval in his young life, but who arrived a few days ago to join our small family.
For us, it’s the culmination of two years of searching and researching, of considering different breeds, of watching training videos, speaking to breeders and reading puppy books. And now he’s actually here, our world’s been turned upside down overnight.
For Teddy, the change is probably just as dramatic. The fact he has already seen a couple of other households since leaving his mum and siblings is no fault of his own, but down to unfortunate changes in personal circumstances affecting the humans in his life.
As we research his birth, vaccinations and back story, we meet a succession of people who are full of praise for our four-legged arrival. The only black lab in a litter of 11, he’s learned some basic commands, is good with children and seems lively and intelligent.
He’s also teething, curious and boisterous in the way that black labs are. Already he’s won our hearts and he is trying SO hard to please – but we know it’s going to be a steep learning curve for us all.
The vet’s pronounced him fit and healthy and friends and family have been helpful with their top tips and sound advice.
But however many books you read, first-time owners are never fully equipped to know how to tackle every new challenge that arises – or how to cope with the sudden and overwhelming imposition on your daily routine (and interruptions to your sleep patterns!).
Not-so-tiny Teddy weighs more than 13kg and has big paws and a healthy appetite. He’s had three names and this is his fourth home in as many months, so it’s not surprising if he has found life a little confusing up to now. Mercifully, he seems relatively unfazed: biddable, eager and affectionate, he wins friends easily.
Best of all, everyone is happy to help. From neighbours and family members with multiple dogs to kindly shop assistants and strangers in the park, there’s a lot of expertise to draw on.
Everyone makes it look so easy, with their polite and respectful packs trotting so neatly around them and responding with alacrity to clickers, calls and whistles. But re-reading old friend and colleague Lucy Parks’ experiences with her rescue dog Yella has been useful too, and a timely reminder of the rollercoaster journey that lies ahead.
Back in the park on our 6am foray I belatedly remember that it’s my birthday. Now in my mid-60s, I’ve only owned cats in the past and despite all the videos still feel I know little about how to train Teddy to become the trusted, loving, loyal and obedient adult companion I know he can be.
But I also know just how many lessons dogs can teach to us humans too, not least about mindfulness, zest for life, grattitude and unconditional love.
“Dogs are our link to paradise,” said author Milan Kundera. Or as author Orhan Pamuk put it: “Dogs do speak, but only to those who know how to listen.”
It looks as if we all have a lot of learn. And as those affectionate eyes look up at me and we start heading homewards to the warmth and breakfast, I’m determined not to let the little fellow down. Here’s hoping he really can help to teach an old dog new tricks.
ROUND our way it sometimes seems as if everyone has a dog.
Little and large, fluffy and hectic or aloof and unflustered, they come in all shapes and sizes, from purebred aristocrats with a proud pedigree to scruffy scoundrels rescued from the streets.
But whatever their size, breed and provenance, we love them just as they are, taking them into our hearts and our families in their millions as part of an extraordinary symbiotic relationship where it can be hard to tell who needs the other more.
Dogs and people have lived together for thousands of years, and we have bred different breeds to hunt and to guard us, to herd sheep, retrieve game and just keep us company.
Domestic dogs may share 99% of their DNA with wolves, but they are social pack animals which thrive on attention and affection, helping them to win our love and admiration for their skills, intelligence and character.
They may need us to survive but it seems that we need them just as much: our most loyal and faithful companions cock a listening ear to our worries, give us a paw to hold and an unconditional love that sometimes borders on obsession.
Mind you, it’s an obsession that is mutual. Britain boasts a canine population of more than nine million, with more than 200 breeds to choose from.
Joyce Campbell, the Armadale farmer whose squad of collies were a hit with viewers of This Farming Life, said: “We really are a nation of dog lovers – my team of dogs have also been inundated with fan mail. We have genuinely all been blown away with everyone’s kindness.”
That’s why we’re setting out to meet some of the best-loved dogs in the Chilterns, and asking you to send us your pictures of them out and about enjoying our wonderful countryside.
As well as sharing your shots on our Twitter and Instagram feeds, we’re keen to hear your own stories about the impact and importance of four-legged friends in your life.
Most dog owners will tell you that their dog is a family member – and for many, dog ownership has proved a life-changing experience.
Lucy Parks has written in detail about her adventures with Cypriot rescue dog Yella as the four-legged arrival adjusted to a new life in the Chiltern Hills.
“She was my first ever dog, although I’d wanted one for ever,” says Lucy. “I finally got her aged 50 and she’s totally changed my life!
“Yella has got me out into the local countryside exploring new places and has introduced me to the dog-owning community in Amersham. I’ve got new friends as a result, as has Yella, and we know far more about the area we live in.”
From beagles to greyhounds, lapdogs to St Bernards, each breed has its own ardent fans, and although dog attacks have contributed to some chilling headlines in recent weeks, millions of responsible owners know how crucial it is to spend time training their pet to ensure that wagging tails and stress-free greetings help to put strangers at their ease.
The rewards are huge. No animal can surpass dogs for their devotion and intelligence, and it’s that unwavering loyalty and pure delight in our company that wins us over so readily. We know that our furry companions accept us for who we are, flaws and all, without reserve or judgement.
For Beyonder photographer Sue Craigs Erwin, energetic sprocker spaniel Ted has been at her side for the past six years.
“He has given me a reason to go out walking again after losing my husband six years ago,” she says. “I have become more aware of our beautiful surroundings. I always take my camera with me, capturing the day’s walk and sharing the beauty of the wildlife and changing seasons with my Facebook friends.
“We have recently made friends with a beautiful little robin in the woods. Ted now runs ahead of me and searches him out before I get there. I can’t resist a few shots of the friendly little chap everyday.
“It’s so therapeutic to be walking in the fresh air whatever the weather. Dogs are just the best company.”
Sue isn’t alone in appreciating Ted’s constant companionship. In a fast-paced world where human connections sometimes feel fleeting or even confrontational, dogs offer us vital emotional support, helping to reduce stress, anxiety and loneliness.
Says Jennifer Wynn, proud owner of a Great Swiss mountain dog: “Fearne is more than just a companion for exploring the beautiful Chilterns.
“She’s a friend for both of my teenage children, one of whom is autistic and the other is awaiting assessment. She listens without judging, loves no matter what and gives 50kg cuddles!”
Dogs have been our friends and protectors for centuries, and although they have transitioned from being primarily working animals to cherished family members, today they perhaps bring more joy and comfort than ever.
They teach us responsibility and help youngsters learn the importance of kindness, while formidable sheepdogs and astonishing therapy dogs startle us with their skill, sensitivity and ability to perform complex tasks.
Of course, the individual breed we favour will vary according to our own preferences and lifestyles. Do we want a snuggly cockapoo happy to flop around the house like a supersoft chenille throw, or a livewire collie who’s panting to head for the hills every morning?
Do we need a miniature dachsund getting under our feet or an Irish wolfhound or Great Swiss mountain dog edging our guests off the sofa?
It’s all very personal, as author Patrick Gale writes in The Returns Home, a chapter of Duncan Minshull’s 2022 collection of walking stories, Where My Feet Fall.
“Hounds are not emotionally needy dogs when walking; whippets and greyhounds have none of the collie’s need for constant affirmative interaction with its human but seem quite content to trot independently from smell to fascinating smell, occasionally breaking off to send up a pheasant or make a show of chasing a rabbit. They enjoy walks hugely but they’re not forever nudging you to say, ‘I’m enjoying my walk. I am. Are you? Are you enjoying yours? Are you really?'”
Whatever our personal choice of companion, those rambles allow us to come across a dozen other breeds, making new friends along the way, from doe-eyed whippets and gentle golden retrievers to inquisitive terriers or rumbustious young labradors.
Back in the Middle Ages, European nobles had close relationships with their dogs. Ladies doted on their fashionable lap dogs and noblemen went hunting with hounds — a practice that grew so popular that breeding hunting dogs became a trend throughout Europe.
By the Victorian era, dogs had wormed their way into the heart of family life and Britain had become a centre for dog breeding, with the first formal competitive dog shows held in the middle of the 19th century.
Canines played such vital roles in military operations during the two World Wars that they steadily gained increasing recognition of their intelligence and abilities throughout the 20th century, with films depicting the adventures of Lassie and Rin Tin Tin capturing the hearts of millions in the 1950s.
The Queen’s fondness for corgis helped to popularise the breed, while on the small screen Blue Peter presenter John Noakes became so inseparable from his excitable border collie that “Get down, Shep!” became a catchphrase so well known that it was even immortalised in song by The Barron Knights when the pair left the show in 1978.
These days dogs have become a much more familiar presence on TV and social media, with the Crufts dog show attracting an unbelievable 18,000 competitors and almost nightly programmes highlighting different aspects of canine behaviour and welfare, from sheepdog trials to different training techniques.
Of course, the difficult down side of our love affair with dogs is the pain we feel at losing them.
Countless online commentators attest to the fact that the death of a beloved pet is excruciating. With their shorter lifespans, it’s also unfortunately an inevitability, made all the more intense by their unconditional love and constant presence by our side.
Shepherdess Alison O’Neill has won a Twitter following of almost 50,000 for her glorious photographs and homely posts from her small hill farm in the Yorkshire Dales, where sheepdog Shadow is a star attraction.
“Dogs are the best,” she says. “But yes, I’ve known the loss of a dog. It’s no different than any family member passing.”
Coping when they are suddenly not there at our side can be devastating. But then perhaps that works both ways.
Many dog trainers and behaviourists believe that dogs feel grief too, being highly intuitive and sensitive animals — perhaps much more than people give them credit for.
It may not quite be on the scale of devotion demonstrated by the apocryphal Greyfriars Bobby in Edinburgh, but artist Sir Edwin Landseer summed up the sense of loss memorably in his 1837 oil painting, The Old Shepherd’s Chief Mourner.
In a sparsely furnished room, a moping dog rests its head on the coffin of its master, the shepherd, whose staff and hat lie underneath a table supporting a closed bible.
The pathos of the scene made it popular with both collectors and the Victorian public in general, but it’s a striking representation of loss, described by the influential art critic John Ruskin as one of the “most perfect poems…which modern times have seen”.
Sentimental it may have been, but the painting also became an important part of animal advocacy campaigns in the 19th century, a reminder of the shared experiences and strong emotional bonds that can exist between human and non-human animals, and few 21st-century dog lovers would argue with the importance of that message.
We’d love to share your pictures and stories about your own dogs enjoying our wonderful Chilterns countryside. Contact us by email or our social media links — you don’t have to include personal details or precise locations, but we’d love to hear from you about the four-legged friends in your life.