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Country Gentleman: Man's best friend

Snow covers the Afan Woodlands. (Photo courtesy of the C. W. Nicol Afan Woodland Trust)

As a boy growing up in Britain we always had dogs around, mostly working dogs. I learnt very early in life to treat dogs with respect. When I grew up and started to venture out into arctic expeditions we used Inuit sled dogs. When I became a game warden in the Simien Mountains of Ethiopia I had a German shepherd who would accompany me on patrol. He was loyal and fearless when it came to bandits or poachers.

    After so many travels, in 1980, when I finally decided to settle down in northern Nagano, I really wanted to have a dog with whom to share our country life. I chose an Irish setter and named him Mogus. Setters are generally friendly, which was important because we had lots of guests. They are also playful, affectionate and full of enthusiasm. I had a Japanese hunting license and would take him with me when I took a gun out after ducks or pheasants. He absolutely loved this. He also loved it when we went swimming in Lake Nojiri. Setters, like retrievers, are water dogs, and strong swimmers. After a couple of years I brought him a mate from England and they had two litters of pups. Megan, the bitch, died from an infection when I was away and unable to get her to the vet in time, and Mogus, the male, insisted on going outside in a blizzard while I was visiting a neighbor. He didn't come back and although I searched and searched we found no trace of him. He was 16 years old and getting weak and our veterinarian said that he probably went out to die. We still miss the two of them, for they brought so much pleasure and companionship to our lives.

    When we built our own house in 1983 we could now invite guests to stay with us, and our most regular guests were an American called Jim and his Japanese wife, who happened to be my wife's oldest friend. They really liked our famous white Christmases.

    Jim and his wife (they also have two daughters) bought land and built a house in the woods just 30 minutes' walk away from us. Like us, their house is not a "beso" or country cottage, it is their home.

    While working for the State Department of the United States, Jim had one rather risky overseas assignment and he began to keep a German shepherd, for protection and companionship. When he retired from government service and settled here he brought his canine buddy with him, and decided to import another German shepherd from a famous breeder in the United States. The old dog (who used to be a frequent visitor to our house) died and the younger one became Jim's constant companion and best friend. When they were not out running, walking or just exploring the woods and streams together, the dog would always just be at Jim's or his wife's side. There is no doubt that having the dog enriched their lives.

    Bear was a big, strong dog weighing 40 kilos, but he was gentle and easily made friends with the locals, including our staff and two horses. People were happy to see Jim and his dog out running in all weathers. They became part of our environment.

    Sadly, Bear suddenly developed a brain tumor that grew very rapidly and was inoperable. By Christmas Eve of 2018 he had become blind and had lost the use of his hind legs. He was gently put to sleep in the back of Jim's car outside the veterinarian's clinic.

    Everybody was devastated, and as a close friend I was worried for Jim's emotional state. Over a few New Year's Eve drinks he told me that he'd give it six months to a year for his feelings to settle down, then he'd get another German shepherd. I was glad to hear that. Country life without a dog is not really a whole life after all.

    ("Country Gentleman" is a regular column by author and conservationist C.W. Nicol)

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