Comfortably relaxing on the overstuffed sofa, gentle country sounds in the background, I suddenly realized I was under intense scrutiny.
It was at the home of David and Kathryn Woodrow in the idyllic Norfolk village of Castle Acre, a few hours northeast of London. And it was Max, their gorgeous and formidable German Shepherd, who was doing the staring.
“Why is he so interested in me?” I asked. “Should I be concerned?”
“No,” Kathryn explained, “it’s just that you’re seated in his favorite place and he’s waiting for you to get up.”
Well, sensitive to the desires of dogdom, get up I did and found another place to sit. Max leapt up on the sofa, snuggled in, and went to sleep.
We all laughed and started to talk about the roles of various dogs in our lives.
David, a builder by trade, did not grow up with dogs but having learned about their charms since he married Kathryn eighteen years ago, wishes he had. Max was his first great canine love and no doubt will always be his favorite.
Kathryn, on the other hand, is a different story.
Born and raised at Fengate Farm, a 1,000-acre family property in Weeting, Norfolk, she reminisced, “I can never remember not being around dogs. Father has always had Labradors and mother had several Border/Lakeland Terrier mixes. And, in fact, it was often told to me that one of the first things my parents did when I was brought home from the hospital was to be introduced to Bess, my father’s Labrador. They wanted to see if I met with her approval. Luckily, I did.”
I asked her about the first dog she actually remembered.
“That would be Kim, a golden Labrador who belonged to my parents but became my devoted companion. Apparently I was a child who needed little sleep but as long as Kim was upstairs keeping me company I was always happy and would never cause a problem. My mother always said she was the best nanny around and very long suffering. Again there are numerous stories about my parents having friends round for dinner and Kim would come down the stairs hoping for a bit of food only to have a child’s voice calling for her to come back upstairs and so the dog would look at the dining table and then turn back up the stairs to gales of laughter from the humans.”
Alas, often the saddest fact of life for a child to learn is that dogs don’t live as long as humans. At age nine, Kathryn was devastated when Kim died, but her parents wisely decided that it was time for her to have her own dog. There were certainly plenty of dogs around the property, but Bobby, an eight-week-old black Labrador puppy was to be hers entirely.
“On some farms there is a definite difference between pets and working dogs, but on ours there has always been a definite blurring. As a matter of fact, we will keep a dog as a pure pet if it turns out to be unsuitable for working. Bobby was a really marvelous dog and he got along with all the others on the farm—both workers and pets. And he was always waiting for me at the door when I came home from school.”
Considering her obvious affection for the species, I could not resist asking Kathryn if she remembered not getting along with any dog while she was growing up.
“My grandmother’s West Highland Terrier,” was her immediate response. “I was very young,” she explained, “and he was very protective of her. I think he saw me as a threat for her attention, but, in any case, the dislike was mutual.”
The formidable Max died a few years ago and there was some question as to whether or not it a successor should arrive immediately. David felt that a mourning period—a waiting period—was in order, but Kathryn felt differently. She needed another dog right away and so Otto arrived on the scene.
“When I looked to replace Max I didn’t want another German Shepherd as I felt that we would compare it to Max and that would be unfair. About that time, I had been invited on a day’s game shooting and was introduced to the Vizsla breed. The host’s gamekeeper had six working Vizslas and I found them intriguing—lively and very good at their job.
“When looking for a pet/house dog, I wanted loyalty, willingness to adapt to different environments, and a good nature. These Vizslas seemed to have it all and I set about searching for the right puppy. When I went to inspect one litter, I was taken into the room where I met both the mother and father and six very adorable puppies. I got down on the floor to meet the puppies and look them over when this one puppy decided that my handbag was worth investigating and promptly put his head and shoulders into it and then stole my handkerchief! He was so inquisitive that my heart melted and I decided he was the one for me.”
Clearly, it was the right decision.
Kathryn, the Estate Administrator at The Wicken, a 4,000-acre property located in the heart of classic Norfolk partridge country, explained, “Otto adjusted to farm life quickly and is very eager and keen to meet humans. Wherever we go people are always interested in him and he laps up the attention. He has boundless energy and loves everybody and yes, he has been spoiled. He is not on a lead very often and is well known for sitting on the farm office chairs when he comes to work with me instead of the floor. I often go out of the office and come back and find him sitting on my chair looking at the computer screen.”
Curious, I ask if there are other dogs at The Wicken.
“Yes, there are three Labradors, four Spaniels, and a couple of Jack Russell Terriers. The owner’s year-old Lab spends a lot of time with Otto and they are great friends.”
Stroking Otto, Kathryn continued, “I’m really happy to be around any dog. I like Borzois, and I really love German Shepherds, Labradors and now, of course, Vizslas.”
But, just like with people, there are always some dogs that will carve special places in the hearts of its owners. For David, it will always be the German Shepherd Max, a very social animal who loved to be around people even when they dared to sit on his sofa. He was famous in the Norfolk countryside as the dog who would line up with the other guests at a hog roast and wait for his helping.
He was also known for going back for seconds and even thirds!