Burt arrived via a chest of drawers. Not in the chest of drawers — he would not have fit, because he is massive: 6ft on his hind legs — but rather during the search for one on a sunny, hungover morning in July, when my partner found a picture of him on Gumtree. He was, I presume, mislabelled.
He looked noble and handsome and a touch forlorn, like a prophet rejected by his own people. His people, the advert said, were in Wigan, where he was pictured on the end of a piece of string. He was, the man on the phone said, unwanted through no fault of his own. Off we went up the M6.
We ought to have done more research. We ought to have considered the subtleties of his breed. We ought to have put the words saluki-greyhound, flat and Clapton into Google. But as it was, we pulled up to a house, took the piece of string and the deal was done. He smelt like a polecat and had a twig in his tail. It didn’t matter, we were in it together now.
Burt quickly made his presence felt. He immediately cosied up to my mother. She now appears with enormous bones. He departed sofas with a forward roll. He smiled. He was contemptuous of voices on the radio. Every time he passed the garden of a neighbour with a statue of an Alsatian, he emitted a whine as if saluting a fallen comrade. The cat suffered him with fortitude. All was going swimmingly.
Then came the affair of the bunny rabbit. One day, in the fields behind the cottage we rented on the edge of the Peak District for the duration of the pandemic, he spotted a rabbit. And off he went, in visceral chase, for half an hour. He ended up three fields away. The status of the rabbit is unknown. It became clear that he had been trained as a coursing dog.
Lessons were learnt. The main one being he can run at 40 miles an hour and is a danger to passing pheasants, squirrels and my hope of ever having a lie-in. He also has a stopwatch which makes him howl relentlessly at 6.45am and after exactly one hour of sitting with me outside a pub.
He changed us as surely as we changed him. Our presence curbed his pheasant murdering; his presence curbed our excesses in those long winter months. You can’t be broken in bed if you have a dog which takes every one of your shoes outside, one at a time, until he gets his morning walk.
Burt has spent most of his life in a large garden surrounded by fields. He has had us constantly, in every waking and sleeping hour. Now, with restrictions loosening, we have new obligations, ones in which he can’t always figure. Some of which will require us to return to our flat in Clapton. We left him for an hour and half to go for lunch on Monday and found the carpet had been artfully re-arranged by his claws.
‘Are you going to have to give him away?’ asked my friend Dan, no friend of animals.
‘No, but I’d give you away, if I could.’
I consult a dog whisperer. Hannah Molloy is an animal behaviourist at Amplified Behaviour and author of What’s My Dog Thinking?. I ask her what Burt is thinking. About separation anxiety, she explains. ‘We call them Velcro dogs — dogs that have been rescued. You’re the nicest person they’ve ever met, and all they can think is, “Please don’t leave me!”’
But how do you fix it? ‘Start by leaving them for a small amount of time and come back,’ says Molloy. ‘And put a Kong chewy treat, lick mat and bit of chewy meat like a pig ear in their room. You’re building a positive association with being left alone.’
The retraining has begun. And so has the great re-organisation. We have acquired a car (the Burtmobile) and started to look for a new place to live, in Gospel Oak, near the Heath. I must also find a closed, dognapper-proof exercise field for him in the greater London area. It is the least I can do. I am just paying my debt of gratitude. He’s much better than a chest of drawers.