My Lurcher Gandamack was snuffling happily in a summer hedgerow when he suffered a dog on dog attack which changed his life - and mine.
He was seized by the neck and thrown upside down, suspended in mid air as his back legs snagged on a hidden fence. Then he was savaged, his aggressor ripping holes the size of a human hand in his smooth grey neck. The skin left with frightening claw and teeth marks; his thick hound’s collar bitten clean through and left lying in leather tatters on the ground.
He was saved by a fluke: because he was hanging face into the hedge, the other dog couldn’t reach his throat to rip open his windpipe. If not for this I think he would have died in front of us.
The owner of the other animal, a rescue dog he’d had for just four weeks, was powerless. It was only when his pet tired that he was able to wrench it off.
As we lifted Gandamack down and laid him softly on the lawn, his breathing shallow, his bloodied wounds bright against the green of the grass, I felt my world tilt on its axis.
He’d been my companion, my court jester and my defender since he arrived as an eight-week old puppy in 2009. I loved him dearly. Like all the best dogs, he had given me far more than he’d ever asked for in return and now, I realised, I might lose him.
There followed a long, dark night in emergency surgery at the vet’s. Gandamack was stabilised, his wounds cleaned and his neck and shoulders stitched back together in internal layers like a gruesome meaty patchwork quilt. When he was discharged I brought him home in my arms as tenderly as if he were one of my children.
But settling him on the kitchen sofa I realised this wasn’t the end of his ordeal - it was the beginning. I had expected him to be happy to be back but my lovely hound was craven; his joie de vivre crushed.
In the days which followed I tempted his appetite with home cooked food and carried him in and out to relieve himself. But I was a lot less sure how to remedy the thing really ailing both of us: his loss of faith in me.
It was a week before I caught even the briefest glimpse of the dear old dog I’d once had. Pulling up in the yard in my car, I saw a familiar silver snout push its way round the back door. Gandamack limped and stumbled slowly towards me, collapsing into my legs with the effort of crossing those few yards of gravel. As I buried my face into his flank, I could feel his tail wagging softly. He’d come to greet me, just as he always used to.
Late summer gave way to autumn. His wounds healed and a new growth of hair made stubble on his thin, raw skin. But he was not the animal he had been before the attack, either physically or mentally. He had aged, was less invested in us. Actually, he was just less in every way that mattered.
It made me realise that if I wanted him back, I was going have to invest in him. For too long, busy with work and family life, I’d been guilty of taking him and his devotion for granted, making his exercise schedule dovetail with my own and heedlessly feeding him commercial dog food and the scrapings from our Sunday roast.
What Gandamack needed now was to be at the top of the family pack for a bit, not the bottom, so I sat down and started googling dog diets, rehabilitation regimes and canine confidence building psychology. It was going to be a challenge for us both.
Expert opinion seemed to coalesce around one simple fact: wellness comes from the inside out. Even if it’s accompanied by happy slobbering, commercial pet food often contains artificial flavourings and colourings, salt, sugar, and bulking ingredients such as mashed up feathers, cast off from the human food industry. It was time to dump the junk and sign Gandamack up for canine clean eating instead.
I turned to Gerard Lovell, managing director of Devon dog food company Forthglade, for help. His team prescribed a meal plan of 75pc protein to 25pc vegetables and brown rice, pepped up by herbs and botanicals. Forthglade’s meals included dog vitamins and minerals, chicory to aid digestion and parsley which, as anyone with a hound will tell you, helps with dog breath.
The results were startling. Within a couple of weeks Gandamack had more energy and an air of general wellbeing. The linseed oil in his food was putting a sheen on his coat. He also had, how can I put this politely, a renewed interest in the lady dogs queueing up to visit him while convalesced at home.
As he regained his strength, nourished by both the good food and, I hope, my undivided attention, I got him back into proper exercise too. It was not easy because he was terrified of other dogs and presented scared, submissive behaviour which acted as a red rag to even the most well-behaved pets.
In his first week in the outside world he was set upon by an immaculately trained working Spaniel and a soppy old Labrador, stiff legged with arthritis.
He didn’t even have the protection of a proper collar - he couldn’t wear one because his neck was still too badly damaged. A soft piece of rope had to suffice for emergencies because, as I found out to my horror, any pressure broke open his fragile scars.
Still anxious, I took advice from one of Britain’s top dog experts Nick Jones who has a masters degree in dog behaviour and many years experience of dealing with canine confrontations. Nick instructed me to persevere and to slowly increase Gandamack’s exposure to trustworthy dogs, both friends and strangers.
The very best tonic it turned out was getting a puppy, his great nephew, as a playmate and companion. The arrival of Kandahar made Gandmack top dog in his own home, his puppyish ways aided my youngest son who had witnessed the attack from just a few feet away.
In bald legal terms there was nothing to be done about that terrible episode other than to try to put it behind us. Britain has a dog’s dinner of dog laws - 40 or more bits of legislation ranging from the Dogs Act 1871 drawn up when Queen Victoria kept spaniels to 2014’s twin amendments to the Dangerous Dogs Act 1991. If a dog attacks a person it’s usually clear cut and will end in court. If a dog attacks another dog it’s a mess.
Gandamack had been hurt in our back garden by an animal which belonged to a family we knew well. It was not a banned breed but instead, a large chocolate Labrador, albeit a troubled one on its third home in 18 months.
Its aggression towards Gandmack, or rather the family’s refusal to accept their new dog was dangerous, killed a 30-year-friendship. It also meant that it was a long time before I could see a brown Lab in the distance and not feel queasy. I imagine Gandamack, if he could have spoken to me, would have said he felt much the same.
We will never see those people or their dog again but clearly I had to re-enter the world I’d inhabited before, the one where dogs are friendly and their owners loving but firm and responsible. And so Gandamack and I kept walking and engaging with all the pets who crossed our path from the tiny Yorkshire terriers in a perpetual tangle of legs and leads to the elegant Great Dane who runs the riverbank daily.
It was testing. There were tears, not least when one Labrador owner, oblivious to what had happened to Gandamack, told me I was passing all my own human terrors on to my pet. She was right, of course, but who could blame me?
Less confronting and far more fun for both of us was taking Gerard Lovell’s advice on adding home-made snacks and health boosters to Gandamack’s new, natural diet. I didn’t get as far as drying eggshells in a slow oven to grind into his dinner for extra calcium but Oaty Flaxseed Bites were a breeze and I’m actually looking forward to making him turkey and cranberry stars for his Christmas stocking.
I’m sure there’s some part of my dear old dog that still longs for a supermarket cat treat, just as we all fancy a cheeky takeaway or the occasional late night dirty burger but he’s certainly not going hungry. Besides, his energy levels and renewed confidence - and the knowledge that he trusts me to care for him once more - are all the encouragement I need to maintain our virtuous circle.
Above all, I’d say that overseeing Gandamack’s physical rehabilitation and his canine clean eating obliged me to pay him more attention, to remember he’s a member of my family and not just another tick on my daily to-do list.
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