Every dog needs exercise on a regular basis. Keep your four-legged friend indoors for too long and it'll turn on your cushions and then possibly even you. A dog needs fresh air and a chance to stretch its legs. But what if we're talking about the kind of breed that's barely inches off the ground? Not just a little dog, in fact, but one that's very long. Frankly, it's a breed that's purpose built to attract the kind of pointing and laughing you might expect if striding down the road stark naked. Or maybe that's just me.
Way before my wife decided that we needed one in our lives called Hercules, a miniature sausage dog just seemed all wrong through my eyes. They look like the result of some unspeakable breeding experiment between a Rottweiler and an otter. What's more, we already owned a dog. A proper one. Whenever I stepped out with Sesi, my loping, wolf-like White German Shepherd, I didn't worry about being mugged. With Hercules, my fear quickly turned to the threat of being mocked. Quite simply, everyone who saw us had something to say about him, usually at the expense of my pride.
It isn't just that the dog is elongated. It's largely down to the way he walks. A dog of two halves, Hercules paddles along at the front while hopping like a rabbit at the back. Just to liven things up even more, when attached to a lead his sheer length makes it impossible for me to break into my standard stride without kicking him up the backside. The most obvious solution is to take shorter, quicker steps. As Hercules is so low slung, and sensitive to the slightest smell on the ground, he also tends to halt without warning for a good old sniff. To compensate, I hold the lead with my arm outstretched to maximise the stopping distance between us. Both tactics combine to help me avoid connecting with the dog. It's just easily mistaken for skipping.
So, what can be done? The most immediate solution is an extendable lead. By letting Hercules trot as far ahead as possible, the gap at least creates a sense of detachment (though some might say denial). Walking before dawn and after dark is another option. The trouble is Hercules doesn't like to rise early, and by tea time he's stretched out across the sofa. All of it.
Nevertheless, after more than a year of attempting to master a method that doesn't persuade me to turn and hurry home in shame, I finally think I've cracked it. Unless you're a Parisian mistress, and walking with sausage dogs comes naturally, what you need whenever you set out is a companion for your companion.
Out and about with just Hercules, I can't help but feel foolish. No doubt if I let him look in a mirror he'd be as reluctant as me to face the wider world, but clearly that would be cruel. If I bring the White German Shepherd with us, however, the game completely changes. All of a sudden, I can walk with my head held high. Why? Hercules still looks as sweetly comical as ever, and has a lovely time, but now he obviously doesn't belong to me. How can he, with a noble shepherd at my side? I'm just a guy doing a favour for my busy working wife, and it works!
Admittedly, I'm often moved to spell that out when people approach, just so there's no misunderstanding. Then again, as I've discovered over time, nobody is actually interested in me or my social hang-ups. It's the sausage dog that brings a smile to their faces. And as I've come to quietly admit to myself, he certainly charms and delights.
Matt's latest book, Walking with Sausage Dogs, is published now by Hodder & Stoughton.