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Bowled Over by Mad Maddie

How could we resist the chance to spend some time house sitting on the South Coast in Fareham, dog sitting a manic (or should that be maniac?) Border Collie, aptly named Maddie, and pet sitting, a no less crazy rabbit, called Poppy? Asked to arrive an hour before the homeowner departed for Spain, we discovered most of the hour was needed to detail the eccentric behaviour of both dog and rabbit.

Maddie was a gorgeous, lovely natured, Border Collie who, like most of her breed, desperately needed a job to do. One of her many self-imposed, obsessive tasks was ridding the house of all flying insects, especially flies. As it was Summer, sunny and warm, we had most windows and doors open, so she didn't lack targets. One couldn't fault her enthusiasm as she spent hours poised on her haunches, prior to launching herself in the air each time a fly flew by. The peak of her trajectory was accompanied by a resounding 'clack' that sounded teeth-shattering. Unfortunately, being a little overweight, she rarely got more than couple of feet off the ground, some way below the flying height of flies. Despite her evident lack of success, she was not remotely discouraged and I became accustomed to working at the computer accompanied by a sound much like two pebbles being banged together every 30 seconds or so... a tad off-putting!

However, her 'fly' obsession paled into insignificance compared to her 'water' obsession. Turning on the kitchen tap prompted a rush into the kitchen to stand on her hind legs, front legs on the kitchen counter gazing longingly at the water coming out of the tap. On our first morning we discovered it was not confined to water from the kitchen tap, as turning on the shower, triggered her frenzied presence in the bathroom trying to catch each and every stray droplet of water that escaped the confines of the bath. Risking getting soap in them, I shampooed what little hair I have left with my eyes wide open as her enthusiastic 'clacking' was taking place in nerve-jangling proximity to my nether regions but I didn't have the heart to bar her from the bathroom as the activity seemed to give her enormous pleasure. Who said dog sitting should be risk free?

Being high summer, there was much watering to do of plants, baskets, tubs and beds, so early evening meant another joyful hour for Maddie trying to bite the water coming out the hosepipe and, when I gave up on the hosepipe, she switched her attention to the water coming out of the watering can spout. Luckily, she could be diverted by chasing and retrieving a ball, so the evening watering, house sitting chore, consisted of getting in position by aforementioned basket or tub, watering can in hand, ball chucker with tennis ball in other hand, then firing the ball into the far reaches of the orchard and trying to empty the contents of the watering can before she returned. Repeating this exercise twenty or thirty times meant a relatively undisturbed watering session and only twice did I mistakenly throw the watering can.

House sitting in Fareham and dog sitting Maddie gave us the chance to visit some South Coast beaches we'd never previously visited and, blessed by good weather, we spent some fabulous days at Lee on Solent, Gosport and Hayling Island. Though mostly pebble beaches, they were unspoiled, quintessentially English beach resorts, a bit old-fashioned but with oodles of charm. Maddie loved swimming in the sea to retrieve her ball and it took no more than two or three hours of this to get her sufficiently relaxed to lie down for a rest and snooze. Lynn needed no such time period to switch into sleep mode!

Pet sitting Polly, the rabbit, was a comparative doddle. She had a spacious run, plus a luxury two storey hutch with a ground floor entrance and ramp leading from the ground to the top floor - the ground floor having the drinking and dining facilities with the top floor divided between sleeping compartment and separate private ensuite toilet facilities. Sadly, the young girl charged with her day to day care had not kept up to date with cleaning the ensuite facility as, when checking, I was confronted by a mound of ball-bearing sized pellets reaching toward the roof. Poor Polly would have needed the mountaineering skills of Edmund Hilary or Sherpa Tenziing to get up there and perform. Shovelling like an Irishman with a drive to finish on a Friday afternoon, I soon had it cleared, though I may not have endeared myself to the local refuse collectors by making the garden waste, recycling bag infinitely more fragrant than previously.

Most of the day Polly spent in her run andshe did not like being shut in her hutch at night, despite this being for her own safety to prevent her being nabbed by a passing fox. Early evening she would retire to her sleeping quarters and snooze. However, the moment I appeared to close the door to her hutch, she would jump up, 'hare' down the stairs (sorry about that!) and out of the lower door into her run. She would then excitedly dash round in circles, periodically darting between my legs, thwarting all attempts to shepherd her back into her cage. An undignified 15 minutes would ensue before size eventually prevailed over speed and mobility and Polly was safely locked in her hutch, both of us suffering from unhealthily pounding hearts. Sneaking along the fence line at dusk, through the bushes, to approach the cage from behind, hopefully unseen, made no difference whatsoever, other than making me look even more foolish.

The final day of this house sitting assignment made me realise I need to consider asking for dog sitting danger money in future. As you will have gathered, Maddie loved chasing a ball, so a throwing stick was an absolute necessity. She was very good at bringing the ball back but would drop the ball about 4 feet in front of me. As I moved towards the ball, she would set off at breakneck speed in the direction she thought it would be thrown and, of course, no matter how quick I was, or how far I threw the ball, she would be underneath it waiting by the time the ball came to earth. Humans being much more intelligent than dogs, I worked out that waiting for her to run and when she stopped, hurling the ball in the opposite direction, doubled the distance she ran and was therefore better exercise. This tactic had worked well until we were walking up a fairly straight, comparatively narrow track between gorse bushes and Maddie was hassling to have the ball thrown. I duly faked it one way and turned to throw it other. For the first time, Maddie had anticipated this and as I released the ball, she was already hurtling back our way, unfortunately with eyes fixed firmly on the ball. Lynn, bless her, had stepped to one side off the track. The next thing I knew, I was hit just below the calves by a solid, chunky, high-speed border collie with sufficient momentum to knock my feet the best part of a metre off the ground, rendering me fully horizontal with no prospect of saving myself, yet ensuring gravity would help each and every one of my 120 kilos contribute to the impact. Inevitably, I hit the ground with a breath-removing thump of monumental proportions and lay staring skywards badly winded and not a little shocked. Not yet sufficiently compos mentis to have worked out exactly what happened, I look to the side to see Lynn crawling on her hands and knees, tears in her eyes, shaking with laughter and, when she can finally draw breath, she asks if I am okay. Still gasping, she adds, 'That's the first time in over 40 years, I've seen you knocked over and it was so funny!' Not particularly thrilled to have cheered up her day in this way, I look up to find an enthusiastic, tail-wagging, Border Collie dropping a saliva-covered tennis ball on my chest before retreating a metre or so to wait for it to be thrown again. Who needs dignity, anyway??? This was one housesitting, dog sitting and pet sitting assignment that definitely went with a bang!

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