It’s a dog’s life - Irfan Husain - Saturday 23rd April 2011

OFTEN, when I`m stuck for an idea for a column, by sheer serendipity a reader sends me material from a random source that sets my mind galloping off on the trail of an article.
This time, two readers have emailed me news about an Iranian plan to outlaw keeping dogs as pets. Apparently, a bill has been tabled in parliament that would make it illegal to own dogs. Apart from so-called public health hazards, dog ownership is also deemed to “pose a cultural problem, a blind imitation of the vulgar culture of the West”.
Really? I suppose other aspects of Iranian life and culture are all locally derived. The cars Iranians drive or aspire to, for example, must have been invented by the ancient Persians, as is the nuclear programme they are working on so secretively at such vast expense. But hang on, that technology was sold to them by our very own Dr A.Q. Khan.
Surely even the ideologues of the Iranian revolution cannot pretend that dogs evolved exclusively in the West. Salukis, also known as Persian greyhounds, are one of the oldest breeds of domesticated dogs. They are lovely beasts greatly prized for their grace and poise. Across the world, people have bred dogs for hunting, farming and just companionship.
Our Jack Russell terrier, Puffin, is a great squirrel chaser, and makes sure none of the rodents eat our flowers. Originally, Jack Russells were bred to kill rats that infested farms, and Puffin is happiest when he is ferreting out the pests in friends` sheds and barns. And of course, he demands his daily walks that keep me reasonably fit.
Often when I`m working on my computer, he jumps onto my lap so he can look out of the window and see if any squirrels are in sight. I`m not entirely sure he doesn`t also read what I`m writing: he seems to understand much of what we say to him, so I wouldn`t be surprised if he could make sense of what appears on my laptop screen.
In any case I`m glad he didn`t see the other article sent to me by a reader about the Chinese penchant for eating dogs. Now I`m not particularly squeamish about what I eat as long as it tastes good, and doesn`t make me ill. Indeed, in my time, I have eaten some very odd things. But dog? Even my hardened digestive system rebels at the thought of roast Puffin.
I am well aware of the aversion to dogs most Muslims seem to share. But a Google search for any prohibition on owning dogs in the Holy Book drew a blank. And among the many Islamic websites I explored, there was no unanimity: while some questioned the accuracy of the hadith on the subject, others advised against keeping dogs.
So I`ll just let the theologians sort out the matter while continuing to enjoy the company of dogs. Puffin doesn`t know it yet, but the fact is that I have been unfaithful to him. In Karachi, my brother has a beautiful Dalmatian called Tabs who is as thick as he is affectionate. As soon as I arrive, he is all over me, and as he`s a big, strong dog, he needs a lot of persuasion before he settles down.
At our holiday home in Sri Lanka, we have four beach dogs. Lucky was a puppy my wife rescued before the house was built; Kalu arrived on the building site, and was immediately adopted; our housekeeper fell in love with Pinky and brought her in without our permission; and a new dog I haven`t met so far has joined the pack.
Then there are the three Boxers my son keeps. Manek, the oldest, is getting on and has to be taken to the vet regularly. The youngest was named Grommit by my grandson Danyaal. While visitors are understandably nervous about entering the house, it is only Manek who occasionally bites strangers. But he is invariably gentle with my two little grandsons.
Ever since I can remember, we have had dogs running in and out of the house. My father had a succession of collies who kept him company after he lost his eyesight towards the end of his life. Once, after a TV interview in our house, the producer remarked on the presence of Sandal at my father`s feet, and inanely said he seemed to be very fond of his dog. “I prefer dogs to most people”, was my father`s dry reply.
While I was checking websites about dogs, I came across a lot of information about the health benefits of keeping them as pets. Apparently, dog owners tend to have lower blood pressure and cholesterol because of the regular exercise they get through walking their pets. In addition, they are less prone to depression and loneliness. According to one study, keeping a dog can add a couple of years to your life.
In Pakistan, sadly, it really is a dog`s life for most canines. The first instinct of a young boy on spotting a stray dog is to pick up a stone to hurl at the poor animal. One reason for this widespread antipathy is the fear of rabies. Although this disease is now rare, the fear of dog-bite still conditions people`s reaction to dogs.
Luckily, the terrifying course of 14 anti-rabies injections in the stomach is now outdated. But when I was bitten by a strange dog last year at the French Beach, I had to get some shots because the owner refused to provide me with an assurance that his pet had been inoculated. Indeed, Zahid Maker has still not apologised for his dog`s aggressive behaviour on a public beach.
In England, of course, millions are dog barmy, and simply cannot understand the aversion Muslims have towards man`s best friend. Frankly, nor can I. How can anybody dislike animals that give total and unquestioning loyalty and love?
A study carried out in England a couple of years ago suggested that over a lifetime, a small dog can cost his owners around £14,000. Our Puffin has undergone three expensive operations that have added to this figure. But I don`t grudge a penny spent on him.
Finally, my best wishes for a very happy Easter to all my Christian readers.

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