Follow Jasper's journey as he discovers the significance of dogs on our waterways.
‘You’ve been exploring the canals for a couple of years now, so when are you going to get a boat?’ That’s a question I’ve been asked more than once.
Well, whoa, steady on there. A boat is a big commitment. A whole life choice.
Maybe I’ll start by getting a dog.
I know that a dog is an even bigger commitment and responsibility in some ways. But you don’t need a crane to lift it up and take it home. And they don’t sink or rust. And even a dog the size of a Baskerville hound still consumes less in fuel than the smallest of boats.
Dogs are as much a part of the waterways as are narrowboats, it seems.Jasper Winn
Maybe more so in the modern world where for every boat gliding along on the waters there’ll be a dog or two galloping along the towpath. Over the past couple of years I’ve come across dogs taking their ‘humans’ for a stroll on virtually every mile of every towpath of every waterway, and at all times of the night and day, too.
It makes sense really. The banks of the waterways are heaven for both dogs and dog-owners. Miles of traffic-free walking. No livestock. Peace and tranquillity. The waterways are even more of a paradise for boating dog-owners.
In the Venn diagram showing possession of dogs and boats on the canals the overlap showing boaters with pooches is probably around the same area as the combined two segments representing non-boating mutt walkers and hound-less boater folk.
A dog on board is right up there with a Bolinder engine and roses and castles paintwork as part of canal heritage.Jasper Winn
Because canal dogs aren’t a new phenomena. I’ve spent hours riffling through the Canal & River Trust’s online archive of heritage photos spotting just how ubiquitous dogs were on the working boats of the past.
Along with the Buckby cans, shafts, neatly coiled ropes and horse-brass decorated chimneys on boat roofs there’s often a dog sitting happily, ears pricked, watching the world go by.
Reading accounts of working boats on the waterways in the past - whether Tom Foxon’s Number One or Ramblin Rose; the boatwoman’s story, or numerous transcribed oral histories – it becomes apparent that a boat dog fulfilled numerous functions. A sharp guard dog was useful when moored up on dodgy pounds, stopping the light-fingered filching a bucket of coal or something even more valuable. On the rural cuts a lurcher or terrier type that could ‘go in one end of a field and come out the other with your dinner in its mouth,’ was a real asset.
The boat families, and the women particularly, valued dogs for their company. Steering a butty, separated by a hundred feet of tow rope behind the engine boat, meant long, lonely hours on the tiller, and one can see in the faces of women – dressed in bonnets, aprons, skirts and petticoats – how much the pooch beside them was appreciated as company. Especially when one remembers that keeping a dog on a boat came at a real cost in feeding it from the families own short rations, and giving it room when there was already so little space.
For that reason most working boat dogs were small to medium sized. Most shown in the photos from late 19th and early 20th centuries look like mongrels. They were dogs that weren’t going to eat too much, that were tough enough to put up with bad weather, smart enough not to get lost or left behind when ashore and compact enough to fit into a gap in the cargo, or under a tarpaulin or squeezed into some other improvised shelter.
There’s another tranche of photographs in the archives showing the dogs owned by the ‘trainees,’ the women who volunteered to work cargo boats on the Grand Union and Leeds & Liverpool during WWII. Quite a few of them brought their pets along, some the size of Alsations, and found rations and space enough to keep them onboard.
People are willing to make big changes in their lives for their dogs. More than one-live aboarder has told me that they ‘mainly did it for the dog.’ Whilst many a boating holiday is booked, year after year in some cases, to avoid the bureaucracy of taking a dog abroad, or the wrench of putting the animal into kennels, or just because the family dog likes being on the waterways as much as their humans do.
Not all dogs, perhaps. In a pub on the Leeds & Liverpool Canal I spotted a family off a hire boat happily eating supper. Spread-eagled at their feet as if clinging to the floor-boards for dear life was a forlorn looking lurcher.
"It’s his third boating holiday," they told me, "And he’s always the same – it takes him a couple of days to get his sea-legs but then he loves it." They told me, adding unnecessarily, "He’s still in the ‘glad to be back on dry land stage’ at the moment."
As if to prove their point the pub landlady tried to tempt the dog with a bit of specially cooked treat placed a few feet from his nose. Instead of leaping to his feet as one would expect, the dog crawled inch by inch, as if climbing a horizontal cliff-face, till he reached the piece of sausage and snapped it up. Most dogs do like the waterways it seems.
I met a genial live-aboarder and his mop-coated spaniel in a pub on the Oxford Canal. His dog, he told me, always got up at dawn, hopped off his bed, ran the length of the boat, up through the open doors, onto the rear deck and down onto the towpath. "Every morning, he does what he does and then he comes running back to bed." The man was laughing. "But the other day I’d turned the boat round and so the towpath was on the other side of the boat. And that daft dog, he got up, jumped off the bed, ran the length of the boat, up onto the deck and off onto the towpath, but the towpath wasn’t where he expected it. There was a bloody great splash." Was the dog alright? I asked. "Oh, yes, he swam around for a bit and the next minute he was back on my bed, soaking wet."
The Dutch have an actual breed of boat dog. The Keeshond was known as the Dutch barge dog in English, and was popular as a guard and companion dog on boats working through the Lowlands. Britain never had anything so specific. In fact, I’m sure that if you asked anyone dog owner whether on a boat or on the towpath what the best type of pet was for the waterways they’d all answer, ‘my dog.’
Author, photographer and broadcaster Jasper Winn has been appointed as our first ever writer in residence. He will be blogging about the stories of the people living, visiting, working and volunteering on our waterways.
Author, photographer and broadcaster Jasper Winn has been appointed as our first ever ‘Writer in residence’. He will be blogging about the stories of the people living, visiting, working and volunteering on our waterways.See more blogs from this author