Belfast Telegraph

Hedging the bets on a prickly intrusion

By Frances Burscough

One of the great tragedies of evolution - in my opinion - is that the domestic dog never developed the ability to speak. I've often thought this and I imagine that every other dog owner has, at one time or another, wished that theirs could talk.

Nevertheless, after just a few months of living with a dog you begin to understand them and to know what they're trying to tell you. This has been the case with all three of my mine, even though each communicates in different ways. Heidi, my miniature schnauzer is very transparently obvious. When she's hungry for example, she licks the empty feeding bowl in the corner of the kitchen, pushing it around and banging it against things until the noise grates on my nerves and I give in and fill it with food. If we're not in the kitchen she will just park herself at my feet and let out a single urgent bark that means "I'm hungry!" If I don't get up straight away, she repeats the bark at thirty second intervals until I finally take notice.

This is very similar to her "I want some attention" behaviour except for one difference. When she wants a stroke or a pat or to be lifted up for a cuddle, she runs on the spot at your feet, wagging her tail as well as emitting the single urgent bark.

When Walter, my youngest, is hungry he asks me directly for food not by barking but by jumping up onto my lap and pulling at my sleeve as though he's trying to lead me away from what I'm doing and to take me to the food cupboard. This is also very similar to his "I want attention" behaviour except that then he lifts up my arm with his snout and buries his head in the crook of my elbow until I eventually stroke him.

Each of them has a different tone of bark for different occasions too. For a postman or visitor intrusion, Walter has a comical yap-whimper-yap-howl sequence that he repeats at the top of his lungs whilst simultaneously clawing at the living room window as if attempting to "get" the dirty rotten scoundrels who dare to approach. Heidi joins in of course, but she'll also grab a cushion from my window seat in her jaws and shake the living daylights out of it at the same time as howling between her teeth, as though she's enacting the revenge she will wreak on the throat of the perpetrator.

But recently I've discovered a new, very specific, very distinct barking repertoire that they use only to greet a certain garden visitor and at no other time.

Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark. Bark... It's an incessant, urgent, staccato sequence with barely a breath drawn between each one, increasing in pitch and tone until it's almost deafening. And that, my dear friends, is the herald of the humble hedgehog.

It usually happens at dusk or in darkness and always outdoors. If I ever hear it I know straight away that Walter has unearthed yet another poor terrified hedgehog somewhere in the garden. This year in particular it's happened almost every night since late spring, while we've been staying at my dad's in England.

The garden there is a veritable haven for hedgehogs who love to avail of the thick privet that borders the half-acre lawn and all the shrubs, bushes and long grass around it. Add to that all the peanuts, seeds and mealworms that have dropped down from the bird feeders and the bowls of water I leave out too, you have a virtual hedgehog holiday village on par with Centre Parcs.

Walter has never yet succeeded to "catch" one yet, because they instantly roll into an impenetrable spiky ball and then wait there patiently until I appear and drag Walter away by the scruff of his neck, back into the house. But the moment the back door opens, he bolts out again, wagging his tail frantically and patrolling up and down the perimeter fence in search of prickly intruders.

Walter has now taken to barking in his sleep and I'm sure he's dreaming of the day he finally needles his nemesis.

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