Naturalist, broadcaster and animal enthusiast Chris Packham waxes lyrical about his beloved dogs, Itchy and Scratchy, and urges you to nominate your pet hero for a Blue Cross Medal…
Q: Who shares your sofa?
Chris: My sofa is about this much me (holds fingers very close together) and about that much two black miniature poodles (gestures arm as wide apart as it can go), Itchy and Scratchy. They’re 13 and a half now and I’ve had them all of their lives and they’re a massive part of my life; in fact they’re the epicentre of my life. Life revolves around them really, I constantly fret about their welfare and making sure they’re as happy and healthy as they possibly can be, and I love them greatly.
In return I think I have a fantastic relationship with them. They’ve got a little bit clingy towards this part of their life. In the last couple of years separation anxiety’s been a real problem. They dote upon me so leaving them is really hard. I try not to leave them on their own ever, so they go to stay with other people; my partner, my step-daughter, and someone who looks after them. But they’re beautiful animals, they’re the best dogs in the world. I know everyone’s got the best dog in the world, but they’re all wrong - mine are the best dogs in the world!
Q: How did Itchy and Scratchy come to join your family?
Chris: My mother bought a poodle in 1980 and up until that time I’d been preoccupied with wild animals and I’d kept lots of wild animals to rehabilitate, so we’d have foxes and badgers and birds of prey and all sorts of things. I’d never really been into domestic animals at all and then we were sat around one Sunday afternoon and, for unbeknown reasons, my mother came in and put a small, black miniature poodle in the middle of the floor.
My father was horrified, I was perplexed, my sister was smitten, and he became Max. And since then my life has been filled with poodles. They’ve very characterful, they’re very strong willed, they’re incredibly bright and easy to train, they don’t shed their fur, I like the smell of them, they’re full of beans; the poodle is the perfect breed for me and I obviously like all dog and cats and whatever, I like animals per se, but I wouldn’t stray from the breed now. I’m a poodle man till my dying day.
Q: What’s the most extravagant thing you’ve ever bought for Itchy and Scratchy?
Chris: My mother did unspeakable things to the diet of our first poodle. I’d go round and my father would be having bubble and squeak and the poodle would be having a fresh steak, followed up with ice cream. So his diet was terrible, terrible.
Itchy and Scratchy eat very well. I feed them raw food actually, and it’s done wonders for their teeth, for their breath and for their coat. I’m a real believer in raw food, actually. I do sometimes mix it up, and they get treats of course, but diet wise there’s no extravagance. They get fed a very simple, proper dog diet.
Aside from that, they travel a lot. They’ve got their pet passports and they go to and from the continent, they enjoy that. But I don’t dress them up. My step-daughter likes to dress them up occasionally at Christmas, they’ve got Santa outfits and things like that, but it generally doesn’t last too long! They haven’t got Chanel collars or Louis Vuitton coats or anything like that.
The energy that I put into them is their freedom and the opportunity for them to enjoy life, and so the expense comes from where I live. I’m lucky enough to live in a place where I can take them and they won’t disturb ground nesting birds, which gives me a problem with dogs off the lead. And they can run freely, and I love that; I love the fact that they have the freedom to cavort in the countryside without doing any damage and are able to enjoy themselves.
Q: Do they have any bad habits?
Chris: Do Itchy and Scratchy have bad habits? How long a list do you want?! They’re pretty disrespectful really, they’re just like young children. Poodles are bright and they constantly try things on. So although you’ve taught them that something is wrong, a little glint will come into their eye and they’ll think, “Oh I’ll just give Chris a test today”. They’re pretty bad with food. They’ll steal food, and there’ve been a number of times when they’ve broken into the boot of the car and consumed all sorts of the wrong thing. Cheese, they’re made on cheese. I remember one of them eating a whole chunk of cheese that came back, thankfully, and I had that all over the car seat as a treat.
One of my favourite stories is we took them out for a run once and there were a whole load of people having picnics. There were a family having a picnic around a classic gingham tablecloth all laid out beautifully and I saw Scratchy starting to run, and he went on a beeline for this. There was a man standing there holding a sandwich; he was contemplating a corned beef sandwich or something, whilst in discussion with the rest of his family. And Scratch leapt, took the sandwich in his mouth, went over the rest of the picnic, landed, scoffed it very quickly before his brother could get it. The man was horrified. And of course I loved it, I thought it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant! I love it when they’re naughty, I really do.
Scratch barks at people too. He identifies people he doesn’t like really quickly. He’s quite a good judge of character. If Scratch barks at someone I listen to him and think, “Ok, what’s wrong with that person? Why don’t you like him?”
Q: What’s your favourite place to explore with Itchy and Scratchy?
Chris: Itchy and Scratchy like running, like all dogs. I have a big issue with dogs running in the wrong place. There are certain places you should run your dog, and certain places you shouldn’t. Certainly in the breeding season, if there are ground nesting birds I’m all for dogs on leads. It’s only for a short time of the year, it’s not too much of an imposition. There are places you can find at that time of year, March through to July, where you can run your dogs off the lead.
So during that time, if we go out for runs and not walk at home, then I like to take them to beaches. They love open spaces, and they’ll just tear off to the horizon. They start off this fluffy [indicates size of dog up close] and then they’ll go to these tiny little specs [narrows fingers to indicate dogs in the distance] and then they come back again. I love these pulsing little specs of fluff going and coming back. And they yap and they bounce around, and they chase the sand and it’s just great to see them running.
The greatest ever run they went on was a place called Maiden Castle, one February morning. Maiden Castle is on the south coast; it’s an old Iron Age hillfort, so it’s a big grassy area. No sheep on it at that time, it does have sheep on it sometimes so you do have to be careful with dogs off the lead, but there weren’t then. We were the only people there, it was pretty cold and blustery and I let them off and they were running through this long grass, and now I can see it in my mind and it was one of the happiest mornings of my life. I just loved seeing them running and jumping. They kept coming back to me just to check in, and then they’d just dash off again, it was brilliant, absolutely brilliant. My favourite morning.
Q: Have you ever been given any really great advice about dogs, and if so, by whom?
Yes, I was given some great advice once by a police dog handler, who’d come to my house actually because in the surrounding area they do some training, and I said, “That’s great, just let me know so I don’t mess up your training, and Itch and Scratch aren’t out there either”. We were talking about dogs and he said, “I’ll give you one tip: never call your dog back when it’s running away from you, because you’ve already lost it and all you’re doing is reinforcing the fact that it’s not under control.”
I see so many people where the dog’s charging away, barking at something, and they’re screaming at it, and the dog’s not listening of course, the dog’s intent on chasing something or barking at someone or going off with another dog. And so I took that piece of advice to heart. They infrequently run off, they’re relatively well trained, and certainly when it comes to wildlife they have to be very well trained, but if they do go, I never stand there shouting at them. I wait until I’ve got their attention and they’re looking at me, and then I beckon them back.
The interesting thing about dogs is that, in fact, we shout and we think that they understand what we’re saying. Of course they don’t understand the words at all, they understand the intonation, the tone of our voice, and so on and so forth. So “sit” doesn’t mean sit as we know it to them, that word is associated to something that they do. Far more important is our facial expression, is the tone of our voice, and also of course our gesticulations, so I think dogs pick up a lot better with visual cues than they do acoustic ones. So I tend not to stand in the woods shouting at Itchy and Scratchy, I’ll wait until they’re looking and they I gesture to them. They understand this gesture [beckons], they’ve had years of me going like that.
I’m always keen to implement the science that we’re uncovering about dogs into my relationship with them, because if I can better understand them, and how they think and how they live, aspects of their behaviour and physiology, then I should be able to strengthen the bond that I have with them, so I’m interested in that.
Q: If Itchy and Scratchy could talk, what’s the one secret you wouldn’t want them sharing with us about Chris Packham?
Chris: If Itchy and Scratchy could talk… They’d be gossips, that’s for sure. The poodles would be absolute gossips. They gossip to one another the whole time, and sometimes I can see them looking at one another – this is very anthropomorphic, it’s not Chris this, because I’m a pretty pragmatic scientist – but sometimes, one of them will look at the other one and I can see it going, “Oh, that idiot Chris!”. So I know that they would deal the dirt, but what would it be?
It would probably be my movie choices. To be honest with you I quite like films that are principally made for - well my partner says - 10-year-old boys; Transformers, Pacific Rim, Mad Max, all those sorts of things. And I love to watch them really loud, so I sit down in the middle of the room and have the massive sound on, and there’s all this idiotic, stupid robot stuff going on. It’s not terribly cerebral. And the dogs are sat there; they’re exhausted by this onslaught of noise and visual abuse. So they’d probably grass me up for watching childish movies when I should be watching something a little bit more, I don’t know, 55 than 10!
Q: Why are Itchy and Scratchy your pet heroes?
Chris: The relationship that I have with my dogs is unlike any that I have with human beings. It can be stronger, actually. I trust my dogs more, probably, than I trust human beings, I like my dogs more than I like most human beings and I’m not ashamed to say that. We have an incredible bond together.
And, life doesn’t always run true and happily, there are times when we all get pretty depressed and fed up. But my dogs have always been there for me at that time. They are always pleased to see me, and I remember getting home being pretty miserable and the dogs would just lift my spirits. I remember taking them to beaches and just smiling because they were running for the sheer joy of running, and at that time they were able to put a smile on my face, a smile in my mind, and completely transform the way that I felt. And that’s why Mr Itchy and Mr Scratchy, my black miniature poodles, are my absolute heroes.