Puppy love;Community Relations

13th August 1999 at 01:00
No, it's not teacher's pet, but Barkley the dog, who sometimes helps Belfast's senior dog warden give important lessons about respect for others in one of the United Kingdom's most riven communities. Jill Craven reports

This is a tale of a happening in Northern Ireland, a small happening perhaps. It's one that doesn't involve top-level talks, or big investment, or men in suits. It's about a Belfast dog warden who simply believes that encouraging children to learn about non-violent, non-confrontational behaviour with dogs may improve their chances of having healthier human relationships. So this story about Nigel Cardwell and his fellow wardens is not about animal rights, it's about human responsibility. No more, no less.

You can't miss Nigel, now Belfast's senior dog warden. He's a big man who will quote Gandhi - "The health of a society is indicated by the way it treats animals" - and Yeats, before side-stepping to talk about the "Celtic tiger economy" of Dublin or his inability to sing. Early on he tells you - never loudly - that in his own way he's doing his bit for the renaissance of Northern Ireland. This could make you wince. Except it doesn't.

And it could be easy to dismiss his team's cross-community education programme as just that little bit too simple: treat animals right and you'll treat your fellow man right. After all, Hitler loved his German shepherd dog, didn't he? And look what he got up to. But spend two days with him and you're backing their approach. As are many teachers.

This former tax inspector and game keeper, who joined Belfast City Council in 1983 when it took over responsibility for dogs from the police, believes that people who abuse animals become densensitised; that they get caught up in a descending spiral of violence. "There's a lot of anger in those who can't articulate what they're doing... they need to know how to get their own way without force, and that there are smarter ways of working."

For the past year, Nigel and his three fellow wardens - four when they're up to strength - have been visiting the city's primary schools to show these "smarter ways". They turn up with books, soft toys and plastic dogs - sometimes a real dog. "We're shameless about what we use. We try to identify any kind of hook, anything in these kids' experience, that will help us get through." In some classes he uses a soft toy called Fudge, so-called because he "fudges" the reality gap. Real dogs can make very young children too excited and besides, the toy softens, says Nigel, "the presence of a large, gruff male".

His budget for this work is paltry - his main tools are enduring good humour, a thick skin and an ability to listen to teachers to see what they want.

Sometimes that thick skin is pierced. Thousands of unwanted and stray dogs are killed in Belfast every year. Nigel Cardwell doesn't pretty things - this is not euthanasia, it is "expeditious killing". He tells of holding an unwanted litter of 11 puppies as each is fatally injected; of feeling their life drain out through him until his feet feel as if they are standing in a cold puddle. This is part of the dog warden's lot.

He describes living in this severe city, which he knows intimately through his work, as "always looking at subtitles. They tell you what's happening without you having to ask".

It is then that you notice the painted kerbs: red, white and blue in Loyalist areas; green, yellow and white in Catholic. And the newsagents' signs: for the Newsletter (a Protestant paper) in Loyalist areas, the Irish News in Catholic areas.

We visit Blythefield Primary in Sandy Row, a Protestant enclave near the city centre. In the morning, warden Yolanda Elwood reads to a Primary 3 class about Buster, a puppy who's abandoned when he begins to chew the furniture and the wallpaper - when he behaves like all puppies do. She then moves on to telling the class about the life-long responsibility of owning a dog and how to be safe around them. In the afternoon, Nigel and a Primary 6 class rehearse a "playlet" they've written together to present the next day at an environmental charity function in the city hall. Nigel is passionate about empowering children: their story tells how they find their own solution to the problem of a stranger who lets his dog use their playground as a dog toilet - "We can't play here, it's filthy." The last line is like a mantra: "If you're not prepared to clean it up, you shouldn't have a dog."

The team's work with schools is always developing. "It needs to be reactive; if we try something and then think we can do it better, we change it. We keep changing until we get it right." Nigel describes this first year - although it's been many more in the planning - as a "test drive". And he admits to being rejected by some teachers along the way.

"So I spent a lot of time listening to them. They wanted more than another textbook, a different worksheet. They wanted people who would work with the children, talk with them, find out what their perspective was.

"Early on many of these children were making absolute decisions about how they would bring their dogs up; they believed in dominance training, that to tie a dog up out the back was a way of keeping that dog 'sharp'. These notions may be about control, but have nothing to do with care."

Nigel Cardwell is in the business of selling care. Fine and good, you say. You have these pupils maybe for an hour, but what about life and role models at home? Most children have an innate sense of fair play, he says - and besides, he'll see them several times throughout their school lives as well as in their communities. As the school year ended in Belfast, he was planning an art workshop near Blythefield as part of a community summer scheme for local children. Then there's Brownies and Guides and even Darby and Joan clubs. The dog wardens do not tell and run. Follow-up visits are the rule.

Who pays for all this? Well, Nigel says, it's part of his brief as dog warden. Last year his team won the Good Dog Campaign and a pound;1,000 award in a competition sponsored by a pet food company for the best new educational programme run by a UK local authority. That's this year taken care of. And what about next? A lack of cash won't stop them. "Anyone with a budget can stuff an envelope and mail it out. Schools want more than that. You have to do things to a high standard so they want you back again. It's hard work. Stuffing an envelope can be a cheap option."

He says the Troubles can be used as an excuse to do nothing. "We can't get away with treading water. People are much more comfortable when you go about things quietly. But I'm a great one for nailing my colours to the mast and going for it. Sometimes I sink..."

And what does Nigel Cardwell and his team do when they're not in schools? They fufil the myriad other duties of a dog warden - collecting stray and unwanted dogs, gathering evidence for cruelty cases, dealing with noisy and aggressive animals and answering complaints about fouling.

He does have his own dog - a four-year-old benign black Labrador his 12-year-old son has called Barkley, and who he calls a "pipe and slippers dog" for when he goes home and "lets the static out".

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