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Lovely Day for a Dander

 

The following is a guest blog post written by Karen Lane, whose article Canine Connections: Fieldwork with a Dog as Research Assistant appeared in Volume 22, Number 3 of the journal Anthropology in Action.

‘Torridon! It’s Torridon!’

Five excited children run up the street, keeping pace with the car as I slowly glide to a stop outside my house. Torridon is just as eager to see the kids and she bounces around on the back seat, tail wagging. Noses press against the car window – both sides – with the anticipation of each other’s company. I’ve been in Belfast less than a month and already dog and anthropologist are a regular part of the street scene, although I’m under no illusions as to who is the main attraction. ‘I’ll walk her,’ says Angela. The eldest at five years old, she’s the leader of the gang and takes the privileges of that position seriously. ‘But I want to walk her!’ wails Hassan and his tears well up, so after some negotiation we set off down the street, and back again, and then again and again and again until everyone has had a turn. A couple of neighbours look on fondly and, while we’re all having fun, human and canine ethnographers are at work, participating and observing.

 

Figure 1 Angela and friends

Figure 1 Angela and friends

 

I was in Belfast in 2014 to research people’s stories: not the Troubles, not the religious divide, not peace and reconciliation narratives from a post-conflict city – they’ve all been written about extensively – but the ordinary and everyday stories of the people I met in random encounters, or chatting with my neighbours over garden walls, or through the walking groups we joined; funny anecdotes, mundane happenings, joyful stories, or people’s small ‘t’ troubles, and Torridon was there to work. She’d been a fairly late insertion into my research proposal since initially she was coming along for purely practical reasons: I was going on fieldwork, I had a puppy, she was coming with me. But as I walked her around St Andrews in late 2013, I realised not only did people stop to talk to the dog, that much I expected, but they changed their intended course of action in order to do so – crossing over the road to speak to her, stopping for a chat when they were obviously rushing to get somewhere else. And not only that: people were very forthcoming with information and I hadn’t even started my fieldwork yet. Maybe I should capitalise on this, I pondered. Maybe Torridon could be part of my fieldwork method. Maybe I was going to Belfast with a research assistant…

 

Figure 2 Torridon at work

Figure 2 Torridon at work

I’m really tired and don’t feel like getting myself up at the crack of dawn for a walk in the hills but the note on the message board from Alan the night before seals it, ‘Don’t disappoint Torridon’ which is of course code for ‘don’t disappoint me and everyone else in the group who enjoys her company.’ So the next morning I get up and we have a fabulous walk and there are lots of stories.

Figure 3 Torridon still at work

Figure 3 Torridon still at work

I’m catching up on fieldnotes, sitting outside Espresso Moments café on the Lisburn Road. Torridon as usual has placed herself to receive maximum attention, on the lookout for potential interlocutors. Tapping away on my laptop, I’m interrupted with ‘Excuse me, what kind of dog is that?’ and as the woman leans over the fence she chats about her family.

Figure 4 This is work too!

Figure 4 This is work too!

We’re walking down by the river Lagan and a man cycles slowly towards us. ‘Is that a Wheaten Terrier?’ He recognises her because he’s always had Irish Terriers, a closely related breed. Torridon recognises a fan so she greets him enthusiastically and he gets off his bike to stroke her. We chat about clipped coats and docked tails – he’s keen on both, I’m not and he says, ‘Fair enough. Observe and educate. Observe and educate.’ I’m not entirely sure what he means and he goes on to tell me a story about when the law to prevent tail-docking was enacted and he acts out an unlikely coalition of interests using different voices, the hoity-toity clipped accent of an English Lord and the uniquely drawn-out Belfast vowels of Northern Ireland Man: ‘Only the proletariat follow the law and that’s because they’re stupid’ and I make a mental note of the socialist language he uses. The conversation expands naturally into places to visit in Ireland – Torridon is the segue as we’ve got there via walking the dog in a beautiful landscape – and then we move on to exercise, he’s very overweight and has recently taken up cycling ‘to keep the ticker healthy,’ doing 40-50 miles a week up and down the river between Belfast and Lisburn.

Figure 5 Torridon wanting to work?

Figure 5 Torridon wanting to work?

My return to the academy in 2015 has changed Torridon’s role. The anecdotes showcased above, along with many other stories, need to be analysed, written up and presented and however much she may want to help, I have to do that work on my own. My thoughts and words have turned to what these encounters mean, about how people in Belfast interact with a stranger, about their ways of talking and the performance of selves, and the insights that the dog leads to: the conversations that are permissible between strangers in this city as she gives a reference point that transcends or side-steps those much-written-about grand narratives of a conflicted place.

With Torridon a walk is now a walk, although I still talk to lots of people and hear lots of stories. I had no idea before I went to Belfast that my research would have a multi-species angle, leading to a collaborative blog with my colleagues at Multispecies.net and my first publication ‘Canine Connections: Fieldwork with a Dog as a Research Assistant’ in Anthropology in Action 22 (3) Winter 2015. Before I set off for Northern Ireland, my supervisor Nigel Rapport advised me on conducting fieldwork with ‘just follow your nose, go where the research takes you.’ Actually I followed Torridon’s nose, sometimes letting her dictate which route smelt the best, capitalising on her introductions to the people that smelt good, and smiling broadly at the dog’s and the kids’ noses pressed up against the car window.

Figure 6. Work’s reward

Figure 6 Work’s reward

In Belfast, on one wonderfully sunny day, Torridon and I were walking towards the city centre. ‘Lovely day for a dander’ said a woman as she passed by. It was.