By an unhappy chance, Minnie spotted the horse a moment before I did — and before I could reattach her lead she was off like a bolt from a crossbow, racing across the park towards this strange animal as fast as her little legs would carry her.
I lumbered along behind, puffing and panting, pleading with her to stop and see sense.
But it was no good. While I saw the horse as a mighty beast that could kill her stone dead with a single kick, she viewed it only as an exciting new playmate.
By the time I caught up with her, she was dancing around it, yapping and jumping as high as she could, which was no farther than its knees.
For 60 seconds or so, all seemed well. The enormous, sleek, black horse was remarkably placid. It just stood there snorting, waiting patiently for somebody to get rid of this infuriating little animal — half Jack Russell terrier, half miniature dachshund — barking at its ankles and wagging her tail like a metronome.
But there’s only so much provocation a self-respecting equine can stand. As I struggled vainly to grab our wretched dog, the giant began kicking out. Indeed, for a terrifying two minutes on Tuesday morning, it looked as if Minnie was not the only one whose life was in danger.
How long, Tom Utley asks, will it take before his dog Minnie exhibits more of a resemblance to himself… and becomes Tom Muttley
The horse might also kick me in the head and unseat its rider, sending him tumbling and possibly breaking his neck. Before we knew it, our idyllic autumnal walk in Dulwich Park, South London, could turn into a bloodbath.
And such might have been the outcome, had it not been for the kindness of a formidable woman who happened to be passing. She was carrying a huge bag, which she swung around to shoo Minnie away from the horse’s hind legs.
‘You little idiot!’ she boomed, and I couldn’t have put it better myself. ‘You’re just a tiny little dog and that’s a colossal horse. It could kill you in an instant!’
Though Minnie had ignored the commands and entreaties of her master, she responded to the authority of this passer-by, stopping in her tracks for just long enough for me to seize her and put her back on the lead.
With profuse thanks to my saviour — and profound apologies to the horse’s rider, who took the incident far more philosophically than Minnie or I deserved — we went on our way, my heart thumping. By the narrowest of margins, disaster had been averted.
But, my God, I could do with fewer of these excitements as my 67th birthday approaches.
So I draw great comfort from this week’s study, led by Eotvos Lorand University in Hungary and published in the journal Scientific Reports, which found that the personalities of dogs and their owners evolve in similar ways as time passes.
Just like human beings, say the researchers, dogs go through distinct phases in life, becoming less excitable, less inquisitive and less fascinated by new experiences as they grow older.
After studying 217 border collies aged between six months and 15 years, they concluded that ‘middle-aged’ dogs were far less interested in exploring a strange room, while puppies would inspect every cranny or bound off to investigate the slightest noise.
The report’s co-author, Dr Lisa Wallis, of Liverpool University, says: ‘People and dogs are more alike at different ages than people might think.
Minnie, Tom Utley’s dog, is half Jack Russell terrier, half miniature dachshund. A study this week found that the personalities of dogs and their owners evolve in similar ways as time passes, much to the relief of Tom
‘Middle-aged dogs may be less excited about novel objects and environments because they have lived a bit, like we have, and know that things which seem exciting at first don’t lead to much.’
Intriguingly, the study finds that dogs even go through a ‘teenage’ period, becoming less active between the ages of one and two, while the over-twos tend to look for their owners and follow them far more often than puppies. Owners of hyperactive, super-inquisitive puppies can rest assured, say the scientists. Their pets will calm down, given time.
Well, here’s hoping. I long for the day when Minnie will come to me when she’s called and trot obediently at my heel, instead of darting off every couple of seconds to annoy picnickers or chase joggers and squirrels, sometimes disappearing for what seems like hours as she investigates an interesting new smell.
All I can say, as we look forward to her second birthday in a couple of weeks, is that she shows not the slightest sign of calming down or growing up. Indeed, despite our tireless efforts to train her, she still gets me into trouble, time after time, as she has ever since we adopted her from Battersea Dogs and Cats Home, where she had been taken as a stray when she was five months old.
It’s not that I don’t love her. On the contrary, as Mrs U will testify, I’m besotted. It’s just that at my age, I’m growing tired of retrieving her from neighbours after she has squeezed through the tiniest gaps in our fence, and apologising to parents in the park when she has leapt up to lick their children’s faces or steal their ice-creams.
How much longer must I wait, if dogs and their masters really develop in similar ways, for Minnie to adopt one or two character traits of my own?
Tom Utley: When will Minnie develop my sense of self-preservation — call it cowardice if you must — instead of challenging Rottweilers to games of tag, squaring up to vast foxes or nibbling at the fetlocks of gigantic horses in the park?
When will she becomes lazy, like me, instead of fizzing with energy all day like the Duracell bunny on speed? It exhausts me just to look at her, tearing around the garden at 100 mph, imploring me to play tuggy or throw her squeaky ball for her, a thousand times a day.
How much longer must I wait before she grows world-weary, content just to veg in front of the telly or lie quietly at her master’s feet in the pub, as other dogs do, instead of ecstatically greeting everyone who walks in, tangling her lead around chair legs and demanding attention from all?
When will she develop my sense of self-preservation — call it cowardice if you must — instead of challenging Rottweilers to games of tag, squaring up to vast foxes or nibbling at the fetlocks of gigantic horses in the park?
I know, I know, I should have realised what a handful we were taking on when I surrendered to Mrs U’s pleas for a puppy to replace her beloved Matilda, our Jack Russell-Springer cross, who lived to nearly 18.
I acknowledge, too, that daily walks with Minnie have been good for my waistline. Through her, I have also met scores of fellow dog-owners. Indeed, I have probably had more pleasant conversations with strangers since we acquired her than in all the years before my semi-retirement put together.
She has made lockdown far more endurable than it might otherwise have been and I wouldn’t part with her for the world. So, yes, I understand the current huge surge in demand for canine companions.
Just one word of warning to readers approaching my advanced years who may be tempted to adopt a puppy: if you dream of a peaceful, drama-free retirement, think again.