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Finding A Dog Called Bear

When a conversation between artist Jayne Lawless and Ellesmere Port resident Deb Jones was interrupted by some very loud barking the course of their project reflecting on how Covid-19 impacted the community was set on a different course.

One day while chatting to Ellesmere Port resident Deb Jones at the the Westminster Community Centre, which I’d affectionately come to know as the Wezzie, we were interrupted by some of the loudest barking I’d ever heard. I looked at her thinking, ‘what the hell is that!’ She nodded for me to look outside of the community centre, and that’s when I first saw this ginormous, amazing, slightly terrifying dog.

It was her neighbour’s dog, Sam, he was so big, or looked so big in comparison to the small front step he was on, paws slung over the front gate that looked like the smallest barrier between him and the terraced street, he dwarfed his owner too. He seemed happy enough though, being brushed, but as soon as anyone walked past became stressed and agitated and his bark boomed out all over the street.

Then came Covid and lockdown and the owner had to shield, so the dog couldn’t go out either.

Deb got on well with her neighbour, albeit impossible for her to talk to him properly if his dog was out too. Sam was anxious around Deb, even though he saw her most days. In fact, the only one he didn’t bark at was Deb’s own little dog, Lottie. We talked about how Sam had been brought into the street as a pup and he was a lovely little thing – the owner himself was known in the area as a dog lover and was seen out regularly with his previous dog who’d sadly died.

This little black German Shepherd pup was his new love. Then came Covid and lockdown and the owner had to shield, so the dog couldn’t go out either. There was someone in the community that walked the dog initially but as time went on that had stopped. The owner had an illness that meant even when lockdown eased he had to be careful and by now the dog had grown so big he couldn’t walk him as he wasn’t trained and he literally pulled him over.

We talked and talked about all the different scenarios. How could we help the dog and the owner? One day Deb and I walked over to the local printers and were greeted by three gorgeous dogs that belonged to the printer. The conversation about her dogs eventually led to Sam. It turned out she knew Sam and his owner well, and had offered to help in the past with dog walking but the owner hadn’t taken him up on it, understandably nervous given how anxious Sam was. Deb said she would pass the number of the dog walker on again and we crossed our fingers. During this time, it became obvious to me that the Covid story we should tell was via the perspective of Sam the dog.

I wrote some ideas in a scrapbook, a brainstorm of words and thoughts, some based in reality and some fantasy. There is a lot written in old English folklore about the black dog representing a supernatural or spectral entity, and it’s sometimes used as a reference for depression. But fundamentally my thoughts were about how Covid had had such a profoundly negative effect on the life of this young dog – full of life and happy then suddenly confined to his house. In his most formative years he had to stay home during lockdown – he couldn’t run or play or exercise and learn to socialise with other dogs and humans. It makes you wonder how many other dogs that happened to, and how many other owners felt that guilt.

All the ideas and possibilities grew in a scrapbook, we talked about him becoming a local legend, or urban myth – something akin to the Loch Ness Monster even. Each week people we were meeting and chatting with at the Wezzie were offered the scrapbook to take home, spend time with it, write in it if they wanted, draw a picture, stick something in, (or not), but keep hold of it. Then it comes back to the community centre. The scrapbook in itself is a beautiful object and we are thinking about scanning the pages now and making some books we can share for keeps. We think its potentially a great piece of documentation for the overall project, maybe the council will print some for their library too?

Through the grapevine many other conversations started to bubble up around the central idea that there would be in essence, a story of Sam that looked at his take on Covid and addressed the issues around fear, loneliness but also of hope.

On Wednesdays the Wezzie is a hive of activity, with people dropping in to use the foodbank, the Bread and Butter Pantry, Citizens Advice or just for a chat. One of our ‘Wezzie Wednesday Women’, Anita, had managed to approach the owner while he and Sam were out on the step one day. None of us had ever managed that! The dog would always get too stressed, undoubtably picking up on our fear, which was real!

Anita walked calmly up to both and amazingly Sam stopped barking and we all stood mesmerised as though we were witnessing an everyday miracle. They chatted for a while and it gave us the confidence that she could knock at the door and not stress the dog out too much with the gifts for Christmas. We didn’t know this would be the last time we’d see Sam or his owner.

How many lives have been this profoundly affected by the pandemic that we don’t know about?

Shockingly the news came to us via Deb over Christmas that the owner had passed away and Sam taken away by the police. If somehow a family member ever reads this, we are so sorry for your loss.

We thought that if we could find a home for Sam, then maybe something positive could come from this deeply sad situation. Writer Ginni Manning had come on board to help us shape the story and expressed an interest in potentially giving Sam a home. We all thought that would be amazing, so she contacted the police who were still holding him for assessment. It was then we all got stunned with the news that he’s been put down on 10th January.

One of the saddest Covid stories I have ever heard, and one that has probably occurred a thousand times over. How many lives have been this profoundly affected by the pandemic that we don’t know about? Directly or indirectly this story highlights the knock on effect of the pandemic – without it, the owner wouldn’t have had to shield and the dog would have been walked and trained. That period of isolation and shielding has shifted the entire course of their history.

It was hard to continue in the same vein that we were originally in, but in some ways we felt we had even more of a duty of care to the story now than before.

Via Deb we had told the owner before his passing about the idea for a story inspired by Sam and he said he was happy for us to do it. I think it’s our way of showing we care, and that these untold stories matter.

The scrapbook continued to evolve and was also shared with illustrator Gill Smith, who used it to develop our ideas into illustrations. Eventually we handed it over to Ginni who held further workshops with the locals who were invested in the writing too.

The result of all this is A Dog Called Bear, a beautiful book retelling Sam’s story and honouring his tragically short life. We were able to print 60 copies and distribute them among the community that had helped create it.

We hope we have done Sam and his owner justice in basing our story on them, creating a legacy that will hopefully resonate with people and dogs everywhere.

Jayne Lawless is a socially-engaged artists from Liverpool who worked with residents and a foodbank based at Westminster Community Centre, in Ellesmere Port as part of Covid-19 Reflections. The book will be shared on 23rd October, when the Theatre Porto, hosts a day of Covid-19 Reflection.

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