Thu. May 19th, 2022

Mark Davis carries photographs of his now deceased dogs Bonnie, Smokey, Zola and Bobby around and shows them to people attending the free dog socialization sessions he has run every morning in Norwood Park, south east London, for 18 years.

“During the lockdown, Mark was always there, and someone to talk to,” said Caspar Melville, an academic who nominated Davis for this column after taking his dog to the sessions. “He’s a local legend.”

The sessions started organically. “I had my dogs, and I always wanted water and treats in a bag,” says Davis, 62. “Other dogs ran up and had a drink and saw me give my dogs treats and wanted some.” He started bringing extras, including carrot sticks, and a community was born.

Dogs have long been the most important thing in his life. Bonnie was a crossbreed that looked like a fox. “She was the matriarch,” recalls Davis, a former scaffolding keeper, “a very bossy lady.” Bonnie became pregnant by a Staffordshire bull terrier, and Davis delivered her pups after a night in the pub. “I have never slept up so fast in my life,” he says.

He kept two cubs from the litter: Smokey and Zola (the rest he gave for free to his friends). When Davis’ mother died, she inherited her three-year-old Yorkshire terrier, Bobby. “He would not stand for any nonsense,” he says. “He used to protect the group. He had laid out the breast and sorted them, put it in their place. Davis destroyed all the dogs. “If I had anything,” he said of his meals, “they should have the same thing. I would try to give them dog food, and they would look at me. [as if] to say what is you eat? ”

Davis grew up in the 1960s in the post-war Notre Dame residential area of ​​Clapham, south London. “I was a very big drinker when I was younger,” he says. Dogs rescued him. “Having a dog gives you a lot more responsibility. It kept me out of the pub. ”

Bobby was the last of the dogs to die. To thank Davis for holding the sessions all these years, the socialization group raised money to pay for Bobby’s cremation. “It came to around £ 3,500,” he says. “It was a big surprise. They had two large cards with pictures of Bobby saying how much they missed him and what I had done for the group. ”

Mark Davis at home with the new painting of his dogs.
Mark Davis at home with the new painting of his dogs. Photo: Alicia Canter / The Guardian

He has his dogs ashes in urns in his apartment. “I like to dust them off and look at them every day,” he says. “They were my babies.”

After Bobby died, Davis did not think he could love another dog. Then a friend gave him Frankie, a yorkie-border terrier mix. He takes her daily to the park for the socialization group. He is there every morning, whatever the weather, at picnic tables near the skate park. Davis prepares the carrots the day before. “They have to be a certain size. They are so fussy, dogs. “The dogs’ water is filtered. Usually about 15 dogs (and their humans) show up. “We’ve had up to 30,” Davis says. “They sniff each other, make friends, and then run back to get a carrot and a drink.”

As the restrictions have been eased, many first-time owners have emerged with their lockdown puppies. It’s more than the puppy’s playing time – Davis does a public service. “It is very important to socialize dogs when they are young,” he says. “Otherwise you will have problems. Some dogs are very nervous, but before long they love it out here. Their tails hover. ”

At his own expense, he has broken up with at least three women over the years because of the dogs, even though he is in a long-distance relationship with a woman living abroad. “We’re fine,” he says. She does not want to share a bed with a dog, so when she visits, she sleeps on the couch. “I bought her a duvet and two pillows,” Davis says. “I’m not throwing my baby out of bed for anyone.”

After Bobby’s death and before he got Frankie, Davis continued to run the group. “You have to keep the fort. It does not matter what is going on.

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Cities are fun places, especially London. “People may be suspicious, but if you have a dog, it’s different. It breaks the ice. “Many friendships have been created through the group. New Year’s Eve takes Davis prosecco and revenue for everyone. He is a one-man proof that the loneliness of big city life can be overcome if you are generous with your time and love your neighbor’s dog as your own.

Davis is confused about the attention. “I do not think I am doing anything good,” he insists. “It’s just a pleasure to see the dogs.” It takes a month of phone calls before he agrees to let me do something nice for him. Then I suggest getting a professional portrait painted of all his five dogs. Watercolor artist Hannah Berrisford works from old photographs and paints Smokey, Zola, Frankie, Bonnie and Bobby. The dogs look down on their former master from the large dog playground in the sky.

“It’s amazing,” Davis says as the painting arrives. “Thank you. I’m over the moon with it. I want to put it in the hall. It’s so nice.”

He adds, not for the first time: “I do not deserve it.”

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