Mark Davis carries around photographs of his now- deceased dogs Bonnie, Smokey, Zola and Bobby, and shows them to people who attend the free dog socialisation sessions he has run every morning in Norwood Park, south-east London, for 18 years.
“During lockdown, Mark was always there, and someone to talk to,” says 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’d always bring water and treats in a bag,” says Davis, 62. “Other dogs would run up and have a drink and see me giving my dogs treats, and would want some.” He started bringing extra, including carrot batons, and a community was born.
Dogs have long been the most important thing in his life. Bonnie was a crossbreed who looked like a fox. “She was the matriarch,” Davis, a former scaffolder, reminisces, “a very bossy lady.” Bonnie got pregnant by a staffordshire bull terrier, and Davis delivered her pups after a night in the pub. “I’ve never sobered up so fast in my life,” he says.
He kept two pups from the litter: Smokey and Zola (the rest he gave to his friends at no cost). When Davis’s mother died, he inherited her three-year-old yorkshire terrier, Bobby. “He wouldn’t stand for any nonsense,” he says. “He used to protect the group. He’d put his chest out and sort them out, put them in their place.” Davis spoiled all the dogs. “If I was having something,” he said of his meals, “they’d have to have the same. I’d try to give them dog food and they’d look at me [as if] to say, what are you eating?”
Davis grew up in the 1960s in the postwar Notre Dame housing estate in Clapham, south London. “I was a very heavy drinker when I was younger,” he says. Dogs saved him. “Having a dog gives you a lot more responsibility. It kept me out of the pub.”
Bobby was the last of that posse of dogs to die. To thank Davis for running the sessions all those years, the socialisation group raised money to pay for Bobby’s cremation. “It came to about £3,500,” he says. “It was a big surprise. They had two big cards with pictures of Bobby, saying how much they missed him and what I had done for the group.”
He has his dogs’ ashes in urns in his flat. “I like dusting them and looking at them every day,” he says. “They were my babies.”
After Bobby died, Davis didn’t think he could love another dog. Then a friend gave him Frankie, a yorkie-border terrier mix. He takes her to the park daily for the socialisation 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’re so fussy, dogs.” The dogs’ water is filtered. Usually, about 15 dogs (and their humans) show up. “We’ve had up to 30,” says Davis. “They sniff each other, make friends, then run back for a carrot and a drink.”
As restrictions have eased, many first-time owners have shown up with their lockdown puppies. It’s more than puppy playtime – Davis is doing a public service. “It’s very important to socialise dogs when they are young,” he says. “Otherwise, you get problems. Some dogs are very nervous, but before long they love it out here. Their tails are wagging.”
By his own account, he has broken up with at least three women over the years because of the dogs, although he is in a long-distance relationship with a woman who lives abroad. “We get on great,” he says. She won’t share a bed with a dog, so when she visits, she sleeps on the sofa. “I bought her a quilt and two pillows,” says Davis. “I’m not kicking my baby out of bed for anyone.”
After Bobby’s death and before he got Frankie, Davis continued to run the group. “You’ve got to hold the fort. It doesn’t matter what’s going on.
Cities are funny places, especially London. “People can be suspicious, but if you have a dog, it’s different. It breaks the ice.” Many friendships have been made through the group. On New Year’s Eve, Davis takes prosecco and turnovers for all. He is one-man proof that the loneliness of big-city life can be overcome if you are generous with your time and love your neighbour’s dog as your own.
Davis is bewildered by the attention. “I don’t think I’m doing anything good,” he insists. “It’s just a pleasure seeing the dogs.” It takes a month of phone calls before he agrees to let me do something nice for him. Then I suggest having a professional portrait painted of all five of his dogs. Working from old photographs, the watercolour artist Hannah Berrisford paints Smokey, Zola, Frankie, Bonnie and Bobby. The dogs look down at their former master from the great doggie playground in the sky.
“It is amazing,” says Davis when the painting arrives. “Thank you. I am over the moon with it. I’m going to put it in the front room. It’s so lovely.”
He adds, not for the first time: “I don’t deserve it.”
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