KATE AND LOLA
Produced by Michelle Ransom-Hughes, featuring Kate Forsyth.
(Alongside Radio, 2018)
It would be easy to mistake Kate Forsyth for a typical ‘dog person’.
Dogs just move through the world with so much delight. Every single thing they do is a source of delight to them, and that's very infectious. You know, they teach you to enjoy the feel of soft air on your face, the warmth of the sun on your back, a drink of cold water when you’re really thirsty… you know... meeting a potential friend. Every dog is a potential friend for Lola.
You’re listening to Oh My Dog.
I’m Michelle Ransom-Hughes, and this is the story of Kate, and Lola, her Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy.
We were up in the park a few days ago and Lola goes gambolling up to a little girl, and she screamed and began to run away.
And I said to her quite firmly, I said,
“Stand still. Do not move. Do not scream. Cross your arms across your chest, and look Lola in the eye”.
And she did exactly what I her told her to do. And immediately Lola stopped leaping and was calm.
And then I made Lola sit, and I let the little girl pat her ears...
Her ears are like velvet, they’re so beautiful…
And you know, and let her pat Lola, and talked to her a little bit about how important it is not to run and scream, because the dog will always chase you, because it thinks that’s you wanting to play.
And, then I went on my way.
Such a shame that that little girl’s mother hasn’t taught her….
Because if she had run and screamed, and Lola had knocked her over, she'd be terrified. And that would feed through into her other relationships with dogs in her life.
It would cement those feelings.
And then she'd probably not ever want a dog, and not let her children have dogs... and this would be inherited, this fear of dogs.
The day we met up to record, Kate described herself to me as an ‘evangelist’ for dogs. She said it with a laugh, but she meant it.
To understand why this fervour for dogs is surprising, you need to know…. when she was two, Kate was nearly killed by a savage dog.
I can remember when I was a little girl, I was never afraid of dogs. And so I’ve actually broken up dog fights with my bare hands
Because I always thought, “No, dogs know that one of them harmed me. No dog is ever going to hurt me again”.
So Kate thought for a time that surviving the attack had given her power over dogs. It hadn’t.
But when you think about what happened to her as a child, a complete absence of fear is hard to believe... until you see Kate with Lola.
THEME: Run To Me
It’s a dazzling Sydney spring morning. Kate settles Lola in the back-seat of her post-box red convertible, and drives us to Sandy Bay,
a small cove on the Harbour... set aside for off-leash dogs. Lola, sitting on her haunches, is as tall as a person, even though she’s only nine months old; and she makes small, excited whines as we wind through the leafy streets to the water. The top of the car is down, everything around sparkles.
At the beach, Lola leaps from the car and gallops to join her pack, a handful of handsome dogs, consulting nose-wise on the sand.
The water’s clear and shallow for about 30 metres out. The little bay is edged by a yacht mooring, and beyond that’s the harbour.
We’ve arrived at dog heaven.
Kate leaves her shoes in the car, strides over the grass and the shore, and wades right into the water.
Today’s pack is a young husky cross, a Weimaraner, a sturdy brown Lab, a gutsy grey Staffy, and Lola… and it is on!
They race and wrestle; there’s a lot of argy bargy, growling, and fur in mouths. They smash into each other mid-air, they rumble on the sand, and seem to fly across the water.
In contention, a bright blue frisbee, and a tennis ball. In full flight, Lola’s speed and elevation are untouchable. One of the other dog people thinks Lola’s getting rough. And her bark does sound ferocious.
Lola’s been trained not to bark, but every so often she forgets herself.
Soon, most of the other dogs have left, and Kate’s throwing a stick for Lola, who hasn’t yet had enough.
Lola’s like a cartoon dog! You catch her in photographs and the tongue’s flopping out of the mouth, spraying saliva… and one ear’s up, one ear’s inside out, and her paws are all over the place. People often call her Scooby Doo.
She’s a little goofy but she’s also lithe, sleek, and limber.
The Rhodesian Ridgeback, once known as the African Lion Hound, was developed when wild African dogs were bred with Great Danes and greyhounds, among others.
I’ve been a little afraid of these dogs in the past, but Kate scoffs at the idea they might be menacing.
My sister and I, well, we use to dress the dogs up. I want you to imagine a very large Rhodesian ridgeback with a tutu on, and a crown or a halo of flowers drooping over one ear. They're so sweet natured they would just sigh and let you dress them up
They are big dogs and they’re powerful dogs. They're very fast and they are scent hounds, so of course they need to be trained properly.
But in general, Ridgebacks are very sweet natured, very gentle.
Lola knows that she’s a dog, but as far as she’s concerned, her job is to guard us, to herd us, to keep us together and to, I guess just to love us.
Driving back to the house from the beach, Lola, from the back seat, tries to rest her lovely, wet, head on my shoulder.
It was a similarly sunny day, not far from Sandy Bay more than forty years ago…
Two year old Kate and her big sister Belinda (all of 4), were in the backyard of their father's vet hospital.
It had a Hills hoist, a patch of concrete, and a little bit of lawn, and a tree or two.
The girls’ mother was bringing in the washing. There was also a dog in that small backyard.
There was a Doberman that had been brought in to be put down because it was savage.
And my father didn't put it down.
But my mother didn't like the dog. She was frightened of it, she thought it was, she feared it was dangerous.
So my father had gone out, and my mother actually chained the dog up to the tree in the back garden.
The dog’s been chained up… and clean washing’s being folded into the basket…
I was riding my little dinky, which is like a tricycle, round and round and round the little patch of concrete, and my dinky had a squeaky wheel. And my mother was just thinking,
“Oh I really must do something about that wheel the sound is awful…”
The sound seemed to madden the dog, and without any warning at all, it lunged forward…
And it seized me and dragged me off the little tricycle.
It seized my head in its jaws.
So the canines of the lower jaw went straight through the back of my head and into the brain.
And the teeth of the upper jaw went straight through the corner of my eye and into the brain.
I also had half my ear torn off and the soft kind of skull was torn and rent.
My mother had to snap the dog’s jaws open, to get it to release me.
Four year old Belinda was sent running inside for cloth nappies...
And my mother wrapped my head in the nappies, and then with my sister holding onto her, she ran out onto the highway and flagged down a passing motorist. I bled all over the poor man’s car..
I was taken to Royal North Shore. When the triage nurse unwound the cloth from around my head, the man fainted, the man who had picked us up, because the damage was so severe.
I was operated on. I had more than 200 stitches all over my head, and my ear was sewn back on, slightly crooked.
And I didn’t wake up after the operation, I was in a coma, for about 6 weeks.
And the dog’s jaws were dirty, so saliva and dirt had gotten into the grey matter of the brain.
So I had meningitis which is infection of the menses of the brain. And then I ended up with encephalitis, which is inflammation, infection of the brain itself.
So, really dangerous diseases, a very high fever…
I was kept on a bed of ice, with fans blowing cold air on me
My mother was told that it was very unlikely I would survive. And if I did survive, I would quite likely be very brain damaged.
They couldn’t tell yet how extensive the brain damage would be
So the doctors wanted to do an operation where they inserted a stent where they drained off the fluids.
My mum was a trained nurse, and she knew that was an operation that had never succeeded, no one had ever survived it.
So she wouldn't sign the permission papers.
So the doctors went away to get a more important doctor to try and convince her.
This is the story that my mum tells me:
So she sat next to my bed she held onto my hand. She bent and she kissed me on my forehead. And she said, “Oh Katie come back. Katie, please come back”.
And I did. I opened my eyes… I smiled up at her, and I must have looked like a little baby Frankenstein, because there was all stitches and bruises and swelling, and everything else. And according to my mum my first words were, “I hungry”.
And so, I’ve got all my medical records… and there's this really sweet little note one of the nurses wrote:
‘Katie up, in playpen, drinking milk’.
So once I woke up, I was pretty okay.
I was left with a stammer, which may be because of neurological damage because of the dog attack, but it may simply be because of the emotional trauma.
Complications upon complications followed for Kate.
Years of chronic illness, corrective surgery.... and long, lonely stretches convalescing, often riding the waves of extremely high fevers.
Because I don't have any memory of the dog attack but I do have many memories of being hospital; any child in hospital hurts and upsets me. So that's the shadow that it has cast over my life, is the experience of being a little girl left in hospital.
(from Kate’s poem, ‘Scars’)
I do not remember Dog,
who taught me the precarious balance
I do remember a fevered world
how the relation between objects is altered –
I am small, I am big
my hand floats a huge octopus
trees growing out of my heart
trees a planet away
sounds roaring, voices never real.
The barrier between life and death is extremely fragile, it's like tissue.
As a child, because I was so imprisoned within my own body, but also within the prison of pain and the prison of the hospital (it's like being in jail),
I was able to slip out of my body at will.
And books were a very large part of that. The ability to step out of my body and into a book, or to be able to recall the book.
Or the physical sensation of stepping out of your body, of hovering and looking down from above...
All of those experiences were very vivid and real to me as a sick child.
This sense of the vastness of the universe and the smallness of our souls. This sense of… infinity… I've been very aware of it from a young age.
And I’m always fascinated in near death experiences, in people’s personal ghost stories, accounts of astral travelling, because these are things I did at will as a child.
The first time you come to understand the reality of death, is your first step toward wisdom.
Any child that becomes aware of the reality of death, the reality of nothingness, of your life being snuffed out, can never come back from that.
Kate’s mother had a Labrador called Sammy.
Sammy was so placid, she would carry a basket in her mouth to the corner store, and bring it home with a loaf of bread.
My mother had to train me to love dogs again.
Apparently when my mom got me home, whenever I saw a dog, I would be absolutely hysterical with fear.
Sammy was enlisted to help Kate.
So Mum would sit with me on her lap, and then she'd call the dog in, and I would tense and begin to cry, and she'd stop the dog.
And Sammy would sit, stay, and she would soothe me.
Then the dog would come a little bit closer. And I’d get frightened. And then she’d stop, stay, soothe me.
So basically, she desensitised me.
I did not know this for many years. I just thought I was fine with dogs because I didn't remember the accident. But hearing this story from my mum,
I realise that she taught me to love dogs again.
SFX: Lola shakes her head and resettles on the couch.
Is that why you were so uncomfortable? Is that what was wrong?
Curl up and go to sleep baby. Give me a kiss. Give me a kiss. Your ears are cold.
While this desensitisation training was going on, Kate’s family still lived at the hospital where her father was the vet.
They stayed there for another few years.
Once we moved out of the vet hospital and we had a house with a big garden, we were able to have even more pets!
We’ve had every kind of pet you can imagine. We’ve had pet lambs, we've had horses in our back garden.
We were also rescue carers, and so if anyone found an injured possum, or an injured bird, we would end up looking after it.
My parents were the first breeders of Ridgebacks in this country, so my childhood was, we always just had Ridgebacks. They were always having puppies and they would have 11 or 12 puppies at a time!
It used to be like feeding time at the zoo, because they all wanted to eat each other’s food. But we all looked after them, we all shared them,
and the animals were very much a part of our life. You know we weren’t the type of people who said the dog has to stay outside.
I mean, not only was my father a vet but so was his sister, my aunt… so it was kind of ‘vet family’.
Despite all this, being a vet was never in Kate’s mind
I had a extremely strong vocation, I always knew I wanted to be a writer and never, ever wanted to do anything else. But one of the things that was quite important for us was learning that you can love animals, you can live with them and care for them and lavish them with love, but you don't have to be a vet.
SFX Lola jumps back up on the couch
Here she comes. ‘Thunder paws’ we call her.
And so we come to Lola. Kate’s previous and much loved family dog died last year.
And her husband wasn’t keen on the chaos a new pup can bring
My children and I had a conspiracy…to convince my husband we needed to get a new puppy.
My middle boy was doing his HSC and said he couldn’t do his HSC without a dog. And so we prepared a presentation for my husband, where we wrote up the ten reasons we needed to get a new puppy. And then my daughter practiced the speech and then she presented it to him.
“You may have noticed, since we haven’t had a puppy… Mum hasn’t been going on daily walks and Mum’s gonna get really really fat and unfit.
And then, it’s a scientifically proven that having a dog lowers cholesterol and heart problems.
Ridgebacks were bred to hunt lions... so point number ten was if we got a new Rhodesian Ridgeback puppy
We would never have to fear being attacked by lions!
And you never have...
And we never have!
And it was so sweet and funny and so charming that of course my husband just melted.
Watching Kate with Lola… she’s got an incredible ease with her, they really understand each other.
I wonder how much she learned from her dad about training dogs.
My dad being a vet, a lot of people would bring in dogs to be put down, and he would normally keep them, save them, and rehabilitate them.
He was a bit of a dog whisperer. People would bring dogs to him to train, to break them of bad habits.
That’s why a dangerous dog was in the yard that day.
And of course some dogs have been so badly mistreated that they are damaged and cannot be saved.
I love the fact that my father thought he could save this dog. Of course the dog had to be put down… and my father did that.
Of course you can't see a beloved child go through a terrible event like that and not be overwhelmed with grief and guilt and remorse, and ‘I wish that I had…’.
You know, those feelings are natural, but irrelevant. Terrible accidents do happen and it's nobody's fault and there's no going back.
What's more important is the outcome and also the healing from it, and also the lessons learned from it.
Well I could not live without a dog. I've always had a dog.
Between moving out of the family zoo, and marrying another dog-lover, Kate’s lived just three years without a dog in her life, on her couch, in her care.
Dogs are very intuitive, even almost psychic sometimes.
So if any of my children are hurt or upset by something, our dogs know straight away and they know they need physical comfort. They'll go and they'll press their bodies up against them, put their paws on their lap, you know, lay her head on their arm or on their lap… will whine a little bit, knowing that the child needs comfort, and doing their best to do so.
I say to my children sometimes,
“If you listened and watched as closely as dogs do, you too would be always be able to be aware of how people around you are thinking and feeling”.
Intuition is really just trained instincts. But we can train ourselves to be more compassionate to other people. Watching how they move through the world, how they express their thoughts and feelings nonverbally, It only makes us better people.
My eldest son, when he was in high school, had to interview someone and he interviewed me.
And one of his questions was,
“If you could go back in time and change something in your life, what would you change?”
And I said, “Well, I wouldn't change anything.”
And he said, “But Mum, if you could go back and say to your father, keep the dog in a cage, keep the dog away from your children, wouldn't you?”
And I said, “If I change that one event in my life, what else would I be changing?
And would I be who I am now, and would I have all the incredible gifts and all the wisdom I've learned in this life?”
The risk is too great. I’d rather have the dog attack and be who I am.
When she was young, Kate thought surviving the attack had given her power over dogs.
But what was given instead, was love in the place fear might be.
Sincere thanks to Kate Forsyth for sharing her story, and Lola’s.
Oh My Dog is an Alongside Radio production by me, Michelle Ransom-Hughes, with original music and sound design by Seja Vogel;
and script editing by Lea Redfern.
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SONG I Am Yours by Seja Vogel