At the height of their fame, fan mail arrived every three seconds. Smitten Sir Tim Rice even re-wrote the lyrics to Don’t Cry For Me Argentina in their honour. So who were these global stars? The answer is black labrador Olive, seven, and three-year-old golden lab Mabel, whose antics as accompanied by the hilarious commentary of their owner, sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter, captured the nation’s hearts during lockdown. Now Andrew has written a book about the pair that will charm you all over again…
When asked to name your favourite year, I’m not sure 2020 would be high on anybody’s list. The CEO of Zoom might disagree. But almost everybody else will have experienced deep unpleasantness — lockdown, lost jobs, strained relationships and worse.
And, above all, the overriding oddness as our lives were utterly transformed by the pandemic. For me, this feeling was only heightened by something I brought upon myself, as I somehow fashioned our unwitting labradors, Olive and Mabel, into viral internet stars.
In normal life, if we can recall such a thing, I am a sports broadcaster — mainly commentating for the BBC. It is a hugely enjoyable profession and one I am fortunate to be in, but it does rather depend on sport actually taking place.
Sports broadcaster Andrew Cotter, pictured with his Labradors Olive, black, aged 7, and Mabel, cream, aged three, has become well-known during lock down for commentating on his pets’ escapades
After the cancellation of, first, the Boat Race, the tail-end of the Six Nations, then the Masters, Wimbledon and the Olympics, it didn’t escape my notice that the job of a freelance sports commentator might prove tricky. Most people in this position would immediately ask: ‘Can I pay my bills and the mortgage?’
And yes, this did cross my mind. How my next thought came to be, ‘Perhaps I should commentate on my dogs eating breakfast and then put it on Twitter,’ I’m still not sure.
Yet on that fateful day, suddenly jobless, I went out, iPhone in hand, the dogs questioning why I was looking for a more scenic location than their usual feeding spot by the washing machine.
In the garden, Olive and Mabel certainly didn’t care that I was filming as they ate. My partner Caroline, though, did appear concerned for my mental well-being and offered support in her own way by shouting insults, possibly while packing a suitcase.
The dogs then did what they do every single day, inhaling their food while ‘tasting absolutely nothing’ as I said in a commentary. And that was that — it was nothing more than a bit of fun. ‘I was bored,’ I wrote in the tweet I released into the wilds of the internet.
Within a few days it had been watched by millions.
Struck by its success, there had to be a sequel and our dogs delivered, having a tussle over a well-chewed rubber bone — Mabel taking victory after Olive lost control and looked, with all the sadness a labrador can muster, into the camera at the end. The counter on that one is still ticking away at about 20 million views.
And so it went on — Olive and Mabel starring in videos of everyday dog life, such as messing about in a pond, or usually human activities, like online meetings.
And with the views came a whole lot of love. From well-known figures in the UK like Gary Lineker, Dawn French and Rory Bremner, and also worldwide, especially America. Actors Ryan Reynolds, Mark Hammill and Julianne Moore all said ‘good dog’ to us.
Andrew and his pets now have fans across Britain and even the world – including Hollywood stars Ryan Reynolds, Mark Hammill and Julianne Moore
At first, this felt strange. In my head, the humour was in a semi-recognisable sports broadcaster turning his hand to something mundane. But in other countries, nobody would be aware of what I did.
Now, though, I can see why. There was a curious unity in us all being locked down and social media — for all its ills — was a place to come together. People also wanted to laugh at something and needed a distraction in stressful times.
Not forgetting the fact that people simply love dogs. How else could I find myself commentating on Kirsty, the boxer dog of Sir Tim Rice and he, in return, rewriting the lyrics to Don’t Cry For Me Argentina for Olive and Mabel?
Dogs always offer therapy and then, in some of the worst of times, they really stepped up, helping us individually and at times bringing us all closer.
Not that dogs did anything different. Olive and Mabel certainly didn’t — they just carried on being themselves, oblivious to the greater cares of the world, but that was exactly what was needed.
And in doing so they taught me to be more optimistic. To be… how shall I put it? More… labrador.
I’m a ‘dog person’. Always have been. I grew up with dogs of varying shapes, sizes and tempers, but Olive and Mabel are the first to have been wholly mine — ours. Black-coated Olive arrived first, almost eight years ago, and yellow Mabel four years later.
The moment a younger dog meets the older is crucial. You hope there is just a little nip from the incumbent to let junior know the pecking order.
Mabel, though, like most puppies, was not great at reading the signals. ‘Greetings new friend… I see you have growled at me and snapped once or twice. I take this to mean you would like me to assault you constantly and try to chew your ears. Correct?’
In those testing early days, Olive would turn to us, with labrador eyes asking: ‘Is this going to be staying long?’
But Mabel worshipped Olive from the start and within weeks some, if not all, of that love was returned.
As time passed, we noticed plenty of differences between them. Olive is a destroyer. There is no point giving her toys unless they are made to last. Otherwise you may as well throw her a £20 note covered in gravy.
By contrast Mabel treasures her possessions. As a puppy she would bring things in from the garden — a twig, a leaf, a flower and keep them in her bed in a pathetic pile which nonetheless gave her great pride.
Andrew has written a new book featuring his two pets and the adventures they have enjoyed
She will wander in, her cheeks just a fraction puffier — only to crack under interrogation. Ask, ‘Do you have something?’ and she will shift from paw to paw, making confessional noises before a stick is extracted.
Often, Mabel will decide to take one of her possessions and start throwing it around, perhaps trying to hold it aloft and generally dancing to a tune playing only in her head. Throughout it all Olive carries a weary expression, as if witnessing Aunt Barbara on the dance floor at a wedding after a too much prosecco.
Perhaps the most obvious difference is that Mabel adores human contact. Let’s not get Olive wrong — she’s very partial to a vigorous scratch near the tail, despite losing some hard-earned dignity.
But Mabel has never lost hers because she never had any to start with. She wants human hands upon her, and she’s not ashamed of that.
The good news is that labradors are very eager to please and willing to be trained. The bad news is that we haven’t got round to it properly. And so, Mabel takes most of her guidance from Olive, her idol.
Not initially interested in eating grass, the student is catching up with the master in the amount she can devour.
It’s worth noting that in certain places, even the best training would make no difference, as a giddiness overrides all. The beach for example. Ours are calm in a car, but when they realise our destination, excited chatter results.
‘Beach?’ says one to the other.
Andrew, pictured with his wife Caroline and their two dogs at home in Grappenhall, Cheshire
‘Thought so. We should let them know that we very much like the beach and are keen to get there.’
It begins when we are a good ten minutes’ drive away. How do they know? Perhaps familiar turns in the road, or a particle of sea air has come in through the air-vents, reaching their all-powerful noses.
It’s a mystery and one that deepens when you consider the density that they can show sometimes. I don’t like to single anyone out, but if I could just draw your attention to the yellow member of our pack.
I’m not sure Mabel is even aware of her own name. Often, when shouting it, as I try to get her to cease whatever wrongdoing she might be up to on a walk, she’ll look around, as if searching for another dog, with an expression that says, ‘Goodness… somebody’s in trouble. I wouldn’t want to be Mabel right now.’
On one subject both our dogs seem to be evenly-matched — and that is in having fears and concerns which make no sense to anybody but themselves. Mabel, for example, has her nemesis in the beep made by a GoPro camera.
You may wonder why I am so specific about the manufacturer and the reason is that Mabel is just as precise in what upsets her. Every single electronic gadget in the house seems to be chirping away at some point and none of them makes the slightest impression on her.
Andrew started lock down watching in horror after all sports events were closed down – leaving him without work
But a single sound from Satan’s own filming device and she’s in pieces. I discovered this one evening, working on the camera, fiddling at its beepy controls, when we noticed Mabel had disappeared. She was eventually tracked down hiding behind the curtain in a bedroom. And Olive? This strong, calm and confident dog? Well she is terrified of certain floor coverings, linoleum in particular convincing her that the world is going to end.
But we soothe them and take care of them because of all that they bring us, even though they now dictate our lives and dominate our house.
After all, once upon a time, we had nice things, yet those halcyon days of clean furniture and smart clothing are but a distant memory. Because if you want to maintain a house to show-home standard, then labradors are really not a sensible option.
The vacuum cleaner runs permanently, but no sooner has it filled, than the floor, sofas and any exposed food are covered in a veneer which is a blend of yellow and black. I can brush and brush the dogs with fur coming off in clouds and it makes no difference.
In particular with Mabel — save for a moult-free window of about four days in August — it just keeps coming, as if there is no solid dog beneath. I think if I were to persist in brushing for long enough, I could comb her away to just a nose, paws and blinking eyes.
Our house also now seems to be made almost entirely out of dog-beds, which they appear to use on a rotating, time-share basis.
The line is firmly drawn at our own bed, though. And by firmly, I mean really quite blurred. They might occasionally be invited up for a lie-in, but anywhere near the pillows is forbidden.
I’ve always been wary of those who accept a lick in the face from their dog while cooing ‘Ooooo . . . kisses for Mummy’ when all parties involved know the awful truth of what that tongue has been doing just moments before. But the bond between loving owners and their dogs is unbreakable — and a possible separation hard to contemplate.
Andrew said he is very fortunate to attend many top sports events as part of his work, but lock down stopped it overnight
Once I dreamed that Olive was chatting away to me. It all seemed perfectly normal, such is the way of dreams, and she turned to me and said, with a very reassuring tone: ‘You do know that I’ve always loved you.’
When I woke, it left me reasonably emotional, so I headed downstairs, found Olive and wrapped myself around her, while she asked just what on earth I thought I was doing.
But in real life, I don’t need her to be able to talk to tell me what I already know.
There are the overt displays where Olive forgets herself —her joyful, noisy welcome at the gate, for example. But it is the quieter, more subtle instances that tell you more.
So yes, I know what it means when I come in to be met by the tapping of tails on the floor. I know it when Olive is caught in a quiet reverie, simply staring at me. I see it when she comes to sit next to me and feel it when she leans, ever so slightly, against my legs. I just know.
The only problem is, in relation to our own, dogs seem to be living their lives on fast-forward. They’re far more likely to leave us than vice versa.
Olive is snoozing alongside me now with a little bit of salt sprinkled in the pepper of her chin and flecks of white are scattered across her chest.
Every day there seems to be more and every day I have a small moment of sadness as I think about what it means. I can cope far more easily with grey in my own beard than in hers.
Andrew’s book, Olive, Mabel and Me is being published by Black and White publishing
In this awful year, time has seemed to race by and often we’ve been grateful for that. We’ve all wanted to move on, to get back to something like ‘normal’ life.
But then I find myself looking at Olive and Mabel and desperately want to slam on the brakes — to try and halt the rushing, disappearing days.
And yet… remember, be more optimistic. Be more… labrador.
Caroline took me by surprise recently when she said: ‘Do you think we should get another dog?’
It was the first time it had seriously been considered. If (and clearly I mean when) a new arrival comes along, I have no doubt she will burrow her way into our lives and our hearts — just like the dogs I have known in past, like the very special two we have now.
And like all those we will surely have in years to come.
- Adapted from Olive, Mabel And Me by Andrew Cotter (Black and White Publishing, £20). © Andrew Cotter 2020. To order a copy for £17.60, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Offer price valid until 11/10/2020.