Olive and Mabel – Canine Superstars

They are the internet stars of lockdown. A seven year old black Labrador named Olive and a three-year old yellow Labrador named Mabel. As humans the world over struggle to come to terms with the new normal of living under the constraints of a deadly virus, the canine duo continues to entertain us through their videos, courtesy of owner Andrew Cotter. Eating, playing, frolicking in water, even just sleeping – we cannot get enough of the dogs who have made headlines across the world. Spain, Germany, Canada, the USA – presenters, reporters and newscasters have given thanks for the joyous respite in a world in which there is currently very little to laugh about.

And now, published at the end of 2020, there’s a book – Olive, Mabel and Me, featuring stories and photographs of the world’s favorite canines, along with Andrew, the Walt Disney of the operation andrewcotter.co.uk.

Andrew is a freelance sports commentator, whose day job came to a halt when the virus put paid to sporting activity. Like so many whose income hit the pause button, he turned to other activities and took solace in his two faithful companions, adapting his commentating style to report on their day to day lives.

It began simply enough: filming the dogs eating, with a voiceover analyzing their different techniques as they raced towards the finishing line that was the consumed meal. Quickly, it went viral, and the follow-up video Game of Bones quickly amassed ten million hits on Twitter – and counting. Today, Olive and Mabel are international superstars, in no small part due to Andrew’s wry humor, brilliant observational skills, and an affection for and understanding of these two adorable creatures. No one is more surprised than he at their phenomenal success.

“It was just that absolute oddness of time that people were so focused on needing a laugh or something to distract them from all the seriousness that was going on; people were also more focused on the internet and social media, but I had no idea it was going to take off like it did.” Ryan Reynolds, Hugh Grant, Dawn French – celebrities the world over joined in the chorus of approval; lyricist Tim Rice, also an avid dog lover, even re-wrote the lyrics of Don’t Cry for Me Argentina as a homage to the dogs.

For Andrew and his long-term partner Caroline, Olive and Mabel have been central to their coping in lockdown. “I’m not someone who goes to parties or the pub anyway, so it didn’t bother me initially, but then as it goes on and on, you realize that no matter how misanthropic a person thinks they are, we all need social interaction. I think it would have been very difficult without the dogs, and they are therapy, even if they’re just sitting beside you and you’re stroking them; you have that little anchor of normality, and you can lose yourself in the silliness of dogs. They are also very empathetic creatures and instinctively know when you’re feeling down or happy.”

It’s not just at home that Olive and Mabel have been delivering their unique brand of therapy; Andrew has been inundated with thousands of messages, e-mails and letters of thanks from people telling him how the dogs have helped them in their isolation and stress. “That’s been the most extraordinary and gratifying part of it. You see what it’s meant to people just to have a laugh. They might tell you of a terrible day and say how much it meant to laugh for even 90 seconds. I had one letter from someone who said their mother had dementia and she took so much joy from the dogs. I’m not sure why I did the videos or continue to do them, but when you get a response from somebody and know you are making a difference for even just a short time, it’s humbling.”

As a private person and someone who admits to lacking social skills, can bearing the weight of others’ problems feel too much? “I don’t want to say it’s overwhelming, because there are people being truly overwhelmed by a horrible time at the moment. You have to stop yourself and say I’ve got it pretty good compared to a lot of other people and you have to keep it in perspective. You want to do something for every single person, but you can’t because there are 5000 messages coming in, so you pick up a few and hope that you made a difference.”

Having grown up around dogs, it was inevitable that Andrew would have his own and, when the BBC moved its sporting operations from London to Manchester, he and Caroline moved to Cheshire which, with its closer accessibility to the countryside and the Scottish mountains, made owning a dog a more viable option. He recalls being totally besotted when picking up the puppy. Having considered different breeds, they decided upon a Labrador because, as Andrew says in the book, “They are just outstanding dogs… relentlessly optimistic and friendly, good-tempered and handsome. Slightly greedy, that’s all” (just watch Olive, the gastric equivalent of Usain Bolt).

Four years later, they decided to have a second dog, and along came Mabel, the same breed but a very different creature altogether. “As puppies, the differences are less clear, because all puppies are mildly idiotic. Mabel, however, is still very puppyish and she’s always wagging her whole body. I don’t know how many times Mabel wags her tail in a day, but it must be over 10,000 times – her 10,000 steps. Actually, it’s probably 10,000 even before 10am.” Both names were chosen because Andrew likes dogs with two-syllabled (“easier to call them”) human names, especially older sounding female ones.

Olive is not a great tail wagger and Andrew sees his own personality as more akin to hers. If Andrew finds something funny, he says he might raise an eyebrow. But then Olive is more of a barker, Mabel a talker and more clingy. Both dogs love the outdoors and especially trips to the solace of the mountains, Andrew’s other great love; it’s nevertheless an area of life that reveals the very different personalities of each dog. “The weird thing about Mabel – well, there are many weird things about Mabel – is that she seems, quite often, as if she’s worried about it. She’s worried about things in general – probably about everything she’s read in the papers. She’s much more often to be found around my legs, whereas Olive will be off wandering. Olive is also a natural destroyer.”

Did Olive feel usurped by her younger companion? “Initially, it was what always happens when a new dog is brought in: this is not normal. I’ve had this whole place to myself for the last four years and now this thing has come in. But within a few days they were getting on famously and playing together.”

As the younger dog, Mabel looks to Olive for guidance, but is not averse to branching out on her own. “They’re not allowed to come upstairs unless invited, and whereas Olive will wait patiently, Mabel will invite herself up, creeping like a Ninja and just appear with a look of I know I’m not supposed to be here but I’m risking it anyway. But then if Olive wants something, she’ll take it. In this room, there is only one dog bed and if they both want to join me, Mabel will stand around, about to take the bed, and Olive will just come in like a missile, take it and curl up with Do Not Disturb air. Olive is also slightly calmer. She can be on her own slightly more easily than Mabel, who has no grasp of social distancing; she just likes company and is a little bit concerned for humanity.”

The chapter of the book titled Irrational Beasts hilariously outlines other differences between the dogs. Neither likes the vet (and they both now know how to spell it, having clocked what VEE-EE-TEE means), and Olive has an aversion to certain surfaces – especially the VEE-EE-TEE’s floor. She also dislikes mechanical objects in the sky and other people on a mountain. Mabel, bizarrely, doesn’t like the beeps of a GoPro camera. 

The warmth with which Andrew talks about his dogs and the limitless love he has for them is as palpable in the book as in conversation; but how does it differ from the love one has for humans? He thinks long and hard before answering. “You feel very protective. Dogs have many, many abilities, but they are still totally dependent upon us for care. I can’t bear the thought of them being in distress or pain, or whatever it may be, so I suppose that’s the feeling.” 

It’s also there by the bucketload on his YouTube channel, where he posts the videos. They look effortless, but there’s a lot of work in the fantastic editing, done by his friend and colleague Tony Mabey. They have also attracted thousands of requests from people asking him to do commentaries on aspects of their own lives – including one request from a car wash company, wanting his dulcet tones to promote their business. 

His beautifully timed delivery and tone make it clear why he is also a first-class sports commentator (one person, oblivious to Andrew’s day job, wrote to suggest that he ought to try his hand at being one). His ability to imbue Olive and Mabel with human-like qualities is also so heartwarming, it’s easy to understand their instant popularity. Having quickly moved away from sporting style commentaries, he started to put the dogs in situations the rest of us encounter in our everyday lives. 

The Company Meeting is hilarious – Olive sitting calmly and wagging her tail upon hearing that management say she’s a very good dog, Mabel’s job under threat because of lack of focus and “the inappropriate stuff with Kevin the Doberman from accounts” (every word Andrew chooses is perfect: “If only she didn’t get such good results,” he sighs, in relation to Mabel’s attitude). Another sees the pair engage in online dating and lying in their resumes Andrew is examining online: “And you starred in the stage version of Marley and Me?” incredulously, to Olive. “As what? As John? What, the owner?”

Since lockdown has eased somewhat, the trio have taken to long hikes in the mountains once more, places where Andrew is most at peace. Although not a religious person, “Quite often, in the mountains,” he says, towards the end of the book, “you don’t have to believe in anything to find something.”

It is impossible not to feel a sense of awe in these descriptive sections that take the reader on adventures with the trio; they make you want to grab the nearest hiking boots, buy a puppy, and head for the hills. “We all feel shut down at the moment; it feels crowded and claustrophobic, and the chatter is constant, whether you’re hearing the news or reading the papers. I wanted the book to be an escape, not just into the world of dogs, but an escape into that quiet silence as well… just wide open mountain around you – and maybe just a dog.” 

Ownership of any pet inevitably brings with it the knowledge that you will outlive them. In many wonderfully written, tender and poignant moments in the book, there is the underlying dread of enduring that loss, but “It is the deal we strike and the pact we make” and, ultimately, “Everything is the better for them.” He says that from the moment he had Olive as a puppy, it was tinged with sadness that it wouldn’t be permanent. “I wish I could have you forever – but that’s just the difficulty of having dogs. You’re always thinking this is going to be too short, but they’re just getting on, doing dog things, quite happy with life.”

He wouldn’t describe himself as a miserable person, but there is an exquisite melancholy in the book’s conclusion, reflecting on the bizarre and difficult year the world has encountered (“the peaks unclimbed”). It is a time, however, in which he has undoubtedly benefited from the dynamic duo – the “stability and normality” they have brought to life in uncertain times. “We’re all at a bit of a junction, aren’t we, and who knows which way it’s going to go. But I’m feeling optimistic. The curve of human development is up, and although we’re in a bit of a trough at the moment, eventually we’ll come out of it and be on the way up. So that’s my Labrador thought for the day.”

So, if he were to do an Olive and Mabel style commentary on himself, from the outside looking in, right now, how would it go? There’s a long, contemplative pause. “Hmmm. Here’s this middle-aged man, slightly confused, seems a little bit grumpy but desperately trying to pick things up and find a bit of work, and there he is going to his dogs once again. Why? I don’t know, but he needs them, they need him and it’s a symbiotic relationship and they can’t be without each other. And who knows what the future holds. But I think as long as he’s got Olive and Mabel,  they’re going to be all right.” 

Woof woof to that. 

Olive, Mabel and Me is published by Black & White Publishing, $21.49 (US), £20 (UK)

Tune in to Olive and Mabel at mrandrewcotter on YouTube, and keep up with @mrandrewcotter on Twitter