I have always been interested in dogs. I used to love watching Crufts as a child and could tell you the name of nearly every breed by sight if asked, although I was never given the opportunity to show off my skill. Gundogs, working dogs, hound dogs, utility dogs, I knew them all and was fascinated by how well they behaved as they trotted around the ring after their owners.
I remember the first dog I dreamed of owning was a Rough Collie that would follow me everywhere and warn me of impending danger with a single bark.
After the ‘Lassie’ phase came the King Charles Spaniel phase. I just adored those big eyes and floppy ears.
My parents weren’t interested in owning a dog, neither of them having never grown up with one, so my pleas fell on deaf ears. When I was about six, I remember dreaming that my parents had bought me a Golden Labrador puppy (my little brain probably reaching for the Andrex puppy that I’d seen on TV) which was living in the cupboard under the stairs. Upon waking, I threw off my duvet and ran to the cupboard see if it was there.
It wasn’t, obviously. I was crushed.
As I grew older, the experiences I had with dogs weren’t very positive. My paternal grandparents had a large female Alsatian called Tara who, when she died, was replaced by a near identical female Alsatian which they unoriginally named Tara 2. I have no idea when the reign of one ended and the next began but they behaved in exactly the same way and I always dreaded every first encounter when we’d make our annual summer holiday trip to Newcastle.
Walking up the short, narrow, hedge-lined path to my grandparents end-of-terrace house, one of my parents would press the doorbell which emitted a deep two tone chime. An instant later, the barking would begin, ear-splitting, incessant barking, and then the large head of the Alsatian would push aside the lace curtains at the living room window as she stood on the sofa to see who was intruding in her territory. My grandma would open the door and as soon we stepped over the threshold, the dog would be on us. She would stand on her hind legs and put her paws on my shoulders, tail wagging furiously as she tried to lick my face which when you are seven years old, is beyond terrifying.
As my grandparents had given her little to no training, she she didn’t listen to instructions and was almost impossible to control. Thank goodness she was a mild mannered creature or her paws on my shoulders would have been the least of my worries. My dad would sometimes take her for a walk although it was an arduous task as she continuously pulled on the lead despite his valiant attempts to get her to heel. She pulled with such force that she once dragged my grandma into the road. The subsequent fall broke my grandma’s hip.
Tara/Tara 2 stood tall enough to be head height to the table and she’d constantly have her shiny wet nose in your plate of food when you sat down to dinner, something that always made my mother gag. My grandpa would always feed her from the table too, giving her scraps from his plate, saucers of sweet tea and pieces of chocolate digestive biscuit despite my grandma’s constant scolding. I can’t tell you the number of times I came downstairs in the morning to find my poor grandma scrubbing dog diarrhea or vomit off the carpet behind the sofa.
There were only a couple of other dogs I can remember being around as a child. One was a Yorkshire Terrier called Pepper who belonged to a friend of my mother’s. He had typical Small Dog Syndrome in that he would yap at everything and anything as well as nip you if you got too close.
The other was a dog who belonged to my grandmother’s neighbour, a lovely lady we called Auntie Edie. Roly was a fat, short-haired black and tan Dachshund who wouldn’t let you come anywhere near him. I remember my mother trying to pet him once. He was showing the whites of his eyes and snarling menacingly as her hand slowly approached his head.
Then he bit her.
These experiences shaped my belief that although I liked the idea of dogs and was still fascinated by them, I never really wanted to own one. They all seemed like unruly, badly behaved animals to me.
Over the years I had various ‘first pet’ animals such as hamsters, guinea pigs and rabbits but I was never attached to them. I fed them and cleaned out their cages but when they finally crossed the Rainbow Bridge, I never shed a tear. Not once. My sister, on the other hand, adored her all pets and wept buckets upon their passing.
My own children never showed much interest in animals when they were small either. We got a couple of guinea pigs when my daughter was seven but the novelty wore off within about a week and it was left to myself and my husband to put them out for their daily graze and clean their fancy indoor hutch, a chore that became increasingly tiresome with every removal of pee soaked newspaper.
When we moved to New Zealand, my sister kindly became their guardian . My nephew adored them and showed them more attention that they ever received in my house.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in that respect.
My daughter has been asking to get a dog even when we still owned the guinea pigs. When asked why she thought she was capable of looking after a dog when she had clearly demonstrated that she couldn’t or wouldn’t look after her guinea pigs, the blame fell squarely on the rodents for not being exciting enough. Guinea pigs, she claimed, couldn’t be taken for walks nor were they capable of being trained or showing affection.
My sister would disagree with that entirely having trained her childhood guinea pig, Hazel, to come when called and to climb up onto her shoulder so they could watch TV together.
We finally relented about four years ago and took in a rescue dog from Spain whom we named Cooper but he was only with us 12 hours before my son came up in huge red welts. Terrified that this would become an anaphylactic reaction and hit with a thunderclap of sudden realisation that I just wasn’t cut out to be a dog owner, I made a split-second decision and phoned the nearest kennels. I took Cooper there later that afternoon and, to my surprise, shed actual tears as I drove away. Thankfully, one of my friends knew of someone who was looking for another dog to be a companion to their existing dog and so Cooper eventually went to live with them after spending less than a week in the kennels.
Seeing my daughter’s tear stained face when she came home from school to find that her precious dog was gone is something I will never forget or forgive myself for.
I found out years later when talking to the mother of one my son’s friends that the red welts were actually part of a virus that was going round at the time as her son had come out in them too. So there had been no reason to rehome Cooper other than my own selfish fear of ineptitude.
My daughter and my husband had been secretly plotting to get a dog ever since we arrived in New Zealand. My husband foolishly agreed that once my visa came through, she could start looking for her canine companion. I was never really onboard with this idea but seeing what a responsible young lady my daughter had grown into and seeing how she was with her friend’s puppies, I was pretty sure that she was ready to take care of a dog.
It all happened in a blur, really. One minute, I’m looking at a teddy-bear puppy on Trade Me and the next, I’m in Palmerston North shopping for dog toys in Kmart.
We drove up there on Sunday morning to visit the puppy whom my daughter had already named Daphne. One look at the big brown eyes and floppy ears and my daughter fell instantly fell in love with her. We agreed to take her and the breeder said she would bring her down to Wellington on Tuesday. As we left, I mentioned to my husband that the advert on Trade Me had said that the breeder would knock $300 off the price if the puppy was taken at the weekend, and at the mention of a discount he had me u-turning and heading straight to The Plaza Mall in Palmerston North Centre to get everything we’d need to take her that same day.
By 3pm, I was driving back to Pukerua Bay with a puppy in the back of my car and a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. We arrived home at 4:30pm where the sick feeling grew into a gnawing panic as I watched the tiny twelve week old ball of fluff take her first tentative steps around my lounge.
Oh my god. What have I done?
Although I knew a huge amount about dogs, I had zero experience of how to apply that knowledge to an actual animal. I knew that having a puppy would be like having a toddler again but seemed to have conveniently forgotten how hard looking after a toddler is despite having gone through the experience twice. I probably parked those thoughts in the back of my mind along with other memories that are best left forgotten, like childbirth.
Wires were hastily shoved behind sideboards. Rugs were taken up. The kitchen was blocked off as was the top of the stairs. My little back yard full of beautiful native plants suddenly looked like a smorgasbord of canine poison and I hurriedly downloaded an app that would identify anything that could cost me a trip to the vet.
That evening, I felt completely overwhelmed. Would she eat ok? Would she sleep ok? How do I toilet train her? Should I give her treats? How often should I walk her? Wait. Are you even supposed to walk puppies this young?
The breeder had warned us that Daphne woke at 5am. I knew from friend’s experiences that crate training a puppy can be a living hell for the first few weeks. It’s what feels like endless nights of whining, whimpering and barking while your pup tries to come to terms with the fact that it’s on it’s own with only a stuffed crocodile and a blanket for company.
After my children gave me seven long years of broken sleep, the idea of anything interfering with my shut-eye sends me into a cold sweat. Sunday evening, we gently pushed her into her crate, closed the door and waited.
The whining began, slowly at first and then developed into high pitched repetitive barking. Five minutes later it was all over and she then slept through the night until 6am. The next night, we had a repeat performance but this time only for 2 or 3 minutes. The third night, she went straight to sleep with no fuss and it has been that way every since.
It felt like someone was rewarding me for all those years of sleep deprivation.
The day after Daphne came to live with us, I sat on the only rug we had left after vacuuming up sticky Rhododendrons buds that she’d tracked in from the yard and cleaning her pee off my nice wooden floors for the second time that morning, and felt a sense of profound despair and regret. Then this happened:
This tiny little animal decided to come and lie next to me and felt so completely comfortable in my presence that she fell asleep with her head on my leg.
Perhaps this dog lark might not be so bad after all…