Why your relationship with your dog can be the best of all
Bestselling writer Meg Rosoff understands people who love their pet more than anyone else
Published 16/02/2016 | 02:30
Between the ages of zero and 12, my every waking hour was spent wanting a dog. My dog was not a fluffy snub-nosed puppy, but a big, strong intelligent canine like the ones I read about in spy books, carrying coded messages across battlefields crisscrossed with gunfire.
A Belgian Malinois. A German Shepherd. A Bouvier des Flandres. A real dog.
My parents, with four young daughters and a too-small house, steadfastly resisted. But I would not be discouraged. At the age of nine I read a book called Follow My Leader, about a boy blinded by fireworks who learns to negotiate the world thanks to his noble guide dog. To my shame, I went to bed every night hoping to wake up blind.
By 12, I'd developed a more sophisticated plan. I would act insane (whatever that entailed) and my worried parents would enlist a psychiatrist, who would steeple his fingers, peer through his glasses and ask, 'What seems to be the problem?' I would reply that the lack of a dog had driven me mad.
I finally wore my parents down. My mother chose an Airedale terrier because she thought they looked charming and because Gracie Fields owned five. I know now that this is not a sensible way to choose a dog. At the very least, we should have read James Thurber's The Dog That Bit People and opted for something less difficult.
Like Thurber's Airedale, ours bit people. Like Thurber's mother, we made excuses. But the truth was, Sam the Airedale was highly strung, not exercised enough and terrified of my father, who could be terrifying. He hated being left alone, but he was left alone for most of the day, scaling every fence my father built.
He was my dog. When I left for Harvard university and then for London, his nervous disorder worsened; he destroyed most of the kitchen and ate through the dashboard of the car. Eventually, my mother took him to the vet and had him put down; she said it was one of the worst days of her life.
For eight years, Sam had been my best friend and confidante, yet I abandoned him for pastures new with barely a backward glance. His unhappy life and its end still haunt me.
I returned from London to live in New York City and over the following decade watched the dog breeds - like heel heights and skirt lengths - come and go.
Despite how much I loved dogs, I did not want another, not ever. Owning a dog meant years of responsibility and, more to the point, guilt. Dogs were dangerous territory, emotionally; given the single-mindedness of their love, how was it possible not to fail them?
But then my husband and I produced a child and the child produced an obsession. When, on her sixth birthday, we presented her with a large beribboned box, she clasped her hands together with agonised longing and whispered: 'Has it got ears?'
It did not have ears.
With delicious irony, the same year I was diagnosed with breast cancer and my daughter stopped sleeping, it was the psychiatrist we took her to who granted her wish: 'Get her a dog,' she said, and by mistake we got two, which my daughter more or less ignored after the first week. She outgrew the sleeping problems; in the meantime, we were the proud owners of two huge lurchers.
Everything I feared about dog ownership came to pass. I experience anxiety when away from them. Their loyalty, their misery at my absence, their infinite capacity for adoration limit most of my daily activity to what can be done in a city with two large, hairy animals. I feel guilty nearly every time I go to the theatre.
And yet. They require long walks, so I begin each day tramping through parks and woods, looking at trees and (wonder of wonders) thinking. They sleep patiently under my desk when I write, and the worst and the best thing they do is to crawl into the plots of my novels when I'm not looking. They take up so much room in my brain that they influence my stories, leavening the blacker corners with flashes of innocence and optimism.
A few years ago, I visited San Francisco and discovered an expensive bakery on Union Street where you could buy dog cakes for dog birthdays, handmade dog biscuits, liver-flavoured cookies. Weirdos, I thought, but then, didn't most Californians err on the odd side?
I also noticed that the newest doggy accessory was a red or blue dog vest with the words "Emotional Support Animal" written on it in large letters. A discreet enquiry led to the discovery that an ESA can accompany its owner into supermarkets, on some aeroplanes, to restaurants and museums.
My mother announced on her 80th birthday that she and her husband were buying a puppy. "If we don't like it," she said, "we'll give it back."
Six years on, she says her relationship with her dog is the most successful, most satisfying of her life.
I have become increasingly interested in such powerful bonds between animals and humans, and so am not entirely surprised when I hear people say that they love their dog more than anyone else - more than their best friend or their husband or their children.
My response is to say, of course you do. Because the demands a dog makes are basic: feed me, walk me, love me. The rest of the time, and on every other issue, it can be all about you.
If you are depressed, selfish, impatient, hard to get on with or just having a bad day, never fear. Your dog will adore you when no one else does. He will also make sure you get plenty of exercise, and will remind you, more or less constantly, about living in the moment. About joy.
If that's the best some of us can hope for in a relationship, maybe it's not so bad. © The Sunday Telegraph