Heirs of the dogs

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2012, 12:00am


When my husband and I started living together in his tiny one-room apartment in North Point, we made the decision quite early to adopt.

The living being in question was a fluffy, white Pekingese that spent the seven months we lived there refusing to go to the toilet anywhere but on the floor of our flat.

Strangely, this didn't deter us from adopting again. And when, several months before our wedding, we opted for a greener and calmer life in Discovery Bay, we decided to take home a brown cocker spaniel, which had been subjected to horrific cruelty and mistreatment.

Perhaps it was our way of testing how ready we were for children. We never admitted as much to each other, and we've been married for six years. The dogs were a testing ground for how well we could manage to keep other living things alive.

We nursed our cocker spaniel back to health and stopped her ransacking every rubbish bin and bag she came across. We treated them pretty well. I bathed them every week. I'd go to the pet shop especially to choose a different dog shampoo each time we needed a new one.

Each dog had its own coat to wear, even though they hated wearing them, until my husband insisted I take them off as it was starting to amount to a form of cruelty against animals. During Hanukkah and Christmas they would always have their own presents, wrapped and ready for the holidays.

I would feel guilty about leaving them at home alone for too long. Sometimes we would drop them off at my mum's house to play with her dog while we went out on the town. And of course, they ate the best dog food I could buy, complete with special treats. They never missed a vaccination or flea treatment.

When my husband-to-be and I got married, things carried on ideally for all. That is, until the birth of our children. I've had three in 4 1/2 years, and it has been something of an adjustment for all of us, and not least the dogs.

Before our eldest was born, my priority was making sure baby and dogs could coexist harmoniously. Our dogs were pretty easy-going animals and had never made any sudden lunges for small children while out and about, but then again, they had never had to share their home or us.

I did a lot of research. To my husband's cries of protest, I bought home a baby doll that I would carry around the apartment in an attempt to get the dogs used to another living being in the house that would command my attention. But it only left me feeling rather silly, and the dogs didn't seem to notice it. They might have sniffed it once or twice, but newborns don't smell like plastic.

I conceded defeat and put the doll in a charity collection box.

While I was still in hospital with our then newborn, my husband took home some of the first clothes that the baby had worn, the idea being to let the dogs smell them and get used to the baby's smell. I think they sniffed them once, if that, and then walked away.

But we persevered because we understood, even if they didn't, that while we fully intended to keep both dogs and baby, any aggression towards the baby from the dogs would create serious problems for all of us and jeopardise our future together as a family.

But even now, three children later, our dogs still don't seem to have noticed the babies we keep bringing home.

What they have noticed no doubt is how their lives have changed. As busy as my husband and I are with three children and work and maintaining a household, more often or not the walking and bathing of the dogs that my husband and I use to insist on doing ourselves and even used to enjoy is now the main responsibility of our helpers. And if anything, we can be found on Sundays arguing, yet again, over whose turn it is to feed them and take them out.

The dog coats are long gone. It can be hard enough to organise three small children into their coats, let alone the dogs, too. And the expensive dog treats specially bought for them have long ago been replaced by the biscuits and scraps of lunches and dinners our children drop during meal times.

It didn't take our dogs long to learn that under the high chair or under the dining room chairs was and is the place to be at meal time because something always gets dropped or spilled.

Our children and dogs have always coexisted happily. For the most part, they ignore each other, and that seems to suit everyone just fine. As the children get older, they are starting to show more of an interest in taking the dogs for their walk and feeding them. And as we become less reliant on a stroller and all of the paraphernalia three under-fives require, we are starting to reincorporate the dogs into our family outings, which everyone seems to enjoy.

Our almost one-year-old has just discovered the dogs, and nothing brings a smile to his face faster than a good tug on their ears or tail. But a warning glance from me is all they need to retreat, and I scoop the baby away and distract him with a toy.

But as the children grow older and appreciate the dogs more, the dogs only get older. And in time we are going to have to face, with the children, the inevitable end of life. That's a whole different issue, and one I hope we won't have to face just yet.

For now we are focusing on encouraging our children to take all the good that comes from having a pet - the respect for animals, the responsibility for another living creature and the companionship.

Rebecca Tomasis is a mother of three and was co-winner of the inaugural Proverse Prize for unpublished writers