I have wanted a dog for as long as I can remember. Ever since I was read The Famous Five books at the age of four and went through a phase of making everyone call me George, I longed for a Timmy of my own – companionable, eager to please, and ever willing to help me out of trouble.
In my childhood, as the younger daughter of two self-confessed cat people, it was not to be. Not until my late thirties, mother of two young children myself, did my dream became reality.
Just days after convincing O that the time was right to add (yet) another animal to our menagerie, I saw a photograph of a small black puppy in a rescue shelter and fell in love. A month later, the Hound joined our family.
Three months on, I have come to the conclusion that Enid Blyton never owned a dog. Where, in all 26 increasingly tedious volumes of The Famous Five, is the part where Timmy is returned by anxious neighbours having wriggled through a hole in the fence and been discovered galloping at large through neighbouring farmland? In which book does he come home from a solo adventure that involved the discovery of someone else’s recycling crate and concluded with the shredding and scattering of several empty bottles and boxes across the lawn? When does Timmy find a dead pigeon in the woods and, when it is taken away and buried, immediately sniff it out and dig it up again, returning triumphant to disembowel it on the kitchen floor? Would that be the same non-existent week in which he destroyed an UGG boot, a pair of Crocs, and a Hunter welly?
In fact, as I have come to discover, the only realistic thing about Timmy is how much George loves him and how much Uncle Quentin initially doesn’t. Because love him we do. (O has yet to admit to it, but I know he does.) But that love doesn’t stop me wishing several times a day that I’d never seen his photo in the first place.
As a first-time dog owner, I underestimated just how hard it is to bring up a puppy. I might even go so far as to say that the Hound is harder work than the Heir and the Spare. There are many similarities – needing plenty of food and exercise, a love of water, mud, sticks and general havoc, and constant determination to explore all the places I wish they wouldn’t. They charge through their waking hours and then suddenly fall asleep as though a switch has been flicked in their brains. They bring me “gifts” – from the Heir and Spare it might be a handful of earthworms or a fragment of unidentified animal jawbone found in a ditch, while the Hound recently brought me the very desiccated remains of a mole before he changed his mind and decided to keep it as a snack. When he first arrived, I determined that he would be the one male in our household who actually listened to me. That was wishful thinking.
Despite the upheaval, when I look at the puppy with my sons my heart melts. I’m a firm believer in the myriad benefits of children growing up with pets, and even after so short a time, the Heir, Spare and Hound have formed deep bonds. Sure, the boys get irritated when the puppy steals their tennis balls and turns whatever they were playing into a game of chase, or chews up Lego pieces left lying around, but their annoyance is laced with amused tolerance. Daily, I watch them gaining confidence in their handling and control of him (in so much as he can be controlled) and the greeting both boys and dog give each other every morning and after school each day is heart-warming. Sometimes it seems as though they love the dog more than they care for each other.
To an extent, I have taken the duties of dog ownership away from the Heir and Spare, leaving them with the fun parts. This was a deliberate decision. I plan gradually to delegate increasing responsibility to them as time passes and they become more mature, but at present I want them single-mindedly to enjoy dog ownership. To this end, I am the one who feeds him, walks him during the week and picks up his poo, and I do the lion’s share of his training, although they both help to reinforce this. I prefer it this way – it was my decision to get a dog.
When the Hound first arrived the Spare – then aged five – was quite intimidated by his bounciness and puppy biting. It has been wonderful to watch him relax and welcome interactions with the Hound. The Heir, a future Steve Backshall, rarely fears any creature, but it has been a learning curve for him getting the Hound to stop seeing him as another puppy. It was hard at first, as he just wanted to cuddle and play, but the Heir becoming more authoritative has helped cement the Hound’s place at the bottom of the pecking order but in the heart of our family.
One thing I had not anticipated is the extent to which having a dog restricts your activities as a family. We haven’t renewed our Merlin passes because dogs are obviously not welcome at places like Legoland and Alton Towers. (Secretly I am grateful for the excuse, but it is disappointing for the boys and O.) Even our National Trust membership hangs in the balance, as dogs are not allowed in a lot of areas. Unfortunately, these prohibited areas are usually the ones the boys most want to go to.
Staying away from home overnight requires more planning because so many places don’t allow dogs. Even staying with family and friends becomes more difficult because most houses are not puppy-proofed. On a recent visit to my sister and her family, we kept the puppy corralled using baby gates until he worked out how to wriggle over them, after which we had to watch him like a hawk to stop him chewing shoes and toys, or thieving food from the kitchen. I have yet to take him to stay with my parents. Their two cats have never forgiven me for having children and I fear that the presence of the Hound, whose abiding passion is the pursuit of small furry creatures, might push them over the edge.
Yet for every door that is closed by dog ownership, another, wider, one opens. We have lived here for seven years yet in the last three months, because we have to take the Hound out daily, we have discovered dozens of glorious new walks. Every weekend now includes lovely family treks offering new trees for climbing and new rivers to paddle in. Dogs provide a conversational icebreaker and through the Hound we have cemented friendships with other dog owners and discovered a welcoming community that we never even knew existed.
As I type this the Hound is flat out on the kitchen floor. On the sofa, one foot resting on the shiny back of his new best friend, an equally tired Heir is playing Minecraft on his iPad. He was anxious when he came home from school today, because another child had been unkind, but the physical closeness of the puppy seems to have calmed him. At the kitchen table the Spare is reluctantly finishing his homework. Scattered around the room are the chewed remains of a letter from Inland Revenue and several dirty socks which the Hound has relocated from the washing machine. For once, there is peace, and I embrace it. This is our new normal and I wouldn’t have it any other way.