Year of the dog

I grew up with cats. I love cats. But I have always wanted a dog.

Last year, the stars finally aligned: my partner and I had moved to a house with a garden. We had jobs that would let us work from home. We had enough disposable income that we figured the dog would have to work pretty hard to bankrupt us (this assumption would be tested). So we decided to join the legions of pandemic pet-getters.

Enter the dog.

We went to meet the puppies when they were about 5 weeks old. Sitting on the ground and being swarmed by 7 furry little potatoes was a blissful experience. I fell in love with the smallest potato of them all, who gnawed my shoelaces, did battle with his siblings despite being consistently bowled over, and finally fell asleep between my legs. Here he was, the dog! Our dog!

A month later we walked back to the car with him in our arms and it felt like a kidnapping. Surely we couldn’t just be responsible for this little creature? Wasn’t somebody going to stop us? But as we put him in the little puppy carseat we’d bought for him, it didn’t look like anyone else would step in. He was ours.

The next few months were a blur. Like all puppies, he had two states: sleeping angel and wide-awake menace. The potty-training regime was effective, but also required getting up three or four times a night to stand with him in the back garden, whispering “wee-wees!” and hoping the neighbours weren’t listening. And then there were the teeth. The dog was cute, but he was also a piranha. My hands bled every day for months. He developed a particular taste for my partner’s feet, forcing him to wear shoes inside or face certain destruction.

Training was also a mixed bag. It was much easier to get him to do something than it was to get him to not do something. Picking up tricks was surprisingly smooth – he quickly realised that offering a paw to shake was a dead cert for getting cooing and cuddles. But not jumping up on people, not stealing socks and refusing to give them back, not running directly at other dogs… these did not seem nearly as appealing.

We hired a one-on-one trainer. We bought books and did online courses. When the sock-stealing escalated into resource guarding, we hired a behaviourist.

We took him to training classes, where he was so excited to see all the other puppies that his brain just fell out his ears. On the last class, all the other dogs and owners demoed a series of commands they’d learned in front of the group – I took him to a quiet corner of the space away from everyone else and spent a tense few minutes trying to nail a basic sit. He sat, graduated, and then shredded up the certificate a day later.

The shredding became a common theme – he destroyed shoes, rugs, plants, books and letters. He gnawed the corners off our wooden furniture. He dug gigantic holes in the lawn. He stole entire blocks of butter off the kitchen counter, devoured them whole, and then vomited oily yellow liquid on the carpet. We learned the importance of environment management and spent £200 on extra-tall baby gates.

The dog proved to be extraordinarily accident-prone. We went to vets in 4 different counties. He snagged his lead on a kissing gate and slammed it on his tail, leading to a persistent wound that refused to heal for weeks. When the vets feared it was escalating into nerve damage, they decided to amputate, leaving him with an extremely sad-looking bald sausage we called the “stubbin”. A few days before Christmas, he was fully discharged from the tail ordeal; that night he inhaled a miniature mince pie, foil and all, and had to be rushed to the emergency vet at midnight to have his stomach pumped. This summer, he got a grass seed embedded in his paw, leading to a fresh round of surgeries to remove the fragments of the seed and deal with a series of complications. He got a swelling on his back which had to be drained with a tube that oozed bloody liquid all over the house. In his first year with us, he had 4 full anaesthetics.

Petplan saved us at least 5 grand during all this. Get lifetime pet insurance.

But despite his best attempts to destroy himself, the dog is growing up. He got over his fear of the stairs, and then his fear of the bath, and now insists on being an active participant in every shower. He’s too big to sleep between my legs like he did as a tiny puppy, but he did find a favourite spot along the back of the sofa. Now he lies behind me like an extra headrest, which doesn’t do my back any favours, but does make for a great background on video calls.

As for destroying his environment, we invested heavily in bitter apple spray and did our best to tire him out with walks. One of the reasons I wanted a dog was to make sure I’d get out of the house every day, and now I do, rain or shine. For two hours every day, we walk around the neighbourhood, along country roads and through fields. We see hundreds of spaniels, all named Charlie.

The dog’s mission on walks is to pee on things and entertain the community. Bus passengers watch him belly-flop into a muddy puddle and laugh at him (and me). If we try to walk past the local pet shop instead of going in, he throws a tantrum and lies on the pavement and refuses to move, and people come out of the neighbouring shops to offer suggestions. Yesterday, as we walked down the street, a woman in her 60s yelled “hello you handsome boy!” at him. People I don’t recognise seem to recognise him – they greet him by name or comment on how he’s actually walking today, instead of lying on the pavement and refusing to move.

Lying on the pavement and refusing to move is a common theme. He does this when he realises the walk is almost over, or when he sees another dog he wants to play with, or if the person we’ve been walking with leaves. Sometimes he does this in the middle of the street and has to be dragged to safety. A neighbour saw him doing this once and laughingly called him a “stupid fool”, which seemed a bit harsh, but fair. Friends describe him as “pure of heart, dumb of ass”.

At home, his favourite position is to lie on his back, belly-up, with gravity pulling his lips back in an expression we call “gator face”. He lies on his back while sleeping, or playing with a toy, or chewing on a treat. The first thing he asks for in the morning is a good belly rub.

The dog is now almost 15 months old. Behaviourally, we still have lots to work on – the resource guarding is much more manageable than it was, but still a factor. His recall leaves much to be desired, especially around other dogs. He’s also a complete clinger and cries even if he’s shut out of the bathroom. But he no longer shreds our hands to bits. The only toilet accidents he’s had in 2022 have been when he was doped up post-surgery. He’s never acquired a taste for the contents of the bin, or for drinking toilet water. Best of all, he doesn’t mind sleeping in and lets us have a lie-in on the weekend.

The first year of the dog has been a lot of things: stressful, painful, expensive. Certainly educational – I’m sure if we had to do it all again, we’d do a lot of things differently. But as we start to see the light at the end of the tunnel that is dog adolescence, I am glad to have him here. My handsome boy. My stupid fool. My dog.

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