Since March 2020, New Zealanders have been acquiring pets in record numbers — companions for the plague year (years). As one new-ish dog owner has found, the relationship can be life changing.
By Linda Burgess
At the time of writing, lockdown in Auckland has just ended. Freedom Day! It’s only been semi-lockdown here in Wellington. It’s felt oddly bland. Somehow it’s hard to even know what day it is. If Morning Report isn’t on the radio, then it must be the weekend.
How odd it is to feel nostalgic for the first, shared lockdown. The olden days. Autumn, and the sun was a warm tawny gold, the trees were just hanging on to their flamboyant leaves, and it was so still, and we all went out walking, waving to teddies in windows, socially distancing, relishing the quiet, carefully crossing to the centre of the road when others approached, so proud of ourselves for being in the team of five million. We were going to beat this thing. A sentimental lump permanently hovered near the throat.
This time, when we briefly went into full lockdown again, there were no teddies to speak of. Even in semi-lockdown people were a little more snappish. The team a little more fragmented. The marriages wavering. We did notice last time that other people had dogs. We had a sort of dog, in that we had a grandpuppy, the glorious red border collie Sunny. But her bubble was a couple of suburbs away and we were far too virtuous to burst it. I’d always wanted a dog and Oh I want our own dog, I said, as we walked past people with adoraboodles on leads. Over my dead body, said Robert, or words to that effect.
So, we got one. Though not right away. The strategic positioning, the persuading, the passive aggression — all took time. Then I turned out to be terrible at choosing: each time I tried, I couldn’t cope with the thought of rejecting all the other ones. I’m someone who still can’t even think about that movie that I refused to go to, the one in which Sophie had to choose.
It soon dawned that I was part of a trend — I wasn’t the only one who thought it’d be nice to have a little companion for the plague year. Years. Every puppy found itself on a waiting list, every puppy required a serious look at available funds. There were hiccups. There were near-buys. Was I allergic to dog hair or wasn’t I? Was there such a thing as a hypoallergenic dog, and if there was, what did that phrase actually mean? Did it mean it makes your eyes itch, or not? There was a dawning dread that I’d become one of those people who blathered on about wanting a dog but never got round to getting one. It felt like a comfortable fantasy. My friends flaunted theirs.
Badger’s toybox is a curated collection of gifts and found treasures including a toilet brush, shower hat, a carved umbrella handle. Oh whoops, a library book.
In the procrastination process, one side of you finally says to your other side, Oh for God’s sake just get on it and do it. He was on Trade Me three days after Christmas: “Puppy 3” according to the listing. His breeder was in Pahiatua, but his pick-up spot was a pet shop in Palmerston North. He hadn’t been delivered when we arrived early — the breeders were held up by their alpaca — but his brother Puppy 2 was there, popped into town the day before to keep a little white dog company. The white puppy bounced and beamed. Puppy 2, with his curious brown eyes under a heavy brindled fringe, smiled pleasantly, unneedily, at us.
It was his tail that did it. It whirred and wheeled. We picked him up. Lick. Snuggle. Lick. We avoided the white puppy’s eyes. We got into a discussion. We could wait for Puppy 3, or right now, this moment, we could present our card for payment. The little (non-shedding) löwchen was in a crate on our backseat on his way home to Wellington that evening.
For obvious reasons, I had wanted to call my dog Lassie. But boys don’t suit that name, and Laddie doesn’t have the same . . . layers. I’m calling him Freddie, I said, in the way one has of choosing a name that you might have given another child if you’d had one. Or Alfie? I thought. The photo that defines canine cuteness circulated round the family WhatsApp, and Benedict in Auckland, still a great fan of The Wind in the Willows 40 years on, looked at the little bundle with his black, cream and sable markings, and said Nah, he’s Badger.
We had a dog! We’d joined the team! It turned out the initial expense was just the beginning. Friends gave us their crate, as their dog had moved out of it, choosing instead to sleep on their feet in bed. But then there were vet checks, vaccinations, collars. The groomer, toys, one of those soft beds, another one of those soft beds when he disembowelled the first one. The carpet shampoo person. Flea and worm pills, pet insurance that turns out to be so difficult to claim that you just give up, and buying That Book, the expensive one about training your puppy that everyone raved about on Facebook.
And, of course, puppy preschool. Like a child with an older sibling who learns to appear to be able to read, he peaked early. Within minutes he’d been chosen to demonstrate Sit. How proud we were. He was a showy sitter. But by Sit and Stay he was lagging behind the Alfies and Freddies and Daisies and Poppies. It was heart-rending, bringing back my being chosen, aged six, to demonstrate to other Primer 4s how to curtsy when we met the queen. Given that I was at Waitara Central at the time, it wasn’t an overtly advantageous skill, but it remains my one and only opportunity to shine at something requiring physicality. I didn’t want Badger to carry a similar burden.
And then, the training at home. It turns out our parenting skills haven’t changed much over the last few decades. I used to have a mantra of sorts, probably picked up from some Hampstead lady novelist: “Never say no unless you mean it” — great advice which you only remembered just after saying, No you can’t, you definitely can’t . . . oh all right then if you’ll just stop nagging.
So someone expensive came to the house for one-on-one lessons and explained that we were top dogs, that he was never to eat until we had, and that he had to learn not to sit on furniture. He must be crated. If I can say something in our favour, he does sleep 12 hours a night in his crate. Admittedly it’s on an old(ish) cashmere cardigan. During the day he’s very comfy on various chairs and sofas, specialising in wedging himself between me and my laptop. And although he was totally bemused by it for quite some time, he now mostly uses the dog door to go outside to pee. Not always. As egalitarians, we’re not very good at being top dog. He dines at four. That Book has been donated to the Vinnies.
There’s a purity to the relationship, and an ease — he’ll never be a critical teenager telling me I mucked him up, a husband who’s sick of my crabbiness.
He’s a sociable pup. After a few minutes in his company, family, friends, people at the dog park, people in the street, are saying Well aren’t you an energetic one? in the same tone that my mother used to describe me as “patient” when she observed me attempting to deal with a recalcitrant toddler. In his favour, he’s good with his species. He’s expert at prostrating himself when something with a wrestler’s shoulders, widely spaced legs and a studded collar hoves into sight (the ones whose owners always say is a gentle giant, wouldn’t hurt a fly, a real wuss, etc. etc.).
Actually, he’s a pleasure to take to the dog park. As a little fluffy dog himself he goes all shy with great big fluffy dogs, sniffing their bums with solicitous appreciation before moving to the other end to bestow a tentative kiss. He’s ecstatic when he sees a schnauzer because his true love Elke, our friends’ miniature schnauzer who passed on her crate, is one of those, and he loves border collies, even though Sunny, our grandpuppy, treats him with vague disdain and hoovers up his food while he stands helplessly by. I can say “Elke?” or “Sunny?” and he’ll be on his back legs looking hopefully out of the window. He loves being off-leash and speeding beside other dogs towards filthy puddles. A friend describes him as comical. I think he’s channelling my much loved late mother-in-law, famous for sharing a sideways look of incredulity when something surprised her.
Robert’s busy being an environmentalist so thank goodness Badger ignores birds. Kākā, tūī, even pīwakawaka sit in our trees and laugh at him. Our neighbours have a cat, and she (Purrsy) sits on their deck and mocks Badger. He’s on our deck, with his head jammed treacherously close to the palings; one push and he could be like one of those kids in a New Yorker cartoon, his head stuck, the fire brigade on their way. His extravagantly wagging tail shows that all he wants to be is friends, but her haughty silent demeanour taunts him. Her whole body says, As if. Dream on, buster, says her posture, as she gives her paw a derisive lick, you can’t get me, and she sits far longer than she needs to before giving a last little flick of her tail and wandering off. I’m at the mentally pleading stage — Oh just give him an inch! Go on, Purrsy, give him a lick! Even a little scratch!
Most mornings, or sometimes a little later, we have a walk. He loves Kelburn Village and Lambton Quay, where everyone tells him how gorgeous he is, and especially now that he can go down on the cable car. But on the best days, we go somewhere off-lead — our collective favourite is the dog park just off Happy Valley. It has a good circuit to walk, is sheltered, and loads of other dogs to be ecstatic with. He knows exactly who to bother.
During Auckland’s interminable lockdown there was an early-morning call to grand-daughter Flora, stuck at home with no school for weeks. He’s alerted by the particular sound of the ring, the phone’s screen switching to video, and he’s poised in close-up mode for Oh hi Badger. There’s playing with toys from his Toy Box — a curated collection of gifts and found treasures which can include a toilet brush, shower hat, a carved umbrella handle, the special piece of wood and tennis balls. Oh whoops, a library book. A fish that squeaks. A cow’s hoof (shudder shudder), the remains of a box of tissues. He gets a bit of a brush if we can pin him down — we try harder since being given a bollocking by the groomer for allowing him to become matted, the canine equivalent of nits and school sores.
It’s fascinating watching habits forming. Once a week, he exhibits true joy when the theme music to Country Calendar starts up. Pavlov would be impressed. Round 4.30 every afternoon he participates in Roll Call. A dog somewhere in the neighbourhood gives a long loud bark. Lance Corporal Badger Burgess leaps to attention. Eyes facing the window, ramrod back, paws on the sofa cushions, he gives a brisk bark in response. Present and correct, Sir! Ready for duty! But there’s our shameful casualness about what to lock up — he’s had the odd nibble of mouse poison, chicken with a bone, a square or two of chocolate. Elke’s vegan mum rang the vet when Elke ate some of her chocolate and explained it was 90 per cent dark and would this make the dog sick? And the vet said possibly, but only because it’s so revolting.
He’s changed my life. I’ve started to dream about him. One night recently I dreamt that I was finding him difficult to control and he ran away from me and suddenly there he was, at the wheel of a small, neat, electric car. He drove past me, sitting up so straight and true, carefully steering. I scurried helplessly after him, knowing I’d never be able to catch up. He was gone, but minutes later an SUV, one of those that farmers and people from expensive city suburbs drive, pulled up. Badger was on the knee of the woman in the passenger seat and the male driver leapt out and said, “Well that’s something I never expected to see in my lifetime.”
In these strange times, I think we have an extra need for attachment. We’re so sick of just each other. I know I’ve become a dog bore, I know that my love of the silky feel of him, the warmth of his head in the crook of my arm, the pleasure I get from his uncomplicated enthusiastic response, is primal. There’s a purity to the relationship, and an ease — he’ll never be a critical teenager telling me I mucked him up, a husband who’s sick of my crabbiness, a friend who feels I haven’t done the right thing by them. He’s given me something to think about, something to do. Since the babies grew up, no one else could be that delighted to see me in the morning. He looks thoughtfully at me, a face that resembles Einstein’s. He’s good for our marriage.
So he’s just had his first birthday, but I’m embarrassingly uncelebratory I’m afraid. No candle on his cow’s hoof. His present wasn’t cheap, the equivalent of the price of a reasonable bottle of wine: a pill that dealt simultaneously with worms and fleas. I’m assuming he’s like me, and likes gifts that are useful. I did go the extra mile though. I wrapped it in a very tasty little bit of smoked salmon.
Linda Burgess is an award-winning essayist. She lives in Wellington.
This story appeared in the February 2022 issue of North & South.