Should you have a dog or a baby?

The Irish Mail on Sunday - TV Week - - CONTENTS - anne.gildea@mailon­sun­

I read some­where that child­less women of a cer­tain age should con­sider get­ting a cat or dog as a fo­cus for their ma­ter­nal en­ergy. That ad­vice seemed vaguely threat­en­ing to me. Like, what if you don’t? Will the un­re­leased ‘ma­ter­nal en­ergy’ build up un­til, one day, pass­ing a Mother­care, you’ll sim­ply ex­plode? Well, pass the puppy. Who wants that kind of em­bar­rass­ment, not to men­tion death?

Me, ev­i­dently, be­cause I find the thought of hav­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for an­other crea­ture so in­tim­i­dat­ing — how to un­der­stand their lim­ited com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills when they’re try­ing to con­vey that some­thing’s not okay; the pres­sure of mak­ing sure there’s a tin of some­thing in the press to shove their way when they’re hun­gry; not to men­tion hav­ing to pet them con­tin­u­ally, to re­as­sure them that you really, lovey-dove them, the lit­tle inar­tic­u­late fluff bun­nies. It’s just like hav­ing a hus­band, I imag­ine.

Maybe it’s a mea­sure of my com­mit­ment pho­bia that apart from never be­ing able to even imag­ine be­ing set­tled with a spouse and kid­dies — let alone ever hav­ing been close to achiev­ing it — the thought of hav­ing re­spon­si­bil­ity for so much as a small, lov­ing an­i­mal fills me with panic. And that’s not cast­ing veiled as­per­sions on ver­ti­cally chal­lenged chaps; it’s a way of say­ing I ad­mire peo­ple who can do the pet thing.

Like my sis­ter. I’ve men­tioned be­fore that she’d been look­ing for a house for years. I kept say­ing ‘wait’, as I pe­rused the ev­i­dence of on­go­ing price fall. Even­tu­ally, she found a prop­erty, in the area she wanted, at a price, amaz­ingly, that she could af­ford. The kind of place that, as one of our friends pointed out (in a uniquely Ir­ish com­bi­na­tion of con­grat­u­la­tory mo­rose­ness), ‘you’ll be car­ried out of in a box’. I say ‘amaz­ingly’ be­cause it’s the kind of mod­est semi-D that at the height of the boom went for three times the price she paid for it. I wrote about that very house here, ac­tu­ally, won­der­ing if she was ever go­ing to make the pur­chase-leap. Happy to re­late, she did. Yet, af­ter all that, and the up­grad­ing she un­der­took, I still looked at it and thought: this isn’t an end in it­self but a ground­ing for a life. It takes more than four freshly painted and plas­tered trendy walls to build con­tent­ment. So, in ac­quir­ing her house, my sis­ter got what she wanted, and then she got what she really wanted: a dog.

I was soon re­call­ing what the Amer­i­can au­thor Elizabeth Gil­bert said about hav­ing a child:

‘Will your un­re­leased ma­ter­nal en­ergy build up un­til one day, pass­ing by a Mother­care, you’ll sim­ply ex­plode?’

‘Hav­ing a baby is like get­ting a tat­too on your face. You really need to be cer­tain it’s what you want be­fore you com­mit.’ The first few weeks af­ter he moved in, OMG, she was in shock. Shock-like-there’s-sud­denly-a-baby-in-my-life shock. ‘I don’t think I can take the re­spon­si­bil­ity,’ she’d worry to me, as her ter­rier-cross mutt stared need­ily up at her, all the time.

On her first day out walking him, he got threat­ened in a park by two free-roam­ing Dober­mans. As her new charge strained and trem­bled on his lead, she didn’t know what to do; she felt as fright­ened as him. Even talk­ing him for walks be­came a source of anx­i­ety. My sis­ter was fur­ther un­nerved when Patch (he has a name) had end­less con­tretemps with dogs in the park near her new home and shocked that her lit­tle cud­dle mutt could be so ag­gres­sive — like hav­ing your bonny baby pull out nunchucks and turn a heart-warm­ing walk­a­bout about into a scene from Love/Hate.

Grad­u­ally, as he has set­tled into his new home, with his new mis­tress, he’s be­come more se­cure, con­fi­dent and self- con­tained, and his sweet na­ture is the same in­side and out­side the house. See the way I’m talk­ing about him? That’s dogs for you — their loyal, licky de­light al­ways at see­ing you, their hap­pi­ness if you tickle their tum­mies, the way they eye­ball you and draw you into their doggy re­al­ity. What ex­tra­or­di­nary an­i­mals, so at­tuned to com­mu­ni­ca­tion with an­other species — us. (I’m strain­ing not to make the ‘just like men’ al­lu­sion again, hon­est.)

Patch could eas­ily be a movie mutt with his one- ear- up/one- down/ head- side­ways way of look­ing at you, and ea­ger­ness to do any trick you care to teach him for a treat. ( My favourite: his ver­sion of the ‘high five’.) He gets his own ‘Hi, Patch’ greet­ing from Una’s neigh­bours now. Through him, she’s got to know all the other dog own­ers in the area. Down the park they have long chats about ca­nine psychology while mar­vel­ling at their in­tel­li­gence as they run around sniff­ing each other’s butts. (The dogs, not the neigh­bours.)

The DSPCA have just launched their Adopt, Don’t Buy Christ­mas cam­paign, so if it’s ma­ter­nal urges you’re try­ing to thwart, a gift you’re giv­ing, or you’re sim­ply, like my sis­ter, a softie for dogs, re­mem­ber the res­cue-cen­tre route. Patch is a res­cue dog (Una got him through dogsindis­ He’s a gem. I look at the pair of them to­gether now — and see two best friends.

The Nualas, Hawk’s Well, Sligo, 30 Novem­ber

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