When I got married to Andrew, 18 years ago, we used to fantasise about our future life together. Our dreams were inspired by River Cottage and featured an idyllic countryside location and some children, but largely focused on the animals that would live with us. We imagined hens, ducks, dogs and a pig truffling in the apple orchard.
Fast-forward and we’re living in suburbia with our two sons. Our garden, large by suburban standards, has been home to up to 7 hens. We loved their eggs and their quirky characters, but over the years, they got increasingly raucous at 5 o’clock in the morning. Although our neighbours never complained, I felt embarrassed. So the hens moved on, some to their heavenly roosting posts, others to friends further out.
With a pig out of the question, my youngest son and I mounted a campaign for a puppy, and last August, she arrived. A gingery-yellow working Labrador of Irish and English pedigree, we called her Nala, inspired by the female lioness in the Lion King.
It’s great for kids to have the relationship with a pet and learn how to take responsibility for looking after another living thing. But if I’m honest, the main reason for getting a dog was entirely selfish on my part. Having left a full-time role in London for freelance life based at home, I found I could sit at my laptop for six hours straight and not take care of my own needs for rest, exercise or proper meals during the day. I realised that something needed to change.
Thanks to Gretchen Rubin, the American author of “The Happiness Project”, I found the key to make change happen. Gretchen is tireless in her quest to try out methods to improve life and report back on her experiences. Her most recent book, “Better than Before”, describes how to stop bad habits and start new, better ones. Her insight is that there isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ foolproof method to changing your life. First you have to understand your own character, and then choose the methods that work best for your personality type.
According to her book, I’m an “Obliger” – the kind of person who is highly motivated to meet other people’s needs and expectations, but very poor at following through on things I’d like to do for myself. (You can find out your typology here). Getting a dog was a way of forcing me to take care of myself, by taking care of her. And it has worked!
Nala can sleep peacefully by my desk for two or three hours, and then she needs some playtime or a walk along the towpath. I haven’t laughed so much since my kids were little, as I’ve chased her around the garden or played tug-of-war with a rope. I now talk regularly to my neighbours who I meet in the street or the park, and feel more connected to the community. My fitness is increasing as I stride up and down the riverbank. As I watch her, I appreciate the joy she takes in physical experiences – sniffing and smelling, running and rolling, being tickled and stroked. Who knows what she thinks or dreams as she lies on her dog bed, but she leaves that all behind as she heads out to the park and riverside.
To be honest, I feared the tedium of doing the same old walk every day, but I’m appreciating the subtle differences each outing brings. This morning I saw a half moon setting in the blue sky, red rosehips ripening in the hedgerow, and heard a sudden burst of bird song. Finally, as I turned back into my street, I was treated to a fleeting rainbow over the river as the rain clouds blew away.
At the end of the movie “A Dog’s Purpose”, the narrator, a dog, reflects on the lessons of his (five) lives. “Have fun, obviously… Don’t get all sad-faced about what happened and scrunchy-faced about what could. Just be here now. Be. Here. Now.” From my own experience of dog ownership, I’d say that’s a pretty good lesson that I’m trying to learn too.
By Jacky Parsons