A man’s best friend

'If I was sad, he knew, and would come and sit with me quietly, occasionally giving me a little affectionate head-butt as if to remind me he was there for me, that I mattered to him.' Anna Robinson remembers her canine companion.

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As a child, I developed a strange habit: whenever I wanted anything, I would make a PowerPoint. My younger self had a compulsion to set out an argument that developed over twenty slides, replete with rainbow gradient backgrounds and fancy transitions. I would then come downstairs and solemnly ask my family to convene in the living room for some important business; I would present my masterpiece in all seriousness and await my parents’ verdict. When I was ten I successfully persuaded them to take my brother and I to CenterParcs. Intoxicated by the sense of omnipotence this victory gave me – an ability to momentarily topple the power dynamics of the family unit to get my own way – these PowerPoints were henceforth prolific. I think my parents must have been secretly laughing at me, but whatever it was, something worked. If I wanted something I didn’t pout or cry; I retreated to my father’s study and made a presentation.

One day I set my sights on my biggest task yet. I wanted a dog. I gathered my family in the living room and went through my carefully prepared slides. I got my brother to hand out accompanying visual aids (cute puppy pictures I’d found on Google). I even drew up a contract which I was willing to sign, pledging to walk the dog every day, clear up its mess, love it forever, etc. My parents said no. I stopped making PowerPoints and told them I would never speak to them again, then probably went to my room and cried.

It wasn’t until a year later, when we moved to the countryside, that my parents changed their minds. It was a compelling need to fit in with the local residents, rather than my immaculate PowerPoint, that made the difference. We moved to a place with more pets than people; every single one of my neighbours has a dog.  Acquaintances are recounted in relation to their animal: ‘you know – Smudge’s owner’. On walks, dog is invariably greeted before the human. Christmas cards are signed by every member of the family – including the dog, often in a different handwriting that attempts to emulate some form of canine cursive. As a teenager I earned more money dog-sitting than baby-sitting.

Initially, I think it was mostly a desire to be socially visible that my parents rescued a three year old Jack Russell called Freddie. Over the years I watched my parents, previously cat-people who hated mess, become absolutely enraptured by this four legged, fourteen kilogram animal. Every morning I could hear my dad go downstairs and talk to the dog while he made his breakfast, asking how he slept, what his day was looking like, did he have any strange dreams? I doubt my dog had complete comprehension as to what my dad was saying – but dogs do have a talent for understanding; it is usually just an ability to perceive what is beyond words. I always thought my dog could feel how I was feeling. If I was sad, he knew, and would come and sit with me quietly, occasionally giving me a little affectionate head-butt as if to remind me he was there for me, that I mattered to him. In peak A-Level stress season, my mum had two ports of call for advice: ‘do some exercise’ or ‘go sit with the dog’. The latter was always the preferable. In very basic scientific terms, I believe this was because time with pets is said to increase levels of oxytocin (a stress-reducing hormone) and decrease the production of cortisol (a stress hormone which I discovered in abundance alongside my Chemistry A-Level). 

Essentially, in a world that is full of complexities, stresses and changes, one constant is canine affection. Every time they see you, you are the most important person in something’s life. Imagine feeling like that every time you walk through the door. I think we all have some innate narcissism that tells us we are the centre of the universe – a system of belief that is ironed out by existence in what my parents term ‘the real world’. But to Freddie I really was the centre; his existence seemed to orbit around loving his family. And when he sneezed it was so cute my heart would hurt.

Whenever Freddie got overexcited, he would run outside and chase his tail – once or twice he even caught it. He would sit on your feet under the dinner table because he didn’t like to touch the cold tiles. He ran in his sleep. He always had the hiccups when we were watching television. When we walked along the sea, on a promenade about two metres above it, he would sprint along the edge, barking at the unremitting waves.

When my twin brother and I went off to university, my mother worried about empty nest syndrome. I think she coped by turning the dog even more emphatically into her baby. When we returned after the first semester, we were shocked to find her pushing him around in a pram. He had started having trouble walking, and the vet suggested this so that he could still get out and see the world. He was still very happy, but by now he was an old dog and needed a lot of care. For the last several months of his life, my parents put as much on hold as they could to spend time with him. Some relatives and friends found this difficult to understand – surely he’s just a dog? But Freddie was part of the family. I think a lot of it was gratitude; this dog had enriched our lives since the day we got him. But how can you say thank you to a creature that doesn’t understand gratitude? Loving us was just something he did.

When I made that PowerPoint I was desperate for a dog – I thought it would provide an endless source of cuteness and bragging rights over my pet-less friends (I was a very mean-natured eleven year old). I envisioned dressing it up, teaching it tricks and frolicking in a couple of sunflower fields. I wanted a golden retriever: I would call it Princess. Instead we got Freddie – he didn’t like wearing bandanas, and could just about manage to ‘sit’ when bribed. But I am so grateful for him. He simply made every day that bit happier.