Family

My heart catches when I see my children care for Odie – the puppy I resisted for so long | Ranjana Srivastava

The gratification of an Indian mother at the words “I love your food” is matched by the dread of hearing “I am leaving home”, so when my 10-year-old wistfully announced that he couldn’t wait to move out, my maternal guilt peaked as I tried to figure out why.

In the world he inhabited, “every parent” imposed fewer screen restrictions and “no parent” ever expected a child to excel at school. These two assertions made it easy enough for his parents to point out that a combination of excessive screen time and no work seldom gave rise to the ability to move out of home.

But this time, his words sounded less wishful thinking and more genuine desire, moving me to ask why.

“So I can get a dog.”

After raising three children to the point of relative independence, all I saw was a fourth who would remain needy and dependant. And not for a moment was I fooled by, “You just have to get the dog, we will do everything.”

But given the profound fondness Australians have for pets, we simply couldn’t shake off the topic. Friends and the unlikeliest of relatives acquired dogs, sent cute photos and cuter videos, and casually remarked, “Get a dog, they’re so much fun!” But amid the occasional froth these comments ignited, I stayed resolute – we didn’t need a dog to complete our life – and the kids gave up.

Until the day their sibling voiced the fact that he couldn’t wait to move out of the house and they murmured their appreciation. Suddenly, the equation shifted: gain a dog or lose a child?

Then came the pandemic and, with it, a wonderful reprieve. Rescue homes were emptied of dogs and the cost of buying a puppy from a breeder soared. Every family driven mad by isolation wanted a dog and a hypoallergenic one – the kind we needed – cost a ridiculous $10,000! And then too, there was a waiting list nearly as long as the one for elective surgery.

Suddenly my statement of intent, “We can look into it,” was matched by a harrumphing disclaimer, “But I refuse to pay $10,000 for a dog!” Yes, love had a price.

I shared my dilemma with my friend who owned dogs, cats, ponies and birds (who probably found me weak for not owning even one pet) and she connected me to her breeder friend whose first ominous words were, “No child should grow up without a dog.” But then lamenting the extortionist pandemic pricing, he maintained that the right price for a puppy should not be outright unaffordable but one that made buyers pause for thought because there was nothing worse than a momentary indulgence quickly abandoned. I found his view so sensible and his love for dogs so endearing that I decided to visit him.

When the litter was born, we took a surprise trip to the countryside. I will confess that watching a gel-like mass of blind things clinging to their weary mother (while their father happily chased birds) resurfaced all my previous misgivings but it was too late. Amid squeals of delight, we anointed one of the unclaimed puppies as ours – the breeder put a tag on him and bid us return after eight weeks.

The child who wanted to move out of the house was allowed to name the dog. A fan of the cartoon character Garfield, he named the puppy Odie after Garfield’s friend. The choice was passed by unanimous resolution in an Irish-Indian household, where nothing happens unanimously.

Odie at three months
Odie at three months

At eight weeks and not a day later, Odie came home. I warmed to the breeder’s dim view of expensive training programs and his advice that dog owners must take responsibility for instilling the rules at a young age, which sounded just like parenting. So we kept an eagle eye on his propensity to pee on the good carpet and chew shoes in preference to his toys – and he soon learned.

One day Odie stole a grape. The vet said he could be fine, need dialysis or die without another window for intervention. I rued that it was the kind of useless “choice” I gave my cancer patients. After the $800 grape heist, we stopped buying grapes.

I am glad to say that my worst fears about dog care were not realised. The sink, dishwasher and laundry, loaded but inanimate, might groan for my children’s attention, but Odie is dutifully walked, washed and fed, and endlessly loved because he both demands and merits attention. There is a running joke in our house that I am jealous and resentful of a little dog who has become a big hit, but in truth my heart catches when, in the quiet of the night, I hear one of the kids telling Odie their day was better because of him.

We strive to parent our children in wholesome ways – I underestimated the added dimension of love and responsibility that a dog would teach mine. On a hot day, my daughter cut short her outing to check if Odie had enough water. When Odie was sick, her teenage brother made fresh broth and patiently fed it to him. Such acts of reciprocity are hard to manufacture and, if a dog quietly teaches my children how to give and receive love, I am all for it.

Odie turned one this week. You should have seen the toys and treats, although I drew the line at the high-top dog sneakers with matching socks.

My in-laws ended up with Odie’s cousin,Rory, who brings them unparalleled joy in retirement. My children no longer talk about leaving home because there is the vexed issue of who will take the dog. The obvious compromise is living together for a long time or being close enough to each other to freely visit. I am realistic enough to know that this might not hold true in the moder world but, if having a dog means knitting my children even closer together, it will be a mother’s prayer answered.

Happy birthday, Odie!

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