Writer Amy Swales on the healing power of pups, and why we shouldn’t be ashamed of our pets holding such an important place in our lives.
I took my dog, Charlie, to a friend’s pub gathering a few years ago. Not unusual – hold a party in a pub and I’ll probably check if my dog is welcome too then we’ll all have a lovely time. Including Charlie, who would much rather be with me or my husband than at home on his own, especially if it’s a place where he gets to hoover up attention and dropped snacks.
This particular gathering, however, we were treated to the unsolicited opinions of a fellow guest who held forth on the psychology of dog ownership – in particular, those owners who bring their pets out with them. They, he drawled, smirking, were so defective in the art of conversation that they needed a furry prop, and what’s more, said prop was a barrier to genuine human interaction (yeah, he’s dead now).
What that guy embodied, other than the gaslighting ghost of exes past, was the notion that dog owners must have something missing in their lives. These people, many think, need a dog’s unconditional love because they cannot find it elsewhere.
They are unimaginative, boring and – much like the ‘cat lady’ tropes – probably use their animals as replacement or practice children. Especially if they (shockingly) bring them out in public, apparently.
We take Charlie out with us because we love him and he’s part of our family. We were very happy before we got him, and we’re very happy now we have him.
Rather than plug a gap, he has enhanced our lives (as I may have mentioned once or twice before) and I’m not ashamed in the least to say that those times when life hasn’t been so fun, we have leaned on him and he has given us support and healing in spades. And I’m genuinely sorry that people such as pub man will likely never get to experience that.
The actual emotional and health benefits of dog ownership are well documented, not least by myself (I didn’t think I had a mission to spread The Word of Charlie but perhaps I do), and so to the personal, the anecdotal.
I almost can’t handle how glib it sounds to say that our dog – our quirky, gentle, ridiculous rescue Staffie – has played such a big part in dragging us back into the light through difficult times, notably our struggles with fertility. But he has.
Not just forcing us out of bed in the mornings, into the park, into the outside (though this cannot be underestimated) but providing peace, comfort and happiness.
Having had a minor operation, I hid under a duvet for hours and he rested his head on my stomach like a living hot water bottle. During teary conversations, he’d seek out my knee and nudge me repeatedly with force, tail wagging furiously until I paid him attention.
After the hard days, hospitals and anaesthetics and sadness, the three of us would find ourselves on the sofa, legs everywhere, half dozing while something mindless flashed away on the telly. My husband and I would know without discussion if it was a day that required Charlie’s solid, warm, fairly annoying presence at the end of our bed that night (I, for one, was not previously aware how sharp a dog’s elbows can be but there we are).
We don’t expect everyone to love him like we do and we wouldn’t assume that he’s welcome in anyone’s home without asking, but most friends and family seem to be fans.
Such fans, in fact, that he came with us to a wedding once – both the ceremony and the reception. It was so warming to know that others recognised how much he meant to us, and whether they realised or not, especially at that point; facing a wedding we almost declined because of yet another due date that wouldn’t end with a baby, facing time with our friends and their beautiful families, facing the possibility of never having that ourselves.
Maybe to some guests, seeing others pose for family pictures while we gurned next to a Staffordshire bull terrier wearing something like a tux was pitiful, confirmation of sad people in need.
But truth be told, dear readers, we gave not one toss. It was joyous having him with us at that wedding, and joyous seeing the pleasure he brought to others.
Because that is something else he brings – happiness to other people and, directly contradicting pub guy’s disparaging assumptions, constant social interaction.
For every person who recoils on the bus, there are several more whose days are clearly made by meeting a well-behaved dog on public transport. We know neighbours from streets over that we never would have met without him, found community groups we may have missed if we weren’t in the park every day.
It swells my heart to know that a couple I met one morning were so enamoured by Charlie that our chat tipped them into deciding they would also adopt a Staffie from Battersea in his honour.
To us, it is relatively straightforward. A pet, especially a dog, prods you into getting up and putting food in a bowl, forces you out, makes you think about somebody else. The purity of their uncomplicated joy is a genuine tonic (try maintaining a standard workaday grump in the face of canine enthusiasm) while in the harder times, there’s comfort to be found in their concerned nudges and heavy form giving you a dead leg as you cry.
He’s not perfect. He barks like a cliché when the post comes and sometimes I’ll realise something has been drilling away at the back of my head like an irritating song on repeat and realise the bloody dog has been pacing the room and clicking his nails on the laminate floor for hours. He is occasionally capable of releasing the foulest wind in silence, something you’ll only notice once it spreads like a cloud from under the pub table (yet his look of surprise, horror and disgust at a human fart is one you’ll tell your therapist about).
We’re not perfect either. But I do not feel ashamed, silly or pathetic discussing what he means to us. In fact, I feel nothing but lucky.
Images: Amy Swales / Andrea and Federica Tappo