Sunday 27 March 2022

11 things having a dog of my own has taught me

Inis turns four in May. He has been in my life for four years. That basic fact will forever baffle me. Thirty seven kilos, thirty eight after a long Irish winter, he is a pointer labrador cross. His back is a jet black ridge with flecks of foxy ginger in summer time, with swirls of grey and white brindle underneath and along his legs. He looks like he’s been dipped upside down in paint. Long athletic limbs are coupled with a road-block labrador chest, long nose, firm jaw and delicate ears that bounce up and down when he speedwalks. He snacks on carrots as a treat, makes friends with every old lady waiting at a traffic light and is the most loyal being on the planet. And the strangest thing of all is that he is mine. Here are eleven things having a dog has taught me.

  1. Having your own dog is not the same as growing up with one.

Growing up with an assorted wolf pack, I thought I knew fully what I was getting into when I adopted Inis from a rescue shelter in Spain. As a toddler, I would sneak off to take a nap in the dog box with our springer spaniel, Gretel. I would bribe her with leftover toast and smush my face into her neck and snooze. As a teenager, our dogs soothed my anxiety with walks and attention. When you have your own dog, the buck stops with you. Vet bills, dog walks in the rain in November, vaccinations, toilet training, puppy proofing and early morning walks all land on your lap. The practical and financial responsibility is intense. One look at his face and it’s worth it.

  1. You will never walk more than when you have a dog.

It’s 6.45am. The alarm goes off but you roll over for five more minutes. Except there’s a dog tongue swiping for your face because his body clock is more accurate than any digital alarm and he is ready to walk! As someone who allowed my mood to dictate my activity level for years, having a dog removes that as an option in your life. Inis needs to be walked, every day, three times a day. So we walk. My step counter told me this morning that I have just 183km left until I’ve walked the length of the Sahara desert. In the last six months. 

  1. Having a dog who wants to go outside so much is a blessing in disguise

We have gone out in rain, hail and shine. I have learnt to notice the change of seasons, track the sunrise and sunset times, heard birdsong when there was no traffic to drown it out and found that, no matter where we lived, there was something beautiful waiting for us on every walk. There are gloomy January days where the sky is a dome of grey and the rain is so horizontal that I feel like I’m in a waterproof clothing test factory but when we come home, I feel refreshed, energized and proud that I was responsible and didn’t let him down. 

  1. Surprising yourself in how responsible you can become

I track his vaccinations and vet check ups on my calendar now. I have never missed a dog walk in four years. I have never decided before bed that I’m not bothered to take him outside for a walk so he can do his business. He is cared for, loved, has toys and comfortable bed. He has my attention and love and he knows daily that he is safe. When we moved to New Zealand, I tracked every single aspect of his travel requirements in an excel sheet. A friggin excel sheet. I do more for him and his quality of life than I ever did for myself and in doing so, have learned to be responsible for myself. 

  1. Newfound appreciation for free time, late mornings and holidays

Remember those nights out that resulted in sleeping in until after noon? The ones where you would casually get up, shower and then go for brunch or a run or swim or check out the local farmer’s market? Or those last minute holidays you’d take when you found a cheap flight? Or changing your mind and crashing at your friend’s house over the weekend because you were having such a great time and could go home in the morning for a change of clothes? Goodbye my friends. Hello accountability. Holidays are planned in conjunction with my dog sitter, late mornings are a distant memory and free time is scheduled. I don’t regret any of it. My appreciation for the time off I do have is immense and the reunion cuddles are worth it.

  1. Meeting people you would have never noticed before

There’s Jim & Fiona and their dog Meg. Holly and Chris and their dog Bindi. Adrian and Burgu and Kimchi. Christine and Lenny. Alicia and Ziggy. These friends and their dogs have become integral to my quality of life, joy, wellbeing and shared interest in watching our dogs run around after each other. You will have the most incredibly profound philosophical conversations with random people in the park. I would have never known the pleasure of getting to know so many incredible folks if I didn’t have my sidekick with me.

  1. Discovering an insight into your parenting style

When me and my ex were still together, we had talked about having kids. We dreamed of being great co-parents and spoke frequently about the type of parents and family we wanted to be. There were aspects to our dog co-parenting that were memorable and I will always savour. I was nurturing and empathic, focussed on well-being but also on date nights and personal space. He was routine-driven, reliable, focussed and disciplined. There were also clashes, miscommunication, mixed messaging, comparisons between my dog and his and different opinions about things like boundaries and if the dogs were allowed on the bed or not. Having a dog will unearth values and habits you didn’t know you had about parenting.

  1. Learning to understand boundaries in a whole new light

You will say “no” a lot, especially in the puppy phase and you will hate yourself sometimes and the disciplinarian mindset you need to adopt at certain points in your dog’s life and/or day. Healthy boundaries are vital for any healthy relationship and your dog, no matter how well behaved, will test them. My biggest lesson is that boundaries are also about saying “yes”, encouragement is a component of setting healthy limits and dogs are incredible at learning to respect and find comfort in those limits. Your relationship with your dog is an excellent practice tool for other relationships in your life. 

  1. Becoming more mindful 

All we have is now, today, this moment. Each walk outside is a chance to stop and notice the flowers, trees, evil seagull and new sounds. Inis frequently stops to smell, look and, if some food has fallen on the ground, taste the word around him. When he was a puppy, I was frustrated. “Let’s go!” was a well-used phrase of mine at the time. Now, I set more time aside for our outings. We walk, we stop, we look and admire. It fosters creativity, perception and mindfulness. 

  1. Appreciating your parents as dog owners

As a kid, you didn’t see the vet bill. You didn’t know the particulars of your pet’s illness. You didn’t have to walk the dog because as a kid you didn’t feel like it or got bored. They bought the dog food, tracked the annual vaccinations and picked up the poop. It is a daily, ongoing and often relentless task to care for your own dog. It brings newfound appreciation for all your parents did growing up with a veritable zoo of dogs, cats, guinea pigs and floppy-eared rabbits. Thank your parents. Give them a hug.


  1. Every day is a fresh start 

Inis loves life. Every morning, the alarm goes off and he gets out of bed and saunters over to mine. He knows the second alarm goes off in ten minutes and he is allowed up for a cuddle. He wiggles his bum and wags his tail, licks my face or arm and then turns around to be my little spoon. When the second alarm goes off, I get up and he stretches out, smiling a crooked smile before sitting up and nuzzling his head into my chest. He bounces off the bed and downstairs for our morning walk. He does this every single day with the same joy, intensity and love as the one before. He is goofy for sure but also a little zen master. He understands the meaning of appreciation for the good life, he knows he is loved, and he spends the day expressing appreciation for that. Everyday is a new opportunity to love the world and fully be in it. Inis is the daily reminder of that embodied joy.