Dogged determination: How I convinced my mother to become a dog person

by Sharon Stephenson / 04 November, 2018

Illustration/Getty.

Pets made no sense to Sharon Stephenson’s immigrant mother, so her daughter’s pleadings and wheedlings for a puppy went ignored. But where there’s a will….

We were eight, going on nine, the year of the towelling shorts – those classic, rounded shorts edged with white piping that slicked high up the outside of our thighs, making us look (we thought) like Olivia Newton-John’s 80s roller-skating babe in Xanadu.

I pleaded, I bribed, I cried, but my mother refused to buy me a pair (“We can’t afford it and your brother’s hand-me-downs are just as good,” she’d say every time I asked). Fortunately, my neighbour Amanda had two – one lime green, the other a burnt-orange pair she lent me. We must have looked like human traffic lights as we moved through our suburban neighbourhood, noses streaked with sunblock, Amanda’s dog, Skippy, sidling behind us.

That small dog – and the orange shorts – were the only reasons I gave away my summer to Amanda; she was the original mean girl who stacked insult on top of rudeness on top of cruelty. (She once told me my skin was brown because I didn’t clean it well enough. Like a fool, I believed her, scrubbing at my legs with Mum’s hard-bristled laundry brush in the belief proper hygiene could change the colour.)

Amanda was short and blonde and swore a lot because, she said, she liked the way the words felt in her mouth. She was an only child, which meant she got things she wanted, like two (two!) pairs of towelling shorts and a dog that I adored.

Skippy was a terrier mixed with something yappy, his dirty blonde coat interrupted by a perfectly round whorl of tan fur halfway down his back. His lineage was a question mark: he existed only because one parent had broken through a poorly erected wire fence and found the other, a wandering stray.   

Amanda’s aunt, who lived in an even more unlovely suburb than ours, turned up one day wearing a floral dress and bruises, with five-month-old Skippy tucked under her arm. She was leaving her husband and couldn’t take the dog. So Skippy, who’d had three homes and three owners in his short life, came to live next door to me.      

I was electric with joy: I’d spent years wanting a dog, dreaming about having a puppy that would snuggle into the foot of my bed each night, play fetch with lurid green tennis balls and sit in my lap as I watched Diff’rent Strokes on television. True happiness, I believed, would be mine as soon as I owned a dog. Every vision I had for my life, up to that point and into the future, featured a dog at the centre of it.

Unfortunately, I was born to a woman who neither liked, nor saw the point of, dogs. An import from a hotter, more exotic country, she believed dogs had their place, and it wasn’t in our home. “Dogs are dirty, they shed hair and they ruin the house,” she would yell, as I cried that not owning a dog marked me out as different from my Kiwi friends.

It made no difference: where she came from, dogs were something to be avoided, or kicked when they got in the way. Mum was damned if that was going to change in her new life, halfway across the planet. “Immigrants and companion animals don’t go together,” she’d say. “We have enough trouble putting a roof over your head and food in your belly without another mouth to worry about.”

Her refusal to have a dog silenced even my father, who’d grown up with dachshunds and liked to tell the story of Jock, the last short-haired sausage dog in a string of them, who’d been poisoned by a rat. “Jock waited until I got home from work, looked me in the eye and then died,” he’d say, his throat thickening.

That was my father’s defence for a canine-free house: it’s too hard to get over a dog when they die.

They must have been perplexed by their younger daughter’s obsession: I wallpapered my room with spent SPCA calendars and was in thrall to every dog-owning friend who let me escape into a fantasy life that was better than my own. And while I may have broken up with Amanda, who had moved onto a different school and different friends, her dog and I were still very much an item.

Skippy would squeeze his low belly through a gap in the fence and sit at our back door, waiting for me to come out and bounce a ball against the breeze-block shed. When he’d had enough, he’d burrow his black nose into my leg as I lay reading on the grass, before falling into a deep doggy sleep, interrupted occasionally by tiny barks.

When I was 12, my parents bought their first house, across town from Skippy, and I had to say goodbye. The sheer savagery of the loss was such that, for a time, I gave up on dogs. I certainly gave up on asking my mother for one; perhaps I finally accepted it was a goal so unobtainable, there was no point in trying.

It wasn’t until my last year of university that I realised I was finally of an age where I could make my own decisions about pet ownership. My kind of doggy dedication required me to give a home to a rescue mutt, one that really needed me. So, unbeknownst to my parents, I rang shelters and the pound, trying to find a pet to fit my life and meagre budget.

Cujo.

A few weeks later, a dog control officer showed up at my parents’ house with a medium-sized collie-cross, his long coppery fur braided into dreadlocks. He’d been found wandering in the hills behind Wainuiomata and was scared and shivering. “I know you wanted a small dog, but we’re going to have to put this one down today if you don’t like him,” the officer said, her voice serrated by a 20-a-day cigarette habit.  

I’m sure I wasn’t the first person she’d used those words on, and I don’t even know if it was true, but they cracked something open inside of me. Even if the dog was aggressive, skittish or a bad egg, I would have to take him; the thought of a living creature being put to death because I didn’t like the cut of his jib was unfathomable to me.      

I named him Cujo (blame a teenage fascination with bad Stephen King novels) and he was, as it turns out, adorable, sweet and gentle. Grumpiness and aggression were not in his skill set and people smiled widely whenever they saw him.  

That included my family (“Move out of the way, Cujo needs the heater,” Dad would chide us). Even my mother’s radius of compassion grew: she realised the only way to adapt to the change was to give herself over to it. She learned how to share the same space as Cujo, even to scratch the spot behind his ears he liked so much. Slowly, eventually, my former dog-hating mother turned a blind eye to the 10kg ball of brown fur at the foot of my bed.

A year later, I got into journalism school and moved to Auckland. I couldn’t have taken Cujo with me even if I’d wanted: he had filled a hole in my family and become its focus. I once heard my mother boasting to a friend at church that hers was “the best behaved dog in the world”. Cujo lived until he was 16 and my parents cried as bitterly as I did when he came back from the vet in a body bag.

My elderly mother isn’t the kind to give away affection easily but these days, you can almost trip over her love for my dogs (I usually have at least one). She has a vaguely manic interest in them, addressing Christmas cards to the “granddoggies” and asking about them every time we speak.

Once, when she was feeding pieces of chicken to my dog under the table, I asked her why she changed her mind about dogs. She said it was because she saw how happy they made her children. “It went against everything I believed, but I knew it was right.”

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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