Like a lot of couples, our dog was our practice baby. We chose her from a breeder and waited for her to be big enough to take home and practice our parenting on.
A couple of days before the Easter weekend we were due to collect her, we received news that two of our close friends – a married couple – had been killed in a car accident overseas. I remember gathering with mutual friends that first weekend: the grief new and ungainly, the stories that brought a bewildering scramble of tears and laughter, the photos that left us undone, the music our friends had made that we couldn’t listen to quite yet. And a clumsy, oblivious, fuzzy-haired pup, putting paws in her water-bowl and chewing the life out of sticks and falling asleep in laps. There she was in the midst of all that collective sorrow: the softest, sunniest, neediest thing you’ve ever seen.
We named her Frances after a character from one of my favourite childhood picture books. I adored that funny, golden little pup, with her exuberant nature and her unhealthy obsession with retrieving balls. Friends warned me that relationships with pets can change when kids arrive, but I was certain our dog would always be our first baby. And then, four and a half years ago, my daughter was born and I experienced something that far and away eclipsed any feelings I might have had for my dog. Nothing changes your perception of the world or asks for more of you than a tiny baby. Surely a heart expands to make room for multiple children, but in my experience, this may not quite extend to the dog. Frances never completely left my affections, of course, but she did get squeezed from her position near the centre of my heart to the tip of that pointy bit down the bottom.
Our dog is a trooper, as dogs usually are, and she accepted her new state of existence without fuss. Certainly, there are less cuddles now (unless you count very exuberant pats by an over-zealous toddler or attempts to corner her for the purpose of putting bonnets on her head by a four-year-old), and less beach trips (watching two small children next to a giant body of water is more than enough fun for these parents). She tolerates the ear tugging with the calm resignation of a saint, and knows that in the evenings she can doze on a mat in the lounge room, but must never make an attempt on the couch.
Frances seems to have adjusted her expectations, and in her post-human-children life, is remarkably content to receive a fleeting ear-scratch, delighted by a distracted five-minute throw of the ball, over-the-moon at a toddler-paced amble around the block. And in some ways, life has actually improved for this family dog: each night she sits under a certain high chair and morsels of human food rain down as if from heaven’s purse. She does ok, this dog of ours. She may have slipped down the ranks from our beloved baby to just a dog, but she’s an easy-going creature who takes most things in her stride. The one exception is storms.
Last week, just as I was putting my toddler to bed, I heard the first ominous rumblings of thunder. Thankfully my boy seemed adequately reassured by my comment that the thunder sounded like aeroplanes, and settled down in his cot, no doubt to dream of flying machines. However, the click, click of canine footsteps up the hallway towards his room had him on his feet and giggling in an instant. Frances stood at the doorway, bereft and pitiful. She knew that the kids’ bedrooms were strictly off limit for dogs at this time of night, but still her brown eyes beseeched me and she lifted her tail in a pathetically hopeful flutter. I led her back to her mat in the lounge and returned to settle my little boy. But five minutes later, his bedroom door swung open and there was Frances again, all apologetic but insistent licks and nuzzles. My boy thought “Francie” coming to visit was hilarious, and needless to say, bedtime took a while.
Toddler finally asleep, I settled down on the back deck and watched the storm roll in. The air was full and humming, and a blood red slash still lit the horizon. I watched the black sky crack like an eggshell; then peel back for an instant to show a glimpse of whitest white. Thunder snarled like an animal, while my dog cowered whimpering around my legs. Poor, poor Frances. She desperately wanted to be near me, but the fact that I was choosing to sit amid this barrage of deafening noise and blazing lights made no sense to her doggie brain. She ran in frenzied circles, leaping onto my lap, then jumping off and running inside, then back again to plead her case that we both go inside.
Eventually I relented and sat down on the couch in the lounge room, flicking on the TV to drown out the storm. Frances sprang gratefully onto my lap: the clingiest, cuddliest, neediest thing you’ve ever seen. Most of the time she’s just a dog, and bottom of the family pack. But in a storm – when she’s gripped by separation anxiety, demanding constant attention and begging to co-sleep – she slips back to being my first baby. And just for a little while, it’s kind of nice.