Thursday, 22 September 2011


“I want a dog.”
“OK, then you should get a puppy.”
“No, I don’t want the hassle of training a puppy. I want an off-the-shelf, ready-to-go, adult dog. And one that has had a full medical at the rescue centre.”
“Hmm… Well, I still think that what you need in your life is a puppy.”

My friend and I had this conversation a few times. If we were out together and saw a young dog pulling at its leash he would point to it, smile knowingly and intone: “A puppy.” Oscar knew me well and was very intuitive. But I was beginning to get annoyed by his insistence. I didn’t want a puppy and that was that!

I was living in Tucson, Arizona at the time. I lived alone, worked from home and had a lot of control over my schedule. My small rented house had a back yard and there was a communal area in front shared by the other single-storey, adobe houses. A fence surrounded the whole complex and many of the renters had pets. A medium sized, mature, well-behaved dog would provide me with some company and force me to take more exercise. There was a neighbourhood park just up the road and a dry riverbed nearby where I could walk a dog for miles. I decided to go to the rescue centre the next Monday.

Late Sunday evening there was a knock on my door. It was my next door neighbour. Cradled in her arms was what at first I took to be a fluffy black hat. “Hi. I have just come back from a camping trip in the White Mountains and look what I found there. This little critter was scavenging in a trash tip. He was such a mess I had to take pity on him. I couldn’t just leave him there, but with my crazy work schedule there’s no way I can take care of him. I know you have been thinking of getting a dog so I thought you might like to adopt him.”

She opened her arms and a pair of soft brown eyes peered at me with a mixture of interest and fear. The ears were bald from scratching and the coat was mangy. “The poor thing had a piece of wire tied around his tail when we found him. God only knows what cruelty he has suffered. I think his short life has been pretty tough.” After a pause, she offered him to me to hold, “How about it?”

A part of me - my stern Rational self - was horrified, telling me very clearly not to be swayed by her emotive words. But as I held the little guy and felt his thin, bony body, my heart melted. He seemed so vulnerable and alone in the world. “Give me time to think about it,” I replied.

Later that evening Oscar came by. “You see, I told you. It’s fate. Of course you have to adopt him!” And so it was that Bip came into my life. He cost me an arm and a leg in veterinary bills - de-worming, de-lousing, antibiotics, vaccinations. I had to toilet-train him and put up with chewed chair legs and other damage to household objects. No one knew for sure, but the best guess was that he was a Retriever-Newfoundlander mix. As the months passed he grew ever larger, his increasingly long black hair clinging to carpet and cushions whenever he moulted.

I had just come across Voice Dialogue and was slowly becoming aware of my inner cast of characters - the ones that ran my life and the ones that were more buried. I soon realised that Bip was my disowned Wild Child - high energy, confident, outgoing, inquisitive, risk taking. My primary selves - my Rational Mind, Pusher, Pleaser, Organiser and Planner - knew they had to take charge of him or he would run amok.

My mother once told me that soon after I was born, when it was clear she wouldn’t be able to have any more children, my father made the following pronouncement: “John is an only child and we are not going to spoil him.” I watched myself follow this injunction with Bip. I set strict limits around playtime. I would romp and tussled with him and play tug of war with an old slipper. But then with his excitement revving up, I would feel a powerful urge to disengage. “That’s enough for today,” my inner Strict Father would say and I would pull back my energy and focus instead on answering emails or quietly reading a book. My father had done the same to me when he had withdrawn to his office and busied himself with church matters. He had been the organist and choirmaster as well as treasurer on the parish council and his free time was rationed. Part of me empathised with Bip as he looked at me with those doleful eyes, willing me to carry on playing. But my Strict Father was resolute and would not be won over.

Control was a big issue between us - especially when Bip was selectively deaf to my commands. If he didn’t stay when he was told or come when I called him, I would feel a pang of anxiety, immediately followed by a smouldering anger. He would look at me for a second as if to say, “You’re kidding. No way!”, and then be off, leaving me barking helplessly, “Come here when I tell you to!!” When I finally got him back on the leash my Controlling Father would scold him for being so disobedient. Bip would act contrite for a while, head down and tail between his legs, but pretty soon his tail would be up, his eyes sparkling and he would be on the look out for the next adventure. Secretly my buried Rebel admired and adored him, willing him to cut loose whenever he got the chance.

When I gave him treats, groomed him or told him how handsome he was, I would feel my Nurturing Mother glow inwardly. But this would always be accompanied by twinges of guilt - I was after all breaking the golden rule and spoiling him. My self-esteem would be affected by people’s reactions to him. If someone ignored him I would feel upset - as if I had been personally shunned. On the other hand, when people petted and admired him for being such a handsome and clever dog, I would hear my Proud Parent say to himself “That’s my boy!”

Bip met the love of his life when he was two years old. Esperita was a giant Airedale whose owner, Michael, lived in a big house on the very edge of town in the Tucson Mountains. They bonded the first time they met and seemed destined for each other. Walking the two of them in the desert or in the town I felt an amazing sense of pride - as if my “son” had found the perfect “daughter-in-law”! I doted on her even as I remained stern with him. When I left the USA, Bip went to live with Michael and Esperita. Aged fourteen, he ended his long life in very different circumstances to the way he had started out, as that poor, abandoned mutt.

Bip was my teacher and Oscar’s intuition had been absolutely right - taking care of this little being was just what I had needed in order to learn more about my inner selves. Now, twenty years later, I have a weird feeling of déja vue. I have a house in London with a garden, a stable home life, and my schedule is my own. I am thinking about getting a dog. As before, my first thought is to adopt an adult rescue dog. Uncannily my partner’s response is: “What we need is a puppy!”