It has taken me a while to admit this, partly due to the shame but also because I’ve embarked upon something that I swore I never would. I’m having an illicit relationship behind my wife’s back. And the truth is, I’m a better person for it, even if it is another midlife crisis cliche. Calmer, kinder, less self-absorbed and emotionally incontinent, more loving, understanding and patient.
And when I admitted this all to my wife, she was thrilled at my secret life. ‘Of course you are, that’s one of the reasons we got the dog in the first place you idiot.’
Ziggy, our jet-black cockapoo, is my shameful secret. Shameful because for 45 years I’ve certainly been no dog lover. I mean, I really, really disliked them. Once bitten (aged four) never forgiven. I couldn’t stand their need for attention, their unbearable jauntiness and, their foul smells, their yearning to defecate whenever the moment took their fancy. And as if dogs weren’t bad enough, their owners were even worse – the smugness, the assumption that everyone should indulge their four-legged friend, the sense that an animal could so dominate their lives that real people came second. I came to view dogs as a requirement for emotionally-stunted people unable – or unwilling – to engage with the complexities of other humans.
And then Ziggy has come into my life – mischievous, cheeky, please-tickle-me Ziggy – and we now have this ‘thing’. A bond co close that we know when each other is moody, in need of a hug, when we want quiet time, when we’re happy or playful, when we have the urge to be naughty and how to soothe each other’s loneliness.
It comes as no surprise to me at all to hear the news yesterday that dogs are masters at intuiting human feelings. Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London, who will deliver this year’s Royal Institution Christmas lecture on the subject, says: ‘In the wild, dogs have very complicated social relationships. They live in the packs with a very rich social dynamic.” During the course of her lecture she will then go on to describe what today’s science has to say about human language and how much it has in common with the way animals talk to one another.
Despite my initial reluctance to embrace this new relationship, my dog has helped me to see myself in ways that most men – especially men, wrapped up in their careers, machismo and selfishness – do their utmost to avoid. Our feelings, how and when we engage with each other, the meaningless of our priorities, the emotional distances between ourselves that silently elongate the older and more set in our ways we become.
This won’t exactly be news to all you dog-lovers out there, but for someone who has spent his entire life avoiding dogs, it has been a revelation. ‘A dog is for life, not just for Christmas’ is the mantra so many families conjure with at this time of year, as they contemplate asking Santa for a new member of the family. I understand that now – a dog is for life. Our life. They enrich it, nurture it, help to reframe it.
Six months ago, if you had told anyone who knew me that I’d willingly sacrifice an hour or two of my business day to walk in the park, that my coat pockets would be filled with scrunched up poo-bags, that I’d casually turn up to meetings with muddied paw marks on my trousers and enthusiastically wake at 4am to make sure there were no in-crate ‘accidents’, they’d have laughed uproariously. Not Grant – he’s a dog’s worst enemy.
So how did this happen? There are two answers, the first is easy. I was bullied into it. My wife and the children have been nagging me for ages. When the kids were little, I brushed them off with the lame excuse (lie) that I was allergic to dogs. Still, with parents working 10-hour days not including the commute it would have been cruel to keep a pet locked up. Then of course GCSEs and A levels got in the way – you can’t have a dog and revise was my lame excuse (also lie).
And then a human-sized hole in our lives appeared a year or so ago when Amy, our eldest, left for Edinburgh University. Joel, her brother, was on his own, we were all of us pining for some other way to receive and provide affection. My working from home made things a little easier, but there were still some stipulations before agreeing: ‘It’ would need to be small-ish, couldn’t drop hair everywhere, wouldn’t yap all the time, would have to be lazy and display overt happiness even if I choose to ignore it for hours. Or days.
Then, just before August Bank Holiday, the third child we never had – skipped through the front door. Wailing at night, pooing at every opportunity, always famished and incessantly playful. I admit to feeling a couple of weeks of post-canine depression but every time the sentiment threatened to overwhelm me, two tiny plaintive eyes would meet mine, accompanied by a vigorous swish of the tail and a barely audible squeak. Please love me, it said. And I did. I do. I simply can’t think of another word for it.
I never thought Ziggy would do that, influence our lives in such a human way. The nature of this intense human-animal interaction and emotional bonding is the subject of a new book by John Bradshaw, a research fellow at Bristol University Veterinary School. In Among Us, he gives us a fascinating and scientific analysis of our love for our pets.
Bradshaw sees things in terms of evolutionary psychology: our brains were shaped to find affection for animals by natural selection. First, millions of years ago when we became hairless we found solace in stroking fur. Then, around 50,000 years ago, connections were made between areas of the human brain that analyse human and animal behaviour, allowing humans to see animals as “people”. Then, around 30,000 years ago, young women who showed an ability to care for animals were considered good marriage material. And by 20,000 years ago, society’s disgust at killing and eating personal animals such as dogs allowed domestication to flourish even during periods of famine.