I awaken from a deep sleep to the sensation of someone licking my back. My first thoughts are:
1) This is not unpleasant.
2) This is not my boyfriend. The tongue is too long and sloppy. The source is this year’s other love: Bobo, the mutt with a beard.
As I turn over, she cuddles into my belly like a live teddy bear. It’s not a bad way to be woken up. Later I’m typing at my home desk, looking out over the skyscrapers of Shanghai where we live, and a furious squeaking interrupts my thoughts. It’s Bobo with a toy in her mouth. “You’ve been working for long enough!” her wild eyes say. “It’s time to play!”
The most surprising thing that’s happened to me this year is that I’ve become a dog owner. In January I started working from home, which was surprising in itself. Potential daytime loneliness plus the desire to help the stray animals of Shanghai — plus my boyfriend’s love of dogs — combined to draw us to an animal adoption day in a rainy parking lot in February.
I’d heard it was possible to foster a homeless dog, but I was naively unaware of the emotional contract of dog ownership. Animal lovers (“rescuers”) with two or three dogs at home already paraded an assortment of pooches who’d been found on the street or whose families had moved overseas. Their leashes were adorned with bright yellow flags reading “Take me home.”
Overwhelmed by the air of desperation and guilt, I half-heartedly took a tiny dog for a walk. But I never saw myself with a handbag-sized companion.
Then I saw Bobo, a Terrier cross with black hair sprouting out at odd angles, especially around her beardy face, atop a white tuxedo-shirt belly. I crouched down to say hello. As she laid her head between my knees and looked up at me with her big brown eyes, something passed between us. It was my first experience of love at first sight. ”What do you think of this one?” I said nonchalantly to my boyfriend. Nik had to be fully invested in our choice of dog; I thought he would be the primary caregiver because his family had dogs when he was a kid.
Bobo trotted obediently at his side as he took her for a stroll, and I could tell he was warming to her. This mutt was calm and good-natured, without the jumpy air of some of the others.
Meanwhile, Bobo’s rescuer, who had looked after her since she was abandoned in a pet shop, spoke loudly and continuously in heavily accented Chinese with little concern for those of us who didn’t understand her. Shen Ayi (Aunty Shen), as she said we should call her, decided I looked like Queen “Eleeaba” (Elizabeth). She became misty-eyed when she saw Bobo in our arms, presumably imagining that her pup would live like a royal Corgi with two English owners.
Before long we were manhandled cheerfully into a cab by Shen Ayi and suddenly it was just us and the five-month-old puppy in Nik’s arms. The enormity of responsibility hit us and we sat in stunned silence. I couldn’t remember agreeing to take her home; it just happened.
Straightaway Nik realized that although he loved his family’s German Shepherds when he was a kid, it was much easier having a dog when your parents were taking care of the boring stuff like feeding, training, and walking — that is, everything apart from playing. He soon became addicted to doggie web forums, printing out lists of what she can and can’t eat and quoting Cesar Millan at every opportunity.
In the first week I developed PPD, post-puppy depression. I felt great sadness at the idea that we might fail in this duty of care and have to give her up for someone else to look after. But the alternative was even more hard to comprehend — that we would keep her for what might be the full 15 years of her life.
Aged 30 and living abroad, I had no idea what I’d be doing next year, let alone in five or 10 years. I was used to spending my weekends swanning round shops and cafes, but now I couldn’t just pop into a boutique when something caught my eye. I had to consider apologetically entering with the dog, or spending all the time inside with one eye out the door, where Bobo, tied firmly to the rail, was straining, eyes locked on my every move.
So shopping, apart from essentials, stopped. Cafes were also complicated. My definition of a destination went from high standards of food, drink, and decor to just having an outdoor space where Bobo could relax, and these are few and far between in our city. But soon I discovered there is a better weekend high than caffeine and retail — the doggy park.
A tip from local dog owners led us to a special place, perhaps the only park in Shanghai where dogs are allowed to run free. The first time we got there and let Bobo off the lead with a sense of trepidation, the pure joy expressed in her body — from the ecstatic grin to the bounding run — made all the responsibility worthwhile.
Spending my Saturdays sitting on the grass in the sunshine, making up amusing anthropomorphic scenarios about Bobo’s interactions with other dogs in the park, is much more pleasant than most activities this city can offer. Bobo has brought us two things you can never have too much of in life (and that money can’t buy, according to the Beatles) — love and fun. In exchange for supplying an abundance of both, we are more than willing to accommodate this mutt in our lives for a doggie lifetime.
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