My partner recently overheard me trying to make conversation with his eldest. “Ah, got your little banana toy there do you?” Silence. “And is that … fun? Do you like it? That’s cool.”
Humiliating. This is a dog, I should clarify.
When we start a new relationship, we want our partner’s friends and family to like us. It’s not often conscious, but we’re humans and we seek approval. Especially if they have small ones they take care of.
My partner has three chihuahuas who are adorable, well trained and almost too small to be considered canine.
I’ve always been an animal person who loves spending time with dogs and cats belonging to my loved ones. I like to look after them when the owners go away. It’s fun.
But these three dogs have elicited a desperate need to be accepted. Unlike a chihuahua’s body relative to the ground, the stakes are high.
I’ve looked after them a few times now when my partner has travelled for work. I play with them, give them treats, let them sit on the couch with me. But every time they spend much of this period maintaining a vigil by the front door.
A tangible need to be liked lingers in the air. They say dogs can smell fear but can they smell desperation? My experience indicates that yes, yes they can. I found myself setting alarms to give them attention during work days and saying “wasssssuuup” when they entered a room, in a manner not heard since 2001. Baffling stuff.
During these dog-sitting adventures, I try to walk them regularly. A benefit of having small dogs is they tire quickly so exercising them isn’t time consuming. A complication is having to wrestle three eggplant-size wrigglers into harnesses and not spending the entire walk tangled in leashes.
Recently one dog slipped out of his harness and I panicked. Even though he just sat there while I grabbed his collar, my mind provided a highlights reel of worst-case scenarios: he’ll run away and be hit by a car or lost for ever, or be eaten by a rat (in Sydney’s inner-west, rats are bigger than these guys).
My shaky hands fumbled him back into his harness while I made a noise like someone squeezing the air out of a cheap balloon.
After a few days of front-door vigils, I’ll find myself muttering indignantly: “Well I’m still here. Am I not good enough for you? Fine, maybe you won’t get couch cuddles tonight!” They glance back at the muttering woman, all of us knowing that the evening will end with me covered in dog hair and them having received a blow-by-blow analysis of a Bake Off episode.
It is annoying and inaccurate when people compare pets to children but I truly do not know how step-parents do it given the turmoil unleashed by three pipsqueak dogs.
Sometimes we think we’ve reached a level of self-acceptance and comfort with others and then life forces us to admit we still have a lot of work to do. (I am speaking hypothetically, of course; I’ve never felt self-acceptance or comfort with others.)
But slowly my insecurities are lessening.
The dogs know me now and I know them. If you’ve ever had a pet you’ll know how distinct their personalities are. I now know how each dog likes to be patted, what spooks them and which one enjoys my after-dinner showtune performances (the eldest).
Last week my partner texted me to say one of them looks around for me when I’m not there. This made me feel warm and fuzzy, even though statistically it means most of them do not. It’s totally fine and chill and I definitely don’t need to just work harder to get the others to love me. And that’s called growth.
• Deirdre Fidge is a writer and social worker who has written for ABC’s Get Krackin’, The Weekly with Charlie Pickering and the BBC. Her work has appeared in ABC News, SBS, the Sydney Morning Herald and Frankie magazine, among others