Last fall, my next door neighbour’s cat died suddenly. In her grief, the neighbour bought a puppy online – an eight-week-old goldendoodle that had the black and white colouring and the same soulful eyes as her cat.
Next thing you know, I’m accompanying the neighbour and her 11-year-old daughter to Buffalo to pick up the puppy.
The puppy was a shy little thing, weighing 10 pounds. When you put her on the ground, she scurried behind ankles looking for protection. My neighbour’s daughter named her Nelly.
Back home, I agreed to let Nelly out at mid-day to relieve herself while my neighbours were at work. They gave me a baby monitor so I could hear the puppy cry when she needed to use the lawn.
So began our relationship, Nelly and me…
Puppy love is just an idea, until you fall in love with a puppy that doesn’t belong to you. Coming to me after her morning nap, Nelly is all about play. She’s full of pep and puppiness. In my enclosed backyard, we play games of fetch, tug and soccer with a tennis ball. She taunts me by tilting her head and showing me the ball in her mouth, as if saying, ‘Look, I have the ball, come and get me.’ In turn, I give chase. She runs away, darts around me, dashes back to put a bush between us. It’s great exercise for me. See how she taunts me mercilessly.
From the start, Nelly tugged at my maternal strings. That’s a puppy’s job. She was very good at it. In our early outings, she refused to walk. I had to scoop her up and put her in my purse till we got halfway down the street. Nelly is cautious by nature but she is also curious. So in the early days, she preferred to stay home where things were familiar. Now that she knows our routes, Nelly can’t wait to go out. On our walks, she turns often to check with me to see which way to go. Sometimes, I think she looks back at me to comment on what she sees, only I don’t quite understand. When there is a loud noise, she runs behind me for safety. She likes to check out strangers from behind. She follows passers-by, nosing the back of their legs or their purchases, the strangers no wiser to her investigation. I am tugged along at the other end of the leash, stifling my chuckles.
Nelly is so very smart. She has the uncanny ability to toss a toy into the air, run by and drop a ball at my feet, or run up to me with a toy, nudge me and run off. These are her ways to engage me in play with her. They all work.
She anticipates trajectories. If a ball rolls under a covered desk, she waits for the ball at its point of exit on the other side.
Once, she hovered at the dinner table jockeying for a handout. My husband opened the back door and let her out. The next time she hovered at the dinner table, my husband opened the back door for her again. You think she went out? Not Nelly. Can’t fool her twice. She wouldn’t go through the door until my husband went out first.
And she is gorgeous. I love her soft, casually unkempt black hair, a style that requires nightly brushing to affect. She has long curly eyelashes that any red carpet starlet would envy.
Over the last few months, Nelly’s presence in my life has brought many wonderful things:
– Nelly loves me! I get all the joys of having a dog without the financial burden.
– I sleep better. I am refreshed by the outdoors and tired from our walks each day.
– My house is cleaner. We often come in with soiled feet. So every night I sweep and wash the kitchen floor. Before Nelly? Once a week if that.
– I have a new look on my couch. I had allowed Nelly to snuggle with me on the couch. She was ever so cute scooting up and down and on her back when I was not on the couch. Alas! Marks and stains all over. Foolishly, I took the seat covers off and put them in the wash. They shrank so I made a slipcover for the couch.
I may even get new tea towels to replace the ones Nelly has chewed. Maybe a few new outfits too. Truly, opportunity is the flip side of difficulty, as the saying goes.
Hillary Clinton was referring to actual children when she said ‘it takes a village to raise a child’. I think the same applies to raising a dog. Surely, the joint effort of our two families is good for Nelly, which unites us in the care, pleasure and fun of a dog companion. This cooperation of neighbours is a rare feat in our great city. We’ve turned our two households into our own little village, testing our tolerance for immersed lives, redrawing and respecting new boundaries as they arise. I do it for the love of Nelly, and for the love of community and our neighbourliness.
Accordingly, my neighbours and I went as one big extended family to puppy classes with Nelly. She was always the star of the class, so clever and eager to please. As much as we try to be consistent in raising Nelly, it was soon evident that Nelly has a different relationship with each of us.
To be sure, we all take care of Nelly and play with her. But the uniqueness of each of her relationships is clear: my neighbour is her main trainer, my neighbour’s husband is her groomer, their daughter is her playmate, perhaps another puppy in the house in Nelly’s eyes. By now, Nelly knows they are her primary family. But gosh, is she ever excited to see me every time I meet her outside!
In our house, my son is Nelly’s adversary. She barks at him, even when she hears him through the wall that separates our two houses. In my son’s defense, Nelly barks at all young men she sees in the street. But she adores my husband and looks for him in our house. She flops down at his feet in surrender every time she sees him. And me, I am Nelly’s best bud and adventure guide in the hood. We are tight wherever we go.
– Mary Li
Photos by Mary Li