Keeping dogs and children
Thank you to the animals that have helped me be a better parent, says this dad of two.
My laptop wallpaper is a holiday snap of my son Tom, 10, walking away from me on a wooden board walk that curves towards an early morning beach near Cape Town.

In the photograph Tom is dressed in an orange top and giant sun-hat and he is definite and purposeful, caught in mid stride as he recedes towards the grey sea and the lilac sky.

A few metres in front of him, far enough from me and the camera to be barely visible in the dawn light, is Chocolate, the little mongrel bitch who belongs to Jessie, 14, Tom's brother - who, as it happens, was still fast asleep back at the beach house.

The picture is one of about 30 I took that morning but this particular one is strangely compelling for me.

It has something to do with the fact that I often mix Tom and Chocolate up in my mind. I often call them by each other's names - and I don't need to tell you that the words ‘Tom’ and ‘Chocolate’ don't sound anything like each other.  

I catch myself talking to them in the same tones and there is something about how I feel about them that is peculiarly similar. This is slightly unsettling. One of them is a human being and my son and the other is a small dog with a curvy tail. Moreover, we suspect this delightful animal (I mean the dog, of course) is the serendipitous result of an unlikely threesome between a Labrador, a Dachshund and an opportunistic Jack Russel. We think of her as a 'Labradash' ... We are mostly confident about Tom's linage.

They (Tom and Chocolate) are obviously filed somewhere close together in the chaotic system of my brain.

Is it possible that the brain puts smallish mammals that are extremely enthusiastic and are a sort of hazel colour in one place? Stranger things have been proven about the brain.

A friend called Boris

Actually my mind does file my children and our dogs close together and I think I know the reason.

Before marriage and children - and all of that - I lived alone on a farm. For 6 years - right up until the birth of my first child - my sole companion was a large ridgeback named Boris.

I got Boris as a puppy and he was a shock to my previous life as a single bachelor. Learning to live with a young dog, disciplining him, accommodating his craziness, cleaning up his mess, feeding him, dealing with his loneliness, paying the neighbours when he bit their sheep, getting up and taking him to the beach when all I wanted to do was lie in bed and read - these were such important experiences for me. And in retrospect I see how Boris helped prepare me for becoming a parent.

There is something about the emotional architecture of the relationship I had with that dog that is reproduced in my relationship with my children.

So I am grateful to that long-gone beautiful animal who accompanied me so faithfully for an important part of my life. I understand why my brain files the love I feel for my children close up against the location of the love and gratefulness I feel for Boris - and for all those others, including Chocolate, who have taught me so much.

How do animals fit into your growth as a family?

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