I was never allowed a dog as a child. I used to beg my mum, but she had two noisy kids to look after, and didn’t need a third, hairy mouth to feed. My boyfriend was the opposite – brought up in the countryside with 27 dogs. His last dog had died a few months before I met him. Iain was devastated and admitted that he had a dog sized hole in his heart no person could ever fill.
Neither Iain nor I have children, and he isn’t remotely broody over babies. But when there is a dog in sight, he turns to mush. I think he prefers canines to humans. Some women catch their partners watching porn at night. I’d wake up to find Iain scrolling through pictures of pooches. The Battersea Dog’s Home brochure was Penthouse to him.
So, this autumn, we adopted a Shih Tzu called Jasper. I say we adopted him, but it was more like the other way around. One evening, I went for dinner at my friend’s house. When I arrived, Jasper immediately sat on my lap. In passing, I mentioned that Iain was looking for a dog and my friend revealed that Jasper might need a new home. Her other dog was pregnant with her final litter and my friend wanted to keep a puppy, but three dogs might be canine overload.
I don’t know if Jasper heard this, but when I put on my coat at the end of the night, he ran up and waited by my feet. When I left, he followed me down the street.
Something of a dog whisperer herself, my friend suggested that we follow a technique similar to adoption for children. The child visits their prospective guardians and their connection builds over several meetings.
“You will be involved in the child’s mealtimes and bedtimes as you begin to take over some of the child’s care. The child will visit your home, initially together with their foster carer … and soon you and the child will feel confident of enjoying time together.”
So says the First4Adoption website; thus, it was with us. The first time my friend brought Jasper over with her other dog. We went for a walk together, but, when my friend left with her other dog, Jasper looked distraught. For 24 hours, he wouldn’t eat and lay in the hallway, staring at the door.
I took him home the next day, and he ran in with glee. But, on his second visit, he stayed two nights and relaxed more. He sat on the sofa with us and seemed to enjoy being top dog. Gradually, we took him for longer and longer. Then, when the puppies came, he wanted out. They were noisy, manic and didn’t respect his authority. He’d jump on the sofa and growl if they tried to approach. Didn’t they know this was his domain?
He loved his old family, but from then on, he was pleased to stay with us. When I took him for a walk, he sat down in the middle of the street, refusing to budge. Because I usually took him home after each visit, he was terrified I was dragging him back to the house of puppies. He had PPTSD – Puppy Post Traumatic Stress Disorder!
In many ways, Jasper is the perfect toy dog for us, proportionate to our small London flat. Originated on the Tibetan Plateau and developed in China, Shih Tzu literally means “lion dog” because they were bred to resemble the lion, as depicted in traditional Oriental art. They were favourites of the royals and so prized that, for years, the Chinese refused to sell, trade, or give any away. The breed was first imported into Europe in 1930. After World War II, they were taken back to the US by returning military, where it is now the 15th most popular breed.
Because of their face shape, Shih Tzus can have breathing problems. Jasper has occasional snorting fits and some nights I’m woken by him and Iain snoring in unison. He also has an underbite, which we love to impersonate, to the confusion of lookers on.
Some say this breed is the model for Ewoks, and when he’s particularly happy, Jasper makes their funny, cooing sound. He’s so adorable, it’s like being with a celebrity. He chased deer in Richmond park recently and had a big crowd watching. His shows get bigger laughs than mine!
But this is also his weakness. Because he looks like a teddy bear, everyone wants to pick him up, which he HATES. Try and he’ll give you a warning growl. That’s your signal to let go or risk his wrath – and teeth!
He looks like a furry dragon or a long-moustached emperor. He acts like one too; small dog syndrome. He particularly likes to bark at people when tied up outside the shop. We’re on the verge of getting barred from Tescos!
I’ve had to accept that I’m not the cutest one in the household anymore. Iain has a photo of Jasper as the screensaver on his phone, not me. They’re like a double act and go everywhere together; Little and Large. Iain worships him; there’s rarely any human food in the cupboards, but the freezer is crammed with dog food, so posh it’s packaged in fur.
Not that Jasper eats it – no, he wants our food. I have to admire the dedication with which he pursues his agenda. During dinner, he begs with the single pointed focus of a Jedi master. When you stop stroking him, he pushes his head under your hand to make you continue. If you go out without him, he looks mortified. His big, Disney eyes stare up with cartoon sadness.
How could you leave me? they say. Have you no heart?
Some pets like writers, but Jasper finds me very boring. I sit in one place for hours; only my fingers moving. There are no new people, no new smells. He much prefers to work with Iain, who is a location manager. Then he runs around scouting, being worshipped by the crew, and blagging sausages from the catering van. Much better than sitting in the flat with me.
Most Shih Tzus live from 10 to 16 years, although the world record was Smokey from Florida, who made it to the grand old age of 23. Hopefully, Jasper will be with us for some time. These days, I feel like I’m naked if I leave home without a poo bag. He’s part of our funny, little family now.
Photographs by @iainfmsmith