Reigning cats and dogs

There’s a clipped pooch standing guard on a Brisbane verandah in the fading winter light. Actually the dog is sitting down on the job, performing its security duties from a comfortable chair. One ear cocked, head tilted, the dog appraises everyone approaching the gate with a knowing gaze, weighing the chances of a pat, a scratch or possibly something to eat.  Only when she lets out a warning bark does the pup seem anything other than human.
Her doting owner, Dawn Laughton, has always been a dog person, her mantelpiece dotted with framed pictures of pets she has loved over the years. When the last two died, the grief was too much. “I just couldn’t do it again,” she says. But then she met Chelsea.

The moodle (maltese crossed with a toy poodle) appeared one day at the house next door, inherited by the young family from a relative who’d relocated. The family’s busy work and school schedule didn’t leave much time for canine cuddles and the cunning Chelsea soon sniffed out Dawn as a more comfortable fit.

“Brien’s a bit unsteady on his feet ... having Charlie keeps him on the move.”

Regular visits became occasional sleepovers, followed by some extended stays and holidays away with Dawn. Eventually the neighbours agreed to permanent adoption and today Chelsea is a fixture on Dawn’s lap. Passersby, local workers and young mums with toddlers in strollers, stop to pat the pup and chat to Dawn.
Having crept into Dawn’s life by stealth, the dog is more than just a companion; she’s a canine introduction service, bringing a wide circle of people into the retiree’s otherwise quiet life.

Humans have been sharing their verandahs with animals since we learned to tame them and harness their skills for hunting and farming thousands of years ago, eventually making friends with our furry helpers.
Egyptians opened their doors to cats about 4000 years ago and our love affair with dogs stretches even further back. A 12,000-year-old human skeleton has been found buried with a domesticated dog, the human’s hand arranged so that it rested on the pup’s shoulder. In Australia today there are more than 25 million pets according to the Animal Health Alliance of Australia and with 63 per cent of households estimated to include one, Australia has one of the highest ownership rates in the world.

We love them so much we give them human names. A recent review of Australian council records by The Guardian reveals Bella, Molly, Charlie, Max, Ruby and Jack as the top six dog monikers. Dawn and Chelsea’s story is a typical one, with studies confirming pet ownership has many physical, psychological and social benefits, particularly for older people. This is good news for the thousands of animals languishing in shelters across Australia. Penny Brischke manages the Sunshine Coast Animal Refuge at Tanawha, an animal shelter which saves and re-homes around 1000 animals a year. She says retired people are particularly suited to adopting certain pets, especially animals which are old or have special needs. “They want to give them a couple of good years of life and they’re happy to have their pets lying inside on the rug by the fire, eating beautiful food,” she says. Others finally have the time to spend with an active dog.

“They’re the ones we see down at at the Esplanade walking their cattle dogs or their staffies,” Penny says. “Or they get a little dog because they want to go travelling in their caravan and they want to be able to take their dog.” Finding the right pet is about finding one that matches your lifestyle she says. Adopters should consider how much exercise an animal needs, how long they are likely to live and ensure they aren’t over-extending themselves. “That’s the beauty of coming out here,” Penny says. “It’s not a pushy process. “You could come out here every day for six months and just wander around and the day that you’re ready, you can take a pet home.” When retirement leads to a smaller home, owning a pet can be a speedbump, particularly for those wanting to move to a village where contracts place limits on animals.

Michael Fairbairn is vice president of the Association of Residents of Queensland Retirement Villages (ARQRV), assisting members with advocacy and mediation. He advises members if they have a disability and need assistance from a dog, the Queensland Anti-Discrimination Act 1991 overrides contract clauses banning pets.
He says some potential purchasers even obtain a doctor’s certificate stating their pet is required on health grounds as a comfort animal.  This common practice is actually recommended by some retirement village sales people according to the ARQRV. “If you’re a village with a no-pet policy but have five or six empty villas, the salespeople will duck and dive to achieve the sale, advising potential residents to get this note from the doctor,” Mike says. It’s an area where contracts and regulations appear to give way to common sense and a live-and-let-live spirit. Mike’s village in Noosa Waters has introduced a no-pet policy, with exceptions made for residents who already own one. But when a neighbour acquired a small dog and another resident mentioned it to management, they were told “I am aware of it but nobody has complained,” Mike says. “Nobody wants to be the first to complain.”And if anybody does “she’ll just toddle off to the doctor and get a certificate saying it’s a comfort pet. End of story. Because it’s discriminatory to take any action,” he says.

Despite potential complications, pets can be a welcome distraction during retirement upheavals.

For Patricia and Brien Dunne, a puppy named Charlie has helped them through a bumpy transition, distracting them as they’ve sorted through a lifetime’s accumulated treasures and adjusted to a new suburban rhythm. The couple had always owned a dog, but once they moved from the family home in Emu Park to be closer to family in Brisbane, Brien declared there’d be no more. “I said ‘yes dear’ and then started googling to find out where I could get one,” Patricia says, explaining how she found Charlie, a maltese terrier shitsu cross. Charlie lies on his back at Patricia’s feet, enjoying her fingers trailing across his tummy to scratch his chin, as Patricia recounts the first few weeks of their life together. It hasn’t been all smooth sailing.

In the early days, Charlie treated their living room like his own personal bathroom and tore holes in her favourite knee rug. Patricia contacted the seller to give him back, declaring she was “too old for this”. But Charlie’s scruffy face and loving nature won her over. He even made friends with Brien. And the puppy stayed.

The couple’s daughter Rosie says having a dog has improved life for both of her parents, especially as they cope with the early symptoms of Brien’s dementia. “Having a dog has softened Dad,” she says “and it gives them something in the middle to talk about.” Brien’s a bit unsteady on his feet and macular degeneration limits his activities. Having Charlie keeps him on the move.

“I think he feels quite confident that when he’s got little Charlie on a lead he can walk,” Rosie says. “And it gives him regular tasks to do that he’s done all his life, even if it’s just filling the water bowl. “Having a dog gives great companionship and it helps break the silence.” Susan Dawson, a vet at Kedron’s Anvet clinic, says it’s hard to put a figure on how much pets cost.“Dogs are a luxury item these days. “In the past they’d just eat scraps from the table and if something went wrong we’d just shoot them, put them down,” she says.

At a minimum, owners should visit a clinic one a year and preventative treatments for fleas and worms might cost around $200. But it’s the unforeseen costs that can mount up. “At least once a week I have someone in the clinic that can’t afford to pay for their pet’s treatment,” Susan says.  Where finances or living arrangements are an obstacle, people can enjoy furry friends through fostering or volunteering at an animal refuge. Susan warns though, that fostering is not for everybody. “You have to be prepared to give them back,” she says, something the dog-loving vet finds difficult.Her own home includes a rescued greyhound and a staffordshire terrier.
“Greyhounds make great pets,” she says. “They’re gentle and affectionate and don’t need much walking.” For some people, cost, convenience and clean carpets rate a poor second compared to the joy of owning a pet. Brien and Patricia’s dog Charlie is still just a pup, tearing around like a ragged paint streak through their beige brick retirement villa. Patricia smiles when I ask if the pooch is completely house trained. “Not yet,” she says, “but I love her anyway.”