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first person

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Illustration by Marley Allen-Ash

Five minutes into the first training session with our new puppy, Maggie, the dog trainer said, “okay, now we’re going to get Maggie to go to mom. Mom, call Maggie to you.”

I looked around for the trainer’s mom. I didn’t know this training business was a mother-daughter operation. Or, wait, did she mean Maggie’s mom? My eyes scanned the room, looking for the mom in question, and fell back on the dog trainer. She was staring at me, her head cocked to the side. I pointed at myself, eyebrows raised, and mouthed, “me?”

“Yes,” she said slowly, “you are Maggie’s mom.”

This was a shock. I was never a “dog person.” I had never had a dog and had never wanted one. As a child, I was vaguely allergic and mildly terrified of dogs. I thought dogs smelled bad, their hair found its way everywhere and their drool was gross.

As an adult, even if I was no longer allergic or afraid of dogs, I was still not tempted to own one. I would watch harried-looking owners water ski behind boisterous dogs or shuffle through rain and snow, picking up excrement (with their hands!), and be mystified as to why anyone would choose that life. Rapturous dog owners would adoringly recount cute shenanigans and I would nod and smile politely, but not understand the appeal. To each their own, I thought, but their aggressive happiness and active recruitment made it seem as if dog owners were members of a (cuddly and adorable) cult.

Then, my husband and children wanted us to join the cult. I understood my kids’ yearning to have a living creature in the house to snuggle and keep them company during the pandemic. My husband admitted he always wanted a dog. So I gave in.

My husband prepared for the dog’s arrival by reading The Art of Raising a Puppy, taking notes and making schedules for walking, napping, training and feeding. He bought crates and toys and treats. It was reminiscent of when I was getting ready for our children, but our roles were reversed. I had read What to Expect When You’re Expecting, earmarking pages for my husband to read and bought onesies and diapers. I recognized the nesting behaviour. But if I thought of myself as anything parental to our new dog, it was in more of a stepmom role. Not the evil, Cinderella-type, but the cool kind that tells the kids to call her by her first name or the slightly irresponsible sort that feeds the kids candy then sends them back to a sensible parent. I would be kind and interested and participate but I would not be the chief disciplinarian or primary emergency contact.

Then Maggie arrived. A Bernedoodle – half Bernese Mountain Dog, half standard Poodle – she was two months old and 11 pounds of fluffy cuteness. She was mostly black but had long white paws that looked like elegant opera gloves. Small patches of Bernese brown on her face, legs and bum showed when she walked and rolled over. My kids couldn’t stop bouncing and smiling. My husband slept next to her crate so she wouldn’t be too lonely. I could appreciate that she was very cute, but I had no idea what to do with this wriggling, nipping, sniffing, pawing creature in my house.

About a month into our dog ownership, I was awoken one night by anguished sounds of yipping and whining. Adrenalin drove me from my bed, as it had done with my children when they cried as infants. I ran downstairs, following the canine whimpers and found Maggie at the back door. I opened it and followed her outside to our lawn where she was immediately sick. Our garden sprinklers were on, spraying water on both of us. As she crouched and shuddered, she stared up at me unblinking. Her deep brown eyes shone through the darkness, radiating gratitude and love and piercing through my indifference. I felt the pangs of the maternal need to protect and nurture. “Dammit,” I thought.

She saw an opening. Maggie refused to accept anything less than my complete maternal love. When I woke up in the morning, I would find her waiting outside my door, tail thumping against the wall with excitement to see me. If I so much as left the house to take out the garbage, I would be greeted upon my re-entry like a loved one long thought dead, now returned from a far-off war. She burrowed her way into my heart through persistent and exuberant affection.

Maggie is now 70 pounds of solid muscle and shaggy fur and stands at adult height when she peers out the window to bark at other dogs passing by. She sheds, drools and eats garbage off the street. Though we have spent many hours training her, she still jumps and nearly pulls my arm off when she sees a squirrel. On paper, she is everything I didn’t want about having a dog. But, when she sets her chin down in the lap of my crying child or looks up at me adoringly with her big goofy grin, her tongue lolling out of her mouth, it’s hard to remember what it was I didn’t like about dogs.

Now, I am known as “Maggie’s mom” on the puppy group text chain and the Facebook Bernedoodle group. I handle Maggie’s Instagram account, posting pictures of her growth and activities to her 41 enraptured followers. The pet store knows I am a pushover and loads my cart with chicken chew treats and new squeezy toys. I keep in touch with her siblings’ parents and have organized more family reunions for her than I have for myself. I am recognized as Maggie’s mom by the neighbours we have met through daily dog walks and at the vet. I regale them all with stories of Maggie’s cute shenanigans because that’s what dog moms do.

It was naive of me to think that I would have any control over who Maggie would be and what I would be to her. At once, she is both everything I didn’t want and everything I didn’t know I needed. That may be hard to understand, but that’s just because you don’t have a dog yet.

Margot Finley lives in Toronto.

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