I often think when I walk my dogs in the mornings - or when a tradesman comes to my door - that people must think me insane: "How on earth does that poor woman put up with those dogs?"
I say this because, on initial contact, my dogs are unbelievably loud. A confusing combination of fierce barking and fiercely wagging tails that continues for several minutes. They travel in a pack and approach everyone and everything as though (wherever we happen to be) it all exclusively belongs to them.
Visitors to the house get assaulted by love on entry. The dogs offer every bone going and, since I am an indulgent mother, climb along the backs of sofa cushions while we're trying to chat to see if anyone is interested in being kissed.
Fortunately they are somewhat disarming to look at. Bobo is the eldest at almost 7 and looks and behaves like a miniature Labrador. He is in fact a cross between a Pincher and a Chihuahua. In Bobo's mind, I am exclusively his and being as close to my face as possible at all times is his life goal.
The smallest, Lucy Bella, looks more like a character out of Beatrix Potter than a real dog. She could easily be mistaken for a meerkat. Being tiny, she is the one who barks the loudest and the longest out of sheer determination (I am sure) not to be mistaken for a snack. We carry her round the house like a baby. Which she allows.
And then there's Owen. Owen is a cross between a Beagle, a Pointer and a large, plush cuddly toy from Hamleys. Almost 3 years old and four times as large as the other two, he considers himself to be the same size. This can be challenging when it comes to pillows or lying behind your head along the top of a sofa.
Sure, the dogs can drive me absolutely batty at times: the mud, the shredded shoes, ham off the counter, stepping on a bone with one's bare feet, the occasional accident, noise. However, their noisy, boisterous meet and greets account for less than 10% of their daily life. For the other 90%, they fulfil the function of extra siblings, playmates, cuddlers, blankets, companions, entertainment, and sanity savers. They are just fantastic company. And since one human day equals 7 dog days they also, understandably, spend much of their time asleep.
They are possibly the most expensive dogs in England after I shipped them Canine First (/Only) Class from Los Angeles after we unexpectedly moved here in 2016. There was never a question in my mind that they should join us. We had lost so much already, I was not prepared to lose them as well. We had all been apart for almost three months when they stumbled bemusedly through customs at Heathrow after their flight and the kids and I fell on them as if they brought a lifesaving elixir in a barrel on their collars.
Which metaphorically they did. In the midst of so much stress and strain and grief, the dogs are exclusively ours, and provide an unrelenting constant of upbuilding love and comfort. The dogs are our home and unequivocally on our side.
Navigating a houseful of teenagers as a single mum can sometimes be a thankless task. By contrast, Bobes, Lucy B and Benowen always treat me like a superstar whose arrival has been long awaited - they are unfailingly thrilled to see me! Even if I've only been out for five minutes. This is hugely supportive even when I'm struggling with seven bags of shopping and trying to squeeze in through the front door. They are my faithful companions.
Dogs bring balance. It can never again just be about the kids or about you. Taking the dogs for a daily walk for the dogs' sake mystically brings my own life into balance. I am blessed to be outside in nature with a purpose. And dogs don't forget. They hold no truck with whatever else may be going on, a walk's a walk for goodness sake!
Dogs train you to colour outside the lines simply because they lead you straight over them. The best laid plans come unstuck with mud, or wet, or a chewed shoe, or - God forbid - a lost dog. They teach us to dwell in the messiness of life, not try to cover it or recover from it. My house is far from immaculate because of the dogs and yet, because of the dogs, it is so much more a haven of hugs and home.
In my experience, dogs enlarge the place of your tent. You're a bigger party, a broader concern. It's no longer just you guys facing the world on your own, you have by your side huge fans cheering you on everywhere you go and every step you take. Dogs, without fail, are loyal.
And dogs keep you humble. Have you ever had the worst behaved toddler at a birthday party? That's my daily dog walk. "I AM so sorry!!" I cry throughout various parts of Surrey, shovelling charm on with a spade to allay alarm. "They're completely harmless! Just loud..." My three bark and wag and bounce back to me with looks of sheer glee at what they've accomplished. They only do it in a pack -- out individually I suspect they'd stick close to my heels and barely make a peep. Little stinkers.
So yes of course, I have my moments of wondering, "How did I end up with three? What in the world was I thinking??" But then I look in those faces and get down on the floor for a cuddle.
And the world seems bearable again.