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I don't have a favourite dog or child. Any more | Paul Daley

Friends and family have been emphatic for years whenever I’ve asked: is it OK to have a favourite child?

“Absolutely not,” is the usual, categorical consensus.

I’ve sometimes followed up with the question: “OK, then, is it OK for me to have a favourite dog?”

The answer to that has usually been arrived at more quickly: “Of course. So long as the favourite one doesn’t know she’s the favourite.”

(What if I had a favourite child and he/she didn’t know either?)

It’s been two years since Nari, who was my favourite ever dog, died. I still feel the grief. I’ll get teary some days when the sun reflects off her purple tag (screwed into the trunk of the towering gum beneath which she dug her final deep hole, in a back garden she’d rip apart with regular defiance).

Name tag of Nari, Paul Daley’s dog

Nari’s tag screwed into the trunk of a gum tree in the backyard.

I’ll sometimes see another black labrador paddling way into the harbour after a ball. And I’ll picture Nari out there defying the warnings from other doggy types that our girl, raised on the scent of foxes, snakes and ’roos in the Canberra bush, would surely fall prey to the Sydney bull sharks if she kept venturing so deep.

“Lots of dogs have gone missing to the sharks around here,” they’d say with such regularity I eventually downloaded a shark app (it once reported Jaws in Bondi Junction, so I was sceptical of its accuracy). Three years later I’m yet to see any evidence of a Noah taking a dog in inner-west waters.

Then after barely a year in Sydney – whose sights, smells, parks, waters and dogs she relished – Nari was dead.

For a pure-breed lab, Nari was fine-boned with an uneven coat that faded tawny in sun. She had the muscular chest and legs of a staffy. She remembered people and places and sounds. She had kind eyes and would gently nuzzle the back of your knee when she knew you were sad. She pulled on her lead until she died.

She left a half-sister, Ronda, a beauty brimming with bitchy jealousy. I always thought her less intelligent (it’s OK, she’ll never read this!) but easier in many ways, even if her affections were transparently demanding and transactional.

She was as lost as us when Nari, the unchallenged alpha, died.

“Quick – get another dog,” we were told.

No. Nothing could fill our Nari-shaped hole. Six months, a year, passed. We concentrated on loving Ronda. She became more neurotic, fretful and needy of me, whining and crying when I left her house. Were she a person, I’d have considered a restraining order. She refused the ball, shunned the water. On the upside, the garden recovered (she’d never dig or chew destructively!).

In Nari’s absence she seemed, unfairly I concede, to be diminishing in my eyes.

Paul Daley’s dog Olive in the back of the car

Olive peers out from the back of the car.

Enter, last June, Olive, who we first held as a guinea pig-sized pup and brought home (she lay across my knees as I drove the Hume from Melbourne) as a tiny black and white, brown and blue-mottled six-week-old. She’s a charismatic charmer, a bitzer and a bit: a blue-heeler-collie-cross with a dash of weimaraner. Inky fingerprints from the bluey gene seep through the snowy white of her coat. She is a ball of energy with her endless yabbering and snooping. It sometimes looks like she smiles. From the moment she entered the house and peed on the floor (and the carpets and sofas) she turned Ronda’s life upside down in the battle for alpha ascendancy.

She is feisty (hanging as a teeny pup by her jaws off Ronda’s throat and ears and tail, and endlessly suckling her in vain) and clever (she soon repeatedly retrieved the same small, boomerang-shaped stone from wherever I’d toss it down our sideway of thousands of small rocks). The garden suffered. We lost shoes.

Now she’s our shadow, curled in the armchair while I write nearby, or sitting on my feet while I cook. She gently nudges the backs of our knees, her touch gossamer soft and inquiring more than demanding. Ronda, meanwhile, has distanced herself. She’s always in our orbit but not cloyingly so any more.

Our dogs’ lives are a rolling wrestling match, from the yard to my study, to the beach as the battle for alpha continues. I was certain Olive would quickly emerge top dog. But Ronda has asserted herself, claiming the mat by the back door, sometimes snatching the bone from Olive’s jaws (infant Ronda attempted this once with Nari, who ripped open her snout with a vicious bite) and pinning the pup to the sand with jaws poised at her throat when she gets too much.

I’m smitten with Olive, who’s now wading deep into bull shark territory after a stick, and who switches from pure octane to calm concentration as she stops to quietly, intently observe a bird or a butterfly, an image on the TV or one of her humans.

She is fiercely territorial like Nari, barking should anyone enter our gate, or at strangers in our back lane. Ronda, who never barked, is now doing likewise.

Ronda has also started wetting her paws in the harbour and sometimes chasing a ball. She’ll never swim. But through death and renewal she’s found herself. As we’ve found her.

My kids – who joke together about who is the favoured one – will not believe this: but I don’t have a favourite dog or child. Any more.

Paul Daley is a Guardian Australia columnist


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