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CLOWNING AROUND: Sasha gives son Samuel a laugh with their Dalmation, Gondor, as wife Alka looks on
CLOWNING AROUND: Sasha gives son Samuel a laugh with their Dalmation, Gondor, as wife Alka looks on

Four Dubai-based families talk about raising their kids with their pets - and why there's no question about where man's 'best friends' belong: At home with them

by

Karen Ann Monsy

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Published: Thu 3 Mar 2016, 11:00 PM

Last updated: Wed 15 Nov 2023, 3:26 PM

The Dalmatian comes bounding up, barking for all its worth, as soon I step into the neat garden of the Jumeirah Village Triangle residence of Sasha and Alka Winter. This is Gondor, who German-born Sasha adopted seven years ago, even before he met his wife. Sasha chides the large dog, but the latter is only being vocal, not aggressive. His tail wags tirelessly and I'm petting him in no time. In the garden is the couple's three-year-old son, Samuel. Utterly nonchalant, he strolls about, as Gondor races around him with boundless energy, then plants a kiss on the dog's unique spotted coat when he pauses next to him. We retire to a covered seating area in the garden for a chat, as Lemon, their second Dalmatian (a hearing-impaired rescue), returns from a walk and the two dogs content themselves by gambolling around the enclosure.

"Gondor (he was named by a breeder who was a Lord of the Rings fan) used to belong to a friend of a friend," explains Sasha, who works as the general manager for a medical recruitment company in Dubai. "But his previous owner couldn't take care of him anymore, as he was constantly travelling for work. Our mutual friend then asked me if I could keep Gondor for a month - and, well, that was nine years ago," he laughs.


GOOD DOG

Several scientific studies have proven the benefits of having pets, including a Harvard Medical School report called Get Healthy, Get a Dog that says just petting a dog can reduce the petter's blood pressure and heart rate (while having a positive effect on the dog as well).


Having a dog at home wasn't new for him, as they'd "always had one" when he was a child, but Sasha admits it was a major shift in lifestyle. "I was single at the time, so it was normal for me to go out on the weekend and not come home till about 4am. Having Gondor changed that. There was no way I could still leave the house for 20 hours at a stretch and turn up whenever I liked. Plus, knowing his background, that he'd been pushed from one home to the other because his former owner used to be away so much, I wanted to give him a stable home. So, I started going out less and coming home earlier. To be honest, before I met Alka, I was also sad and lonely in a way - and Gondor gave me something to lean on," he finishes, candidly.

It was entirely different for Canadian expat Alka, who works as a public relations director and had never grown up with pets. "My parents had concerns about hygiene and such, so the first time I had a pet was with Sasha. It's almost like having a child! We'd be up at 5.30am because that's when the dogs wake us up for their walk. We always had to be mindful to get home on time too, and it helped to have our 'dog nanny', who we hired to look after them while we were at work... Even a quick weekend getaway had to be really planned out, because we'd have to check which if our friends could take the boys [the Dalmatians, that is]. Spontaneity went out the window," she laughs. "But it definitely helped us prepare the routine for when Samuel was born."

The only time she had reservations was when they were expecting their son. "Dalmatians are hyper by nature, so we were a bit concerned about how the dogs would adapt to a baby," she says. But they needn't have worried, puts in Sasha, because both dogs are "super gentle and considerate" of Samuel. In fact, they've gone one step further and become quite protective of him, he adds, treating him like "the youngest member of their pack".

The couple have no dearth of stories to tell of the relationship their three boys share. Like how they dressed Samuel up as a Dalmatian for Halloween, or the time Alka's father tried to pick up Samuel, while on a visit shortly after his birth. "Gondor immediately started growling," Sasha recalls, amused. There was also a period during the pregnancy, when Gondor suddenly "switched" and became 'Alka's dog'. "It was quite strange, because Lemon typically spends more time with Alka, and Gondor with me - but suddenly, he started following her around everywhere instead. Our doctor later explained that dogs can actually 'sense' the second heartbeat [and, hence, the need to protect]. That was pretty cool."

Samuel is hardly ever alone these days, with one of the dogs almost always by his side. "They have their moments of tenderness," beams Alka. "Meanwhile, they've also identified him as a source of food," jokes Sasha, referring to Samuel's inevitable tendency to drop a cracker or piece of banana as he walks around.

The dogs shed a lot ("enough to fill a pillow sometimes!") but they are also groomed and bathed regularly, and the house cleaned everyday. Hygiene is important, says Sasha, but he also doesn't believe in going overboard with the protection. "How else will you develop some antibodies? I think kids are far more prone to illnesses from playing in sandboxes than playing with dogs. I grew up with dogs and I'm still alive," he quips.

Pet owners have long espoused how their pets have taught them to be better human beings too. In the case of the Winters, the biggest lesson was patience. "Lemon has a history of being abused, so when he first came to us, he had some disruptive behaviours that upset even Gondor. He wasn't trained and, at one point, we even wondered if we could continue keeping him - a thought that puts us to shame today. But it took him two years not to be afraid of Sasha. We had to be really patient and show him that we weren't going to hurt him."

As if on cue, I feel movement under the table and Lemon pokes his head into my lap. He likes the gentle stroking of his fur, nudging my hand for more when I stop. A pet doesn't come readymade, says Sasha. "You have to put in the effort to train them and make them your best friend. There's no 'getting rid of them' once you lose interest - and that's something we're trying to teach Samuel early on."

"They know when I'm having a bad day"

One of the first things you notice about Scottish-born Laura Park are the three tattoos of paw prints on her right wrist. A dog lover through and through then. "They're actual paw prints of my dogs," says the 40-year-old expat, happily, explaining how she inked their feet, took photos of their prints on the floor, and then had the tattooist shrink them down for the final artwork.

The owner of Positive Paws, a dog rehabilitation and recreational centre in Al Quoz, Laura opened the outfit in 2012, after qualifying as a canine hydrotherapist and wanting to put those skills to use in the UAE. She lives at Victory Heights with her daughter Alex, 12, and two dogs - Lulu, a six-year-old Dalmatian, and Blake, a Labrador, now three years old.

QUOTED

"Until one has loved an animal a part of one's soul remains unawakened." - Anatole France, poet and novelist

"I had my first dog when I was five - and I've never been without one since," she says. "As for Alex, I got my German shepherd here when she was one-and-a-half years old. So, she doesn't know what it is not to have a dog. In fact, she used to be quite wary around smaller dogs for a while (since she's always been around big ones) - but now she loves them both!"

Those first days were a bit hard, Laura recalls - what with Alex crawling all over the place and wanting to explore everything. "It was hard, in terms of being consistent in managing situations," she explains. "Teaching him that ?her toys were not his; teaching her what's an acceptable ?way to touch him and what's not; ensuring that their socialising was always right and safe and that they were never left unattended."

The story of how they met Lulu a few years back is a heart-warming one. "I took her on as a foster dog initially - just till we found a home for her," says Laura. "I used to take her home with me to see how she coped - so that when people came looking to adopt, I'd be able to give them a clearer picture. Then, one day, someone told me they might have a home for Lulu and I said, without thinking, 'Oh, but she already has a home.' That's when I realised: I guess she's staying!"

One of Lulu's most lovable quirks is the way she smiles, says Laura. Smiles? "Yup - if she's really excited when you come in, she smiles a very broad smile. It's quite funny. ?She 'talks' a lot too! It's not barking, but she's quite vocal." The dogs are very sensitive to their 'mum's' moods too. "They know when I'm having a bad day and they get just a bit more attentive then. When my shepherd passed away in October, it was obviously a huge change for us. But Lulu stuck to me like Velcro throughout that time, through the tears and bad days."

Nowadays, they share a comfortable routine. The dogs ?go to work with her, while Alex is at school. In the evenings, as soon as the lights are turned off, Blake bounds upstairs ?to Laura's room and settles in his spot, while Lulu likes to sleep on a beanbag, covered with a blanket, at the side of Alex's bed, "where Alex can put her hand down and rub her till she falls asleep".

Dogs are wonderfully therapeutic, says Laura, but notes that choosing the 'right' dog is critical. "One of the biggest problems in the region is of people buying particular breeds based on how they look and what's 'trending'. If you're buying a dog, always make sure you pick one that is suitable to your environment, lifestyle and level of experience."

"Pets are lifetime commitment"

You might want to sit down before I tell you how many cats I have at home, homemaker Nisansala Perera Monterro warns me, teasingly. Five? I wonder, tamely. "Twenty five," she laughs, before assuring me that I hadn't heard wrong. They're not all hers, the Sri Lankan expat clarifies. Eight of them are, but the rest are all rescues that she's taken in and is currently helping to rehome.

A member of the bin kitty collective - a group of women that helps find homes for abandoned cats - Nisan says "the whole rescue thing" started with her mum. "When I was growing up in Sri Lanka, we had nine cats and 20 dogs at home. I guess that's where I get it from. When you see another living being struggling, and it can't ask for help but you know it needs it, how can you walk away?"

BUSTING MYTHS

"The old thinking was that if your family had a pet, the children were more likely to become allergic to the pet," says researcher James E. Gern, MD, in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology. "But a growing number of studies have suggested that kids growing up in a home with furry animals will have less risk of allergies and asthma."

The 34-year-old currently lives with her parents, husband, three children and, of course, the cats in a villa in Rashidiya. Everyone helps out, but Nisan says she couldn't do it without her husband: "He's my backbone; always helping out with adoption days, vet appointments and trips to the airport - because he knows I'm not strong enough to say goodbye to the cats on my own."

The kids too, ages four to six, are keen to help. "They've been watching us do this all their lives so, now, I can see them becoming a bit more responsible where the cats are concerned. My oldest daughter, for example, always feeds them before having her own breakfast. They're also becoming kinder, more compassionate. Sometimes, we have to remind them that we can't bring every cat on the street home - only the injured and those unable to fend for themselves."

Hygiene is top priority at all times, says Nisan. "Obviously, the first thing to do when we bring a cat in is to get it checked and vaccinated by a vet. Cats shed a lot and they do go on the furniture. But it's like having a nursery: we keep breakables out of the way, groom them every 3-4 days and vacuum the house everyday."

Many people decide to get a pet as a couple, and then abandon it once they have a child because they worry it's unsafe. But such worries are mostly unfounded, Nisan feels. "When I was having the kids, the cats would often sit on my belly and purr. When we had our first child, they were quite wary," she laughs. "They just sniffed her and watched. They weren't allowed into the nursery room, but there were times, when the baby monitor was off, they'd scratch our bedroom door to let us know the kids were crying."

Now that the kids are a little older, it's fun times all around. "The kittens sleep with the kids at night, play fetch, cuddle up with them on the sofa when it's TV time, go see what they're doing when they're having a bath... There's very little privacy around the house that way - you always have a pair of eyes following you around," laughs Nisan.

It's a misconception to think that pets increase your risk of illness, she says, recalling how her kids recently picked up a skin infection that is also found in cats - only, none of her cats had the infection. Further investigation revealed that they'd gotten it from their school swimming pool, as did all their other classmates too. It's all about how you handle the situation, says Nisan. "If you do take an animal in, get the all-clear done."

Pets are a lifetime commitment, she says. "Once you take them on, you have to be financially capable to take care of them for the next 15+ years and not dump them on the street or in a kennel when you decide you can't deal with them anymore. Bills can skyrocket. but we manage. And I feel blessed that we're able to do that."

"Cats aren't as selfish as people think"

For four years, before their son Raiyan was born, Dubai-based Nidhi Riat lived with her husband and their "other two kids" - their cats. Wanting "something more" when they'd first gotten married was how ?they met Puchi, a female Persian, who her husband fell in love with, and Mickey, a rescue who Nidhi adored. Even now, the Indian expat says, the bond is the same: the girl ?is more attached to her husband, while Mickey prefers Nidhi's company.

Then came the news of a baby on the way - as well as plenty of unsolicited advice to 'give the cats away'. But the suggestion was out of the question for the couple. "In a funny way, these aren't our cats," explains Nidhi. "They're our kids. People laugh, but it's true... Perhaps, for us, pets are a mere phase in our lives. But, for them, considering their life span is only 12-18 years, we are their whole lives."

Both cats were very inquisitive when Raiyan first came home, she recalls fondly. "Today, he plays with them and they love it. They follow him everywhere. Sometimes, Raiyan will lie down on Mickey or chase Puchi around. They don't mind - they understand that he is only a baby."

The 'happy family' disillusion only occurs when one assumes having pets is a breeze. On the contrary, it's double the work, says Nidhi. "Having pets and kids live together means you definitely need to be extra careful and make sure you clean up after your pets. I'd do it for my kid, so why not for my cats?" she asks.

Plus, she loves how growing up with pets is "nurturing" Raiyan's qualities more. "I think it's important to be softer and gentler in today's world, so I've begun including my son in taking care of the cats. In the evenings now, as soon as I'm home from work, Raiyan heads to the cupboard where we keep the cat food and helps me feed them, following which we play with them together."

The cats are no less emotionally attached. Nidhi recalls one time when her husband was having a bit of a heated argument at the door with a friend. "Puchi saw something was wrong, and she's so protective of him that she turned quite hostile to the visiting friend. We had to pull her away and put her inside." There was also the time when a bathroom pipe had burst and flooded the house in the middle of the night. "The furniture was practically floating," says Nidhi. "Cats don't really like water, but these two waded through to our bedroom and woke us up by sitting on us - Puchi on my husband and Mickey on me."

TEACHING THEM YOUNG

Nidhi Riat with her husband, son and one of their cats

Cats aren't really as selfish as people think they are, says the 34-year-old. "They don't come to me only when they want to eat. When we watch TV, they're often curled up next to us on the couch. A lot of times, all they want is love."

karen@khaleejtimes.com


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