Louise O'Neill: I’ve basically become the dog-owning equivalent of a Helicopter Parent

Richard hasn’t seen Cooper since Christmas – he seems far more upset about this than the fact that he hasn’t seen me since Christmas either
Louise O'Neill: I’ve basically become the dog-owning equivalent of a Helicopter Parent

Louise O'Neill's dog, Cooper

I’ve mentioned in this column before that my partner and I adopted a dog from the CSPCA last October. Due to Covid restrictions, Richard hasn’t seen Cooper since Christmas – he seems far more upset about this than the fact that he hasn’t seen me since Christmas either — but he remains a loving if absent father. 

Every week brings the arrival of new toys and training tools, things with names such as ‘snuffle mats’ and ‘Outward Hound Dog Brick’ – which I must then find space for in my nice but small house – and Richard demands a constant supply of videos and photos, enduring chit-chat for a few minutes when I FaceTime before asking if he can be ‘put onto’ Cooper. (I’m trying not to take this personally; the dog looks prettier than I do right, as ravaged as I am by this last year. My kingdom for a haircut and a facial, etc.) 

We had dogs when I was a kid – two Jack Russells called Bobby, two Yorkshire Terriers called Troubles. Originality was not our strong point when it came to naming our pets – and we took the same parenting approach as most people did with their children in the 80s/90s which is to say, ‘leave them to their own devices most of the time and fingers crossed they’ll survive’. 

When I think of the work I’m doing with Cooper now, the multiple zoom calls with dog trainers, the Bach flower remedies in his drinking water to help with his anxiety, the hours spent practicing recall, the tricks I’m using to stop him lunging at cars, I realise that I’ve basically become the dog-owning equivalent of a Helicopter Parent, hovering overhead, overseeing every aspect of his life. 

But I must admit, it’s been tricky trying to socialise him during Covid. On the very rare occasion someone calls to the door – usually a delivery person or a courier – he loses his absolute shit, barking furiously, as if the Devil himself has arrived on hooved feet suggesting we play a game of cards. (No offence meant to Brian, our DPD man. Apparently, in Cooper’s eyes I am a delicate maiden who needs protection at all times.) 

A local dog walker has started taking him out with a gang of other dogs from the neighbourhood once a week in an attempt to boost his confidence and she said he was shy in the beginning, like a new kid staring at all the other children in play school, hoping they’d be his friend. Naturally, I pretended this didn’t make me want to sob uncontrollably and nodded calmly at her instead but good god, how do parents of actual, human children cope with all these feelings?! 

'Richard demands a constant supply of videos and photos, enduring chit-chat for a few minutes when I FaceTime before asking if he can be ‘put onto’ Cooper.'
'Richard demands a constant supply of videos and photos, enduring chit-chat for a few minutes when I FaceTime before asking if he can be ‘put onto’ Cooper.'

I’ve heard from vets and groomers that pets are definitely showing signs of stress; cats and dogs who would normally bound into their practice are now skittish, worried. It makes sense that they would be picking up on all the fear and anxiety in the atmosphere and internalise it, that they would feel nervous around strangers, particularly younger pets who don’t have a frame of reference for life before Covid. In many ways, it’s a good analogy for how many of us are feeling right now. 

I have felt isolated at times over the last year but particularly in January and February when the numbers were so high, I felt apprehensive about meeting a friend for a walk on the beach, and even if I had been comfortable doing so, the terrible weather precluded such activities anyway. I’ve always considered myself to be a natural introvert – I basically chose my career because it meant I could work from home in my pyjamas and not have to make water-cooler conversation/discuss how many calories are in my lunch – but I’m afraid I’ve become insular and perhaps even a little socially awkward. 

If small talk is a skill, it’s one I may have lost. I have forgotten how to be a person in the world, I think. This month was always going to be an odd one as it marked the first anniversary of when our lives changed forever. 

The cancellation of Paddy’s Day, Leo’s State of the Nation address, that initial two-week lockdown, our foolish hopes this would all be over by July. In many ways, it has been astonishing how quickly we have adapted to Zoom calls and WFH and home-schooling and face coverings and finding new walking routes within our designated 5k. But I wonder how long it will take us to unlearn all of this. How long will it take before we feel comfortable in theatres and music festivals and clubs? Before we remember what it’s like to be in crowds, skin against skin, breathing in the same air without fear? 

Louise Says:

Read: An Ordinary Wonder by Buki Papillon. A set of twins are born in Nigeria; one child is a girl and the other is raised as a boy even though they deeply, profoundly believe themselves to be female too. This coming-of-age story is a beautiful exploration of gender, identity, and culture. Not to be missed.

Listen: Are Caroline O’Donoghue and Dolly Alderton the perfect pairing? Their podcast miniseries, Sentimental in the City, would suggest so. Each episode takes a different season of Sex and the City and we are treated to incisive, sharp, and hilarious commentary from the two hosts. I’m obsessed.

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