Animal Doctor USA

Arifa Akbar with her neighbour’s cat James. Show caption Arifa Akbar with her neighbour’s cat James. Photograph: Supplied
What I changed my mind about in 2021
Contributor image for: Arifa Akbar

A fateful train ride when we were coming out of lockdown this year taught me to question long-held opinions

I have been a cat lover my whole life. That is to say, I have never liked dogs. Or at least, this was the case until earlier this year. There was no conscious desire to beat the aversion – it just happened, and all it took was a puppy in an orange jacket, shortly after the end of lockdown.

But before that, my low opinion of dogs. I decided at a young age that they were dangerous and uncouth – the pirates of the pet world who would cock their legs shamelessly on street corners and had great big wet dishcloths for tongues.

As a child, I remember clutching my mother’s coat as the neighbour’s dog growled at us every morning over the garden fence and bared its monstrous teeth. We had just emigrated from Lahore to a racially hostile Britain of the 1970s and this dog only made us feel more unwelcome. On top of that, my mother had been attacked when she was a girl; perhaps I saw her flinching every time a dog walked by and took on her fear as my own.

I have spent a lifetime crossing roads, leaving cafes and making excuses to dog-owning friends so that I am never at close quarters. This hasn’t always been easy. There was one blood-curdling lunch invitation from a friend who had just bought a puppy. I imagined a yappy little thing so I went along but it turned out to be a great dane who charged around the dining table and stuck its tongue in all the tubs of hummus at once.

Another time, a stranger invited me for coffee and at the end said we must do it again. “Yes,” I said, but just as he was leaving he added, “next time I’ll bring my Afghan hounds.”

I made sure to hold my smile in place but I thought, “Well, that’s the end of that.” Then, my 10-year-old niece started asking for a puppy for her birthday and I thought, “Oh God, am I going to have to ghost my niece, too?” Thankfully, she lost interest in dogs and started asking for an axolotl.

News stories of random maulings and child deaths kept my suspicions intact over the years and even if my visceral fear has lessened, there is still the disapproval of a dog’s ridiculously slobbering and ingratiatingly buoyant personality. The same goes for dog owners who assume you find their pet as lovable as they do. In the 1980s, when it was the rage to wear white trousers, a dog jumped on me while I sat on a park bench and left a permanent smear of mud across mine while its owner just stood and smiled.

But then the pup in the orange jacket. I was on a tube train and a couple came into my carriage, the woman carrying it in her arms. The dog was so little it was shivering even though it was dressed in the orange padded jacket. I waited for the discomfort to kick in but as I watched it take in the world with big, overwhelmed eyes and curled up paws, I felt a shift which couldn’t have occurred in that moment but must have been the accumulation of an unconscious process. The couple sensed my interest and brought the puppy over for me to stroke, which made me bristle, but I gave it a quick pat on the head and then felt bereft when they got off the train.

This was shortly after lockdown and I wrote it off as an aberration, born of so many months of isolation. But since then I have noticed that I no longer flinch when a dog walks past and increasingly throw backward glances at it. What’s led to this change? I think to myself, and can’t formulate an answer. Maybe some of us have been marked by social isolation in ways that can’t quite be rationalised yet.

Living alone for so many months, I did find myself questioning opinions and beliefs that had, over the years, become absolutes: that I never get lonely, that neighbours are never there for you in London, that independence is always empowering, that nature doesn’t thrive in a city. The end of lockdown was a chance to reset and go back into the world slightly more joyfully, more open to things, even if most of the resolutions to work less, cook more and meditate every day quickly fell by the wayside.

I’m not sure that dogs featured in this mental recalibration, but maybe being more open to things has shifted my prejudice towards them.

Since the puppy on the train, I have found myself admiring the sleek silver fur of a greyhound resting in a sunny spot of a pavement cafe, and making eye contact with what I’d previously have dismissed as a scratty mongrel outside the supermarket. I’ll occasionally stop and make clucking noises at a mutt, ready to make friends, but it will be the one to turn its back on me or simply stare, as if it’s unsure. Dogs, I realise, are picky about humans too. Not so different from cats, after all.

  • Arifa Akbar is the Guardian’s chief theatre critic












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