A mother's heart melts when a puppy penetrates a 'no pets' family

"Until one has loved an animal", wrote the great French author Anatole France, "a part of one's soul remains unawakened." That may well be true. But there are many people who are quite content to have their souls remain asleep, at least in the pet department. Our own Talin Vartanian used to be one of those people. Her essay is called "A Penny For Your Love."
After a lifetime of disaffection, Talin Vartanian learns to love dogs — her son's dog Penny anyway. (Konrad Ejbich)

By Talin Vartanian

[Originally published on November 5, 2017]

I'm Armenian. I was born in Jerusalem but I grew up in the 50's and 60's in Toronto, in a small, close-knit ethnic community. My parents knew almost every Armenian family in the city. When I was a little girl, my social life was a whirlwind of visits to the homes of my parents' friends.  

There were a few standards that even I, as a toddler, observed. First, food mattered. A lot. And at least half the adult conversation was about food. Second, you could eat off the floor because everyone kept their homes so spanking clean. And finally, every Armenian mom I knew doted over all the kids. Doting manifested the same way in every one of those homes: it meant stuffing our cherubic faces full of delicious food.

There was one thing I never saw in any Armenian house — a dog.

My parents didn't have to tell me that they — and every other self-respecting Armenian — thought of dogs as germ-laden, fur-shedding, money-sucking creatures.  I just knew. I didn't even dream of asking my parents for a pet of any kind. It would have been as far-fetched as asking for the Batmobile to stop by the house and drive me to school every morning. Dog avoidance was in my DNA, part of my heritage.

I flew the coop when I was 18, first to university, then to life with my husband — who's Polish…and okay with the idea of pets. But in the four decades we've been married, we've never had one. We didn't want the responsibility or the expense. We weren't nuts about their fur or smell either, so we asked friends or family members to leave their dogs at home when they came to visit.         

"I fell for Penny partly because she's a quiet, smart, lovable little pooch. But mostly, I fell for her because — in true Armenian-mom style — I'm devoted to her owner." (Chris Ejbich)

We didn't approve of dogs begging for food at dining room tables. We couldn't stand the yappy little ones that barked at everything in sight. One couple we knew had two galumphing Irish Setters and allowed them to bury their wet snouts in our crotches every time we saw them. And one Christmas, my niece's Bichon Frise bit my hand when I tried to reclaim my chair — the only empty seat — after a short visit to the bathroom.

I didn't hate dogs. But I rarely touched them or paid attention to them. It seemed the feelings were mutual.

My husband and I had one child, who begged for a dog, repeatedly. We refused. When he said he'd take care of it and walk it every day, we didn't believe him (and any dog person will tell you we had good reason.) We also used the excuse of his childhood asthma.  

"One day, when you move out and have your own place, you can get yourself a dog," I said. "We don't want a dog in the house."

At age 27, when our son moved into an apartment with his girlfriend, he said almost right away that he planned to get a dog.

I deployed every weapon in my don't-get-a-dog arsenal:

"How about getting used to living with each other before you introduce a pet into your relationship?"

"What about the expense? Vet fees can add up."

"You're in a small downtown condo, so a dog is going to take up valuable space."

"Have you thought about who's going to take care it when you have to go out of town? Don't think for second you can dump the dog here when it suits your fancy."

I had a million of 'em.

But one weekend they went to see a breeder…"just to look."  Famous last words. They came home with a puppy, a French bulldog. My son chose the breed, his girlfriend picked the name, Penelope, Penny for short.

They'd had the dog for about a week before I even knew about it. It seems "Fear of Mom" is still a thing.

Nonetheless, when my husband and I headed over for our first dinner at their new apartment, we brought a small doggie toy as a peace offering.

When we walked in, Penny was in her crate, jumping with excitement. I asked why they were keeping her caged, and they said it was for my benefit. That was thoughtful, but unnecessary, I told them. I asked them to let her out.

Penny, the adorable French bulldog Talin learned to love. (Chris Ejbich)

Even though she was just a puppy, she was clearly a smart little thing. She was already toilet trained. She didn't bark. When I played fetch with her, she stopped dead in her tracks at the bedroom door. She knew about boundaries.

Penny was cuddly, playful and warm. Did I mention that she had adorable owners, too? It didn't take long for my heart to melt.

I guess what followed was inevitable. Penny is the first — and so far the only — dog we've allowed inside our home. In fact, she's not only allowed, she's welcome. Somewhat predictably, my husband and I are frequent dog-sitters. My dog-loathing Armenian parents are not impressed.

And about those Armenian parents….and dogs…

I gave all the credit for my turn-round to Penny's sparkling personality. But recently, a good friend caught me by surprise when she suggested that my transformation might have little to do with the adorable bulldog.

She proposed that I came around  precisely because I'm so Armenian.

I've always thought of myself as the same kind of mother as my Canadian-born friends. But she assured me I'm in a different league. Although I was strict in many respects as my son grew up, I'm far more indulgent with him now than most moms are. I regularly ply him with home-cooked food and home-baked treats. When he drops by the house, I encourage raids of our fridge and cupboards. Most moms I know would walk on hot coals for their kids; my friend says she thinks of me as someone who'd do headstands.

I've come around to thinking she's right. I fell for Penny partly because she's a quiet, smart, lovable little pooch. But mostly, I fell for her because — in true Armenian-mom style — I'm devoted to her owner.  

I've struggled all my life with the push-pull of being both Armenian and Canadian. Through my childhood, I was desperate to fit in. As an adult, I've learned to embrace that I'm different...and think of it as a good thing.

Even so, I have now officially shed part of what makes me Armenian, the no-dog-will-ever-step-into-my-house part; but, the doting-Armenian-mom part is hardwired into my DNA. I guess it's something Penny and I have in common: unconditional love. She feels it for her owner; I feel it for my son.

Talin Vartanian is a producer for The Sunday Edition.

Click 'listen' above to hear her essay.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.