Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog. Defining Moves, Relocation Resources for the Trailing Spouse

I’m writing this in the relative comfort of my bedroom, with the morning sun streaming through the windows, surrounded by the sight and sound of rampaging dogs. It’s chaos in here, a sea of wagging tails, mock growls and flying fur. And every so often, the smiling face of the Feisty One pops up from the middle, pausing in her efforts to teach three mentally challenged canines ever more elaborate tricks.

It’s madness and sanity all at once.

We discovered by accident that dogs are part of our essential expat coping equipment. Our first ‘expat therapy’ dog was Murphy, a stray from the wilds of Ireland, who was abandoned on the ferry to Wales where we adopted him. God knows how he got on the ferry, but it was only the first journey in a life spent globe trotting.

 

When the OH was transferred to London, Murphy spent hours peering out af the car window at the passing landscape alongside the M4, the main motorway that runs between London to Wales where the children and I still lived. Over the course of his travels, he brought a gentlemanly raffishness to the elegant paths of Holland Park, was joined by Hedgehog (another stray mutt) in Kenya and spent 3 years lounging in the sun in LA.

By the time we moved to San Francisco, his teeth looked like he had spent his life chewing tobacco, and his breath was so incredibly rancid that we did the 6 hour LA – SF drive with the windows wound down.
He died earlier this year and my heart broke a little, but he taught us a powerful lesson about the value of dogs in expat family transitions. Here are Murphy’s Laws.

 

You have a friend from day one.

Transitions are hard on everyone, especially the kids, and we all need someone impartial to talk to. Dogs make incredible listeners, stroking and scratching make excellent use of anxious hand movements, and dogs understand pitch and tone of voice far more than we do, so they know when you are upset. Should you need to throw something, make it a ball. Do it over and over until you’ve worked out whatever frustrations are driving you, safe in the knowledge that it’s making both of you happier…

 

They get you out of the house.

One of the hardest parts of any change is facing the new world on the first day. If every journey begins with a single step, it’s much easier when someone is physically pulling you out there, desperate to find out about the sights, sounds and smells of your new environment. Just remember the other rule of kindergarten: Clear up your mess.

 

You find unexpected friends.

Dogs get you to places that you wouldn’t ordinarily go and to meet people that you you wouldn’t normally meet. Take the cargo section of Jomo Kenyatta airport for instance – not the most obvious place to find a new best friend, but when you see another linen clad, jet lagged, disheveled dog-owning Brit already in heated negotiations with the customs official, you have a feeling you may have been sent a soulmate. You know nothing more about them than that they own a dog, but that is enough.

 

You don’t need words.

We get tied up in the need to speak clearly, but time spent with a dog teaches you how irrelevant words are in forming relationships. Dogs remind us that the best way to understand one another is to learn a language together, that friendship, fun and laughter don’t always require words, and that what you do is far more important than what you say.

 

Dogs bring a sense of permanence.

Our family motto is “no one left behind’, and the pets are part of that. The Marines (who we stole that particular phrase from) talk about how there is a comfort and security in knowing that whatever happens, everyone stays together, and the same is true for our family life. It is an acknowledgement of the magnitude of what we leave behind, that the move must be important enough to go to the effort and expense of transferring the WHOLE family.

 

Or to paraphrase George Orwell;

With four legs we’re good. Just two legs? Bad.

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19 Responses to Unconventional but Essential Expat Equipment: The Dog

  1. Hannah says:

    I agree with this. I’m a Brit in NYC and I swear a dog would make our lives more sociable and active. Since we live near a park we have little excuse other than being out at work and also expecting a baby. Doesn’t stop us visiting the mobile adoption trailers that come to Park Slope every weekend or patting every dog we pass though!

    • Rachel Yates says:

      See, that’s how we started, and we now have three. I’m turning into the ‘crazy lady with dogs’..

  2. Apple Gidley says:

    Oh Rachel you struck a chord here. Almost two years since our beloved Miss Meg died and I haven’t been able to face another dog yet – she was everything you described and more! I’m in that phase of ‘just not practical’ at the moment so am not actively looking, but know should some four legged mutt cross my path, my heart would open.

    • Rachel Yates says:

      This is tricky. I’m sending my daughter on the next flight out – she is continually browsing the available dogs on Petfinder, and is very cross that I am not giving in to yet another. As she already reads this blog, she can track you down and start the hard sell on you instead..

  3. Kate says:

    Excellent article! Agree with everything you said. They make everything better, especially adjusting to a new city, environment whereever that may be.

    • Rachel Yates says:

      For me it’s their unbridled enthusiasm to get out of the door, when all you want to do is hide inside.. I have lost count of the number of friends we have made just because of the dogs.

  4. Evan says:

    As relocation is often due to the increasing importance of one member of the family to the company they work for, a dog can be very useful in restoring balance and reality.

    No matter how clever or important someone is, their dog will always have a skill that is superior; the dog will always be able to lick its own arse without needing medical intervention.

    Evan

  5. Sandy says:

    Not fair. Who could possibly follow that last comment? Speechless!

    Loved this article. Shared.

  6. Mandy says:

    Hannah, a dog makes a wonderful companion for a baby! Don’t know where in NYC you are but we stayed last summer with some friends on the Upper West Side and I was amazed how many dogs there were around. aIf you do succumb I can give you the number of the dog-walker/sitter my friend uses. Go for it!

  7. Hi Rachel, we are in Michigan and face relocation to Germany and I can truly say that our dogs are a blessing..they are always happy but also sense our feelings, especially mys son’s. I am so glad that our boys can cuddle, talk with and get cheered up by our two Labs when they will struggle leaving their friends here to move to a country they don’t really remember..
    I myself can’t imagine being without my dogs…they are my best friends, happy pills, soothing pals…Love this article and will share it on my face book page if that is okay with you? I wait for your comment on that.

  8. Jenny Tansley says:

    Hey Rachel,great article and so so true. Our dog ‘Bruce’ is now a BARK reading/therapy dog. Such a sweetie and a great friend. Keeps me busy and happy, especially on those ‘missing family’ days. We’ve just added ‘Toffee’, the rescue choc lab to our family and things couldn’t be better. Sometimes a dog’s ear is all you need, they know that whatever you say makes perfect sense!!!! And they are great at understanding children’s troubles of hard homework, unfair teachers and why we had to move here away from their friends, all whilst been snuggled and rolled on, on the floor, without complaint!!!

    • Rachel Yates says:

      Part of Martha’s homework is now to read out loud for 20 minutes every night. One day, I’m going to post a photo of the dogs sitting listening intently to whatever story she is reading.. They have SO much more patience than me!

  9. Great points Rachel and I agree a dog is a great transition assistant.
    The problem for many people at this end of the world is that transporting the dog is too costly or complex. For people wanting to bring animals into Australia or for Australians wanting to take their animals overseas and bring them home again the time in quarantine and the cost of that and associated vet examinations and immunisations means they are can’t afford to do so. Animals from some countries are not permitted to enter Australia because of quarantine rules so they may have to move elsewhere for six months first before they can come here.
    And families worry that the time in quarantine, the lengthy travel, the climate changes will be too hard especially on an older animal.
    Some companies do include pet relocation as part of the relocation package, perhaps they are aware of the mental health benefits for the family. For those who don’t get that benefit or are unwilling to put their animal through the process the relocation brings another heartbreaking question; “what do we do about the dog?” And a family are left without one of their previous key stress relievers. Maybe we need dog sharing arrangements for expat families?

  10. Staci Johnston says:

    I love this post and the comments too! I encourage everyone to buy a “Chuck It”, get your dogs off leash and make some new friends! (Bring lots of tennis balls!)

  11. Kitty says:

    Every time I open the blog once more, I yet have to find another interesting and thoughtful expat life article. This particular one was not very easy to digest since we have been forced to leave one behind during our first international relocation. Very challenging when in the company relocation policy the dog shares the same line in the document with the motors, boats etc and is certainly not encouraged to follow the family; on top and above that we simply did not find a landlord to accept our dog in.

    We are hopeful that we could relocate our dog with the second move, thank you Rachel for the inspiration and support as always.

  12. […] they do even more. They are the members of the family that can move with us, providing a sense of permanence and stability wherever we go. They teach them about the realities of illness and death, about kindness and […]

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