How A Nuisance Fluffball Strengthened Family Ties

It wasn’t love at first sight. Far from it.

He was a skinny, shivering ball, with doleful eyes and awful rust-coloured tear stains which made him look comically sad. His white fur was so cotton candy-wispy that his fragile pink frame was clearly visible through the fuzz.

My brother carried him home, cradling him close to his chest. His first night was spent curled up in the corner of the kitchen, mewling. I couldn’t bear to hear him, so I sat next to him on the cold tiled floor, comforting him until he finally fell asleep.

“Maybe we should sell him,” mum said, only half in jest. She didn’t like him very much. She’s been scared of dogs since she was bitten by one as a kid.

Despite mum’s misgivings, we kept Benito the Japanese Spitz, and he has worked his way into our hearts. Over the last five years, he’s grown from a tiny, scrappy pup to become the biggest personality in the house.

Beni joined our household at a time when the diverging threads of our lives were beginning to put a strain on the family fabric. I had just started work, and my brother was cramming his way through law school. Home-cooked meals around the dinner table, supplemented by casual conversation, were no longer the norm but a carefully-scheduled rarity.

With the arrival of Beni came not just a pet, but a catalyst for conversation. My family WhatsApp chat used to be a space for pragmatic communication: Who needs dinner? Is anyone using the car?

Now, it’s peppered with pictures of Beni sleeping in strange positions or gambolling in Botanic Gardens. The latest one from my mum is a picture of Beni sitting on the boardwalk at Labrador Park, with cranes in the background and the accompanying caption: “Very windy and choppy. Storm brewing.”

Dad and Benito at Labrador Park

He’s also been somewhat of remedy for my parents’ empty nest syndrome. Years ago, when I left for university and my brother entered National Service, my mum compensated by suddenly filling the house with a wide variety of plants, which all proceeded to unceremoniously shrivel up and die.

And after being only lukewarm about having a “nuisance” furball around the house, mum and Benito have bonded. Dogs have a way of being what you need them to be. Mum was a schoolteacher, and she’s now an educational therapist. So Benito became her student.

Every morning, I’m woken up by the sound of his feet skittering across the floor as he works hard get his treats. Under her steady tutelage, his repertoire has expanded from the standard “sit” and “stay” to the more tricky “put the fish in the bucket” and “throw and catch your bone”.  When he masters a particularly difficult move, mum is a proud teacher/parent, whipping out her phone to take a video of it or making him show it off in front of us.

Benito and his favourite toy 

For my dad, the quintessential caregiver, I think Benito started off as just another pet. My dad always liked animals, and has reared quite the menagerie - from the usual hamsters, to tortoises, birds, salamanders and once even a rather stoic-looking rhinoceros beetle. But over the years, nothing has drawn my dad out of his shell quite the way Benito has.

They have developed a routine, a quiet companionship. If my dad’s sleeping and Beni wants to go for a walk, he’ll sit at the foot of the bed, waiting for him to get up. If dad’s sitting on a chair reading, Beni will sit next to him, wriggling his head under my dad’s hand so that he can get patted.

My dad can be quite serious, and sometimes a little gruff. But when he talks to Beni, his voice softens ten times over, and it’s almost like he’s talking to a baby. The little fluffball definitely brings out the tender side of him.

This is how he looks at you when he wants something 

As for me, having Beni in the house brings me out of my room a lot more. When I sit in the living room playing with him, conversations with my parents meanders well beyond dog-talk. I’ve had heart-to-heart talks with them about my career, my relationship and my plans with Beni lazily sprawled across my lap, or while throwing balls for him to chase.

Now, Benito has become such a part of the family that during my brother’s recent graduation photoshoot, he was smack dab centre of the portrait, with the rest of us arrayed around him. When my parents go on holiday, they don’t ask my brother and I if we’re doing okay, they ask us if we’ve fed the dog.

Dad, mum and Benito at the portrait studio 

Five years ago, I would have told you that a dog was was “just a dog”, not realising that it could, and would, be so much more. Benito’s presence in our household has  been a glue that has encouraged me to forge a better relationship with my parents, and ultimately brought us all closer together.

Before we welcomed Beni into our lives, I don’t think anyone in my family knew just how big of an impact he would have -- but now, we’re all definitely the better for it.