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SocietyDecember 10, 2017

A tenant’s best friend: Why dogs deserve a place in state housing


Renters owning dogs is a divisive issue, especially among landlords. But what happens when your landlord is the government?

A few days ago, new Minister of Housing Phil Twyford announced that residents of Housing New Zealand homes will soon be allowed to have dogs. At the moment Housing NZ tenants aren’t allowed dogs except in special circumstances, and other pets need to be approved on a case-by-case basis.

“Given how important pets can be to people’s quality of life, I favour a more accommodating approach that allows tenants to own pets,” said Twyford.

And this couldn’t have made me happier. I grew up in a Housing NZ complex in Berhampore in the southern suburbs of Wellington. Back then it wasn’t full of record stores, restored villas and catering kitchens. It was a low-income area with a giant bacon factory in the middle of it which sat abandoned for most of my childhood.

Our house was small but beautiful and warm thanks to my mother. It wasn’t, however, safe. Our back door was an ’80s ranch slider which you could lift off its frame and slide open, even when it was locked.

That’s how our first break-in happened.

My mother woke one night to a silhouette of a man in her bedroom doorway, just as he had turned to walk down the hall to my room. She stayed still as she heard him open my bedroom door, pause, and then head back downstairs. She jumped up, opened her bedroom window and hung her head out into the night, screaming at the top of her lungs. The intruder fled, leaving behind a kitchen knife on our couch.

A young Nicole Skews-Poole with her dog Brooke. (supplied)

Our second break-in was a man hiding in our garden watching my mum as she had drinks with a friend. She saw him, called the cops, and he fled into the nearby bush.

The last break-in, and the final straw for my mum, involved her waking to a strange noise from downstairs. She went to investigate, and as she lifted the blinds to look out the kitchen window for the source of the noise, “like something out of a horror movie” an elderly woman in her night dress lifted her head from below the window, triumphantly holding the garden hose she had come to steal.

Housing NZ wouldn’t install an alarm, or security lights, or to anything more than fix a bolt to our back door. So my mum decided to get a dog. In 1989, when she signed the agreement for the house, nothing specifically prohibited pets. This was a technicality she would hold fast to for over a decade as Housing NZ tried various means to make her – and other dog owners – get rid of their dogs.

Our dog was a ‘free to a good home’ mutt listed in the paper. She was a lanky mix of ridgeback, staffy and German shepherd, and when she barked or growled the hair along her spine stood on end. It freaked people out, and that was the intention.

My mum trained her hard in guarding, but like most dogs her innate drive was already to protect her family above all else. She was a natural, and she changed our lives.

Nicole and Brooke (supplied)

We called her Brooke and she learned about everyone in the complex. The elderly Scottish woman next door would spray her with water if she whined, the Russian family would feed her pork bones which made her do the worst farts I have ever known, the cat down the road would beat the crap out of her, the cat up the road would not.

During the day she sat outside in our shady car park, tied by a long chain to her kennel (something we now know isn’t cool, but was totally normal in the early ’90s). She didn’t bark at the residents, but she barked at anyone she didn’t know.

Inside, sleeping in my mum’s room at nights, she’d bark if something weird happened outside. She barked when our neighbour hung out her window gasping for fresh air in the midst of an asthma attack. That neighbour credited Brooke’s alertness – and the ambulance call out she prompted – with saving her life. She spoiled her rotten after that.

But she wasn’t just security, she was freedom. I could move freely throughout my neighbourhood – night and day – as long as I had Brooke. From about eight years old, she was my ticket into the world as an only child who had to entertain herself. She accompanied me into nearby parks, the empty schoolyards during the holidays and through the abandoned factory to the dairy for an ice cream after dark.

On an adventure (supplied)

Phil Twyford’s announcement made me think of all the other Brookes soon to be allowed into people’s lives. Their lives are about to be changed – not just in terms of increased freedom and security, but all the other benefits dogs offer.

Dogs invite you to explore parks, forests, rivers and beaches for exercise and fun. Patting a dog also releases all sorts of good happy chemicals into your brain, and those two factors combine to help lower your blood pressure, cholesterol and heart health overall, according to Harvard researchers.

There’s evidence that exposure to dogs from a young age can decrease children’s risk of developing allergies and asthma (which is rife in substandard state housing). And according to Psychology Today, dogs can also help promote mental wellness and help alleviate symptoms of anxiety, depression and PTSD, while encouraging the development of empathy in children.

I think about everyone I know who lives or has lived in state housing – the isolated elderly, the recent refugee arrivals with family members on the other side of the world, solo parents of high needs kids. I know for them a dog could be the companionship, the anchor to a new land, the non-judgemental love and entertainment that they need.

The idea that you need to own your own home or have a one-in-a-million landlord to keep a dog is classist and patronising. Landlords and investors are already wringing their hands about Twyford’s announcement, the potential damage it could do to state homes, and the risk of more Housing NZ residents putting down roots (how dare they).

I resent the suggestion that Housing NZ tenants aren’t responsible dog owners, or that the comfort and permanence a dog may provide is something they don’t deserve.

In the coming years as Twyford’s changes are implemented, we’re going to see scaremongering op-eds about pitbulls and beneficiaries, holes in walls and noise control complaints. And I invite you to think critically about how classism influences our reactions to what is always a minority of crappy pet owners – who are unfortunately present in all housing situations and income levels.

I invite you to think of my family, and our Brooke, as the more commonplace story. And I invite you to look at how great her ears were.

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