Kerry McLean: Fun for the older children, gentle with the toddler... our dog Tarka is beating heart of our home and only asks for buttered toast in return
From the moment my eldest could talk, she began asking if she could have a pet. When I say 'ask', what I actually mean is that relentless, repeat questioning that only a pre-schooler can maintain. Parents, grandparents, anyone who spends any length of time on a regular basis in a small, confined space with a young child knows the pain of being at the sharp end of their interrogations.
A trip in the car might have registered on the clock as having taken five minutes but, trust me, when you're listening to, 'When can I have a dog? … Mummy? ... When can I have a dog? ... Mummy?' on an endless loop, it can seem so much longer.
To buy a bit of peace and return some calm to our journeys, I threw out a cavalier response, telling her we would get her a furry friend when she went into P2. I had picked this time out at random, throwing forward three years into the future, confident that she'd have forgotten all about it by the time she was celebrating her sixth birthday.
I was clearly a novice parent in those days and had no idea just how strong-willed my delicate little daughter could be. From the moment those words were out of my mouth, you could almost hear her steel trap of a mind begin the countdown, second by second.
Don't get me wrong, it wasn't that I didn't want a dog. All through my childhood we were never without animals in our house and I knew how much fun and joy they could add to family life. It was just that with two young children, a job, a husband and everything else spinning like plates in the air, I couldn't see where we'd get the time and the energy to properly look after another little soul in the house.
But, always a woman of my word, after my gap-toothed six-year-old blew out her candles we were off and on our way to collect our pup. My son has asthma and eczema, so we had to track down a dog that wouldn't trigger his allergies - a quest that led to us adopting a non-shedding breed, our Irish Wheaten, Tarka - our family fur baby and the beating heart of our home.
Now I know all you dog owners reading this probably think you have the best dog in the world, but you'd be wrong. How do I know? Well, because she lives with me.
Tarka has all the beauty of a canine Marilyn Monroe, all blonde hair, big eyes and a sizeable derriere.
She is typical of an Irish Terrier in that she may be getting on in dog years but she still acts like a puppy. Her breed are the Peter Pans of the pooch world. She's endearingly clumsy, can't catch a ball for love nor money and has a bad habit of falling over when she's mid-run because her back legs seem to go faster than her front legs can keep up with.
She's great fun for the older kids, kind and gentle with the toddler and great company for us adults. All she asks in return is the odd treat of buttered toast - her favourite food in the whole wide world - and a chance to sit on your feet and have her head scratched.
She's so very trusting, so loyal and loving. In the last few weeks, I've been thinking how very vulnerable she is, like all pets. A quirk of fate brought her to us, but that same throw of the dice delivered dogs and cats to homes where, instead of being cherished and protected, they're exposed to violence from the humans around them.
I know I'm far from alone in being shocked and sickened by the many stories that have been making the news pages recently about the mistreatment and cruelty shown towards these little creatures.
They're tales that have reduced me to tears and, I'll confess, to cuddling my own fur ball even more than usual, heartbroken for the animals that have been injured or worse and so very thankful that I can keep my girl safe at home with us.