Silence about my race kept my family apart. Could a rescue dog bring us together?

Everyone told me that adopting a dog was a bad idea. I was an avid traveller; a freelance writer, and no great respecter of routine. My longest commitment to anything remains the direct debit for my phone network provider. But in March 2020, just as the world began to change, I headed to Battersea Dogs & Cats Home in London to meet an anxious greyhound called Jasper.I had told no one but my housemates of my plans to adopt. They had courteously agreed to cohabit with a canine and we had perused a site filled with drooling pit bulls and champagne puppies. Privately I dreamed of a dachshund. Then I met Jasper. A four-year-old greyhound who seemed more deer than dog, he was strikingly soft. It wasn’t just his downy fur – a coat of cashmere, the colour of night rain – but his large, amber eyes, which flashed as he nervously surveyed me. Jasper’s anxiety entered the room before he did; a long, slow-passing cloud that stilted our interactions. Battersea told me he was an ex-racer from a British track. He had never lived in a home with an owner and was likely to have been mistreated. They left me alone with him for 20 minutes while I fed him treats and rubbed his ears. He was the most docile dog I’d ever met, but I had never really considered a greyhound. Is this the dog I want, I thought. Is he really mine? One hour later and we were in a cab home.
Georgina Lawton with her father, mother and brother, 1996.Lawton with her father, mother and brother, 1996. Photograph: courtesy Georgina Lawton
I had meant to go home-home that week, to spend lockdown with my mother and brother in the place where I grew up, in Sutton and Carshalton on London’s green commuter belt. But I figured Jasper needed to acclimatise to one house first, and stayed in London. “Why did you get a dog?” my mum asked, exasperated. “Is he trained?” Jasper, like most retired greys, was house-trained but not very well socialised. Although he appeared to possess big-dog energy in abundance, weighing 30kg and looking, as one friend put it, “scary”, I soon realised it was actually he who was scared of everything. New people, other dogs, heavy traffic, balloons, car doors slamming, postal workers, his own shadow. He didn’t respond to his name, and once, when I was adjusting his coat in the park, he darted off through my legs. “Jaaasper!” I screamed as I watched him trot along the path with casual insouciance. I tried to catch up with him by cutting across the grass. “Stop that dog!” Eventually someone did. I returned home to research remedies for the night-time barking that was disturbing my housemates and Googled: “How many times must you say a dog’s name before he gets it?”

Pitter patter. A large breed dog’s resting heart beats between 60 and 100 times per minute, and a small dog breed’s heart beats between 100-140. Comparatively, a resting human heart beats 60-100 times per minute.

Despite the challenging reality, I had always pictured myself as a dog owner, taking leisurely walks under summer skies with a furry friend who would bob at my heels, play fetch, and return on command. I wanted to indulge the tiny consciousness of a pet, to feel them curl up beside me on the sofa, hear their ritualistic roo-ing (a bark particular to hounds) in the suburban quiet. And after losing the greatest love in my life, my father, I also craved a new source of unconditional love.

When Jasper and I eventually went home to Sutton, I found that my mother and I disagreed on whether my father had truly loved dogs. “He wasn’t really a dog man,” she said, while I held that no, actually, he was. I can still see Dad in Ireland with Mum’s family, rubbing the head of my cousin’s black and white collie, Lassie. Or lying horizontal on the floor beside a board game at Christmas while tickling the belly of my uncle’s springer spaniel. Admittedly the memories are less sharp, less saturated now that I approach the six-year anniversary of my membership to the Dead Dads Club. Grief, much like the cancer that killed him, is an invasion of small, internal growths. Slowly, it wilts memories. The intensity of my focus on my dad’s characteristics, our shared moments together, fades a little more with each passing year. Yet I am sure he loved dogs.
Georgina Lawton with her dog, a greyhound called Jasper‘“He wasn’t really a dog man,” my mum says, but I am sure my dad loved dogs.’ Photograph: José Sarmento Matos/The Guardian

My mother and I had disagreed on a lot more than this in recent years. We had spent some time estranged from one another, after DNA tests in 2016 confirmed that my father and I were not biologically related; it was a hidden truth that I blamed my mother for in his absence. My childhood had been cushioned and comfortable, aside from this family-wide silence and secrecy around my blackness. My parents were white, as were their parents, as was my younger brother. “You might be a genetic throwback,” my mother had said, a phrase that anchored me into our family lore, but which I later realised didn’t make any sense. Race and its meaning went ignored in our home for 23 years. Eventually, after the DNA results, I had therapy with my mother. In those early sessions, Mum was adamant that I was just exaggerating the impact of her racial denial. I couldn’t understand her lack of empathy, but reserved judgement on my father whose memory I wanted to protect. It had been an arduous, complex journey. Returning home now, and with a difficult dog in tow, could make or break us.

At first it was strange seeing Jasper in the small back garden my dad used to manage, and which my mother now tended. I imagined the tone in which he would have called Jasper “little fella” (as he had done with all dogs) and wondered how he would react to the giant swirls of shit on our lawn. On my first night back home, at the end of April, on what would have been my father’s 60th birthday, I lost Jasper in the most dramatic fashion. Strolling around the deserted streets of Sutton as the evening was spitting rain, I slipped on the pavement and dropped his lead. Startled as he always was by loud noises, Jasper bolted into the night at full pelt, the heavy lead handle clattering behind him.

INTERESTING FACT ABOUT YOUR PET: Dogs can be trained to to detect cancer and other diseases in humans. Cancerous cells release different metabolic waste products than healthy cells in the human body. Dogs may even be able to sniff out cancer cells simply through smelling someone’s breath.

I wasn’t sure if losing Jasper again was the final sign that I should hand him back, a divine intervention of sorts. Is this the dog I want? I wondered again as I tearfully trawled the streets with my mum and brother – who had come at a moment’s notice – shouting Jasper’s name and replaying the image of his sinewy silhouette disappearing into the void.

When a stranger found him one mile from our house the next morning, after I had put out a Facebook alert, I was overjoyed – but Jasper’s paws were ripped to shreds. If my father had been around, he would have consoled me, told me it was not my fault, and ferried me to the vet’s. Luckily my mother, who hates driving, dutifully cleared her schedule for vet-runs, helping me care for Jasper’s wounds at home. She bought him treats, her affection growing simply because he came with me, her daughter.

Georgina Lawton with her mother and Jasper, April 2020.With her mother and Jasper, April 2020. Photograph: courtesy of Georgina Lawton

Jasper showed my mum, my brother and me that we could live in peace under one roof once more. The state-sanctioned stillness enabled once-difficult conversations about race and my dad to take place inside our home, or on joint dog walks. “There’s a lot I would have done differently,” Mum said to me over coffee as we discussed the Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world in June. “If anyone said anything about who you are, your heritage... I’d be there for you.” It felt hugely comforting. My mother had met the standards I’d set for us both.

As a child I had often wondered whether I possessed some inherent trait that made me harder to love, whether there was a reason a large part of who I was went unacknowledged in our home. My mum reassures me that I did not, that identity erasure was never the aim, that my parents just didn’t know how to address her infidelity. But I often wonder how my dad felt when I was born. Was he disappointed, or dismayed, at the arrival of a black child who looked nothing like him? Is this the baby I want? Is she really mine? he must have thought. But I did not detect an ounce of uncertainty about me in our relationship, or ever witness anger towards my mother. She tells me that when I was born, he took me in his arms without question. He loved us all ferociously.

Growing up, unsure of where I fitted in, I would sometimes test the elasticity of my father’s love. “If someone hurt me, Dad, what would you do?” I asked, aged six, on the way back from school.

“Kill them,” he replied without hesitation while gripping my hand as I swung my blue book bag in the air and giggled. My father was not a violent man, but as a child unsure of her family lore, I took this as affirmation that my place was always beside him, regardless of how we looked.

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Despite more DNA testing, parts of my past – my heritage and my biological parentage – remain shrouded in mystery. This is something I share with Jasper, who I recently discovered comes from Ireland like my mother, not from the UK as I was told. This revelation, combined with frequent encounters with other dog owners, was almost too on-the-nose. Oh, what kind of dog is he? Where is he from? feels like the canine equivalent of asking a black or brown person: No, where are you really from? – a question I have found ubiquitous in the context of my white family. Black greyhounds are Battersea’s most unpopular dog, and due to superstition and prejudice, black animals are adopted at much lower rates, globally, than other animals. Nervousness in a dog is also more likely to lead to euthanasia than other behavioural problems.Jasper wasn’t the Insta-perfect dog my friends had imagined me getting, but so what? I know that real love is not about optics, or biology, or even logic, but simply an innate connection to another living thing. With time and training and affection, Jasper has reminded me of what it takes to love and be loved: courage. Georgina Lawton will be joining Nikesh Shukla and Nadia Owusu to share their personal stories of race, identity and belonging at a Guardian Live event on Monday 15 March. Book your ticket for the livestream here .Raceless by Georgina Lawton is published by Little, Brown. To order a copy, visit