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Dog Days of Summer

July 22, 2018

Last fall, I got a dog. My first dog. I lived more than fifty years without one. Mom was afraid of dogs and allergic to cats, so having a pet wasn’t an option in our family other than the rabbits we raised in the back yard and a few short-lived tadpoles and turtles. We gave dogs a wide berth in public, too, since Mom worried that we’d be bitten or covered in germs. Thus, as an adult, I was one of those people who visit your home and cringe when your dog greets them at the door. The lively wet licking, jumping, and enthusiastic sniffing always intimidated me a bit. 

And then one night, about five years ago, at a charity auction, I started petting a sweet white puppy on a leash who had been donated to the cause that night by a local dog breeder. The puppy was well-trained, and his handler demonstrated its skills to me when she saw how interested I was. I’m sure she believed I would be a big bidder that evening. The puppy stood patiently while I stroked the soft fur between his ears. His tail thumped on the carpet, and he looked up and met my eyes with that lively, happy, soulful gaze a golden retriever has. I had never seen a white retriever before, and the handler explained more to me about the breed. English cream goldens look just like the typical golden but with a slightly stockier build and cream-colored fur. They have the temperament that makes golden retrievers popular family pets around the world, and their black eyes and noses give their face an expressive look that I fell in love with on sight. 

Tom made me leave before the auctioneer started the bidding on the puppy.  I think he believed my impulses would get the better of me. But that evening began a period of what I can only call “courting” the idea of having a dog. I researched different breeds, stalked websites looking at puppy litters for sale, read up on puppy raising, asked friends about their dogs with an interest I’d never had before, and curiously watched people out walking with their dogs in the neighborhood. On the advice of a friend, I even visited a local English cream breeder to see if I found the adult versions of these dogs as wonderful as the puppy I’d seen. I did. In fact, when a big female came and lay down next to me as I sat on the floor with a pup in my lap and put her paw on my leg, I felt myself relax. The pictures my son snapped of me holding the puppy look as awkward as anything you’ve ever seen. It kept wriggling and nipping, and I had no idea what to do with it. But one photo captured me watching the puppies play with my hand resting gently on the adult dog at my side, my fingers deep in her fur like we had fused together. Joe joked that I may be the only person who ever went to look at puppies and liked the grown dogs better. I responded quickly that I had also enjoyed him less as an infant than I do now! 

A year ago, I made the decision to stop full-time work after thirty-two years and spend more time writing, volunteering, consulting, and traveling. Some people call that retirement. I prefer to think of it as Act II.  A month into it, my husband challenged me to stop talking about a dog and get one if I was really serious. He’s never been wrong when he nudges me hard on these kinds of things. I’m often hesitant about change. He embraces it, pushing me off the cliff so I can discover flight. At his urging, I took the plunge and we bought a puppy. Bailey came to us in late-October, and last month she turned a year old. The first months of raising her nearly killed me. Friends who know me well couldn’t believe I’d traded a completely free and relaxed time of life for getting up in the middle of the night and cleaning up “accidents” as well as complicating travel and social life by having to drop off a puppy with a kennel or hire a sitter. They weren’t wrong. I almost lost my sanity trying to surmount the steep learning curve of having a high-maintenance puppy (yeah…she had a few issues). There were tears. They were mine. I’m not proud of it, but to be candid, I also shed a few tears over my children through the years. Everything worth having is hard. We earn the best things in life with sweat equity and intense emotional engagement.  

We survived the early days. Bailey grew up a bit and got used to us. I suspect she also forgave a multitude of mistakes I’m not even aware of making. We’ve only had her nine months, and already I can’t imagine our home and my life without her. How do people survive without a dog? How did I almost miss this experience? Suddenly so many things I did not ever understand make sense to me. I now get why people take time off work to take care of a pet emergency,  and why my friends who’ve lost animals still weep when they talk about them. I understand why someone would run home from the office at lunch every single day no matter how stressful that is “to let the dog out.” I understand the tug of some creature patiently waiting for you, unconditionally depending on you to care for it, and loving you with its whole heart that makes you leave somewhere early to get home for them. I see now how a dog fills a home with its presence. Even when I’m the only person in the house, I’m not alone because Bailey is snoozing on the floor in the hall while I work. I never come home to an empty house; she’s always waiting, delighted to see me again. She follows me around as I do some chore, and even the most mundane task feels less boring because she’s watching with intense fascination. Vacuuming? Laundry? They are pure entertainment to her. I sometimes talk to her as she sits watching me, solving something I’ve been thinking through in my head as I hear the words aloud. Other times, I’m the one watching her,  wondering what she is thinking about all these crazy human things she observes from her favorite place on the floor.

This post is more than just a paean to my puppy. People with far more experience in this realm have written millions of words about the love between a person and a dog. I am new to this relationship, just beginning to realize all I did not know. I am still struck by the instant bond that occurs with other humans when we talk about our dogs. I mention I have a dog, their faces light up, and the connection is forged immediately. I have seen more pictures of the pets of strangers than I have in my whole life. I’ve seen them in four different states and two different countries just in the last few months. I’ve met every neighbor in a mile radius, people I only waved at before as I drove in and out during the twenty years we’ve lived here. Now I stop to chat with them on our daily walks. I know their names, and, if they have one, their dog’s. I sit in my chair in the driveway with Bailey nosing around in the grass, and people stop by to talk and let their pup off the leash to romp in our grass. My house is less clean. My floors often sport little tumbleweeds of white fur that I have to scoop up. I have to worry again as I did with children about whether a few sneezes means allergies or a cold coming on, whether picking at food signals a stomach upset, and whether sleeping all afternoon is a nap or an illness. I’ve put miles on my Fitbit in heat and rain and snow. I am outside every single day. I notice the birds and squirrels, leaves dancing off trees in the breeze, and clouds scudding across the sky. I have made friends with a vet, a dog trainer, people at two kennels, the staff at the pet store, and everyone at Lowes and Home Depot where I run her through the store to practice training. I have filled my photo roll with pictures of Bailey, and sometimes I laugh out loud at something she does. It’s hard to picture life without this kind of connection, joy, and hard work. 

So this is about more than a puppy. It’s about adding something unexpected to what was already a full and happy life. It’s about coming to know and learning late. It’s about being taught patience and learning to let some things go (like fur on dark jeans, spotless floors, and perfectly styled hair). It’s about connecting to other people and nature in a way I could not before, and it’s about seeing that life can continue to expand in ways we did not realize if we are only willing to open to possibilities.


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