It starts with the puppies, and the puppies are cute – I will give you that – but they take all of your time, and you have to take over as, of all things, the mom: feeding them, loving them, teaching them how to do everything. I say this even thought I know that your puppy may, in fact, be the cutest little fluff-ball that you have ever seen in your life, and may even seem to choose your family more than you choose it when you bring your delighted children to see the litter. I stand by this even though the memories of that day, of those fluffy tanks running around, falling clumsily over each other while the tired mom looks on, will stay with your family and make everyone laugh even years later. As you look back at the photos of your kids holding your puppy for the first time and wonder any of your children – not to mention that enormous dog – could ever have been so small, and so young, and so happy. As you find that you will cannot remember a time when you didn’t have the dog, when you didn’t consider her “part of the family”, even though everyone knows that these are things said only by crazy-dog-people. This is how it starts.
Once you bring the dog home, she will find a place in your house that she will claim as hers, such as the laundry room, for example, and will lay there so often that if she were not there for some reason, it would not look quite right. As the dog gets older and lazier, she will take over the space so completely and so unyieldingly that you will find yourself tiptoe-ing ridiculously over her while carrying a heavy laundry basket, while shaking your head and muttering to yourself about who is in charge around here, and how it is that you lost control of your own damn laundry room.
And the expense! Dogs need veterinary care and grooming and special allergy food and medicine and it will all cost you ridiculous amounts of money that you swore you would never spend. But with your dog, it will somehow seem worth it to keep her doing the things she most loves to do: walk on the trail with you, and chase the deer in the yard. Fetch a deflated basketball, play hide-and-go-seek, get up to greet you when you come home. You may even pay a sum which you and your husband will vow to never utter aloud to have her cruciate ligaments fixed so she can get another four years with you, and you will both be so far gone at this point that it will actually seem worth it, just to have her with you, and doing those things, for more time.
Privacy is lost when you get a dog. You will no longer be able to talk to yourself, rant while alone, or just sit and cry without the dog arriving brightly to see if perhaps staring intently at you or, in especially trying times, laying her soft chin on your leg might help. You will find yourself discussing only with the dog the things you find most personal and most scary; even extended dramatic soliloquies are, regardless of length or content, met by deep, soulful eyes and an ever-earnest expression. A wagging tail will serve only to egg you on.
Dogs affect family relationships: at a certain point in adolescence, each of your children will become more closely bonded with the dog than with anyone else in the family. They will make no secret of their preference for the dog over their parents, siblings, and perhaps even their friends. If they are going through a particularly difficult time, you may be comforted by the notion that at least they have someone they will allow to love them, that they have the capacity to love. Once they reach adulthood, your children will have become crazy-dog-people of the highest order; they will stop to talk to every dog they see, they will plan for the dogs they and their partners will get, they will send you pictures of random dogs that you do not know. They will go weeks without calling their mother to ask how she is but not more than three or four days without texting her to ask if she could please send a photo of the dog. Which, despite the fact that the mom has still not been asked how she is, she will happily oblige, because it feels like connection – to the dog, and family, and their childhood – and because it will sometimes be how you know that they are OK. And sometimes be their way of telling you that they are not.
Living with a dog can affect other relationships, too, causing you to develop unrealistic expectations for friends and family. You may begin wonder why they cannot listen as well, why they so frequently minimize your concerns, interrupt your rants, or roll their eyes at your dramatic soliloquies. You will be disappointed with the limits of their loyalty and unconditional love, and have to remind yourself frequently that only dogs are dogs, and that people are not.
And then one day, one day after all of this, you will come home and find the dog lying not in the laundry room, or in any of her usual spots, but in an unfamiliar spot as far from her laundry room home as she can reach indoors. She will be facing away from the rest of the house, and he family, and she will be looking toward the woods. Her dark eyes, which have clouded over, will stare into the middle distance with something painfully short of recognition. She will not seem to care much that you are there; when you speak, she will not even wag her tail. And you will know that this is the end.
And your heart will be broken, with loss but with shame, too, as you admonish yourself for the depth of your grief over the loss of something not even a person, because after all, dogs are dogs, and people are not. You will scold yourself – you, you will hiss bitterly into the silence, you, who of all people, should know better – and worry that leaving your job with cancer patients has caused you to completely lose perspective on your life. And then you will become afraid that such loss of perspective could lead to something worse happening, and to an actual person. And oh, God, you will inhale sharply, starting to panic, what if that person was one of your kids? What if that person was you?
And the mention of these thoughts – these that are the most personal and the most scary- will lead, as they always have, to a good talking-to to yourself: this time about grief and acceptance and perspective and gratitude. Maybe even a dramatic soliloquy about the value and rarity of true and loyal friendship and unconditional love, and how the dog was that to you for eleven years in a quiet way that you hardly even noticed. How in so many silly, everyday, dog ways, she was the friend you always wanted to have and to be, how much and how unfailingly she loved you even when you didn’t deserve it. How your family won’t forget her and might not even get over her at this rate, and how there may never be a dog quite like her again. And after enough of this, you will find yourself so bereft that there will be nothing to do but just sit and cry.
And this time, no one will come to listen, to stare at you intently, to wag her tail to egg you on. No soft chin will come to rest on your leg. It will just be you.
You, and a lifetime of memories of a dog that you never should have gotten.