A couple of years ago, my friend Susie and I were strolling along the Riverside Park promenade with our elderly dogs, Lucy and Daisy. “So,” Susie whispered, as if she were afraid the dogs might overhear, “when Lucy dies, will you get another dog?”
After a moment of self-reflection, I whispered back, “I love Lucy. But when she’s gone, I’m done.”
“Thank god!” said Susie. “I thought I was the only one.”
Apparently, we both felt some degree of shame over our willingness to relinquish our status as dog people. After all, we’d both taken great pleasure in our dogs over the years and showered them with love in kind. So could a true dog lover really turn her back on all the wonderful things dogs bring to our lives?
Perhaps she could.
[pullquote]Lucy died a year ago, and I miss her every day. But she was also a pain in the neck –nippy, ornery and expensive.[/pullquote]
Lucy and Daisy had entered our respective households more than a dozen years earlier when we both had children at home to help with feeding and walks. But once our kids were gone, the burden of caring for those pooches fell squarely on our shoulders. As our dogs aged, that responsibility took some pretty distressing turns. Lucy took to pooping on my sisal rugs at least once a month. (Anyone who has a sisal rug knows how gross this is.) Daisy began demanding a 3:00 a.m. walk every night, barking until Susie threw a coat over her pajamas, waited for the elevator and then stood on a desolate street while Daisy did her business. (This charming habit continues to this day.)
Lucy died a year ago, and I miss her every day. But she was also a pain in the neck –nippy, ornery and expensive. So when people ask me if I’m getting another dog, I have trouble detangling the complicated clump of emotions that rises in my throat.
First, there are the facts: I know firsthand how much time and money it takes to be a diligent dog owner. As a city dweller, I headed to the park every morning for 15 years, no matter how freezing or sweltering or wet the weather. Lucy took several other shorter walks throughout the day as well.
I spent dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars trying to train an oppositional terrier who basically flipped me the bird and did as she pleased. At great expense, I installed an invisible fence around our upstate house in an attempt to keep Lucy in bounds when all she wanted was to hunt critters in the woods or, worse, roll in their poop. That fence stopped working intermittently – not that we knew it until we spotted Lucy standing in the middle of the busy road in front of our house or emerging from the front seat of a kind neighbor’s car. The fee for fixing that finicky fence? Eighty dollars a visit.
I kept grooming expenses to a minimum, trimming Lucy’s coat just twice a year, but at $90 bucks a pop, her haircuts still cost twice as much as mine. I don’t want to calculate the insane amount of dollars spent on food, toys, walkers, sitters and insurance – and don’t even get me started on vet bills. We coughed up our first four-figure payment when Lucy was just four months old and swallowed her doggy toothbrush. At the vet’s office, the doctor summoned her colleagues so they could share a laugh at the x-ray image that showed the toothbrush, clear as day, lodged in Lucy’s tiny tummy. “Ha-ha!” they chuckled. Quickly followed by: “That’ll be $1,400 for surgery, payable in advance.” Professionally cleaning her teeth periodically? $750. Most years, the cost of Lucy’s upkeep outpaced my own.
But – and this but is the big one: Dogs rule. They are just plain fantastic.
[pullquote]When I visit my in-laws, I smooch their old lab despite the fact that he absolutely stinks. I seem to be suffering from dog deprivation.[/pullquote]
Even a dog as quirky as ours. Lucy was far from cuddly – she wouldn’t sit in our laps, never let us hold her for more than 30 seconds and deigned to give us a kiss once a month at most. But she was smart and hilarious, and we knew she loved us. When my boys were in high school, Lucy would spend the first part of the evening in Nick’s room, curled up at his feet as he did his homework. Later, she’d head down the hall for a visit with Peter, settling into the pillow next to his head. Before dawn, I’d hear her toenails scrabbling across the floor toward her final stop of the night – the dog bed next to our bed. When it came to filling our apartment with love, Lucy spread the wealth. As I type these words, I picture her snoozing in her favorite spot a few feet from my desk and I smile through my tears.
My kids would love for me to get another dog. “Come on, Mom,” they cajole, “you know you want one.”
They’re not all wrong. These days, there’s not a dog on the street that I don’t greet effusively. I practically stalk my upstairs neighbor so I can commune with her adorable mutt, Biscuit. When I visit my in-laws, I smooch their old lab despite the fact that he absolutely stinks. I seem to be suffering from dog deprivation.
I thought I might fill the void by volunteering at the New York City animal shelter in Harlem. After three rounds of interviews and the $25 purchase of my official t-shirt and ID badge, I was ready to hug some hounds. On my first day, a shelter staffer showed me how to remove the dogs – mostly pit bulls weighing in excess of 80 pounds – from their cages. This entails opening the kennel with your left hand while keeping your bodyweight against the door, then extending your right hand into the cage and looping the collar around the massive neck of a creature that just wants OUT.
I’m not going to lie – this was scary for a skinny lady who was used to clipping a leash on a 15-pound fur ball. After a couple of tries, I lassoed my dog and led him outside for a walk. (It would be more correct to say that he led me.) We shared a few gentle moments as we sat on a bench and I scratched his ears, but then came the final straw in my pit bull walking experiment: My giant dog made a giant dump right in the middle of First Avenue. He expelled as much poop in one shot as Lucy had in a month. I stood there with my inadequate poop bag in the face of oncoming traffic, trying to scoop as best I could. A few days later, I wrote to the volunteer coordinator and bowed out. He offered me bunnies and cats. Allergic, I responded. Plus, they’re so not dogs.
So where does that leave me? Somewhere between the knowledge that the freedom of a dog-free existence is undeniable and the knowledge that there’s a hole in my heart only a (small to medium-sized) dog can fill.
Sorry, Susie; I’m not sure I can hold up my end of the bargain.