The Write Prescription: Dog years

Sometimes the reward is just the love they bring into your life.


I am a sucker for dog videos. My favorite form of procrastination is watching “The Dodo,” which posts clips of dogs being rescued, rehabilitated, and turning into pets full of mush and love. So my enthusiasm for “The Hidden Lives of Pets” on Netflix was no surprise. But while the Dodo makes me feel at one with other dog people, “The Hidden Lives of Pets” makes me feel like a slacker.

As I watch a dog step in a harness and go BASE jumping with its owner, another anticipate its human’s seizures, and another able to speak by tapping on words (not to mention the car-driving rats and the ball-playing goldfish), I look over at my two dogs. One, a rescue, alternates between snoring and barking at danger only she anticipates, then crawling onto my lap or under the couch searching for safety. The other is flopped on a beanbag chair looking like a child’s discarded stuffed animal. Wasn’t it hard enough to raise children in our ultracompetitive world, now my dogs are supposed to be super-achievers too?

I got my first dog when I was in college. I never trained him. I envisioned us as Timmy and Lassie, but without all the drama. He wouldn’t need commands to know what I wanted, no matter how many times he disproved my theory by being a dog and not a mind reader. He loved me, but few others. Still, he made me wonder how I had ever lived without being able to look into soulful, unjudging eyes, without being able to feel the weight of a warm, soft body against me, without being able to soothe myself by burying my face in a dog’s fur.

I was more diligent with my next dog. Colleen was spayed, and learned the basic commands of sit, stay, down, come, and heel. But I wasn’t any smarter. I failed to grasp that getting a puppy when seven months pregnant with twins, while also tending to a 3-year-old, wouldn’t result in a well-adjusted pet. My solution was to put my hopes in another dog, a present for my older daughter, who I thought could use some extra love now that her siblings were born. I made two mistakes. One was bringing Frannie with me to pick out the dog, which ended up being the reject no one else wanted. Beanie walked around as if expecting to be beaten, and took an extreme dislike to several of my family’s favorite people. The second mistake was thinking a 4-year-old could help take care of a dog. So now I was responsible for the lives of three kids and two maladjusted dogs.

A few years later, I decided we needed a third dog. The kids were older, and craved a pet that behaved the way a family pet should. Zoe, a 7-pound Yorkie, was that dog. She ran to anyone who came in the door, learned tricks, and became a certified pet therapy dog. If I had the nerve to BASE jump, she would have gone with me. As far as I know, she couldn’t sniff out diseases, but she became my major-domo, disciplining the other two when they chased the vacuum cleaner, or going to get them when it was time for a walk.

After Colleen and Beanie died, I assumed Zoe felt the same sense of loss I did. And so Nellie, the stuffed animal that moves, came into our lives. Nellie is a Coton du Tulear, a breed originating in Madagascar whose only purpose was to be a companion. Nellie loved this job description. She was a training school failure. She sits if she has to, but, really, why should she have to unless it’s in someone’s lap?

Only after I brought Nellie home did Zoe make it known that she, surprise, was not feeling the same sense of loss I was. Initially playful with Nellie, her bossiness turned into dictatorship as she grew older.

When Zoe died, I knew Nellie didn’t miss her. But I did. Perhaps you aren’t supposed to have favorite children, but who is to criticize you for having a favorite dog?

That brings me to Penny, the 3-year-old Yorkie I adopted from a local shelter. Penny looked enough like Zoe that I’m not sure Nellie registered it as a different dog. And when she realized Penny was not a czar-in-training, the two could often be found snuggling together.

Penny, saved from a hoarding situation, is very damaged. She likes only two other people — my husband and a close friend. She came to us after my kids had moved out. To her they are strangers to be barked at, and whose ankles are nip-worthy. Any attempts to train her send her into fits of quaking. She is housebroken, knows her name, comes when she’s called. That’s enough.

Have I been remiss by not working harder with each dog? Could Colleen have sniffed out my daughter’s cancer if I were more disciplined about training her? Could Beanie have lived a happier life? Is there something more I should be doing with Penny beyond loving her? Nellie is slipping into dementia. If I had insisted on engaging her mind more, could this process have been delayed?

Nellie is 15. Penny is 10. I am 69. I have one, maybe two dogs, in my future. It would be nice if they sat and stayed and came when called. If they could find the book or phone I am always searching for, that would be a bonus. But all I need are those soulful eyes, the warm body, the fur to absorb whatever sorrows await me. I am done with the superdog fantasy.