“‘Look at that,’ people said, looking at me and not Rose. ‘Look how badly she wants a baby.’ […] When did mammals get so confusing? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see the differences? You can’t leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you’re cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in in the park, or wait by the door for your return, and, as far as I can tell, they know absolutely nothing of unconditional love.” Ann Patchett, “This Dog’s Life”
While I cannot echo Patchett’s claim that she never regretted the decision to have a dog on those midnight trips outdoors, I identify with her differentiation between babies and dogs. Like Patchett, I am childless–by choice. When I finally met the love of my life, and found job stability and settled into a community, I was in my late 30s. When Gregg and I discussed our thoughts about children early on, I told him I have been on the fence on the issue most of my life. As we settled into our relationship and our mutual agreement not to have children, I experienced moments of loss–usually around the holidays, and usually observing moments that I most would’ve enjoyed with children–trips to the library or bookstore. But mostly, I experienced a kind of relief to be spending these years of my life not tending to young children.
I, did, however, long to tend to a puppy–to raise an adorable furry being into happy, well-adjusted doghood. I craved the companionship on walks, the snuggles, and the sheer affection that a dog can provide.
Living in a home where we could comfortably raise a puppy, Gregg and I discussed whether getting a dog would be a good decision. We listed pros (see above) and cons (a temporary limit on our free-wheeling day trips out of town, the expense, the shift in our daily schedules). We decided that the pros vastly outweighed the cons, and I researched breeders of miniature golden doodles, our breed of choice. We sent in an application, and waited.
I tried to imagine our home with a dog. While I had grown up with Golden Retrievers, they were outdoor, farm dogs. Our relationship with them was friendly but not close. Gregg liked dogs but had never had one in his life. We read about dog training, researched the best foods, toys, and training methods.
On a sunny July day, I called our breeder to check on the progress of the litter and she told me that something went wrong and the litter didn’t take. I was devastated. Gregg and I had anticipated bringing our puppy home in early Fall, a perfect time to potty train. We agreed to wait for the next litter, and our name was bumped to first on the list. On November 9, the puppies were born, and we were invited to come choose our puppy on January 3, and take her home the next morning.
We had to drive about six hours to the breeder’s house, so we made an adventure out of it, taking all day to drive, to eat, to stop for coffee, and to enjoy the time together. We arrived in the early evening and she introduced us to the four female puppies we could choose from. She gave Gregg and I each a puppy to snuggle, and we then played with all four of them. Two were clearly sassier than the others, trying to chew on Gregg’s shoelaces, and instigating play in their pen. One was a little smaller, a little snugglier, and much lighter in color than the others–she was the first one I held, and she was the one we chose, for her sweet, quiet nature.
The next day, we picked her up and took her away from her canine family. I sat with her on my lap in the backseat the long drive home. We stopped twice to give her a chance to go potty and drink water, neither of which she would do. Instead, she tried to crawl up in the wheel well. Back inside the car, she yawned and panted. I furiously researched these symptoms on my phone, only to discover that they were signs of distress.
When we finally arrived home, she wandered through the house, and promptly peed and pooped on the floor. And so began our life at home with a dog. The first few months were among the most challenging of my life, and family and friends can attest to my tearful frustration and guilt at wanting to give her back. I was obsessed with raising her by the book, The Art of Raising a Puppy, by the Monks of New Skete. I wasn’t sure what to do when Hazel didn’t respond like the dogs in the book.
From my current vantage point, I can’t remember everything that was so terrible those first few months, but I do remember her incessant barking when placed in her crate while we were home, her desire to nip and jump at our ankles, the multiple mid-night potty breaks, and her reticence to poop on command.
More than her normal puppy learning behaviors, the challenges were external: multiple polar vortexes, with record-breaking sustained frigid weather; and my mother-in-law’s repeated admissions to the hospital as each session of chemo, meant to extend but not save her life, landed her in a hospital bed, weaker each time. Gregg helped care for his mother, and I tended to our puppy. I was tired, frustrated, sad, and lonely.
As the months passed, Hazel grew in size and in personality. Suddenly, she would go to her crate with nary a noise. We adapted our routines and she settled in, curling up on the bath mat when one of us was showering. We used the commands we learned in obedience classes, and bonded more.
Hazel became a constant, affectionate, and playful companion. She senses my emotions, and has licked tears from my face and comforted me during an anxiety attack. Taking care of her needs–for food, for potty breaks, for walks and play and exercise, has kept me aloft during one of the most difficult years in my life. My mother-in-law never regained strength from her last rounds of chemo, entered hospice in mid-April, and passed away on May 22. I can honestly say that Hazel has helped me cope with this loss.
Today, Hazel is content lazing around the house, joining me on long walks, and playing never-ending games of indoor fetch. She is sweet, well-behaved, adorable, and goofy. She is wary of many strangers, despite our attempts at socialization (a few encounters with aggressive dogs are to blame), but quickly warms up to those who speak kindly and pet her. Gregg and I appreciate her playfulness and her sheer joy at seeing us come through the door every evening afterwork.
Patchett writes, “I want to learn to love people like this, the way I love my dog, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way my dog loves me.” Hazel has shown me the possibility of pure, unconditional love and forgiveness, and I’m doing my best to emulate her model.
Hazel, named after the band Sister Hazel, whose song “In the Moment” is one of “our songs,” completes our family of three and brings so much joy to our lives.
“In the Moment,” Sister Hazel (2004)
Well if you’re wondering
Where I’ve been all evening
If you think that I’ve drifted off
Without leavin’ here I’ve finally found the answers
Don’t worry, I’m not lost
I’m in the moment
The one where nothing matters
And everything’s alright
I’m seeing things so clearly now
And you’re the reason why
I’m in the moment
And I’ve alive
I’ve been restless but you have been so patient
Well I carelessly wasted my time
But you left the door open
And you kept the light on
You waited for me to arrive
Well I’ve finally come around
And now I see
Every road has taken me
Where I wanna be
I wanna be