Shaped by the Love of a Dog

I write this as a caveat to men who might like to date me. As a kind warning to first-time pet-adopters. And as an ode to fellow dog-lovers everywhere.

It was 17 months into my adoption of Savannah, a delightful blue heeler/English setter mix, before I came to grips with how she was changing my life.

Why was this such a surprise? After all, my previous dog — much-loved for 15 years — was the sole impetus for multiple friendships that sustain me even now, more than three years after her death. My life would be far poorer without them, and I truly suspect we wouldn’t have met at all if I hadn’t gone for a dog-walk up Oxford Road one afternoon.

For 15 years, I willingly shaped my life around my last dog and her needs, her friendliness, her love of off-leash woodsy hikes. My travel was shaped around Madeley and my budget was shaped around caring well for her. (Don’t let anyone tell you that dog-ownership isn’t expensive. It’s worth every penny, but it’s a lot of pennies.)

Every year we announced her birthday with party invitations to her besties. I recently found one such email, addressed to: Mandy, Buttercup, Otis, Ella, Cracker, Willie, Butter, Eric, Piatt, Lincoln, Jackson, Fenway, Bogart, Lucy, Mesa, Tybee, Levi, Samson, Winnie, Moxie, Hector, Mimi, Sugar, Frodo and Cassie. (Yes, she was popular.)

Privately, I’d nicknamed Madeley “Mary Poppins” because she was “practically perfect in every way.” I’d worked hard on her training, and before long I could take her anywhere, into any situation. She was the best of companions.

Our lives became so interwoven that when I had to put her to sleep on Christmas Day 2013, my grief was an aching hole around her absence.

Five months later, I welcomed 10-month-old Savannah. And I just didn’t see it coming — how I’d have to curve my life differently around this different pup. Didn’t I already have a dog-friendly lifestyle? A pet-ready home? A leash, a crate and dog-obedience lessons under my belt? Ahhh, but this is Savannah. Hold on for the ride.

I’ve now seen it happen multiple times with others who adopt a new dog — whether a breeder-coddled puppy, an SPCA-special or a stray who shows up at the front door.

Before week two, we’re all a bit shell-shocked. We’re exhausted, trapped, grasping at serenity. Wondering, as silently as possible, if we should have asked more questions. Even daydreaming about our problem child running away — not coming into any danger, of course. Just being whisked away by a well-meaning stranger who refuses to return her. (And of course we mourn, but then we get over it).

But of course that doesn’t happen. After all, we are responsible dog owners. And there is something lovable about our crazy one, despite what he destroys or the decibels of her voice. Unbelievable as it seems, we eventually forget the first exasperating tugs-of-war on a walk. Or the terror when he escapes the open door. Or the tense minutes hiding in the bushes outside the living-room window to spy on her the first few times we leave her alone — fingers crossed as we wonder what she will do to the house. (I really did that. And she did nothing but take a nap.)

Slowly, though, the pup learns our house rules, and we learn to pre-empt disaster. And everyone adapts. And life as we know it shifts. Permanently.

My exercise routine has changed because of Savannah. My yard maintenance. My patience. My budget. (Read into that as much angst as you wish.) I don’t know why I didn’t see this coming — this rearrangement.

Before long, I also experienced what I can only call “dog owner shame.” You know what I mean. It’s different for everyone, but when it happens, you just feel like the worst dog owner. Someone who likely lets small children run amok and behave badly too. You feel the stares and absorb the condemnation.

Those moments made clear to me how often I’d experienced “dog owner righteousness” over Madeley’s model behavior, when it wasn’t due to me. True, I’d worked hard on her training. I’d been diligent and consistent — countless early morning walks in the rain, practicing “heel”; recruiting neighbors to help with training exercises.

But more of the amazingness of Madeley was due to Madeley. I know, because I’ve been even more diligent and more consistent with Savannah’s training. But (sigh) Savannah is Savannah, and she follows her nose wherever it will take her.

But life with my new girl hasn’t been all chagrin and angst. Far from it. There’s deep pride in how every single dog sitter has said she’s a delight and they’d take her again in a moment.

My world has expanded in sweet ways too. I’ve forged bonds with multiple new neighbors over dog-sitting requests and complicated play-date arrangements. There’s nothing like the heartfelt honesty that can surface when you’re both in your bathrobes drinking lattes on a Saturday morning, discussing life while the dogs romp. Savannah has made this all possible.

So even as we had our bumpy beginning, I just cannot imagine how boring my life would be without her. Neater, yes. Calmer, for sure. And certainly wealthier.

But who can put a price on companionship and belly laughter and a deep bark to ward off things that go bump in the night? What’s better than a soft velvety ear to roll between your fingers when you’re sad, or a companion to accompany you into the woods on a crisp fall day?

Despite all the agonies of this grand reordering, I’d choose again and again to be shaped by the love of a dog.