How Oliver changed my life: Confessions of a non dog-lover

Here’s how welcoming a Golden Retriever into my life brought many surprises — from re-instilling my faith in myself to saving my marriage.

Let’s start with a confession. I am not a dog lover.

When they see my Facebook profile or my photo library, people ask, “Since when did you become a dog lover?” The truth is I’m not one. I don’t go out cuddling other people’s dogs (and trust me, there are quite a few beautiful ones in my neighborhood) and I certainly don’t go out hugging stray dogs.

So my reply to that question is unapologetic – “I am not a dog lover. I am just Ollie-lover.” Ollie? Let me introduce you to the star of my life – Oliver (a.k.a. Springfield Barnaby Jones), my one-year old golden retriever with dark brown sparkling, beady eyes and a cream-gold coat. Oliver changed my life by doing two spectacular things in the last one-year that I’ve known him:

1) Re-instilled my faith in me, and

2) Saved my marriage

The first one is the longest story. Here goes:

My Fragile Pet History

Before Oliver happened, I had had a grim, dark, almost gory pet history – one that is much worse than an “absent” pet history. It started with a parrot my father got for me. I called him “Pepper”.

So the trouble with Pepper was that he wouldn’t eat. And I really did try everything; I gave him plenty of water, legumes, greens, and parrot snacks. But he just wouldn’t eat for the first two days that I had him. At that point, I decided that he just wasn’t happy in a cage, being domesticated. Simple enough – he wasn’t happy and so, he wouldn’t eat. I decided to set him free. Unfortunately (and your kids should not be reading this), I was too late. Pepper had already given up.

And then for a while – more than a decade – I refrained from having pets. Not entirely because of the Pepper incident. Actually, I had become more interested in boys. But who knew! Come Valentine’s and my boyfriend decides to get me a pair of goldfish. We named them Romy and Michelle. Another friend of mine had goldfish named Tom and Jerry.

Well, Romy and Michelle were fairly happy and healthy. They were eating and pooping well. But fast-forward 7 days of my fish-love. One night, I fed them as usual, stepped out for dinner, came back (your kids should not be reading this either) and found Romy floating. I just don’t know what happened. I remember crying for days. For a few years after that I did not eat fish. And when I finally did, I puked my guts out. But well, that’s hardly redemption.

And so after that, having a pet was a complete “no” for me. My pet fetish was only occasionally manifested through a spider called Aragog (who mysteriously disappeared from my bangle box. Perhaps someone told him about my pet history – Good for him!), and a rat called Infy (short for “infection” named by my mom who thought keeping a rat in the house would only cause infection), an overnight guest, who I decided to let go before any damage was done.

While I was playing safe now, my co-founders at my startup decided to adopt a stray dog. New venture, new partners, newly awakened do-goodness, and team spirit – “Okay”, I said, “Just this last time. Plus I’m not the only parent now. These two other equally responsible adults will take care of the pups too. And both of them have a fairly successful experience with dogs.”

So on a chilly winter night in Delhi, off we drove to an animal shelter home, all four of us – me, my partner and fiancé, our third partner, and her husband. And my partners were both drooling in what was an ill-kept animal home. I was appalled to see baby monkeys stuffed inside the same iron cage as puppies. My imagination was running wild, wanting to open each cage and set free all animals in there. If only I could tell them to “run wild, run free.” I snapped back to the reality of this haunted setting for innocent animals, one that called itself an Animal Shelter, in reality no better than a laboratory for scientific experiments on guinea pigs.

By then, I was almost certain we would walk out without adopting any pets. All of them looked in such bad shape. What would make sense was to put an end to this, complain to the authorities, and fight for better rights for these animals. Even the Delhi Zoo treated such animals better.

And guess where we ended up. My two partners ended up liking two different dogs. And they wanted to adopt both. I rolled my eyes, and almost avoided being party to it. My fiancé held a tiny chocolate brown puppy in his arms. So frail she was! I must admit she was beautiful, a color I had never seen before. When we first spotted her there, she was standing at the extreme end of the cage while other pups eagerly came forward – hoping to be adopted – perhaps by even trampling her over.

Little Mia

Mia, as she would come to be known, had a heart-shaped face and sparkling brown eyes. Her head was probably bigger than the rest of her body for she was so tiny. She seemed to have instantly fallen in love with my future husband. So had he. Alright, I melted just a little bit too. She had one leg missing; this made us want to rescue her and take care of her even more. Mia was the first pup I had ever held in my arms. I will never forgetting the thumping of her heart as I felt it on my arm when clutched her and she rested peacefully, as if she had come to meet her destiny.

So there we were! Back at our office with Mia and Axl. Everyone loved them – our friends, customers, and employees. Except two people – Our investor, who thought we already had too much to worry about, and my mom, who in general is repulsive to all living beings other than humans and plants (she’s a Botanist).

Mia and Axl lived at my fiancé’s house, very close to our office. As a practice, I would typically go see him there every morning and pick him up for work. But before we knew it, our beautiful mornings went for a toss. Mia fell sick, and stopped eating. In a few days, she started puking. Axl caught up and started growing weak too. We were spending more time cleaning up and taking them to the vets than with each other or at work.

It got from bad to worse. From two visits a week, our vet visits went up to two each day. And soon he broke the bad news – Mia had distemper. I had never heard of the disease before. But I knew enough to understand that the vet was suggesting we put her down. In short, the disease wasn’t curable.

I might have been on shaky grounds but my fiancé was very clear, “We will try to save her even if there is only one percent chance.” We spent twice our combined salaries from our startup, spent many a winter evening at the vet but nothing changed. We, in fact, started seeing nervous system failure symptoms, even blindness. But we persisted with her treatment even when doctors had given up hope. All that she would want to do is stay in my fiancé’s bed or in his arms. She just wouldn’t leave his side. All my pain from my past pet experiences was long defeated. This was the pinnacle, I knew.

And while we were busy treating Mia, it was Axl who surprised us. One morning as I went to my fiancé’s house, there was no Axl. We had lost him, without a warning. Two days later, my fiancé and I had to travel to Bangalore. We were worried about who would take care of Mia’s doctor visits and treatment. Our friend offered to help. As we landed in Bangalore, the phone rang. And when the phone rings, you know it’s bad news. We had lost Mia.

And that day, we almost lost ourselves too. We were in a massive car crash. But we were miraculously saved. Part of me believes that Mia’s passing away and our lives being saved weren’t independent events. Somehow the two were linked.

Mia and Axl’s passing away had a far-reaching impact on me. Beneath the sadness were innumerable layers of self-blame. What did we do wrong? But I tried to talk myself out of it. Could it be that like Pepper, who was procured from a street vendor, Mia too was terminally ill when we got her from a clearly unreliable source? Did she give up her life to save us? Could her last few “happy” months with us, outside of her dreadful caged-life actually have made a difference in her life? Was she thankful we did not put her down but fought until her last moment?

But my self-blame wasn’t easily beaten. How could I get away by making myself believe these thoughts?

Fast-forward three years and my fiancé-turned-husband proposed that we get a dog again. I shuddered. We avoided this conversation for a few months. Then he showed me a photo of three insanely cute golden retriever pups born miles away in Chennai to a highly reputed dog breeder.

“Vaccination – check, disease-free – check, secure source – check,” he said. And asked, “So what do you want to name him?”

I avoided answering.

He started, “Corner? Storm? Spin?”

I still didn’t answer.

“Oliver?” he asked.

“Okay. Oliver.”

And through all my thick and thins with pets, in this final leap of faith I decided to take in August 2013, we ended up with a gem of a retriever. Oliver – the boy who asked for more. In this case, a dog who only knows giving.

Oliver Comes Along For The Better

Oliver when he was 4 months old

My days are transformed now. Instead of my alarm in the mornings, I now hear him tiptoeing in our bedroom from one end of the bed to the other. He waits for one of us to wake up. The minute I open my eyes, he hops like a rabbit. He’s ready to race while I wriggle out of bed like a slow turtle. And then seeing his eyes light up, my energies suddenly spike too.

Morning walks are filled with his explorations; he loves digging, sniffing, rubbing against the bushes as he walks. And his favorite moments of the day are meeting the neighbor’s puppies, Labradors much smaller but older than him, like most dogs around here. He sniffs and licks them up, showering them with his affection. Sometimes I can’t help but imagine what kind of a father Oliver would grow to become to his own children. I mean, his own pups.

During our walks, he has his favorite “spots” where he stops everyday. Like that old house number 58 where he can smell other dogs. Or the new house being constructed round the corner where he loves to play with the bricklayer’s daughter. And the classic, old jeep that’s been parked in the same spot ever since I can remember. And he hates to come back home, unless he’s panting for water.

Oliver sleeping mid-air

Oliver’s energy levels somehow always match mine. He’s vibrant and playful when I spoil him with his toys. I let him have my stuff too – my gym ball, football, and most of all my slippers that he loves to chew. And then if I scold him, he stoops low and looks up slowly with guilt-ridden eyes. That’s when he looks like the sweetest thing.

And when I drive off to work, he pokes his head out from the rooftop railing as though sad and deprived. I sometimes doubt if he can sleep at all when I’m away. Every time I come back, he greets me as if I’ve been away an entire month or more. And then he falls asleep fairly effortlessly as if he’d been waiting for this moment all day long.

With Oliver, I’ve seen my worst kinds of dog-averse friends go through a change of heart overnight. They would ask me to lock him outside when they’d have just come over. By morning, they are walking him and cuddling him.

To Oliver, With love

So you see, in this one healthy year with him, I have not just regained my faith in myself but I’ve come to find new ways to love, new ways to express love. Maybe I’m not a dog lover still, but I certainly can’t live without this one.

I have no qualms in admitting how much I needed him. I’m sure he would’ve been just fine anywhere else too – he really gets along. But I would’ve missed out.

Oliver – Our Common “Project”

The second way in which Oliver changed my life – and I love to be a bit melodramatic about this – is that he saved my marriage. Okay, not in the traditional sense. I mean I wasn’t going to get a divorce. But as he came along, he made life so much happier for my husband and I.

I dated my husband for seven years before taking the plunge. As most couples, we were naïve enough to think that marriage wouldn’t change anything and that it would just be an extension of what we already had. Six months into it – we knew we had changed our lives forever. Marriage is a lot of work!

Being in India, the wedding itself was a big social affair that continued for months after the big day. We were fooling ourselves to think that we would have more time for each other once we got married. Any extra time that we had went into meeting my extended family, or his. The rest of it? In us trying to protect whatever was left of our sanity by spending time in pursuit of things we individually enjoyed, whether it was his guitar sessions, or my writing club. As a result, we felt much less married than we would have imagined or liked to. It wasn’t an easy, rosy first six months spent “together”. We barely had the time!

And then in six months, things started to look up. We moved to another house slightly dislocated from the main city, much closer to my office. Set amidst beautiful greens, while still connected to the best cafes and malls, our new house offered somewhat of a resort-experience – way more relaxed than the heart of New Delhi.

And then came along Oliver; we got him from the airport in a grey-blue crate. And boy, he was heavy for a 2-month old! Little did we know that this plump, white bundle of all-things-good could do wonders for our family too.

Picking up Oliver from the airport

A friend of mine, forty-something, – who has been in a long, happy marriage and has three beautiful kids – once said to me, “You have to constantly move your relationship forward, whether it’s by moving from dating to marriage, or marriage to kids. It gives you a common something to work on.” I probably dismissed his advice back then but retrospectively, having Oliver really did move things forward for us.

Having Oliver was like turning over a new leaf. In what way? First of all, having him evenly divided our daily “chores”. My husband was walking him twice a day, often cleaning up the mess he created as a little pup, and taking very good care of him. He came to be fully responsible for Oliver’s wellbeing in the initial days because of his past experience with dogs and my extremely fragile pet history.

It was great to see him really take care of Oliver, being a responsible “father”. It gave me a reason to excuse everything he did or did not do around the house.

Second of all, Oliver turned out to be just right for our family, like a missing piece from a puzzle. He had balanced energy levels, wasn’t barking or hopping around like a mad dog. Often, he would look so “mature” and “lost in thought”, his human-like tendencies almost freaked me out. He gave us both great company. We couldn’t even get into a proper fight anymore. One of us would always end up looking at him and smiling. He was too adorable to resist. Plus he spread so much love around – it’s like the love quotient in the home would go through the roof with his woofs! Although he hardly ever barks, until he spots a lizard or a fly, or sees us fly our remote-controlled helicopters.

And finally, as odd as it may sound, the more I came to love Oliver, the more I loved my husband – I credited it as one of his best decisions ever (I know it sounds sad – there may have been a few others too). But how else could I ever have known and loved a dog like Oliver?

So, if you ever find yourself mad at your spouse or blame them for not taking care of the house, or are generally irritable, or just don’t have the time for kids – my advice to you is three words: Get a dog. Or steal one. And even though I’m not ready to have another one right now, I’d definitely love to grow our family. More Olivers? Hell yeah.

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