A boy should have a dog. It’s one of the few bits of old-fashioned, unjustified conventional wisdom that appeals to me. I’m a patriot, but not in that way. I’m an optimist, but not one of those guys. I generally like to qualify my enthusiasm for most traditions, but my son is a boy and I found it very easy to think he should have a dog. Because dogs teach us many of our most important lessons in life.
There’s no good time to get a dog, just like there’s no good time to have a kid. But a practical desire to reduce the amount of feces that any adult in the household was obligated to handle meant that we were waiting for our son to be housebroken before we brought in a potentially-not-housebroken puppy. In a typical display of outrageously aggressive scheduling, we thought we’d go looking for a new dog on the same day my son began potty training.
I had some reservations about a new pet – we have an aged and increasingly decrepit cat who still commands our unrequited affection, and I still hold out a torch for our wonderful, temperamental mutt Chelsie that we’d put down when my wife was halfway through her pregnancy. The first few dogs we saw at the first shelter we visited confirmed by skepticism; They were jumpy and annoying and far too high strung to have in a small NYC apartment along with a toddler and a cat. We ended our first day of dog hunting with no real candidates. I wasn’t even particularly sad that the search had yielded no results.
The second day of dog pursuit was a blur, involving a ZipCar and Long Island and a surprising amount of paperwork. We sniffed a few puppies that were all far too big even at only a few months old, met some older dogs that seemed too stressed by the pressures of having lived in the shelter’s kennels, and then finally went back to one of the first dogs we’d seen on the way in, Kenya.
Kenya had only been in the shelter for less than an hour, we were told. Dropped off by a family that had adopted her from the very same shelter three years earlier, she’d been living a happy life with a family that had kids and a cat, just like us. The animal workers asked us a very detailed set of questions about our background and employment and our references, and set about doing that vague set of official-looking actions that people do when clipboards and triplicate forms are involved.
While we waited, they told us the family that Kenya had been living with had brought her back to the shelter from which she was adopted because they’d had their lease changed, and the new one didn’t allow pets. It seemed implausible to me that they wouldn’t have been grandfathered in, but my assumption was they were using that as a cover story for a mom who was tired of nagging the kids to walk the dog or a dad who was allergic to pets or some other stress in the family.
To our delight, her former human companions had done a wonderful job of teaching Kenya. Even in the stressful and confusing environment of the pet shelter, she responded easily to sit, stay and shake, even calming down enough to roll over and get her belly rubbed by the time our paperwork had been processed. Among the many paper signs adorned with any manner of animal-related clip art were stern admonishments not to use cell phones or to take any photos. I got busted taking the photo at the top of this page just as they returned to tell us we’d been accepted as adoptive pet parents.
Kenya was already walking easily and happily alongside us on her leash as we went to the pet store down the block and picked up her brand new matching harness, leash, food, and a lint roller to pick up pet hair. I’d forgotten how much of dog ownership is about trying to keep work clothes looking presentable.
Bringing our new dog home went as smoothly as we could hope. She was friendly and submissive when meeting our toddler son, cheerfully accepting his petting and kindly ignoring the one time he gently pulled on her tail. Meeting the cat was a little less pleasant, with a bit of hissing and barking, but we escorted our geriatric feline to a temporary hiding spot in our bedroom until they worked things out. In short order, we had a warm dog resting on our feet while we sat on the couch and our son happily read from one of his usual books. A boy and his dog.
Kenya guarded her food pretty aggressively, but still let us move her bowl around if we needed to. She was strong enough that I couldn’t simply pull her backwards from chasing a squirrel when we were on a walk, but not so strong that I couldn’t stop her from heading in a direction that I didn’t want her to go. She warmed up to city living pretty quickly, and I started to think a bit more about what it would be like when my son enters junior high school someday, coming home to tell his dog about the day he had.
The first time Kenya snapped was at me, when I was trying to escort the cat past her in our narrow hallway. It was easy to ascribe her response to the stress of having been in the pet shelter, and the incredible duress of living in a new home with new humans and a new cat. I didn’t dismiss it altogether, but I wasn’t overly worried about the new dog.
A few hours later, I shared the photo of the dog on Instagram, having earlier posted it on Foursquare from the animal shelter where she was adopted. I didn’t do so lightly, as announcing a new family member to a few hundred thousand people was sharing a fairly private, emotional moment with the world. The response was instant and unanimous: Humans like dogs and think that dogs are cute.
The second time Kenya snapped was at my wife. The third time was almost simultaneous, at the cat. The last time she bit someone in our household, it was my son. No skin was broken, and he fortunately didn’t get too scared, but the decision suddenly became clear, and as easy as was possible, especially given that the shelter Kenya had come from was a no-kill shelter. Less than a day after that incident, she was back where we’d first adopted her.
I still get people asking me on Facebook or on Instagram about how the new dog is doing. I’ll generally tell them the story as briefly as possible, a bit embarrassed and ashamed about having only had a dog for a couple of days. As someone who loves and respects animals, and takes extremely seriously the obligation of caring for them, I can’t help but feel like I should have found a way to do more for a dog that is, in her heart, truly sweet and loving.
But what surprised me was how foolish I felt for sharing a single image with my social networks. In every other context where I give the world a glimpse of my real, personal life, I’m very careful about the view I offer of what we’re really experiencing. I don’t mind maintaining a public persona that can be controversial or off-putting (hello, film fans!) but when it comes to my real life, I heavily edit what’s presented out of respect for my wife’s privacy, my son’s youth, and my whole family’s sanctity.
I tempered my usual judgment, though, from the sheer joy of having had a dog in my life again after years without. I have no doubt that Kenya will find a wonderful, loving home with a child-free household that wants a beautiful and intelligent animal to share their lives with. And for all my misgivings about the stress we put Kenya through, I don’t doubt that we’ve made the right choice to keep our child safe and a sweet dog out of trouble.
What I’m left with, though, is a lingering regret that isn’t directly traceable to a sad, but straightforward, story about a pet adoption gone awry. Instead, I can’t get out of my head the sense of obligation, and expectation, from a network of friends and strangers with whom I’d shared a personal moment.
I don’t fear their judgment – friends will support us, and strangers can do whatever they want. But I did have a moment of wondering if we should make a mismatched adoption work, in order to meet the expectations of this invisible audience with which I’d shared our good fortune. We did the right thing, but I briefly questioned it not on the grounds of our own rationale, but in anticipation of the response or objections of people who would never even be in the same room as our family or this dog.
I’m not a person prone to self-doubt or to second-guessing. I am the kind of person who can embrace the simple narrative of a boy and his dog. Living a connected life where I attempt to honestly share my experiences in view of friends and strangers has almost always resulted in more joy and delight during shared moments.
But if I’ve drifted from sharing the more difficult parts, the more complicated parts, the more embarrassing parts, then I’m hoping that reclaiming the ability to publicly share what’s hard and ugly and sad and frustrating can be what I learn from my time spent with Kenya.