by Lauren Paige Kennedy
Cat people and their feline companions are like lovers in an English period film: simmering with repressed passion, maybe, but not much action going on. Dog lovers, on the other hand, are closer to John Cusack’s character in the romantic comedy Say Anything, holding a boom box overhead and loudly pronouncing their feelings with embarassingly sloppy sentiment. When it comes to human-dog love, canines aren’t the only ones who slobber.
This is why dog lovers get their hearts crushed. Not fractured, not broken, but smashed to smithereens. “It’s dangerous to love a dog,” my father-in-law once muttered as he watched me fawning over my then-injured English Setter, who’d just survived being hit by an SUV and was sporting not one but two doggie leg casts. This was a curiously unguarded moment for the man, who resembles the elder Clint Eastwood not only in looks, stance, and stature, but in temperament, too: he’s a MoonPie cookie with a seriously tough exterior, and it takes a whole lot of digging to get to the inner goo. Family legend has it his beloved German shepherd died on the same day his first child was born, forever intermingling heaven-sent joy with shocked bereavement. My husband wonders if he ever got over it. From his unchecked comment that day, I’d guess not.
So how do you manage it? To love a dog, I mean, without losing your heart to another being that’s destined, if your own destiny goes right, to die before you? How do you drag yourself out of bed every single morning—and that means every weekend morning, too—in time for the morning pee (not your own) without relinquishing some personal barriers? Schedule your dating and professional lives around daily walks and nighttime runs? Juggle vacations and quick getaways, planning your every move with an animal first in mind (and sometimes not taking either journey because you can’t find a dog-sitter, or a decent boarder)? Afford veterinary care that makes hospital bills blush? Scrub vomit out of carpets and wipe urine from tile floors, your hands inadvertently touching all that nasty DNA? Handle still-steaming, fragrant piles of shit with too-thin plastic bags, carrying them blocks until you can find the nearest trashcan to make a deposit? Beat back more aggressive breeds with sharper teeth at the dog park, ignoring your own safety in the process? Even pull an ancient pup around the block in a rickety red Radio Flyer wagon when she’s too feeble to make it herself, simply because you want the old gal to get some fresh air?
Like raising a child, caring for a dog requires a deep well of giving on your part, one that always, always asks for one more dip. Which makes the attachment different from sharing your home with, say, an independent cat or an autonomous turtle or a feckless fish. Dogs are in your face. In need of your time and attention. They demand your soul, and it’s a contract you must sign if you’re truly in it for the long haul. And once they have your soul … is this a deal with the devil, some ask? Or are the letters “d-o-g” simply You-Know-Who spelled backwards, an angel placed here on earth to guard over you with a panting perseverance?
If you want to protect your heart, read on carefully. It’s really quite simple. You must never, ever rock your dog like a baby. Never call her “Boo-Boo.” Never sob into his furry neck that you’ve lost your job, that your obsessive crush slept with your best friend, that your period cramps are killing. Never, under any circumstances, wiggle your toes in grossed-out pleasure when your mangy mutt decides to give your bare feet a spit bath, her tongue working your every ticklish crevice. Don’t dare to jog sunny miles with your dog, because running will never be the same without her and you’ll lose your will to lace up your sneakers after she’s gone. If you’re the type who sleeps with your pup, reconsider this habit immediately; your sheets will be cleaner without him and those winnowing snores should not be relied upon to send you off to slumberland, anyway. Don’t reach for your front door keys with stifled excitement, knowing a thumping tail is beating on the other side of it (it’s so nice that someone is always glad to see you). If you work at a home computer, don’t expect a real-live footrest or leg warmer to sit beneath the desk, patiently waiting until you’re ready to play, which in fact could be six or eight hours in the distant future. And if you spill some milk on the kitchen floor, for God’s sake, clean it up yourself.
Most important, don’t stare into your dog’s soft brown eyes, which adoringly gaze right back into yours, and whisper: I love you, Boo-Boo. (You already knew the Boo-Boo part. But don’t use the “L” word, either.) Don’t coo into her ear that she’s a beauty, and that you were so very clever to choose her from the pack of other pitiful pups at the pound. Don’t admit you prefer his company to some of your oldest friends, because your dog never makes veiled comments about whom you’re dating, or the man you married, or your kid who definitely has ADHD.
And when the time comes to gently let your dog go from this Earth because he’s too sick, in too much pain, or suffering from some malady both prayer and the good docs at the animal clinic can’t fix, then by all means don’t see him through his final exit. Don’t hold her paw in your hand, stroking it for the last time as she sighs her shuddering doggie sigh, thanking you with her ever-present gratitude—gratitude, even now!—for simply being there with her, and for sending her off on her passage toward death with an aching nod of good-bye, a trembling farewell kiss to her stilled snout. Finally, don’t cry as if you’ve lost your best friend when you leave the vet’s with an empty leash hanging at your side, only to arrive home to a silent house, a barren dog bed, too many unopened cans of Newman’s Own Organics Turkey and Chicken Formula, and a perfectly unmarred lawn without a single pile of poo for you to dodge or pick up. It’s true that you have lost your best friend—that you’ll never find another living creature on this planet who has studied your every habit, accepts you so unconditionally, or loves you wholly even when you’re too busy to make him happy, and who wants nothing more from you than the potent scent of your foulest T-shirt to nuzzle, or the toss of a ball thrown by your specific hand—but, still, do go ahead and dry your tears.
Because you are not besotted. You are not gutted to your core. You’ve read this post and you’re fully prepared, understanding the many traps to avoid. You haven’t lost your heart to a dog—you are immune to such sloppiness. You, my human friend, will be just fine.
Lauren Paige Kennedy is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles, Calif. After years of working on national magazines in New York, London, and Washington, D.C., she hopped off the publishing merry-go-round and decided to write only when she was in the mood. Kennedy has interviewed hundreds of bold-faced names during her career; she also regularly posts for Amanda de Cadenet’s new Lifetime website, TheConversation.tv. Clips of her work are found at mediabistro.com/LaurenKennedy.