I adopted a dog about a week ago. I had been thinking about doing so for a number of weeks and for a variety of reasons. First and foremost being that I love dogs, and always have. I grew up with Mastiffs, which are a large breed, but somewhat lethargic, especially spayed or neutered dogs.
When I was really young, I have memories of going to a local breeder to pick up our first family pet, a female English Mastiff we named “Lady Agatha Christie” (or just Agatha for short), after my mom’s favorite literary figure. She grew up with us, and I remember being able to lie under the peach tree in our backyard with my head on her belly, moving up and down slowly with her (probably labored) breathing. I could and did tell her everything. She was a great listener.
When I got older, maybe 12 or so, I caught my parents loading Agatha into the family van and they brought me along to the undisclosed errand. They were taking her to be euthanized due to her old age and incontinence. I was the last person to say goodbye to her, whispering to her on the cold steel table that I would see her “on the other side” and that where she was going there would be no pain. And there didn’t seem to be when the veterinarian slid the cold steel syringe into the muscle of her aging and tired shoulder. My parents knew that had the other kids known about their difficult decision, they might have been talked out of the necessary.
To ease our mourning, my folks adopted a grown Neapolitan Mastiff from family friends who couldn’t keep their beautiful grey girl. Technically, Carlotta was my sister’s dog, but when she moved out of the house and Carlotta’s stomach turned, I was the one who crushed egg shells and mixed Cream of Wheat for her after the surgery. I also learned, shortly after meeting her, that not all dogs are the same (after a startling incident thinking I could put my face close to hers like I did Agatha). Though Carlotta was more gassy than any creature on Earth before or since, she was a great companion once we got to know one another. When my parents split and we had to surrender Carlotta to the local shelter, I couldn’t bring myself to watch her go, and probably cried more than my sister did.
After my parents’ separation, my dad fostered a few mastiffs from the local rescue program, eventually adopting an older male named Dave. Dave was a great dog, but his legs gave out one weekend when Dad was away and had to leave Dave with my mom. The vet had to euthanize him without my dad getting to say goodbye. It hurt just imagining what that must have been like for my dad.
So why do we find companionship with dogs? For me, this time, at least, it is an exercise in submission. I have been living alone for several months, quite happily and quite efficiently. But something about my character demands that I am disciplined by the demands of others in my life. In the military, I woke up early and shaved, etc. because it was expected of me by my unit. I excelled in a lot of things because I like to do my best and thrive under expectations of others.
Lately, I have found myself to be intellectually transient and unable to concentrate. I fail to exercise or focus on one thing at a time. I began to wonder if it is because I have nothing in my life that has a claim on my responsibility. I have nobody to answer to but myself. For someone who performs best within the expectations of others, it was not good for me to be answerable only to myself.
A dog represents a being that depends on me. For food, water, interaction, purpose. If I fail, I am affecting another life that has a claim on my own. For some reason this drives me. I have only had Salma, my new Boxer/Cattle Dog mix, for a few days, and I already have noticed that I take my time more seriously, something I have been trying to do since I started at Duke last September. I have wanted to exercise more, and now I have a very clear reason to do so (Cattle Dogs are high energy and become destructive if not adequately exercised). I want to spend less time dawdling on my laptop, and now I have a live creature that scolds me when I am infringing on her playtime.
The flipside is watching my solo time (which I cherish) become more rare. I cannot slip away to a coffee shop for hours at a time without feeling incredibly guilty for having her in a crate. Her restless behavior as she acclimates to her new home is distracting to me and I find it hard to concentrate on reading when I worry whether she is having an accident where I cannot see her and if I can not hear the jingle of her collar. Also, with my combat-related PTSD, her hyper-vigilance only makes my own worse.
Selfishly, I already find myself wanting my Me Time back. I want to be able to spontaneously and unreservedly meander off to a coffee shop under the auspices of getting my reading done, only to spend the entire two hours emailing and doing online errands. It feels weird to be thrust into a domestic dynamic with a non-human partner that requires my attention, energy, and time. But I do still think it can be good for me to learn the submission requisite to care properly for another creature. It puts me outside myself in a way that is reminiscent of prayer; there is something other than me that I am forfeiting a part of myself to, I am surrendering to a relationship.
Hopefully I can be for Salma the responsive guardian that she needs, but I also need to make sure I can complete my readings, papers, and other obligations that precede our relationship. I worry about the financial expense she represents (leaving the heat on during cold days, purchasing food and toys, etc.) and I wonder if I can pull it off without finding another source of income. In all this, I try to remember that praying for the little things, like Salma, is just as important as praying for the big things, like whether or not I was right about seeing Agatha again…