April 1, 2014, was a terrible day. It was the day I had to have my 9-year-old dog, Tina, euthanized. To this day, I still don’t know what it was that claimed her. The vets ran all the tests and prescribed all the medications I could afford, and there was nothing that halted my dog’s precipitous decline. One day, she wouldn’t eat. Less than two weeks later, Tina had completely lost the use of her hind legs. It was a harrowing experience. To a great extent, I still haven’t gotten over the shock of her loss.
Everyone says this about their dogs, but Tina really was the very best dog ever. Truly, I believe that the entire history of dog evolution could be viewed as a teleological narrative culminating with her birth. We took the same route through the forest and around the lake every day. It never got old or repetitive because Tina always seemed to find some new source of wonder to sniff at, and she always had the same look of joy on her face in the process.
I had a serious knee surgery in early 2012. While the physical pain during recovery was excruciating, what I really couldn’t bear was the look of anticipation on Tina’s face when I hobbled to the door and saw her waiting to traipse through the woods. From the day I could walk without impediment until our last walk, four days before her untimely demise, we rarely missed a day. It was the fulfillment of my promise to her during the darkest moments of my rehab.
After Tina was interred, everything felt wrong. I tried walking our wonted path through the forest alone and found the experience uncomfortable. I’d become so accustomed to having Tina next to me — her long ears flopping and her tongue lolling to one side as she trotted along — that not seeing her there was nothing short of bizarre. Tina was not only my hiking buddy, but also the best part of my motivation for regular exercise at all.
I’d never understood how people could leap straight from one long-term relationship directly into another until my dog’s death. With a rapidity that made my head spin, Tina’s absence became a kind of yawning chasm, an intolerable void I had real problems facing. I just couldn’t go out into the forest without her. The pain of loss was too intense to bear, and I decided I needed to replace Tina. Like a fool, I thought that a direct substitution, one dog for another, was the best thing to do.
I started feverishly searching local adoption agencies and shelters. No! Too complicated; I had to have a dog immediately, or I was going to go bonkers. I turned to Craigslist. Both of my previous dogs — the one I’d had as a child and Tina — were both female hound mutts, so that seemed the best starting point. Surely, I’d know the right one when I saw her! After hours of searching, I saw this happy-looking 6-month-old Bluetick Coonhound mix.
On April 10, barely nine days after burying Tina, I brought this baby puppy home and named her “Idris.” It did not take long before the gravity of this impulsive, reactionary adoption began to sink in. There were a substantial number of issues that my wild, flailing grief had blinded me to, things that are wholly obvious to the calm and rational mind:
Naturally, the puppy didn’t just slot right into the old routine I had with Tina. Why didn’t Idris and I just click, like Tina and I always had? Rather than soothing my sense of loss, I felt like I was failing my new dog. Did she even like me? Did she hate me? Was I the wrong person to raise her? Should I put her up for adoption myself? The answer that kept coming back to me was that this puppy and I would only thrive if we built a new routine together.
I had to stop comparing her to Tina, and start discovering who she was in her own right. I began to appreciate that the intensity of my grief for Tina was due to all the time we’d spent together. This puppy I’d adopted was only a baby; the dog she would become and the relationship we’d have depended on me. I ditched the name “Idris” and started calling her “Baby.” Saying it aloud is a constant reminder, both of her youth and my solemn responsibility as her owner.
Baby and I have been working on building our relationship and creating our own routine for over two years now. It’s an ongoing process, and I know I’ve learned more from her than she has from me. Every time I’ve written about, referred to, or spoken to anyone about dog or puppy adoption since I brought her home, I’ve tried to apply the lessons I’ve learned.
What are the two most critical things that bringing up Baby has taught me? Because of the circumstances surrounding her adoption, I always try to think more about what she needs from me than what I want from her. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I’ve realized that any relationship worth having is worth working on.