I Was a Homeless Teen; My Dog, Mercury, Helped Me Through It

Few things in our life were stable or certain, but he became my reason to get up in the morning.

Last Updated on May 21, 2015 by

I met Mercury when, at six weeks and less than two pounds, he was handed to me in a strip-mall parking lot from the back of a van belonging to some backyard breeders from Southern Oregon. They “specialized” in “small mixed breeds” and “exotic monkeys.” Please, save the lecture about the evils of supporting backyard breeders or puppy mills — I know all the reasons it’s bad for health, behavior, and other issues. I knew it then, too, but sometimes love comes before ethics, and I needed that little dog.

I’ve talked before in my column before about how as a high-school student and teenage dog-agility competitor I was kicked out of home and forced to rehome my dogs. When I met Mercury, I was 18 years old and living in a tiny studio apartment in Portland, Oregon. I cried myself to sleep every night missing the dogs that I lost, and then suddenly a little butter-colored puppy, smaller than a loaf of bread, changed everything.

Mercury became my reason to get up in the morning, he and I moved five times in less than a year and a half, few things in our life together were stable or certain, but the one thing that never wavered was our connection as family — my commitment that I would never lose him, and his drive to take care of me. Despite all the uncertainty in our lives he was always well cared for and had regular vet appointments, organic food, and training. Mercury came first, and even if I was eating ramen he had the best toys and treats. Mercury and I were very much puppies together. It seems impossible how much time has passed since those days, how stable and certain our lives have become, that he’s now a senior citizen.

Our lives might have appeared unconventional — we grew up together at an LGBT youth center populated primarily by street kids, and in punk houses across Portland. Sure, in some ways this doesn’t appear the optional environment in which to raise a dog, and yet I’ve never had an easier time socializing a dog, and few dogs I’ve met have come close to the level of comfortability with different people/places/animals as Mercury. He traveled everywhere in my messenger bag, on buses and trains, and he met a diverse array of people, learning to be calm in every setting. No matter where we were living, his comfort was always my first priority.

This week my partner and I had a little birthday party for Mercury, complete with party hats and a soft meaty cake to celebrate his 11th birthday. Mercury’s birthday is always a special time for me, not only to reflect on my relationship with this very special little dog, but also to think back on the years that we have spent together. In the past decade he’s stood at my side as I’ve grown up. He was with me nine years ago when my partner and I got together, when we got our first house and later moved across the country, and bought our apartment in Brooklyn. Mercury has seen me through being a lonely and lost teenager to a successful author and so much more.

It was scary this past May when we found two oral tumors (thankfully, biopsies revealed them to be benign), and when his poor breeding caught up with him and he needed to have 16 teeth removed. It’s sobering when I realize that I’ve never really experienced being an adult without him. For 11 years Mercury and I have slept with our bodies pressed together. I don’t want to think about the day where I won’t have him in bed cuddled up to me at night. This little dog has done an incredible job of raising me up and I know that I wouldn’t be where I am today were it not for him.

Living in New York City and with a lot of my writing work focused on issues affecting homeless youth, I frequently come in contact with teenagers living in unstable housing situations, even on the streets, and the loyal dogs that they share their lives with. Of course there are always exceptions to the rule, but those dogs on the whole are some of the best cared for pups that I’ve met. They are lavished with affection, have fresh food and water before their human companions do, and often have fantastic temperaments.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m certainly not saying that homelessness or housing instability is the ideal way to raise a puppy. However, I’ve found that sometimes with the right training, circumstances that on first look aren’t ideal for raising a dog can have really unexpected positive outcomes, in creating very adaptable and stable dogs.

Do you have any surprising or unusual situations that have contributed positively to training your dogs? Tell us about them in the comments!

About the author: Sassafras Lowrey is a dog-obsessed author based in Brooklyn. She is the winner of the 2013 Berzon Emerging Writer Award from the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the editor of two anthologies and one novel. Sassafras is a Certified Trick Dog Instructor, and she assists with dog agility classes. She lives with her partner, two dogs of dramatically different sizes, and two bossy cats. She is always on the lookout for adventures with her canine pack. Learn more at her website.

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