One blazing September day last year, Laura and I traveled between tobacco fields and down dirt roads in Nowhere, Kentucky, to adopt a green-eyed chocolate pup we’d seen only in pictures: Gordon Dudley. At home on our counter we had left behind our list of pros and cons for adopting a dachshund puppy. On that scribbled list, we had noted all we knew, the good and bad, about owning a dog. Turns out we should have listed all we didn’t know.
For instance, I didn’t know that a dog would refuse to eat except out of your hand. I didn’t know that a puppy wouldn’t sleep unless curled up between your legs. Didn’t know that he would attach himself to two people (dachshunds are prone to be devoted to one person) and show anxiety when one of those people is not in the room.
I didn’t know that a puppy shivered and ached for a whole day like an infant after getting his shots. I didn’t know a puppy experienced teething symptoms—the sickness, irritability, pain—like human children. I didn’t know a puppy threw tantrums, held grudges, sought revenge on rugs and couch cushions. And most bewilderingly, I didn’t know that a puppy did not merely add himself to your life—he became your world.
Now, after almost a year with Dudley, I can tell you this much—
When a dog comes into your life, you will think your life is over. But it’s not. Not yet.
The shower was my favorite place to cry in those early months. Sleep deprived and discouraged, I spent all my time after work training him or calming Laura from her frustration with training him all day in my absence. In the shower I could sob into a wash cloth and contemplate what we had done. I rehearsed my call to the breeder: No refund necessary—just take him back.
Seeing my puffy eyes later, Laura begged me not to say it. Ignoring her, I’d burst out, “What were we thinking? Why did we get him?”
“Pal, we’ll give him until Christmas,” she promised. “If he’s not better by then, we’ll tie a bow around his neck and give him to someone we don’t like.”
It seemed that everyone we met had a story about a dachshund who lived an impressively long life. We were once waylaid in the park by an elderly couple who patted Dudley’s head and fondly recounted the recent passing of their own dachshund—at 18 years old.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. Eighteen years sounded like a sentence of some kind. I’d be 48, about to enter menopause and not far from collecting social security, still trying to tie together the ends of my life that this dog had unraveled.
I’m hesitant to call those moments regret. They more closely resembled grief, bereavement for a life no longer wholly mine. My heart hadn’t expanded yet like a balloon, ready to be filled with love. I had to learn to let my life go, to call it over, before it could really begin.
You will think your life is over—but it has only just begun.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone,” the memes say. And there’s a lot of uncomfortable truth to that. Adopting a puppy broadened my life with understanding of a creature other than myself, and in that new understanding, it feels like my life is just beginning. Here are a few things Dudley has taught me.
1. Hard Things Will Become Easier with Time
It was hard for me to imagine a day when Dudley would play on his own without needing a constant companion; when he would eat his food from his dish; when he wouldn’t need continual supervision to make sure he went potty outside.
Dachshunds are notoriously hard to housebreak. Those first months were torture, taking him outside every 20 minutes even in the dark and rain. Once he went a whole week without an accident in the house. We felt pleased at our training—until Laura found a turd graveyard beneath her bed. I’ve never felt so angry and betrayed. We yelled. We spanked him. We put him in his crate. I grieved again.
Eventually, of course, Dudley stopped peeing and pooping inside, learned to entertain himself, and is finally eating his food. Now I wonder, What did we love before Duds? What did we talk about? Where did we derive the joy of watching him root through each grocery bag to find a treat or toy? This very hard thing—one of the hardest things that I had ever done—got much easier. And gives me strength to think of doing other hard things.
2. Work Through Distraction. Duds misbehaved when he didn’t get enough sleep, so onweekends Laura and I put him in his crate, covered it with a blanket, and left the house so he would nap. During those times, we went to a cafe’ to write, and I finally started keeping up with my blog. With my determination to post a blog once a week, I soon discovered that I needed to be writing each evening. But Dudley didn’t make that easy. He wanted to play constantly, and needed to be supervised.
For a while, I resented the distraction, wanted to delay my creation until I found the perfect conditions. E. B. White, a man who knew a bit about the dachshund life, said, “Creation is in part merely the business of forgoing the great and small distractions.” He was right.
It took practice, but eventually I learned to write a sentence at a time while throwing a stuffed toy or petting a velvety head or balancing a computer on top of a puppy on my lap. And I learned to be grateful for the distraction. Without Dudley, I might not have started writing again. Sometimes only a great disruption can give us the discipline and structure to get things done.
3. Let Go of Things. Dudley added so much to our lives—joy, laughter, purpose, an object for our love. But for each thing he brought, he also took something. Sleep went first to his puppy bladder calling at 4:30 a.m., then to a full-grown dog—the longest dog you’ll ever meet—stretching horizontally in my bed and kicking my kidneys.
I’ve said goodbye to a clean apartment and hello to bites of unwanted kibble by the food dish, half-chewed antlers on the couch, and cotton entrails of mutilated stuffed toys strewn across the room like a crime scene. I lost the freedom to leave for day excursions without worrying about Dudley and feeling guilty for leaving him alone.
I’ve lost money on food he refused to eat, toys he demolished, and a computer cord that suffered the brunt of his boredom. I lost grocery store receipts, a brand new decorative blanket, and to-do lists on chewed up sticky notes. But I also lost the need for order and perfection. Life, in large part, is just figuring out what is worth holding onto and what is worth letting go.
4. Look for Cause and Effect. When we walked up to the breeder’s kennel, Dudley refused to come forward. He was trapped behind the gate, and though happily wagging his tail, he refused to push his way out to see us. The breeder reached behind the gate to gather the handful of wiggling pup. A few weeks later, after discovering Dudley’s fear of going under things, we understood his refusal to crawl beneath the gate.
We’ve also learned that when he needs to poop, he runs around frantically. When he starts tearing at the rug, he’s upset that we haven’t played with him; when he’s digging at the couch, there’s a toy underneath; when we praise him, he behaves much better than when we punish him. I’ve learned the beautiful symmetry of cause and effect and now try to look for it without hasty, simplistic judgment.
5. Get Past Just. I can’t bring myself to say, “He’s just a dog.” If ever you hear someone say that a dog doesn’t have feelings, don’t believe him. Duds is a dog, for sure; but he’s more than just a dog—he’s a creature who deserves my respect.
When I take the time to look into his eyes, to see him cock his head and try so hard to understand my words, I know that just is often an excuse for my bad behavior. It reminds me of other just phrases: She’s just a teenager. He’s just a boy. She’s just got a temper. I’m just a no name. You’re just a loser. Just is often the start of abuse, disrespect, or dismissive behavior—toward creatures and humans.
You thought your life was over—but then it is.
No puppy website adequately warned me that my life would be filled not only with warm hand licks and soft bellies, but also bags of poop, impacted anal glands, putrid teething breath, maddening hours waiting for him to find the right squat spot, and the knowledge that all this—his life and my life as I’ve known it—will end.
To hold a dog is to embrace a life of concentrated joy yet inevitably swift sadness. Their lives are only a fraction of ours, forcing us to make the most of each day. The current fullness of my heart informs my future depth of emptiness. How long would the carpet take to smooth out from the imprint of his crate. How long would it take me to gather his toys from where he last left them?
Whenever the end comes, it will come too soon. So for now I stroke that soft spot on the side of his neck, kiss between his eyes, breathe in the sweetness of his fur, and love him.
The heart is a great alchemist, over time turning inconvenience into pleasure, frustration into joy, resistance into love. Time, if we’re listening, teaches us to be better humans. I didn’t know much when Dudley entered my life, but my time with him has taught me what Roger Caras knew: “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole.”