“Hey mom, can we get a dog?” cried my sixth grade self.
My mom turned to me with a life lesson in her eyes. All my life, I had grown increasingly aware of my mom’s ability to slip life lessons into simple questions like, “How much does a can of Campbell soup cost?” You can imagine what kind of a lecture and life lesson that question might have instigated. “Well, before we get a dog you have to prove that you can take care of a living animal. Why don’t we go to a pet store and you and your sister can pick an animal to care for as your own. Once you have proven to me that you can care for your individual pet, then we will get a dog.”
This was the first proposition I had been given about taking care of a pet. But to be honest, my sixth grade self didn’t want a stinky rodent. I wanted a stinky, social dog; a perro, or however else you can say “dog” in a different language. We had always had a dog since I was born. Our first dog was a yellow lab named Molly. I don’t remember her much because I was practically an infant when we had to put her down. Our next dog was named Brock. He was half husky and half black lab with one blue eye and one brown eye. We got him when I was in fourth grade, and we all loved him, but we weren’t very well versed in the ways of huskies. One year, he tore down our Christmas tree and gobbled up the little woven blankets that my fifth grade self had made as Christmas presents (not that him eating them was really a loss to my parents or my siblings – they were more like washcloths than blankets). He ruined a few of the plants we kept in the kitchen and various other items that we tried not to put too much stock into. But Brock also had a habit of running off and ignoring our calls when we invited him inside for treats. The first few years, we were always able to lure him back, but overtime it became more and more difficult. Until one day, he was gone for good.
I was pretty upset that Brock had run away and that there was very little hope of him returning to us. But, much like all sorts of living creatures, Brock just wasn’t the right fit for us and we just weren’t the right fit for him. Dogs are like people in that way. After Brock ran away, our family was absent of a dog for quite some time. We had a cat named Doppler (yes, she was named after the Doppler Radar Effect) who lived forever, but she wouldn’t let anyone touch her except for people who were outside the immediate family. She just wasn’t my cup of tea and I clearly wasn’t her cup of milk either.
I think there is a good reason why people ask you the age old question: Are you a cat person or a dog person? It’s not that people want to generalize and box you in as this one type of person. When you first get to know someone, I think what kind of pet they have or prefer really does reveal a lot about their personality. For example, I’ve always had this irrational idea to collect all of the sea creatures in the dentist’s fish tank from Finding Nemo. I know. It sounds really cool in theory, but when I looked into the logistics of gathering all of the fish into one tank, I realized it would cost me boat loads of money to purchase all of the creatures and I would have to have a lot of patience in taking care of them because many of the fish have to live in specific conditions in order to survive. Throughout my research, I arrived at the conclusion that I did not have the motivation or interest to really make this happen. But maybe somebody else in the world does because it works with their personality.
Cats and dogs operate differently. If you look at how each survives in the wild, it makes sense. Dogs tend to hunt in packs and are quite social in that respect. Cats are loners and prefer to hunt for their meals on their own. Domestic cats and dogs conduct themselves in the same manner, though hopefully the only meals they might hunt down is a rogue mouse in the house. Since dogs tend to be more social, you have to make time to give them love and attention as well as fulfill their need to play and romp around. Having a job that requires you to work 16 hour days means that a dog might not be the right fit for you. Since cats are more recluse, you can interact with them anytime they are willing to accept your attention, but you could be gone for 17 hours of the day and they will most likely be okay. Cats and dogs are also like people in the sense that there are all kinds of cats and dogs with all kinds of different personalities. I’m sure some people have met a cat that acts more like a dog and a dog that acts more like a cat. Some cats can be really social, (like my friend’s cat, Pepita, from college), and some dogs can be really reserved (like my childhood friend’s dog named Champ).
Having a pet is a working relationship. People have needs and pets have needs. Some people get pets because they are lonely, or because they feel safer with one. But if you aren’t prepared to meet the needs of your pet and still expect them to provide you with the benefits you were hoping they would enrich your life with, you aren’t learning how to truly love and care for something. So when you identify yourself as a cat person or a dog person (or maybe even both) you immediately provide the stranger you just met with an idea or a guess as to what some of your own needs and your own priorities are in your life. Although this question may seem like a trivial thing in the dating world, I don’t think it’s really as irrelevant and trivial as it is often made out to be. I’ve known since I was little that I will always be more of a dog person than a cat person. Not to say I can’t interact or live with a cat, but I crave social and emotional intimacy with living things. I have always felt more connected to dogs over my lifetime than cats because dogs have been more capable of meeting my needs as a human being.
So when my mom took me to the pet store for me to pick out a rodent of my choosing, I was indifferent. It isn’t a dog, but it is something, I remember thinking to myself. I peered into the cages of ferrets, mice, hamsters, bunnies, and guinea pigs. My eyes finally fell on a guinea pig made up of mixed brown shades. It was enjoying a fresh bowl of food and didn’t even seem phased by my watchful eyes. It looked pleasant enough and I didn’t really want to continue looking. “I want this one,” I told my mom. The pet store employee grabbed him from his cozy and familiar home and placed him in a cardboard box for me to carry him home in. The minute we got home, I began putting together his new habitat. I couldn’t believe it at the time, but I was actually excited to take care of this little creature. Because he was mine.
I took pretty good care of Cocoa Puff for the first year of our time together. I fed him an abundance of carrots that involved a high pitched squeal of excitement erupting from behind his elongated front teeth. I often took him outside on a leash (yes, I had a red leash for him) and let him indulge in the plethora of three and four leaf clovers that littered our yard, while a hawk circled above him. I spent 20 dollars on a large, clear, plastic ball that he was supposed to run around in like a hamster (but he just sat in it and my twin sister’s hamster got more exercise out of it than Cocoa Puff ever did). I was pretty frustrated having spent all that money (because let’s face it, twenty dollars to a seventh grader was considered a lot of money) on a ball that he never used. It was as if I expected my guinea pig to thank me for my kind deed. But, of course, he didn’t because he wasn’t a human being. He was a guinea pig.
I grew bored of him during the second year. I no longer wanted to play with him (as much as a seventh grader could play with a guinea pig), and I no longer wanted to clean his cage. It wasn’t until I noticed goop protruding from his eyes and the smell of sickness in the air that I began to take care of him again. It was one of our family friend’s birthdays and we were supposed to go over to their house and celebrate. But I wasn’t up for it because I was worried about Cocoa Puff and I wanted to comfort him. My parents told me they couldn’t leave me alone so I acquiesced. When we returned from the party, I raced over to his cage to see how he was doing. He was under his log, but he wasn’t moving. My little middle school heart immediately began to cry for the loss of my friend and that I hadn’t been there for him in his final moments of life. I began to feel a little guilty for not taking better care of him and I hoped that he at least had a good life with me filled with carrots and three leaf clovers. We held a funeral in our backyard for Cocoa Puff and my twin sister’s hamster, Teatoe (they died within the same year). We all cried and laughed and my sister and I said goodbye to our first pets that we could call our first furry little friends.
It wasn’t until college when my mom actually got another dog: a chocolate lab puppy named Marco. Just like any dog and any person, he has his own quirks that can be annoying, but lovable. He’s been with her for five years now and each time I visit my mom, I can tell just by the way he rubs his face up against her jeans and the way she pets him in return that they share a deep bond, a mutual respect, a shared appreciation, and an unconditional love. It wasn’t long after having Marco as part of our family that I, too, wanted to bring another furry friend into our family.
I had moved back home to complete my student teaching during my senior year of college. I had plenty of money and felt that, after several years of maturing and self-reflection of what it means to really take care of something other than yourself, I buckled up and drove to New Hampshire where I met Lucy. She was the biggest puppy in the litter and they called her Bertha. She was cute and plump, and I knew she was the pup for me. My family was over the moon about having a puppy in the house as anybody is when they get to feel the weight of a puppy’s small paw, to breathe in the scent that comes with a recently born dog, and to watch their little legs trot awkwardly in the yard. Marco, on the other hand, wasn’t super thrilled.
It took a full year to fully train Lucy and there were a lot of trial and errors in training her. The first few weeks of feeding her, I had read the labeling wrong and I was overfeeding her to the point where she became even more plump than her initial birth weight. Potty training was much harder for her to learn than other dogs we had, and she developed this habit of charging at the door every time she thought she going to be let outside. At first, Marco thought she was an annoying little sister (they shared the same mom after all), and he didn’t really warm up to her presence until she was big enough for him to wipe her out in a play session. Overtime, Lucy began to seamlessly fit in with our family. I spent a good majority of her puppyhood with her, but I had to live without her for 10 months when I relocated to the southern part of the state and failed to find an apartment that allowed dogs. I visited her during the weekends and vacations though, and even when I had been away for a while, I found that Lucy still looked up at me with the same fondness in her eyes that Marco looks at my mom with.
In the last two years I have spent feeding, playing with, walking with, talking to, being goofy with, and most of all loving Lucy, I’ve realized something. Since having Lucy in my life, I’ve realized that animals should not be considered possessions, just like significant other’s shouldn’t be. I’ve always hated the phrase “dogs are man’s best friend” and “diamonds are a girl’s best friend.” Not only are these phrases completely sexist, but they don’t fully encompass or represent what all human beings should ultimately value in life; love and being loved in return.
Lucy (and all of the pets I have ever had the opportunity to interact with in my life) has helped me become a better person because she has given me the opportunity to love something and to be loved in return without all of the challenges that come with loving a human being. Sure, she doesn’t always listen to me. Sure, she doesn’t always pick up after herself and I curse the ceiling when I stub my toe on one of her bones. But we share what my mom shares with Marco: a deep bond, a mutual respect, a shared appreciation, and an unconditional love that will last throughout the length of our partnership and our friendship.
Love is what makes this world a more beautiful and brighter place, and pets are a great source of love.