Sometimes a furry friend can help mend a broken heart — or even repair a relationship. But their biggest gift may be the lessons they teach about second chances.
The moment I woke up, I realized I’d made a terrible mistake. The previous day I’d been looking for a pooch to fill the hole in my life left by the boyfriend I recently broke up with. I wasn’t sure I saw any I was ready to commit to. But after sleeping on it, I realized that the one big brown goofy mutt I’d seen was the dog for me.
I began to panic: What if someone else came along and snatched my dog? I couldn’t abide that, so I spent the whole morning tracking him down to a PetSmart in South Philly where he was appearing at an adoption event. Making my way to the back of the store, I filled out the paperwork. I named him Scooby and took him home.
That was 13 years ago. You don’t always get the chance to go back and correct a mistake like the one I made initially overlooking Scooby. The past dozen-plus years would have been far less fulfilling and joyous if I hadn’t had that first do-over with him. It would be the first of many.
Life with a Dog
Scooby and I learned a lot from each other. I taught him to sit and fetch and not pee in the house. He taught me there is no such thing as a pet-proof trashcan. And – on two separate occasions — he proved that a condom will pass through a canine completely undigested.
Eventually we got used to each other. I got used to his snoring. He got used to me bopping his nose all the time. It didn’t happen the first night, or even the second. It was a series of trial and error and lots of repetition — with lots more do-overs.
That’s what life with a dog is – a series of do-overs until you get it right. Nothing about a new dog goes perfectly at first, but we made it work. We built on what we got right the day before, and did the things that we got wrong better the next. We weren’t weighed down by fear or guilt over mistakes we made. What a joy it would be to experience the rest of reality that way — letting go of mistakes and relishing each new success.
Since Scooby was my first dog — not to mention a rescue with a questionable history, I hired a trainer to help break some of his bad habits. I soon learned that the bad habits to break were mine, not Scooby’s. I hadn’t hired a dog trainer. What I hired was a people trainer. He trained me that dogs don’t think like humans. You have to empathize and adapt to their way thinking in order to communicate. I learned that anger and punishment never work. But attention and praise get results. A positive attitude, patience, empathy and tolerance for minor mishaps are what you need to raise a happy pet.
I didn’t just become a better dog owner; I became a better man. All the skills I learned in order to interact with my dog translate completely to interacting with people. Because – whether two legged or four — how you treat living things shows them how to treat you. If I could overlook my dog’s mess on the floor, why couldn’t I just as easily be a little more patient and understanding with people?
The Men In My Life
That got me thinking about a do-over with the boyfriend before Scooby. I kept telling people “I got a dog for my boyfriend, and it was a great trade.” But I believed it less and less. We had broken up due to incremental accumulation of stupid little things that bonding with Scooby taught me were unimportant. I wondered: Had gotten my dog first, would I also still have my boyfriend?
I asked Jason to give it another shot. As with Scooby, it wasn’t perfect at first. They actually didn’t get each other at the beginning. Every time Scooby barked, “You’re not my real dad” at Jason, there was tension. For Jason, it was like I’d become a single dad with a bratty furry teenager. As flattering as it was to have them competing for my attention, we had to start all over again. Through a similar process of daily repetition and do-overs , we learned to understand and love each other. That was 12 years ago. Jason and I are still together.
From the day I brought Scooby home, I knew that eventually we would run out of do-overs. About eight years in, I started looking into his big brown eyes, touching our noses together, rubbing his ears and admitting in a cheerful voice “You’re gonna die someday.” Licking my face and wagging his tail, he’d respond to the tone of my voice — blissfully unaware of the meaning. I hoped somehow our little ritual would somehow soften the inevitable blow. But I knew that nothing really could.
You’ve probably deduced that a story about a dog that starts 12 years ago is bound to have a casualty. Jason and I had to say goodbye to Scooby earlier this year, and it was the worst thing we’ve been through as a couple. In the time leading up to and after his passing, I wondered if we could make it work without him. Scooby had brought us back together — and helped keep us that way — for more than a decade. Would the lessons stick with him gone? Or would we go back to our old bad habits and drift apart?
A New Beginning
But this is a story about embracing the do-overs. That’s why this it ends with a new beginning. About a month ago, Jason and I decided that we were ready to welcome a wagging tail back into our home. This time, we looked for a dog together. We wanted to go with a puppy, because we wanted to have the most time possible with our new family member. The only regret we had with Scooby was that — because I adopted him as an adult — we missed out on his puppy years.
We decided we wanted a rescue, and even though it was the second time around for me, it was a totally different experience. Rescue organizations are much more thorough now — especially if you’re looking for a puppy. They wanted a complete history, multiple references, a home visit. When I adopted Scooby in 2007, the only question they asked me was “do you have $36?”
We looked on Petfinder, which is essentially Grindr for quadrupeds. Like Grindr, it also displays an endless parade of wagging tails and bitches with their tongues out. The abundance of choice allowed us to get incredibly choosy. Critiques included, “These ears are too big, but those ears are too small,” and “I like his eyes, but his coloring is all wrong,” and the inevitable “Aww, she’s so cute — but I want a boy.”
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It’s a Dog’s Life
I feared this would go on forever. Jason and I are two completely different body and personality types. We each like what the other has, but in the 15 years we’ve been together, we’ve not once been into the same guy. The same seemed to be proving true for dogs.
After looking at hundreds, I began to think that this magical puppy we that both would find perfect simply didn’t exist. But nothing works until it does, and one day, it did. We found our puppy. His name is Winston, and he is more adorable than both of us put together. And just like his daddies 15 years ago, we fell in love immediately.
It’s familiar, but brand new. Winston has no vocabulary, no training and no bladder control. It’s up to us to teach him everything. Since we learned the skills to be better partners and pet parents with Scooby, I like to think we’ve got a great head start — plus some all new mistakes to make. But no matter how well or poorly we did today, I’m glad we do it all over again tomorrow.
(accompanying photos courtesy Terence O’Brien)
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Last modified: December 18, 2019