Thursday, March 13, 2014

The new reality

The new reality is that for the first time in 20 years, there is only one dog at our house. In 1994, sheltie Connor joined sheltie Jess and for the next two decades we were a multi-dog home.

Until now.

I was reluctant to get a puppy while Jamie was still with me. Experience has taught me that the arrival of a puppy means A) the puppy sucks up an absurd amount of time because, well, just try getting a puppy and not spending an absurd amount of time with it  B) the dog who is still actively being shown sucks up an absurd amount of time, too, because, well, just try putting him on the back burner and see how that works and C) the old dog gets whatever time is left, which usually isn’t much.

I’m pretty sure Jamie would have loved a puppy but it just didn’t feel right. I was very comfortable with my pack of two. Jamie was an easy keeper and a fun dog to live and travel with right up until the end of his life. In terms of training, my hands were full with Phoenix. Several years ago, friends started telling me I needed to get a puppy. I told them I needed to train the dog I had first.

It’s quiet at our house now. Without Jamie as his partner in crime, Phoenix is a surprisingly quiet dog. The fun seems to have gone out of barking at nothing. Quiet is not the same as subdued. He still “hunts” through the windows when the inspiration strikes. He races from window to window, ricocheting off the furniture, when he sees something that needs to be hunted but he rarely barks.

Jamie was the bark-starter. As he lost his hearing and his eyesight dimmed, he frequently barked at things that he wouldn’t have barked at if he’d been sure what they were - a tractor coming up the lane or a cat outside the window. Tractors and cats were generally safe in his world view as long as his senses were sharp. But in recent years he wasn’t sure of them and found it better to err on the side of caution. So he barked and Phoenix joined him with enthusiasm for the game and quite often both dogs were barking their damn fool heads off at nothing. That was the old reality.

This new reality is relative peace and quiet. Peace and quiet are always relative when you live with a malinois. There are still balls being flung around with reckless abandon. Laundry still disappears from the clothes hamper and reappears at odd times and places. Fortunately, Phoenix is more about possession and less about destruction these days. If he wants to carry a sock or pair of underwear around the house, well, it’s cheaper than counseling.

There is the constant “human management” - the never-ending job of following, accompanying, assisting, observing, guiding and attempting to participate in all human activities, including but not limited to trips to the bathroom and medicating a cat. This has gotten more intense since Jamie left us. With only one dog available for human management duties, Phoenix takes his responsibilities very seriously.

There is only one canine breakfast to fix. One canine supper to fix. I took inventory of heartworm preventive and it looks like I won’t need to buy HeartGard until some time in the summer of 2015. I have multiple bottles of dog shampoo and one dog who rarely gets a bath. One water bowl that doesn’t need to be filled three times a day. One crate in the van. One crate space at a trial. For kicks, one afternoon I counted all the crates I own. Nineteen crates. One dog. (Granted, these are crates of varying sizes, accumulated over 30 years but still . . . I did not point that number out to the Farmer.)

None of my dog friend have just one dog. No. Wait. Thinking. Okay, I know ONE couple who has ONE dog. Clearly we are in the minority. All of my friends have multiple dogs - two, three, a merry band of four or more. That’s normal. None of us think twice about having more than one dog. Some people have a bunch of kids. Some people have a bunch of dogs. That’s just how it is. Until it isn’t.

One dog to pick up after in the yard. One dog to brush. And he really doesn’t need to be brushed much. One set of dog nails to clip. (Praise Jesus.) One dog’s gear to load in the van for an overnight show weekend. One trip to carry everything into the motel. One set of paws to track in mud as the glacier outside our back door melts. One dog to make a vet appointment for.

Does Phoenix want a little brother or sister? It’s hard to tell. He and Jamie were bonded more closely than any of my previous dogs. I’ve lost dogs before and the remaining dogs in the household never acted like they cared one way or the other. At best, there seemed to be a collective sigh of relief that a brother had moved beyond the troublesomeness of old age. But Phoenix spent a lot of time looking for Jamie in the days after his death. And it tore at my heart to watch him searching the house, room by room, over and over, then stop and go stare out the window. Now we come home from class or a training date and Phoenix is content to run through the house and “find” the Farmer. Then he quits looking.

Phoenix has very few canine buddies. He’s not dog park material and I’m totally fine with that. His job in life is to be my companion and partner. He takes it seriously. I suspect if you were to ask him if he wanted to go play with other dogs, he would say, “Why would I want to do that?” Introducing a new canine  into our home will probably cause a few fireworks but I do think, deep down, that Phoenix would enjoy having a dog companion he could trust. He trusted Jamie. So many of the dogs he has encountered in the “outside world” have proven themselves untrustworthy that he avoids them as a general principle.

Unlike losing a human partner, the loss of a companion animal comes without a socially required mourning period before you can move on to form a new relationship. Six months? Six weeks? A year? Next month? Grief has no time boundaries and it will take as long as it takes. Tears for Jamie still sneak up on me, sudden and unexpected. I don’t fight them.

Getting a puppy will not replace the dog I lost or recreate all the moments I shared with him. It won’t dim the glow of his life. A new dog will bring a new plunge into the joyous unknown. A chance to write a new once upon a time.

Do I want another dog? Yes. Life is about moving forward. The wheels are in motion.

In the meantime, here's Phoenix standing next to the reason I didn't make it to work occasionally this winter. That's our farm lane. Spring begins in a week and that's not a day too soon!


  1. I know how you feel as we went from a 5 dog family to one within just a few years losing 3 of my old girls to old age and my boy to cancer at 10. Rumor (the malinois) LOVED her brother Blitz because yes she trusted him and while she has accepted our new HUGE GSD puppy into her life it's not the same as her beloved brother Blitz but she is coping and deep down I think she enjoys him and though her time alone was brief only 2 wks after the loss of our last girl (puppy was two years in the making so not a surprise :) I actually think Rumor would have been very content to be an only dog but not me and while I will never have 5 again even 2 makes for a quiet household most of the time. I still miss the ones I have lost only so recently as two of them it has not even been a year. But 4 years ago today I lost my Mom and nothing will ever compare to the missing her as I do every single day. I'm sure a special puppy will join your life when the time is right and Phoenix will adapt and probably enjoy the canine company . I have to wonder what breed you are leaning towards :)

  2. That's very exciting news! Can I have a hint as to which breed? I know what you mean, I'm in the minority of my dog friends because I only have one dog. Not the way I planned it; I expected Casey to still be around this year when I get my puppy. (HEYYY we might be getting puppies around the same time?!? Awesome!)

  3. Melinda your column made me cry. I lost two of my three dogs this winter.Everything you said is true. Life is much easier with only one dog. It is especially easier without an old dog in the house. I didn't realize how much time and care my 18 year old pug needed until she didn't need it anymore. But it's also much sadder and lonelier, both for me and for my surviving dog. Thanks for the reminder that there is a new puppy waiting out there somewhere who will fill some of the empty spaces.

  4. From your blog, I can learn some new knowledge, I like the valuable information you provide in your articles.

    Dog training Memphis