As these stories go: I wasn’t sure I even wanted a dog until I was inside the breeder’s home and sat down on the living room floor. All ears and paws Otis plodded over, lifted himself up on my chest, started licking my face. This is my dog, I thought, swept up in the moment. He’s chosen me. (Only later did I learn of Otis’ compulsion for licking. To this day I’ll catch him staring at me from across the room heedlessly tongue-slapping the air.)
On the long way back home I stopped for gas. While pumping I glanced through the car window to this confused ten-week-old puppy looking up at me in the backseat, his eyes big and somehow somber, and a wave of panic hit me. I didn’t have food to feed him. I didn’t have a leash to walk him. I didn’t have a toy to give him or crate for him to sleep in. I didn’t have money to afford these things either. Why it took this long for terror to strike, or to just consider basic logistics, I can’t say, but scenes of catastrophe in which I unwittingly harmed this dog were already consuming me.
My family has a not-so-pretty history of pet care. We had five dogs growing up – the first died, the next four we gave away one after the other. While raising an animal alongside three young children would be a struggle for anyone, my parents’ hot-blooded marriage and my father’s concurrent drug addiction had a way of complicating even the simplest tasks. And yet my parents all but insisted on repeating the same optimistic miscalculation when it came to pets; they trusted that with each new dog a small measure of light might find its way into our home, help keep us close, fix our family.
The first was Sassie, a beautiful Rough Collie named after the brave TV dog, Lassie. And like her namesake she could be trusted to roam the neighborhood alone, always announcing her return with a single bark at the front door. As a rescue she came to us already trained, but nervous, terrified of loud noises. When horns blared or fireworks shot off on the Fourth of July she’d shiver under the table. She could also be gentle, tolerant and protective, letting us ride her like a pony and standing guard by our cribs nightly, especially after my sister was born. One morning my brother and I watched from the window as she ran into the street and got hit by a car. She hobbled back inside the house and found a corner to lie down. She was too badly injured, wouldn’t even let us near, and the vet put her down that afternoon.
Then came Max, a German Shepherd my father brought home after the divorce. I must have been around six. We children were charged with caring for him. Trouble was: Max got so big, so scary, so quickly that we banished him permanently to the backyard, where he barked at the neighbor’s dog, squirrels in trees, birds flying overhead. The barking was constant except for his feeding hour when one of us would wait for him to wander to a far edge of the fence and then dart outside, drop a scoop of food in his bowl, run back in before he had time to jump on us. Whoever went out to feed Max was certain to return with scratches on the arms and across the neck. A monster in our young eyes, his paws enormous, nails sharp and overgrown, the dog usually drew blood. In truth he just wanted to play. But too much for us kids to handle, Max was given away within a year.
After that, my father thought it practical that we get a dog of a more manageable size, especially since its care would remain the responsibility of us kids. My father did, however, assign himself the task of house-breaking Ninja, a chirpy, white Shiba Inu that never quite took to paper-training. One afternoon, having just returned from work to discover the dog had again favored the carpet over the pee pad, my father chased Ninja around the entire house – we kids looking on with equal parts alarm and amusement – until in his rage he kicked Ninja down a flight of stairs, breaking one of its legs. When Ninja’s yelps finally died down, the frightened dog hid behind the couch, and my dad called the vet for yet another house visit. The cast came off six weeks later, and Ninja was put up for adoption.
For my sister’s tenth birthday my mother gave her Scottie, a black Toy Poodle with a favorable bias toward used tissue paper and dirty underwear, as well as a fierce, teeth-baring entitlement to his throne atop our throw pillows. Despite my mother’s warnings, none of us kids took on the responsibility of caring for him. An argument about who would walk him broke out every night. My mother also lived in an apartment, and without a place for the dog to run and release energy, Scottie’s neuroses flourished. He soiled the carpet all the time, so much so that we kept him locked in the bathroom when we weren’t home. Summertime, out on the porch. He saw us walking in from the car one day and leaped up over the railing, falling three floors – our second consecutive dog to break a leg. Thereafter Scottie walked with a limp, the bone never setting right. A few years later we found him a new home. My mother’s patience had run out.
Moses, a Border Collie from the darkest days of my father’s addiction, came last. My sister and I refused to live under our dad’s roof at this point, but my brother, the dutiful eldest, stuck around. I only met the dog once, but the time I did I was struck by his intelligence and devotion to my brother. My dad stayed in his room mostly, and Moses became my brother’s sole household companion. I remember the dog taking too much interest in a school project my brother was completing on his bedroom floor. When my brother commanded him, ‘Out!’, Moses walked sullenly to the door, where he plopped down, resting his head on his paws, looking back at us from the other side of the frame. The dog was given away when my brother went off to college, no one left to care for Moses, or for my dad.
These five dogs (to say nothing of the family of hamsters we accidentally bred and their weekly jailbreak, or the stray cat that scaled my torso like window curtains after I’d proudly presented it to my mother in the kitchen, or the writhing blackbird I was too traumatized to mercy-kill after shooting it through the eye with a BB gun) led me to doubt my ability to care for an animal. So, at the gas station, looking through the car window to this sweet creature, I was of course petrified, but, more significantly, disturbed that I’d made so thoughtless and impulsive a decision.
I knew I would never think of returning Otis – he was my dog now – and in that knowledge I understood that my first audition as caretaker had arrived. I was officially responsible for the life of another. This dog had been bred for its temperament and tractability. Here was a low hurdle, even if one my family never managed to clear. One day after the next I would figure out what was needed, learn from my mistakes, pay attention to what worked. The truth is: Over time these anxieties manifested as vigilance. Fear morphed into alertness, worry expressed itself as caution, neglect taught me to nurture, abuse paved a path to love.
Yet, as I write this, there’s another voice inside warning me not to be so sentimental. Otis is just a dog. I ought to think more expansively about the humans in my life. I ought to focus on rewriting the other complicated legacies passed down in my family. I need to spend my time on the greater work of advancing genuine, albeit often difficult, relationships with friends and family. This voice reminds me that if I am to indulge in how I can improve a pet’s quality of life then I am obligated to give more freely of myself to the people I profess to love.
Now eight years old, Otis has been around longer than any pet in my family’s history. With age he’s mellowed, gone gray, and I try to remember to play with him regularly, buy a new toy every now and then, slip another half-scoop into his bowl, extend the walk an extra block, invite him up onto the bed occasionally, to practice patience with him and not snap when his snoring interrupts my concentration, to take him to the beach more. It was my wife who introduced him to the ocean where they’ll play fetch for hours. With no sense of the sea’s vastness he crashes wildly into waves, goes under and comes back up, spraying saltwater from his nostrils, triumphant in the retrieval of a stick. In happy moments like these I still work to keep at bay the fear that, like with the animals of my youth, some terrible accident looms.
I did lose him once. Otis was three at the time. I’d rented a quiet, isolated house in Rhinebeck, New York, to continue working on my debut novel, One of the Boys. Behind the house were several miles of woods, and when I turned my head for a second he was gone. I searched for hours, screaming his name, my pulse thumping, until the sun had nearly set and I was also lost. I found my way out of the woods, checked my phone for service – still none – and ran the miles back to the house. My only relief was that Otis was wearing his collar on which my name and number were engraved. I got in the car to search for him. My phone rang a few minutes later. Otis had made his way through the entire woods to a house just off a road I didn’t know. I put the address into the GPS and drove over.
The man who’d called walked me along the side of his home to the backyard, where two young kids, a boy and girl, were running around the grass in a circle, Otis delightedly chasing one and then the other. ‘A sweet dog,’ the man said, the curtain of night closing before us. ‘A licker, too, huh?’
Photograph courtesy of the author