It had been a perfectly lousy spring, but summer was looking up.
In May of last year, we made the decision to put our 12-year-old husky mix, Molly, to sleep. I sat with her during her last moments, and I’m not ashamed to say that I pulled the car off the road and cried after leaving the vet’s.
Life as a non-dog owner was different, but I adapted. Sure, I was a little blue at the loss of my friend, but part of me — a part that grew larger every day — recognized that her departure brought new freedoms.
I was no longer attached to an invisible leash that brought me home every six or seven hours to “put the dog out.” Pre- and post-vacation trips to the kennel were a thing of the past. On rainy days, I didn’t need to wipe off her paws before she came inside. I could leave food on the table with the reasonable expectation that it would still be there when I came back.
On June 9, I announced, “You know, I’m OK with not having a dog anymore. Really.” And I was.
So imagine my surprise 20 minutes later when my daughter handed me an early birthday present: a golden retriever pup she had named Cooper, after my favorite rock-and-roll singer. She said I looked sad lately and she wanted to cheer me up.
If life were a Hallmark movie, we would have hugged. Instead, I said, “Thanks for the 5-and-a-half-pound pooping and peeing machine.” Except I didn’t say pooping and peeing. It wasn’t exactly a Kodak moment.
Summer churned by. Cooper was sweet, lovable, adorable, fill-in-your-favorite-cute-adjective, but my first assessment was correct: He was a boatload of gastrointestinal problems of the explosive, runny variety.
I often spent lunch breaks swamping out the inside of his cage. Because it was too big, we cordoned him off in the front half with the plastic lid from a large storage bin. On more than one occasion when nobody was home, he knocked the lid over, defecated on top, and then rolled through it repeatedly. I called this the “poop slide,” except I didn’t say “poop.”
I was becoming an expert at chocolatey puppy baths, not a profession I aspired to. Plotting an exit strategy, I had my wife call the breeder and ask about the return policy. A veterinarian had to certify in writing that the dog had health problems. All I had to do was look in the cage at noon each day for evidence of that.
My life paraphrased a Clash song: Should he stay or should he go? If he stayed, I would be miserable. If he went, I would be miserable because I made him go. I took the path of least resistance, but told myself it was temporary.
Summer turned to fall. Cooper’s snout elongated like a dishonest Pinocchio’s nose, his hair went from short and spiky to long and curly, and his stomach, thankfully, settled. His early morning walks (5:30 a.m. daily — including weekends — a dog’s bladder knows no holiday) netted some curious finds — gum and candy wrappers in abundance, of course, but also a bicycle helmet, mittens, a surgical mask and the frozen corpse of a squirrel.
Cooper retrieved but did not relinquish, so I had to pry most items from between his teeth, except the icy squirrelsicle, which he dropped unceremoniously on my shoe.
By late autumn, I was still asking around to see who wanted a dog, but less frequently and without much heart. Around Christmas I relented and decided he could stay. Everybody else already knew this, of course. I’m kind of slow that way.
Cooper has grown and grown — in physical size, but also on me. Today, he weighs around 85 pounds, and his head alone is bigger than the puppy he once was. I look forward to coming home and being greeted by him and whatever object he chooses to bring me — napkins, wooden spoons from a kitchen drawer that he butts open with his head, or a pair of my wife’s shoes, chewed with reckless abandon. If he were gone, I’d be spared much frustration and inconvenience, but I’d also miss long walks, wet-tongue kisses and endless games of catch.
I still wouldn’t advocate buying a dog as a gift unless you ask the recipient first, but in my case, it worked out. So I guess this is my way of acknowledging to my daughter, one year later, that she knew me better than I knew myself.
Sincerely, thanks for the 5-and-a-half pound pooping and peeing machine. He’s retrieved my heart, but has yet to relinquish it.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on June 21, 2012, in The Alliance Review.