About three years ago I was alone in my empty nest. My son had gone off to college in California. My daughter had graduated college and was living and working in New York City. I was divorced for a second time and wasn’t seriously involved with anyone.
“You need a dog,” everyone in my life began telling me. “A dog will keep you company. It’s about time you had another dog. You’re a dog person.”
This was all true but despite being a dog person and possibly needing a dog; I didn’t want a dog. After recovering from the initial weepiness that accompanied my youngest child’s departure and dealing with the feelings of uselessness that came over me as I realized I was no longer needed to make lasagnas for cross country banquets or drive forgotten homework assignments to the school office; I was happy. For the first time in my entire adult life I didn’t have anyone to take care of but me. Also, I had been a dog owner in the past. I knew about the work. The expense. The responsibility. I was relishing my freedom.
Enter my father into the story. He was worried that I might be lonely. He had recently suffered the loss of his wife, my stepmom, and in an effort to ease some of his pain and loneliness had adopted a golden retriever puppy. He came up with the idea of getting me a puppy for Christmas. Our two dogs could be friends and as he put it, a puppy under the tree could make up for the years of bad sweaters he had bought me in the past.
How do you say no to your dad wanting to buy you a puppy? For Christmas, no less?
The first chapter in every book I read about German shepherds began with the advice, “Don’t get a German shepherd.” A red flag, for sure; one that a potential dog owner should have seriously considered but each time I saw those words I’d ignore the warning and feel superior to all those wimps out there who couldn’t handle this noblest of canines. The authors went on to write about the breed’s extraordinary intelligence, loyalty, and bravery but also pointed out that shepherds are very high energy, intense, independent, stubborn, and easily bored and you shouldn’t consider owning one unless you’re up to the challenge. No, duh! I didn’t care what these so-called experts had to say. I’d been enamored of the breed since I was a child, I’d had dogs all my life, and I was certain I had the right stuff.
Truman had a wonderful temperament and was the smartest animal I’ve ever encountered but he also had boundless, unrelenting energy, was unable to relax for a single moment, and hell bent on having his way. I’m convinced if German shepherds were ever granted the power of speech, they’d immediately adopt the sullen tween mantra, “You’re not the boss of me.”
Truman took over my life. I’d been waiting for my kids to grow up so I’d have more time to write; now I spent most of my day trying to exhaust a wolf. Walks, hikes, runs, at least two hours of Frisbee every day not to mention training sessions and the fact that this dog NEVER relaxed. I don’t think I ever saw him sleep. He may have closed his eyes for a moment but if I even so much as shifted in my chair he’d spring up and stand next to me poised for action. He was crated at night – and loved his crate – but during his waking hours he paced the house fanatically. His vigilance, while admirable, was nerve racking. It bordered on neurotic. I felt someone needed to explain to him that he was a pet, a companion, an animal that was supposed to be napping on a doggie futon or chewing on a bone in the back yard; that he wasn’t patrolling the front lines of a war zone or searching for lost campers during a blizzard.
A little over a year after Truman entered my life I met a guy who turned out to be more than just a guy. We’ve been a couple for over a year now and I recently moved in with him. My life during this time became very hectic, not just personally but professionally as well. I had to do a lot of traveling and was now spending a lot of my time living a more urban existence. Gone was the big back yard and the easy access to parks and hiking trails. No one would watch Truman for me when I traveled, even those of my family and friends who loved him. He was too much dog for them. Truman ended up spending a lot of time in a kennel and even though we were fortunate enough to have a fantastic “pet resort” nearby with a wonderful staff who loved him it was still a kennel and not home.
I was overwhelmed and miserable and so was he. I began to think about finding another home for him but it was an agonizing idea. Was I actually going to become one of those people I hated: someone who was thinking about getting rid of her dog? They call it “rehoming” now. As if this “politically correct” term could make me feel like less of a monster.
One of the first people I talked to about my crisis was the owner of the kennel where I boarded Truman, a woman who had spent her entire life working with animals and was very knowledgeable about shepherds. She had owned several over the years that she kept on her farm. She went so far as to say she didn’t think German shepherds should be pets at all.
“There are some dogs,” she explained, “that need to have jobs.”
I realized this is what I’d always thought about Truman. Romps through the woods, games of Frisbee, and even affection for his human weren’t enough for him. He needed to be challenged. He needed a purpose.
With the help of my family we found an organization that trained service dogs to assist injured veterans and those afflicted with PTSD. This sounded like a pretty good job to me.
For days after Truman was gone, I’d picture him lying in his crate at night in his trainer’s home, gazing sadly at the door, wondering why I hadn’t come back to get him. I’d try to imagine what he might be thinking: “Boy, she’s been at the grocery store a really long time,” or “Has she stopped loving me?” when in actuality he was probably thinking, “Frisbee, Frisbee, Frisbee, bone, Frisbee, squirrel, Frisbee, Frisbee, labradoodle across the street, Frisbee, bone . . .”
The truth is we have no idea what our dogs are thinking or the variety and depth of the emotions they might feel. We, as humans, tend to Disney-fy animals, but the fact is Truman may have missed me at first but he wouldn’t have blamed himself or me for the separation. It would’ve simply been a fact of his life. His thoughts would’ve been occupied by his new owner, his new job, his new surroundings. At the end of the day, his mind wouldn’t have been filled with the sting of failure, with regret and guilt and the pain of loss like mine was. Maybe a rabbit or a ball or a big stick would have entered his dreams. But not me.
Truman and I spent every waking moment together for almost two years. The hole in my life was immense at first. I cried at dog food commercials and every Petco email in my inbox. I had to turn away from the sight of people walking their dogs and God help me if I saw a German shepherd.
My brother-in-law is a green beret who was recently deployed again. He and my sister have a five-month-old baby
girl and she will probably say her first word and maybe even take her first step while her daddy is away doing his job. I have nothing but the utmost respect for our soldiers and when I’m feeling bad about giving up Truman I console myself with the thought that he’s helping a struggling veteran return to some semblance of a normal life.
I also take comfort in knowing that while it may have been a tough choice to part ways with Truman, it was the
right choice for him and an unselfish one for me to make. We’ve all heard the expression, “If you love someone, set them free.” What I had to accept was, “If you love this dog, let him get a job.”
And I did accept it. And I’ve accepted something more. The gift and the pain that I’ve been given is this: Truman has forgotten me but I will never forget him.