Dog at Midlife

Sometimes a man buys a house in order to have a dog.


Sometimes a man buys a house in order to have a dog. A man walks a dog so he doesn’t look like a child molester when he walks in the woods. Alone and in the woods, a man is a threat. Give him a dog, though, and he becomes the symbol of American individualism. A man who lives alone is a strange neighbor, but a man with a dog is defused. The dog gives the man someone to talk to, so he seems not so crazy when he mutters to himself about the way the world works, how people betray each other, how politicians grow more corrupt and stupid. He’s not alone when, for whatever reason, all his friendships seem fried, strained, one effort after another. A dog’s tail clears the air. A man gets a dog to convince himself that he can still be loved. That he’s still needed. It’s easy: He puts out his hand, and it is licked. He might cry out for the relief of being touched.


The summer before I bought my house, I biked to the Animal Rescue League and volunteered to walk dogs so I’d remember all the work involved—especially picking up poop. It had been decades since I’d actually lived with a dog. I needed to test myself, to see whether I had enough selflessness and patience, whether I really understood what it meant to want a dog. There would be no mother to cover for me if I didn’t feel like getting up some mornings and no father to shovel dog shit out of the grass on the weekends.

I told myself one of the reasons I wanted to buy a house was that I wanted to get a dog. I was also seriously in love with a man then, and we were building a life together.


I grew up with dogs: a poodle-mix named Bridget, a chihuahua named Peanut and, then, two Doberman-Lab-mix puppies, which my drunk father brought home on Christmas Eve when I was 11. Those dogs, Fritz and Dolph, kept me company in the worst years of my parents’ war and my own adolescent self-hatred. Afternoons, I’d put the boys on leashes, and we would walk to the park or the nearby woods, where I’d let them loose to run around like crazy things, looking under rocks in streams, chasing squirrels, surprising deer. Fritz and Dolph were sweet and loyal and never ran away. If I sat, they came and sat with me. If I wanted to run through high grasses, they made it into a game, crisscrossing my path, jumping suddenly into and out of my way with all the grace of black-and-tan dolphins. They would brush my leg as they passed by. I would swat at their haunches before they disappeared back into the grasses. Some days, my time with them made all the difference between despair and hope.


Twenty years later, excited by the thought of having my own dog again, I threw myself at the abandoned and surrendered dogs at the Animal Rescue League of Pittsburgh. The chaos of the kennels was a good distraction from calculating mortgage rates and credit scores. I strolled around looking at the various dogs, thinking about them as the different brands of companionship I could buy into—each with its particular advantages and disadvantages. I found myself separating them into possibles and probably-nots. Then I winnowed the possibles down to the ones I thought I could handle, not only physically but also financially. I still walked all kinds, but I walked the probably-nots with the sense that I was performing a good deed. With the dogs that fit my criteria, though, I walked as if I were on a date, my voice gentle, my hands quick to pet and praise.

For about a half-hour, we’d walk in nearby Mellon Park, where they’d smell the news on tree trunks and garbage cans, and add their own messages. Sometimes we sat on the benches and just looked at things, as if we were a pair of old friends and had been together forever. I patted the big, smiling heads of pit bulls; the solid heads of Rottweilers; and the curious beagles and calm Labs. Occasionally a dog gave me the open-faced, open-mouthed expression that Cesar Millan describes as “her ears are up, her head is up and her tail is wagging.” I thought it meant happiness. It never failed to make me happy, at any rate. Sometimes we’d look so happy, a stranger would come by and ask to pet the dog I was walking. By the end of the conversation, I’d let him, say the dog was up for adoption, give him the dog’s name and tell him to visit the animal rescue. A couple of the dogs I walked ended up getting adopted because of that, which made me feel useful.

And it turned out that I didn’t mind putting a plastic bag around my hand and picking up the warm weight of a turd. In fact, it didn’t seem gross at all, which meant, I supposed, I was ready.


As chance would have it, days before we moved into our house, we were given a dog, a miniature dachshund. My boyfriend’s boss was in the process of dissolving his marriage, although we didn’t know that then, and Gretel was part of the dissolve. Because I was in love, I let go of my dream of a larger dog so that my boyfriend, who’d grown up with dachshunds, would be happy. Suddenly, we were a family. I stopped walking dogs at the animal rescue.

Gretel was a sweet dog—extremely affectionate, chubby, sly, funny and easy to care for. In part (but not only) because I hate housecleaning, I volunteered immediately to take her for walks. In sun, in rain, in snow. She wasn’t built for distance, but we both lost a little weight. And I discovered the power of small dogs: Everyone smiles at you—as if owning a small dog means you are kind, trustworthy and comfortable enough not to equate the size of your dog with your masculinity. In the mostly working-class neighborhood where we moved, she was a good ambassador and the perfect accessory, one that melted the hearts of our new neighbors. She gave all of us something to talk about.

We’d planned to crate her, but she whined the first night, and the boyfriend immediately brought her into the bed. “Just for tonight,” he said, knowing better. Soon, she was sleeping under the blankets between us every night. Because she liked heat and I was the hotter sleeper, she usually burrowed between my knees. At some point, she’d surface, often panting. We’d wake up to find her asleep, her head on the pillow between us. You couldn’t help but love her.

And she was good for the relationship in many ways. Even during our worst disagreements, we could agree we both loved the dog. We could talk about her, could even talk through her about what made us angry at each other, until we’d both start laughing. Two years into our ownership, when she developed diabetes and had to go out every hour on the hour to pee, I slept with her on the couch downstairs, where the wood floor was easy-to-clean and we could get outside fast. I learned to inject her insulin without fear. I loved being the loving nurse, the sacrificial dad. The boyfriend said he loved it in me.

But, it turned out, he was already straying. He’d been lying to me for years—had been meeting strangers from the Internet in out-of-the-way places to exchange attentions. He’d brought strangers into his hotel rooms when he went away, maybe even brought them into our bedroom when I went out of town. Every time I found out and we had “the talk,” he said he wanted to change his behavior. He never did. Finally, after five years together, I asked him to pack up and leave.

I made him take Gretel. I thought I didn’t want anything of him anymore in that house. She was his dream now, I said. I wanted him to know what it felt like to watch something he loved die. The whole thing stank of anger and revenge and pity.


That the Ex ended up buying the house behind the house we lived in, that I actually encouraged it since it would mean that my backyard would be bounded by someone I knew, appalled and confused my friends. Some shook their heads at my inability to move on. Some thought I was a saint. Their confusion was my confusion. When I saw another man in his kitchen and knew he’d moved on, I wanted to scream. A week later, when I needed to borrow a stepladder, I was grateful he was there. We shared gardening materials; we bought each other small plants, herbs. Occasionally he’d cook too much of something and bring me a plate of it out of the blue. We knew so much about each other that it seemed only right to try to stay friends. And, of course, I watched Gretel occasionally.

At first, several friends offered to set me up with single men they knew. I went on a couple of dates but wasn’t really interested. I kept being nagged by the fear that any man I met had already slept with the Ex and just wouldn’t tell me. If I felt any attraction at all, I told myself he would probably be as untrustworthy as the Ex had been. I no longer trusted my ability to tell the difference between good and bad character. At some point, I simply felt like I just needed to be alone for a while. To weep for the breakup of what, if we had been straight, would have been a marriage. To mourn for the loss of his family, who had been so welcoming. I’d come to think of his family as my family. My own was so far away.

Physically, I just felt tired. I sat on my couch, watching reruns, waiting day after day for an inner voice to say either, “Stop Here,” or, “Keep Going.” I played video games in which the quests were clear and the characters powerful, in which it was easy to tell good guys from bad guys. Whole weekends disappeared that way.

It seemed a long time before I got not a clear message—no small, still voice—but a strong sense, the first desire I really felt following the breakup: I wanted a dog for myself. Five months after the Ex moved out, just after Halloween, I began sniffing around the rescues.


All my intellectual faculties said not to do it. I wasn’t in any condition to own a dog. I couldn’t possibly afford it. Without the help of the ex-boyfriend, I wasn’t even sure I could keep the house. Why couldn’t I just continue taking care of Gretel occasionally when the Ex went out of town? But, just as insistently, my body continued wanting not to be alone. Then, one day when I was delivering some of the Ex’s mail, I saw, through the screen door, him and another man actually making out in his living room. My breath caught fast in my throat. I realized I was literally starving to touch something alive.

So, I went back to the rescue center and reinstated myself as a dog walker, bought a black nylon leash and began taking very excited, lost and scared dogs out for walks. For a month, as I adjusted my finances, as I learned to cook, shop and clean for myself, I went back and back, each time trying not to fall for any of the dogs, hoping to be swept off my feet.


When I first saw Bailey, he was sitting very quietly while all the other dogs were barking and jumping and howling and making a ruckus. I was drawn to his quiet, skeptical look. Or maybe I should say my own quiet skepticism was drawn to his behavior. On a leash, he walked like a dream. Almost supernaturally quiet and calm, and uninterested generally with both dogs and men after an initial olfactory frisking for concealed treats, he seemed to be what I needed.

Bailey’s a beautiful mixture of Lab and beagle. He’s the size of a beagle, and most people assume he’s a Lab puppy, because his head is a little bigger than it should be, as are his paws. His fur appears completely black, but in strong sunlight, you can see his legs and muzzle are actually a very dark brown, like dark chocolate. His tail is long and slightly curved like a scimitar. He holds it so solidly in the air, people laugh.

Of course, Bailey has a history. Dogs with histories frighten most people; God only knows what other people have done to their dogs. Maybe it will pee during thunderstorms or suddenly turn on a child who grabs its ear or tail, leaving you to clean up or apologize or stand trial. It doesn’t seem worth the risk. That’s why puppies get snatched up so quickly at the rescue league.

His file said Bailey had been “surrendered” at 4 years old because he howled, destroyed furniture and peed in the house. I didn’t read that until I’d already walked him around the block and thought, “What a good dog!” When I put him back into his cage, he did, indeed, howl—a howl as piteous and sad as anything you might imagine. An abandoned child. A grieving child. Pure loss. A noise I should have been making myself those days. I couldn’t bring myself to walk past his cage with another dog. The guilt was crushing. But I thought the neighbors would kill me if I brought a howler home. I worried I wouldn’t have the money to replace the things he might tear or chew. He was risk after risk. Walk away, I told myself.

Which is apparently what everyone thought. No one was interested in him. So I felt sorry for him, week after week, and I kept walking him. He never pulled hard or tried to bolt. Each week, he became dead weight when I tried to lead him back to his cage. He stared at me as I re-latched his door.

I walked other dogs like him—medium-sized, black, even-tempered. But every other dog I walked and liked either had similar or even worse problems, or was adopted before I returned (because I made a rule that I’d make myself wait 24 hours before I’d actually adopt a dog I liked).

Then, one morning, I woke up and simply felt it was time to give Bailey a try. It hardly had anything to do with my head. It was a body hunger, a loneliness, a kind of message that passes between the rain and the river, a certain slant of light. The possibility of correspondence.


When I brought Bailey home, I was sure I knew what his owners had done wrong: They hadn’t crated or trained him. I bought a big plastic crate and kept it in the living room, where I was spending most of my time. I bought a soft pillow and a few chew toys, all of which went into the crate so he might come to think of it as a safe place. For the first few days, I walked him a lot, watched him a lot. I grew to trust him and, I wanted to think, vice versa. But, finally, I had to go to work one day, which meant I had to get him into the crate, even if I had to push him in, which I did.

I came home to find that he had moved the crate, from the inside, across the room. I couldn’t even imagine how he might have done it. Another day, I came home to the crate on its side, bite marks in the air vents. I came home once to discover the entire soft pillow disemboweled and Bailey standing belly-deep in a light green cloud of polyester bedding material, looking irritated. And then I came home to the crate wide open, the aluminum lock busted, taken apart, Bailey running down the stairs to jump on me. There was no caging him, clearly. The crate was moved into the basement. I would have to try something else.

I read books by trainers and dog people: Cesar Millan (who gave me the best practical advice—walk an anxious dog hard in the morning to calm him down for the afternoon when I have to leave him alone); Vicki Hearne (who reminded me not to take the whole adventure too lightly); Caroline Knapp (who said I was not crazy to love this dog so much); Temple Grandin (who said stop thinking like a human).

Part of the problem was that I’d gotten used to Gretel, who was the definition of “low-maintenance.” She didn’t suffer from separation anxiety and was so small that anything she did was easy to clean. She’d grown up in crates. Bailey was a different dog altogether. After a series of very bad weeks—when I came home to bitten-up shoes, a damaged briefcase, a ripped jacket and a set of curtains torn down; when I learned not to scream, hit or withhold affection for things done hours ago; and when I learned to hide what I didn’t want destroyed, to protect what I couldn’t afford to lose and then to walk my anxious dog for no less than an hour every morning before I left him alone for six hours—we gradually came to a kind of understanding about our responsibilities to each other, to the house. Suddenly, nothing was destroyed except some junk mail I left on the dining room table. And I made more time to be outside with him. We were in a relationship.


The next summer, when the Ex came over to say Gretel had died—suddenly, from heart failure—I hugged him, and we sat on the couch for a while and talked about her. He cried, and I said what a good dog she had been and how sorry I was for him. For the last few weeks before she died, he had had to wake up every few hours each night to take her out to pee, so he knew something was wrong. It had been exhausting. We were both thankful that, in the end, she died quickly. In one corner of my feelings, I was still a little glad to see him hurt. I’d never seen him cry the whole six years we’d been together.

Then, we had nothing else to talk about.

When we walked him back to his house, he gave Bailey a bag of Gretel’s treats and then a piece of cheese for knowing how to sit.

“Wait,” I said. “Watch this.” I looked at Bailey. “Shake.”

Bailey lifted a paw.


Bailey’s definitely given to play that’s rough, fast, exhausting and interactive. He does not fetch. He plays tug-of-war. He plays keep-away. He plays “I dare you to try and take this stick away from me.” Although he’s a very quiet dog, playing brings ferocious noises out of him. The owner who can’t tell a real growl from a play growl need not apply. Usually, he sounds as if he’ll bite off your arm when you make a grab for his Kong bone. The first week, I had thought, “Oh Jesus, I brought home a killer.” But then it occurred to me that his tail was wagging. He put both his big feet on top of the toy, his mouth right down there around it, making it impossible for me to get it. Stared at me. And, then, I took a chance and reached down and grabbed it. He grabbed it, too. He growled, but it was almost a laugh. So I laughed. It was our first mutual laughter. We both roared with happiness.

At this point, there is nothing the dog won’t let me take from him—or try to. We know how to play, how to lose the toy sometimes so we can get it back, how to feel the deep pleasure of defending something.

Sometimes, he’ll come into the room and throw a toy at me then rush in, as if to save it. Stands there squeaking it in his jaws: C’mon, c’mon.


Almost nothing makes me happier than Bailey’s excitement when I grab the leash or when he sees me close the laptop and say, “Ready?” Everything about him ignites. He is immediately at full attention, leaping, smiling, his tail a propeller of excitement. He bows. He prances to the door, then comes back and sits, tail fanning the carpet, all expectation. I lean over him, whisper, “Good boy,” in his ear, clip the leash to his collar, and he’s rushing to the door, pulling me along. Cesar Millan is quick to remind owners that excitement and happiness are different, but it’s a hard differentiation to make, maybe even impossible for us to want to make.

And maybe we don’t want to give up anthropomorphizing our animals. We need, some of us, the comforts of its illusion: Making animals more human lowers the sense of being alone, suggests that understanding is possible. How else do we begin the process of trusting our other relationships?

At the door, he sits again, looks up at me while I do a quick pocket-check: keys? wallet? phone? poop bags? treats? He stays by the door if I have to run back to get something. He knows there’s no way, at this point, that the front door isn’t going to open. There’s also no way he’s not going out with me. He is patient about my forgetfulness.


Sometimes, my hands literally grow hot to touch, scratch, itch, smooth, ruffle his fur. Waiting in traffic on the way to the dog park, I automatically reach over to stroke and fondle his big, floppy ears, the mix of cartilage and soft fur almost impossible for me to resist. When I was very young, I had the same irresistible urge to keep the satin edge of my favorite blue blanket between my thumb and forefinger. Like Linus in Peanuts, I was inconsolable if the blanket weren’t within reach.

If I have to come to an abrupt halt, I put my arm in front of him the way my mother used to do with me.


Bailey has a long, mysterious scar on his stomach; the vet has never spoken of it, so I’ve never worried about it. He has a hipbone that cracks if he lifts his leg too high. His back right leg is starting to get a little gimpy, so now he takes glucosamine tablets that are supposed to taste like liver.

He has dewclaws like fishhooks. At first, I didn’t realize how sharp and strong they were. We were playing keep-away with some toy, and I’d just stolen it. He leaped up, grabbing my arm. I pulled it back as fast as I could, and I heard the sound of my skin ripping open like a cotton sheet, saw suddenly right down to the red meat underneath. He took the toy we’d been fighting over and ran upstairs. I stared at my ripped arm for a while before I felt any pain, then walked to the kitchen, washed it and wrapped it in gauze.

It looked terrible. It was almost unbearable for anyone to look at, like Tyler Durden’s black eyes in “Fight Club.” A long, black scabby cut ran half the length of my forearm. I wore short sleeves for weeks to show it off. To put it in people’s faces. To have people ask me about it. What it felt like. Why didn’t I go see a doctor?

“It’s not that bad,” I said.

I walked around like a man finally alive. Finally, an actual wound.


I watched Obama get elected with the dog by my side. He was the first thing I kissed with joy. Kissed, kissed with relief and happiness. The Bush years were over, I told him. The lies and wars and dull fog of fear and angry fundamentalism that had said careful thinking was cowardice, was unpatriotic.

I kissed his soft head, those fantastic ears, his sensitive snout. He gave me a grave looking over, as if I were crazy.


Some mornings in the dog park, I invent taxonomies for the people I see:

Those of us who need visibility, who need live eyes to look into and be seen by;

Those of us who crave touch, who are touch-deprived, the tactile-centrics, whose fingers need soft fur and silky ears to run their hands over, the hungry-handed;

Those of us who need a reason to speak in high-pitched voices without being laughed at;

Those of us who crave prestige, who regard dogs as accessories (you can spot the pure version of these people by their inability to pick up after their dogs and by their ability to keep chatting to people on their cell phones, as if oblivious to what’s going on near their shining shoes);

Those men who need a dog in order not to be thought of as pathetic or as a child molester when they walk in the park;

Those women who’ve spent their whole lives tending to others and are now tired, in need of simple, silent attentive companionship;

Those of us who find pleasure watching an animal do what we would never allow ourselves to do—chasing rabbits, treeing squirrels, barking, barking, barking;

The damaged or disabled who need help, long-term, live-in, non-abusive;

Those of us who fear we are going to die alone and want to resist the bitterness that sometimes comes with living alone;

Those of us who need to believe nature can be made orderly, can be made to behave, sit, stay;

Those of us who can’t help being friendly, who suffer in an often-unfriendly world;

Those of us who cannot do something for our own happiness but will do anything for others’ happiness, who find happiness that way.


I’m the youngest in my family. My father is dead. My mother, though I might wish her to live forever, had a cancer operation last year that was successful but, nevertheless, made plain her frailties. She runs out of breath quickly these days. Lately, she’s having trouble sleeping at night. My brother, my only sibling, is 11 years older than I, and despite what we might like, we’re not best friends. We like each other well enough, but our lives are different and distant from one another’s. At 56, he’s recently suffered the double indignities of macular degeneration and a herniated disc in his neck that sent intense pain down his right arm. Suddenly, he’s old.

And there’s my own stiff back. My new reading glasses. My friend Amy’s death from metastasized colon cancer. The thinning hair reflected in the mirror that the stylist asks me to hold while she spins me around.

When I come home at 6 p.m. and take Bailey out for his evening walk, I often call my mother to talk. She loves to hear the newest dog story, and I use the opportunity to check up on her health, her spirit.

“How’d you do it?’ I asked her once, meaning how did she divorce my father after 32 years of marriage, sell a house she loved and move south—first, to Huntsville, Ala., where she supported herself cleaning scientists’ houses, and, then, to Dallas to be near my brother. She left behind virtually everything. I meant, How did she bear it?

“By being a bitch,” she said, fast.

We both laughed. She loves being unexpected. She hates to be worn down.

A little later, she said more seriously, “Honestly, I don’t know. I just had to.”


The first thing I ever saw die was the first dog I ever named, Bridget. I was 4 or 5; we lived on a rural road, where everyone let their animals roam freely. One snowy day, I was looking out the kitchen window where the school bus was expected to appear. Instead, one of the big county snowplows came roaring past, and as it passed our driveway, it threw up a black shape I didn’t immediately recognize.

I yelled to my mother, who lifted Bridget into the back of the car and drove like hell to the vet. I remember looking back at the poor dog, still breathing raggedly. Instead of seeing what I expected—streams of bright red blood—I saw the purple of her organs. She’d been slit open. There was nothing to do at the vet’s, of course, but be kind and put her to sleep. Other pets had probably died before her—there were some guinea pigs that turned up dead before I learned about keeping them out of drafts—but Bridget’s death was the first I really remember. After her, we got Peanut, the chihuahua, at least in part because we could keep her in the house without guilt. She lived until 16, ferocious until the end.

My brother doesn’t even want to talk about his pets. Only a few years ago, he had to put down the sweet Australian terrier, named Jasmine, whom he’d had for 12 years. He’d nursed her though diabetes and then, in her last year, blindness. “Never again,” he says. Luckily, he’s found love of the human kind.

I don’t think I believe in love again, yet. I don’t know if I ever will. I was raised to believe that love is rescue and that its main ingredient is simply time, but now I don’t know. Rescue fails as often as love. Family often fails. Even words fail, eventually. What’s left? As my mother says, “You just keep on hoping.”


When I’m out with the dog, I’m the happiest I am all day. Walking by the river or running in the woods, I can’t really do my professional work, which for me is largely the practice of carefully reading other people’s work and writing comments on it, or my personal work, which involves sitting in front of blank pages and writing words until a few begin to cohere and take off. All I can do when I’m with Bailey is pay attention to his explorations. I love to watch him stiffen to attention, his sensitive nose growing damp with information, his ears tilting toward strange sounds. For someone, like me, who lives so much of his life in his head, it seems lovely to be able to live so sensually.

Today, when he took off full speed across the wide green expanse of grass at the park, having spotted a squirrel, I started laughing at the clear determination, the beauty of his body running as fast as it could—a terrific athleticism I wish I had. He didn’t catch anything (he never does), and after a few half-hearted leaps at the trunk, he came walking back, his mouth half-open, breathing hard, impossibly happy.


In the morning, when the dog stretches, I stretch. Sometimes I roll my body into his. Sometimes this generates play, and he rubs his back against my back, his back legs kicking with pleasure. Sometimes he simply gets off the bed, goes in the other room and grooms himself. His sighs are impressive. Sometimes he farts in his sleep. Sometimes when I come home from work, when we both sit on the couch and smell each other, he smells my head too long and I worry about cancer. Sometimes I apologize for having been away for so long. Every so often, when he’s on his back, I trace the strange, long scar on his belly. When he yawns noisily, I try to yawn noisily, although mine sounds more like a laugh. I’ve been known to put one of his ears in my mouth. Sometimes, when he knows we’re driving to the park, he talks quietly to himself like a child. He’s been known to start howling as we get very close to the big lawns and tree-lined paths. I’ve been known to howl along.

About the Author

Jeff Oaks
Jeff Oaks

Jeff Oaks is the author of four chapbooks, most recently Mistakes with Strangers (Seven Kitchen Press, 2014). His poems and essays have appeared in Field, Mid-American Review, Creative Nonfiction, At Length, and Assaracus.

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