Step dogs

I am a cat lady.

I love the silent prowl of the cat. I love the nudging of their tiny face into my chest, the soft purr of their vibrating body against my belly, the way they sleep sitting up. Everything about a cat exemplifies “cool”. They don’t care too much about anything; therefore, their attention feels like a privilege. There is no desperation in a cat. I cannot imagine anything more admirable, really.

But my partner Bob has two dogs. And we all live together.

If I were not deeply in love with my partner, you and I would not be having this conversation. Fortunately and unlike me, or unfortunately as the case may be, my partner has a heart of gold. Giving up the dogs is absolutely not an option.

These dogs are exceptional because they are XXL dogs. Weighing 130 and 180 pounds, both tall enough to lay their snout on the dinner table, or meet me face to face when I lay in bed, or to pet their heads when we go for a walk – without stooping in the least.

Finnegan, the six year old Newfoundland, who is often compared to an adorable bear, or what I call the Great Plains Bison, drools buckets of slobber throughout the day and tends to vigorously shake his head due to ear issues, allowing his jowls to empty onto the walls, windows, floors, the highest cupboard, my clothes, and one time my plate. This fluid, sometimes gone unnoticed, will harden to the consistency of cement.

Griffin, the Great Pyrenees, is elegant and to my great relief, dry. Unfortunately, at four years of age, he has developed a relentless form of anxiety, particularly separation anxiety, and he will urinate or “mark” one of 100 locations in the home whenever we leave. He has not been kenneled, so the expert theory is that kenneling will at this point only make matters worse. Even leaving him locked in a single room will only generate a deeper, long-term nervosa.

Then there is the barking. Two massive beasts bellow simultaneously when a leaf falls from one of our many trees, when a car drives down the road on the other side of the neighborhood, when a child shouts at such a distance there is no way to know what they actually said. If I place my cup on the wooden table, a cacophony of fog horns ensues.

Every time they bound through the room, my body tenses, and sometimes, if I don’t see the bark coming, I will flinch and even gasp despite myself. My nerves are shot. Did I mention I am a cat lady?

The dogs are high maintenance. Because it is over $200 to have them groomed, we must wash them ourselves at the local pet wash, and because they have double coats of fur, we must brush them for over one hour on Sundays.

Finn takes a few daily meds for eyes, ear, and skin care. Occasional claw trims, and a basket full of clean cloths to head off the drool. Grif requires a daily walk to stave off his nervous disorder along with a dose of melatonin.

Both dogs are insatiably needy for contact. They want to be in the same room with us at all times, especially if I am cooking, or Bob is working from home.

My cats are not happy about any of this.

These XXL dogs don’t have a long lifespan. Newfies can go about 8-10 years. That leaves me a dog owner for at least 2 more years. The Pyrenees has another six years to go. A close friend jokingly asked me if there were any way to expedite their “passing.” I said, “Yes, there are always ways to take care of such burdens.” We chuckled and said nothing more.

However, as time wanes and our new home life marches on, I am finding something also to be true. Bob and I are empty nesters. While our combined six kids are out there in the world, we now turn to the needs of these other living things. Even though we are slowly training the dogs to calm the fuck down, we are witnessing something in each other that would otherwise be lost: we are parenting these wild teens together. We have a common purpose which is to give these monsters a safe and loving space, where they can thrive. Where we can all thrive together, an experience we would both have missed having become a couple so late in life. Every time I watch Bob with his dogs, okay, okay, OUR dogs, I see a beautiful, gentle man who longs to accept them and to be responsible, dutiful. I feel a deep reverence for this man and his capacity to love these creatures.

Sometimes Finn is warm and dry and sweet and that is when I let the witch in me soften and lay my face along his back and draw his power into me. Sometimes I watch Grif from the upstairs window while he stands on the back hill, a purveyor of his one acre kingdom, a source of mighty protection, his long white hair flowing in the breeze.

Finn is actually pretty easy, since he sleeps most of the day and doesn’t seem to mind the cats. When I walk Grif, I can tell that strangers are in awe of his great dignified stature. I feel like Artemis with her wolf companion.

I understand something now which never occurred to me in the beginning of all this: all the horrible stress of caring for these dogs has a payoff. Since I am choosing to love these boys with their ridiculous levels of need, I am reminded consistently why I choose to do it. I do it because I love Bob. I do it because it is the right thing to do. I do it because in the end, I am capable of it. I do it because, damnit, life is not meant to be perfect, nor controlled, nor easy. My life with these two uninvited hairballs is full and often entertaining. Caring for the dogs is actually my only real challenge these days. I have been around long enough to know that that is a first-world problem. I suppose that makes me a pretty lucky girl.


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