In mid-March, as Los Angeles braced for the safer-at-home order we knew was coming, I turned off the news and told my husband we should get another dog. It was a conversation he had pitched and I had ditched many times in the past few years. With our one dog, two cats, two adults and two young kids in a house smaller than many would find tenable, we were fully saturated with responsibilities, a family sponge incapable of another ounce of absorption.
“I’d love another dog when we have more time,” I’d said before. Suddenly, we had time.
Rescue groups list their animals with captivating pictures and a full personality report. Great on a leash, loves salmon (lemon, no pepper), was thoroughly tickled by Tiger King, maintains a subtle bias against women with canes. An animal shelter has no time for small talk. You’ll never find more than two pictures. Usually the sex of the animal. Occasionally the weight. An example post might read: Here is a dog. It is a dog. Want the dog?
At the time of my change of heart, the shelters had closed to visits but were open for adoptions. You see a picture online, you pay upfront, and they hand you a dog through the back door. It was a glorious distraction from the horrors of the pandemic to pore through shelter sites and before long we had spotted an allegedly female, 28 pound, 1-year-old, mixed-breed (perhaps a Beagle mutt? It didn’t say) who was smiling from ear to ear because she looked tremendously happy and also because the picture appeared stretched. When I thought about bringing her home, I was breathless with excitement.
Well. Excitement is sometimes the kid brother of Reckless.
We brought our backdoor dog home and named her Bernie. You know why, but this isn’t that story. We showed Bernie off to the neighbors from a safe distance and took pictures and tried to pretend to our kids that this was exactly how we’d pictured the arrival of our second dog. Like the dread of a horrible mistake wasn’t nipping at our heels and panting hot in our faces.
Because even on day one it was clear that Bernie wasn’t who we’d dreamed she’d be, was not the dog we’d imagined trotting out of that stretched photo and into our little house to snuggle up with our family. Bernie was no Beagle. She was more likely a Husky/German Shepard and a biting, jumping, frantic, biting dervish of a dog. On no planet with gravity did she weigh 28 pounds.
As we were easing into remote work and full-time childcare responsibilities, Bernie flung her 40+ pound self into our lives helter skelter and without a semblance of gratitude. Did she terrorize our unassuming lump of a dog with incessant pouncing and neck-nibble attacks? Yes. Were our cats now hunted in their own quiet spaces by a dog that proved impervious to even blood-drawing claw swipes? Also yes. Had my own three-year-old son become Bernie’s favorite chew toy? I mean, yeah. Though, he also seemed to like it.
I walked Bernie daily, fed her meals and treats, and was the target of near-constant play biting. Her bites did not always feel playful; however let’s go with play biting because the bites didn’t break the skin, and I don’t want you to think we let our new dog maul our toddler on the daily. She was biting when she wanted to play. She was also biting when she was hungry, and also when frustrated, corrected in any way, or assaulted with a moving human or animal body.
As the days went by, my husband and I chewed over our rash decision, found ourselves doggedly chanting, “What were we thinking?” except there were two extra words between what and were.
Really though, what the eff were we thinking? Because here’s where you decide I’m a martyr or a moron. When I tell you:
When I first called the shelter, I learned Bernie had been previously returned. For biting. The last owner brought her back to the shelter after just eleven days, reporting that she lunged at faces, bit people, and was, in a word, “uncontrollable.”
We were so desperate to get our pandemic pup, so needy to balance quarantine with a canine consolation prize, that we had justified every last complaint. She sounds like a mouthy puppy; the shelter staff said she’s friendly; the previous owner was elderly and couldn’t handle her; she’s only 28 pounds, how bad could it be?
It was bad. Our lives were already strained taut with work and kids and worry over our older parents across the country. To a situation beyond control, we had added an uncontrollable dog.
A month later, Bernie is still part of our family. We have rerouted our childcare costs to virtual sessions with dog trainers and the many tools said trainers have recommended. We’ve installed 200% more baby gates than we did for our human babies, and carefully juggle the locations of our other dog and cats and kids to ensure everyone’s safety.
Bernie is biting about 40% less, which, to be honest, is still a lot of biting. But she is also loving and playful and clever and, sometimes it seems, willing herself to unlearn her bad habits, catching herself before she snaps, literally. I know a lot of people wouldn’t have kept this dog. I can’t even bring myself to open the “fun project!” emails from my kids’ schools, but I am obstinately snout-deep in my own capstone Pandemic Project — unearthing the great dog I know is buried in our Bernie. (She’s also a digger, by the way.)
I think, through Bernie, I’m learning how foolishly off-scale our expectations can be. I felt a little silly packing up my office on March 11th – did I really need my extra monitor for a month of remote work? Now, of course, I wish I’d taken my printer, too. And the whole candy bowl stash rather than a modest handful. In March, we were all preparing for a few weeks of inconvenience.
The other day, my therapist floated the idea that maybe Bernie wasn’t the right fit for our lives right now, maybe there was a choice I wasn’t facing. She was right; I made the choice. I stopped seeing that therapist.
I wish there was a voice from three years in the future to tell me this cautionary tail has a happy ending. That in a few years our animals are a veritable Peaceable Kingdom and we can shake our heads and sigh and smirk over how frenetic and frustrating Bernie was those first months. We are all straining our ears to hear that voice from the future. Tell us everything is okay now. Assure us our loved ones stop dying, alone, with this vile virus. Remind us that uncontrollable forces come into our lives and yet we find some path – nicked and bruised but not defeated — in the smarting darkness.