Jerry, a laidback chunky Beagle mix, one of my oldest and favorite clients, died last week. I cried when I read his owner’s text. When I spoke to her, she was as upset as can be expected when a beloved 14-year-old pet dies suddenly. She had taken him to the vet after he wasn’t feeling well at night. Then, as she sat in the waiting room scrolling on her phone, the doctor came to tell her that Jerry needs to be put down. Losing a pet is agonizing, I thought as my mind went back to my Poops who died seven years ago, also at 14, at home in my arms.
Jerry’s death caused me to sit a moment with my decision to be a dogsitter. It has been a good retirement gig, where I get to stay in (usually) lovely homes, make a little money and save even more by living with my mother (when not dogsitting or travelling). But loss, I hadn’t thought of that, as we tend not to think of death if we don’t have to.
And I recall the death of one of my daughter’s dogs in a tragic accident (dog meets motorcycle), and the deaths of a dear friend’s two dogs. And the cats who I have known who have passed their nine lives.
Seems like a fulfillment of some statement that there is always a flipside to that which is joyful: if there’s a silver lining, then there needs to be a dark exterior.
This week, I’m dogsitting a 6-month-old puppy, Sally, owned by a soon-to-be-divorced man who didn’t get the dogs in the settlement. She is still learning to do her business outside and chewing on everything she can get into her mouth before I can even say “Drop it!”—which she heeds, Good Girl! Later in the month, I’ll be dogsitting for a rambunctious 18-month-old who is owned by two 80-plus-year-olds. A recently retired friend just got a “delish” puppy and continues to save kittens in her Queens neighborhood.
There is so much to say about having a pet and leaving behind loneliness. Of bringing joie de vivre into your life simply by watching how excited they are to make a discovery in the grass. Of playing their version of fetch and tug-of-war with a tattered formerly squeaky toy until you, too, are tattered. Of having to get out at set times to walk them and see that the world still exists, and that you aren’t as alone as it sometimes feels within the walls of your home.
I may not have loved all these temporary pets, but I have appreciated each of them: these animals we’ve brought into our lives for the express purpose of having a companion. Clearly, some dogs are trained to protect, but I’m talking about the dogs, like Poops, who would notify me with incessant barking that someone was outside our house, but his little Maltese self was not there to physically protect me. He did save me, though, by coming to my room every night when I went through my divorce and still lived with my ex. There was always room for him on the couch that was my bed for two years. Good Boy, indeed!
And now, I have these borrowed pets to provide what it is that dogs so readily give, but to still have the freedom not to always be ruled by their potty schedule. Win-win, as I see it.
When I’m back at my mother’s house, sometimes I see the older neighbors walk their little lapdogs who are as slow as they are. Their owners sit with friends on a bench, the dogs patiently waiting for them to resume the walk that is so often delayed, since it is to return to the loneliness inside. Except it’s not completely lonely, since this little dog demands food, attention, and space on a lap.
A couple of single friends got dogs at the beginning of Covid that helped turn the endless days of isolation and social distancing into an opportunity to talk and interact with a new kind of partner.
I wonder about myself sometimes: my desire not to have my own dog and my satisfaction with an unpartnered life. Am I living unengaged and protecting myself, or is this as engaged and open as suits me? When I talk to a friend who has a husband or when I finish a dogsitting job, I don’t feel that I’m missing out on having someone to continue the conversation with or a dog to walk in the heat and humidity. I simply accept that this is my life at this point. Will it always be like this, who knows? But these temporary pets have added permanent love to my heart and psyche. They may not be my pets and my time with them is limited, but that time (except for cleaning up throw up and poop—Bad Girls and Boys!) has soothed me.
It's also helped me see that I’m a kinder, more caring person than I give myself credit for. And as much as I enjoy being alone, wandering within my thoughts, I’ve learned that I really do enjoy the company of others—people and pets—but in balance. And for that, I say, Good Girl! Good Boy!, to all the lovely pets waiting for a belly rub, and a walk, and an approved treat—they’re coming!