Wild City // An unlikely bond with a furry friend

It would have been a wise thing to do on purpose, to get a young, glowingly healthy dog back in 2008 when we were trying to figure out how to respond to my husband’s cancer diagnosis. But the dog came to us just a few weeks before all that, when we had no inkling of what was ahead.

A friend of a friend, we learned, had become too ill to care for her female golden retriever. Though just shy of two years old, this dog was about to be given away for the second time. Neither my husband, who is twice divorced, nor I, who had held off settling into a relationship until my forties, saw this as a red flag.

We went to visit. When I sat on the couch, and this 60-pound dog threw herself at me I did not know to think, “Poor training.” Instead I thought, “She loves me.” Truth is, at that moment she was ours.

I had no idea what it meant to have a big dog in the city, how much exercise she would need, and how mannerly she would have to learn to be. I didn’t know how to assess the one bit of information we had gotten about her: She hogs the bed.

Indeed, I had never understood the pleasure of having a dog. I love cats, especially the way they move. To watch them prepare to jump to a high surface, the long gaze before they will themselves to rise up through the air, is to know that they are other, made of wind and soul.

Dogs are angular and weighted, their movements more mundane. They are more of this earth.

Cats fit in a lap, and are soft. My two liked to be held and petted, and they slept on my belly when I stretched out on the couch. Dogs are boney, many of them too big for a lap, and they have those annoying claws that “click-click-click” on the floor. And they bark! Cats are much more peaceful to have around.

But my husband wanted a dog, and I wanted him to be happy, so I went along. Oh how hard the resistant fall.

Our dog had lived in the country. We soon learned she had not been trained to the leash. There are signs that she may have been mistreated. She freaks out around other dogs. We began to see we had unwittingly taken on a big project. And only after we’d gotten her did I learn that my husband had been a softy with all his dogs. He had taught them one thing and one thing only. When he yelled, “Hit the deck,” they were to jump off the bed.

Because I work at home, and because I was the person most interested in having a calm, obedient companion, I took on the training. It has been sorely trying, in part because I began with zero knowledge.

After books and classes left me still frazzled, we hired a trainer to come to our home for a private session. I was so frustrated by that point I burst into tears telling our story. It was that day that we began to make real headway, though our work is far from done. Gladly, the time I’ve spent focused on this dog, and the attention I have given her, have created quite a bond.

Our dog’s fur is auburn with golden highlights, and she loves to be petted, but I didn’t fully sign on, body-wise, to this dog thing until one evening when I was sitting in a chair reading. I’d just gotten out of the bath, and my feet were bare. The dog lay down on them, and I felt a flush of warmth. I thought, “Oh, this is why people like dogs.”

I find brushing her to be deeply satisfying. She relaxes into it so well that my husband calls her, “Dog of the Spa.” I enjoy cleaning her ears. She has shown a tendency toward ear infections, so the vet told me to sniff her ears regularly to help catch trouble early. They smell wonderful, fresh and a little spicy.

I am fond of having her snuffle around the yard while I work in the garden or hang clothes on the line.

Perhaps the best part of having this dog has been mornings. True, she wakes up earlier than we might want to, but what a happy thump-thump-thump of her tail on the bed (she sleeps on her own bed, at the foot of ours). She is so delighted to see us once again, to go outside, and to be fed. She is wide open to, and helps us to open to, the prospect of yet another good doggie day.

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at The Loft Literary Center.