D (for Dog) Day.
Why? Because, like a runaway groom, there I was, ready to bolt, on the edge, in anticipation of a true life-changing adventure.
Should I or shouldn’t I? That had been the question burning up the phone lines for weeks.
My 88-year-old friend Bud advised no.(‘Too much work. You can’t.“)
My risk-averse mom lectured definitely no. (“What if you have to travel for work?”)
My dog-loving friends, walking their pooches from dawn to dusk, kept the pressure up. (“What’s taking you so long?”)
And my friend Peg, a life coach, rationally asked: “What are the pluses and minuses?”
I advised myself—yes and no–depending on the hour of the day. Nothing kills decisiveness faster than polling opinions. And the more advice I collected, the less I knew.
It had been eight long years since I did it–and I was rusty.
In 2002, after the death of my cocker spaniel Katie (the star of Katie Up And Down The Hall), I was leveled by the loss. Left behind was a lonely vacuum and the memory of those years when she raced up and down our long hallway, uniting a hallway of complete strangers, and turning them into a family.
Her loving presence had immeasurably enriched my life.
My companion of fifteen years was now gone. The apartment was eerily empty, the hallway depressingly silent.
How could I ever forget her—or replace her?
I know many people go right out and get a new dog. I just didn’t.
I instead focused on work, though, after about a year, I did begin thinking about getting a new puppy—and thinking and thinking some more. But that’s all I did.
On three occasions, I came close, and put down deposits for a new cocker spaniel. But each time, at the last minute and to the chagrin of the breeders (who stopped talking to me), I backed out.
After that, I visited animal shelters, toying with the idea of adopting an adult dog, but I didn’t do that either. On one occasion, to psyche myself into it, I even went out and bought $400 worth of dog equipment, but returned it all the next day.
I’d lost my nerve and questioned my physical energy. I also dreaded the idea of housebreaking a puppy and upsetting my empty but compulsively neat household.
Adept at raising Katie as I’d been, my confidence had somehow dissolved.
Could I train a dog again? Did I want to?
The thought of it snowballed and built up to a mountain of resistance. Finally, I felt there was no way to climb that peak, as it was too fraught with danger, complication, and inconvenience.
Looking back, I had distorted the challenge into something it wasn’t, so that little puppy had grown into an 800-pound gorilla.
And so I went for eight years, second-guessing myself into no decision, until D Day, when I finally pushed myself over the edge of the cliff.
* * * * *
On a warm, sunny morning last May, I set off with my close friends Peg and Jason. We headed from Manhattan to the rendezvous spot in Middletown, NY to finally pick up my new cocker spaniel puppy. I’d named her Lucy. Peg did the driving, and Jason did the reassuring.
A few days earlier, like that runaway groom, I was filled with dread (code word for fear), about to commit but ready to flee. My stomach was all growly. For weeks preceding D-Day, I’d walked in and out of pet stores picking up all the equipment for “the nursery.”
All set up at home, in the dining room, was the metal kennel, lined with a cushy blanket with a design of monkeys, and filled a giant Hippopotamus plush toy, a pink velour blanket, squeaky rattles, kongs, and balls—all ready for the 7-pound puppy.
Over the seven weeks leading up to the big day, the breeder, Dolores, had been sending photo updates from her farm. At first, Lucy was just a mush of fur, like a blond koala bear, easily fitting into the palm of the hand. By the fifth week, though, with ridiculously long ears, and fluffy paws, she was definitely a spaniel, her innate adorableness unquestionable.
“She’s a stunner,” assured Dolores. “You’re going to love her.”
That day, we met Dolores, a no-nonsense woman in her 60’s, in the parking lot of a highway coffee shop, the Quick-way Diner, and instantly spotted her beat-up station wagon.
“Maybe I won’t get out of the car,” I joked to Jason, in no rush at all. “Let me know what she looks like.
“Oh, Glenn P! Come on. Let’s take a look.” Mmmm. Peg was already halfway to the car. I snailed my way over. Dolores firmly grasped my hand in welcome.
“She’s in the back with her brother,” she clipped, lifting up the hatch.
And there, curled up inside the silver metal kennel, was Lucy—who seemed tinier in life than in the photos, shyly snuggled next to her brown-haired brother.
Dolores scooped limp Lucy up and handed her over to me. She was so soft, dropping her head on my forearm, sleepy from the 2-hour drive. Adorable, yes.
But holding her, I admit I didn’t feel the instant bolt of connection and parental love I’d felt with Katie. Let’s just say my reaction was lukewarm.
Just as I had wanted to retreat from Australia and relinquish that writing job, I wanted to bolt from Middletown and let someone else adopt little Lucy.
“Yes!!” he told me. “You’ve got to. She’s precious—perfect.”
So reluctantly, I wrote the check, and on the way home, sat in the backseat of the car–numb. Although I felt affectionate toward Lucy, I was unconvinced.
That first night together, Lucy was in my bedroom, housed in a corral lined with strongly scented wee-wee pads. The smell was nauseating….and by morning I was freaking out, convinced that I DID NOT WANT HER. It was nothing personal—I just didn’t want to start all over again. I’d made a mistake.
Mike and Helen Lee, experienced dog-owners in my apartment building with a pug named Duchess, came in and suggested that all the dog equipment be moved two rooms away into the dining room, far from the bed. “Your crib and hers should be separate,” they advised.
That helped, but I’m embarrassed to admit that over the next week, I asked the disgruntled breeder if I could return Lucy (the answer was yes, but no refund), after which I walked around the neighborhood with my pup, actively recruiting people who might be interested in adopting her.
I just couldn’t wrap my mind, and heart, around having this new being in my space, beautiful and sweet as she was.
On the outside, I was meticulous in my care of her, doing everything right, but I didn’t feel right on the inside. I had to ride the anxiety like a dangerous wave.
On the car ride home, sitting peacefully in my lap.
* * * * *
After about a week of hanging on, something inside me began to shift.
That little beast began to seduce me—licking my face, posing for pictures, rolling on her back, waiting for tummy rubs, and, like all hyperkinetic puppies, racing furiously around, wearing herself out, before curling into my arms for long naps.
With her stretched out against me, I’d fall asleep too, my breath following hers. And I soon started to relax into the routine.
So just as in Australia, when I stayed steady and conquered the fear, I did it again, slowly dismissing the thought of making a hasty retreat.
How did I do it? I learned that the secret was getting outside—outside my head, and outside into the park.
A lot can happen when you go outside for walks eight times a day.
I watched my bouncy spaniel strut along our tree-lined walkway along the Hudson, the Esplanade, wildly eager to make new canine friends. We bumped into big dogs and small ones, Lucy furiously pulling the leash to sniff and snoop. No matter how big the dog, Lucy showed no fear, jumping up on them, and playfully whacking them on the face with her paws. She rolled over on her stomach, did somersaults in the grass, chased their tails, licked their faces, and whirled merrily in circles.
And that was just the dogs. Lucy equally longed to crawl into any lap she could—from seniors and babies to a cavalcade of kids excited to hold her, chase her, feed her, and cradle her. So into the arms of countless people she went—friends, neighbors, and total strangers, including tourists homesick for their dogs and eager to be photographed with her.
Lucy flew over to them, her tail wagging, her trust complete. Nothing fazed her. Even when little kids were screaming and pawing her, she laughed it off. You could even turn Lucy upside down—I sometimes did—and she came back wanting more.
Babies, in particular, fascinated her, and she tried to crawl into their carriages and snuggle close, licking their toes. Through it all, her zest and non-stop energy energized me. The more I watched her interact with others, the more I fell in love with her myself. Her happiness made me happy.
And as I sat outside chatting with old friends and making new ones– taking pictures and recording videos of Lucy—I found myself being more social and extroverted than I’d been in years. I realized that Lucy was helping socialize ME. This was an unexpected bonus—and one of the secrets to cementing my commitment.
And in the end, I wound up with more friends than I ever imagined I would. My social life expanded exponentially due the incredible cuteness of my puppy and her outgoing, friendly disposition.
All kinds of people came over to “our” bench to talk, watch the sailboats glide by, and pet Lucy, who studied the birds perched above her in the huge oak tree. Fellow dog-owners began giving me canine toys and books about training a puppy; we made late-night visits for housebreaking tips, shared dinners out by the Hudson, and traded vet stories. I also consulted with dog-walkers, pet store clerks, and professional trainers about the best way to raise a pup.
And by surrounding myself with people who knew more than I did—my puppy mentors–I gained strength and courage. In fact, finding mentors turned out to be one of the prime secrets of successfully raising Lucy.
And so it was that the reassurance, advice, and support I needed to accomplish something new was to be found outside. All my qualms, fears, reservations, and insecurities literally vanished. That’s the power of connection with others—rather than disconnection, a product of fear.
I discovered that I was much more flexible and adaptable than I’d given myself credit for. I found thatthe real challenge with Lucy was letting go—releasing tight control of my environment, and allowing her messiness and unique spirit to invade it. I had to be willing to share my space, and heart, with this magical little being.
Nowadays, I adore my dog. She’s delicious–mischievous, fun, smart, and beautiful.
Every single evening, there she is, industriously chewing on her rawhide bone as I read or watch TV. Then, as midnight approaches, she climbs up on my chest and rests her head on my shoulders, yawning in my face, or licking it. She then snuggles up against me, my own little furnace, keeping me warm all through the night. It’s just blissful.
The irony is that she’s become the greatest thing in my life—and yet I was willing to let her go.
This only proves how strong but irrational fear can be—threatening life’s greatest pleasures.