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Can you love your dog too much?

Wednesday October 21st, 2009

By Leslie Smith

Square_140_uno-first-day-home
Uno's first day home.

I used to hate getting on a plane without my husband. In addition to making me queasy, flying triggers my fear of dying. And if I was going to perish prematurely in a giant ball of flames, well, I wanted Mike right there with me.

I don't feel that way any longer. Now if the plane goes down, I want one of us to survive to take care of our pup.

My name is Leslie Smith, and I think I might be addicted to my dog.

I don't have a drinking problem, never smoked, and I can't see the appeal of gambling. So I certainly didn't anticipate the aching, unshakeable anxiety that comes over me when I'm away from my dog.

It's not a feeling I understand, honestly, and its raw power can be unsettling. After all, this special someone in my life is mesmerized by houseflies and loves rolling in bird poop. I try to keep this mind...most of the time.

Absolutely no doggy birthday parties

Though we decided years ago not to have children, Mike and I had always talked about getting a dog. We saved and saved before we could finally afford a place that allowed pets, and moving in marked an important milestone: We were turning from a couple into a family, and we wanted to do it right.

That meant a little differently from friends who'd devolved from articulate professionals into baby-talking, milkbone-dispensing dog people. Instead of joining us for cocktails or concerts, we lost one set of friends when they began declining dinner invitations unless their Labradoodle was included.

Mike and I were determined to hold onto our independence, and ragged semblance of normalcy, so we put into place what we thought were adequate safety measures:

1. No birthday parties for our dog.
2. No Christmas cards with our dog dressed up as Rudolph.
3. One photo preferred — two photos maxof our dog at the office.

And perhaps most important:

4. No calling each other Mommy and Daddy.

We would love our dog, we agreed, but we would not parade him around in tight sweaters or instruct people to "leave a message for [insert dog's name]" on our answering machine. If either of us noticed our friends rolling their eyes in response to something we said or did, we were to quietly alert the other one we'd gone too far. This dog would be our dog, not our child.

Yet with even these rigid parameters established, my unraveling was nearly immediate.

Finding the One

When we arrived at the shelter, we immediately sought out the dog I'd scouted online. He was smaller than I'd imagined but just as somber. Unlike the other pups we'd met during our search, there was no unbridled jumping or excited peeing. For a ten-month-old, he seemed serious, even knowing. And a little sad.

I was smitten.

The drive home from the shelter was what I imagine it feels like leaving the hospital with a new baby. I had this overwhelming instinct to protect the bewildered, vulnerable being now in our care. With Mike driving, I crouched next to our new charge in the back of the VW bug, his big soulful eyes at once trusting and ringed with fear.

We named him Uno, because he is our first dog together. Right away, I learned to adore the way he smells — the pads of his paws like pizza, his ears like homemade artichoke dip. A whiff of his snoutI kid you notsuggests that grilled cheese sandwiches are frying nearby. And behind those wide-set imploring eyes, beneath that luscious cocoa fur, is the most gentle, sensitive little soul ever to draw a breath.

And so our life together formed. Evening walks at the park, kibble treasure hunts at dinner time. In those early days, Uno would plant himself at the foot of our bed each morning and let out a few indignant barks. "Are you still sleeping?" he was clearly asking. "It's 4:27 and I've got a laundry list of crap I gotta sniff today."

Had you told me, pre-Uno, that I'd be negotiating our gritty San Francisco neighborhood at 4:30 a.m. on a regular basis, I'd have scoffed. Yet there we were: Uno's prancing reindeer gait in odd contrast to the dim shadows, discarded food wrappers, and shards of glass littering the sidewalks. (For the record, we do have our limits; we've trained him to stay in his bed until a more forgiving hour.)

More than just dog-crazy?

Inevitably, it wasn't long before Mike and I became a bit lax in observing our self-imposed rules. Mike found himself telling Uno to make a big poop for Mommy at the park. And I found a loophole in the answering machine rule: "Leave a message for Leslie or Mike. Uno momento."

It didn't stop there. I became fixated on finding out more about Uno. We'd never know how or why he ended up at the shelter, but I had heard about a way to get us some answers about his breed makeup. So, in an act that tested the limits of even our most tolerant friends, Mike and I sunk 70 bucks into DNA testing.

My friend Beth was visiting from Kansas when we got the results. I opened the envelope, and grabbed her hand.

Then, slowly, I read the answer out loud: Uno is roughly half Doberman Pinscher. Even more surprising, there's not an ounce of Labrador or Pointer in him!

It was as if one of the world's great mysteries had been made known to me, and I spent a good 30 seconds letting the word Doberman roll off my lips. "I need to get to the internet," I said. "I need to research Dobermans."

Beth let go my hand, and allowed me to whiz past her toward the computer. But when I caught her eye, I could tell she thought I'd finally snapped.

By anyone's standards, Beth lives well within societal norms. She attends church regularly, goes to the gym when she can, and sends her kids to public schools. She takes my love for Uno seriously — after all, she's been my best friend since 7th gradebut somehow I think she equates my fussing and mothering to a child playing house.

"I'm a little worried about you," she finally says, and I have to admit, that wasn't the first time I'd heard it.

There's no substitute for a good dog

For weeks after Beth's departure, I thought about what she'd said — and what she'd left unsaid. Is my devotion to Uno somehow inappropriate? Am I subconsciously asking him to fill a role he could never occupy, by treating him as a surrogate child? Is it possible...that I love my dog too much?

Maybe. I'm really not crazy, though I recognize some of my choices may seem extreme. We send Uno to daycare. We make sure he gets to the park at least three times a day on weekends. We think about him constantly.

But while I might care for him with the same intensity a mother does her child, I'm quite aware he's not human. In fact, that's partly why I find our devotion to each other so moving; his sheer canine-ness inspires me like no person ever has.

Besides, Mike and I still see our friends. We go to human-only dinner parties. We even travelwithout our dog.

I admit, though, to aching for Uno whenever we do go away. Even now, three years since his adoption, I routinely tear up when Mike and I pull away from the dog sitter's house and head toward the airport. It could be worse. At least I don't insist we take separate flights.

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