Greetings, from Miss What’s-Your-Name-Again’s small and poorly air-conditioned studio apartment, here in the resplendent Slums of Beverly Hills. As we rapidly approach summer vacation, that means way more time spent in my house, watching YouTube videos and reading Facebook-linked HuffPost articles, trying to expend the least amount of energy and money as possible. Currently, I am watching a video compilation of people receiving puppies for Christmas and crying, as I hold my dog Toast who, typically, appears deeply disturbed by the sudden and intense onslaught of emotion.
Whenever anyone tells me they’re getting a dog, I feel the overwhelming urge to warn them, which already sounds absurd because dogs are the best, right? But dogs are complicated, also. In ways I could never have possibly fathomed when I drove my adorable, small-yet-durable-looking new pup home from the shelter. And it’s not that I don’t love him, don’t mistake me, because I do. But how can I explain to you the real-life complexities of having a dog in your life?
You’ve already heard about my dog, Toast. I’ve perhaps used him a few too many times as an allegory for the way in which I interact with you, but that’s probably merely a small piece of a much larger conversation we can have another day. As you may or may not have already gathered, he and I have a very complicated relationship, the sort of dog-owner thing you don’t read about in Buzzfeed articles or memes about the mythically-proportioned loyalty of rescue pets. My dog is fiercely independent, stubborn and temperamental. We don’t spend time together in a traditional dog-owner sense; he doesn’t care to sit with me or even near me, mostly preferring the privacy of his crate or his little bed. Some days are low days for him; sometimes he won’t let me touch him all day and instead he just slinks around the house moodily, glaring at me from various positions in our small apartment, lunging at me aggressively, suddenly and with no provocation. And other days he is my vibrant, charming best friend, playing with the sleeve of my sweater, tangling himself in my shoelaces as I endeavor to tie them, sashaying around the mall with me like he’s the mayor of Century City. You know it’s bad when your exceedingly kind vet tells you he’s “… Just a difficult dog, and it’s a very long road ahead.”
For a long time, I blamed myself for Toast’s shortcomings as a companion. If I only loved him better somehow, I told myself, if I was home more, if I spent more money or time on him maybe he would love me the way dogs are supposed to love their owners. There are some moments where my only saving grace is that he is small enough that I can physically overpower him when he is out of control; it is in these moments I understand that, if he was a larger dog, I could certainly not keep him. If I had a family, I absolutely could not keep him, and it is very likely he would need to be put down. It is on these days, when I have to lock him in his crate so that he can’t hurt me, that I still curl up in a little ball on my bed and just sob, over how disappointed I am with him, how much responsibility he is and how little equipped I am to handle it all on my own, how I might bear it better if I felt like I got more from him in return.
When people say that dogs have personalities, usually they mean it in a charming sense— dogs are allowed to have a personality when it’s a cute and quirky one. But Toast came to me with a full set of very real baggage, and sometimes it is cute and charming, and other times it’s dark and heavy and terrifying. He doesn’t understand the social contract under which dogs and humans are supposed to coexist because he can’t read. And, more importantly, I have no right to ask it of him because, well, he’s just a fucking dog. He is a creature of independent will and spirit for whose wellbeing I have made myself solely and entirely responsible. Whose wellbeing I am required to ensure even when he is shitty to me, when he refuses to hold up his end of our imaginary bargain, on those days (and of which there are many) when the heartbreak and disappointment and massive financial burden far outweigh the joy he brings to me.
I know my experience with Toast is not typical, but it happened; he exists. And the thing I want you to know is that I still wouldn’t trade him for the world; for everything that he is, he’s mine and we are family. I want you to know that, at some point, I began to no longer look at him through the lens of what I wish he was, or what I thought having a dog would be. I began instead to understand our relationship not as a contract in which he has systematically failed to uphold his end, but as a unilateral promise I made when I drove my adorable and small-yet-durable-looking new pup from the shelter, to love him for who he is, and often in spite of who he is, to put a roof over his head and food in his bowl, to be available for a snuggle when he wants it, to never give up on him just because he didn’t turn out to be who I was hoping he would. In the end, having a dog has truly been all about unconditional love, it was just my love that would be called upon to be unconditional. And Toast has taught me that my capacity to love is infinite.
Anyway, this is all a bit heavy for you. I want you to keep watching your dog videos (especially peep that one where a bunch of dogs fail to catch things… fucking hysterical.) Snuggle up with your stuffed pooch at night, let him ward off the baddies for you. And, as a place in your heart continues to be carved out for the dogs of the world, really make sure it’s a place for them, for everything they are, good and bad. There is always more room.
Except in my apartment, if you ask Toast. He’d like his own.