(Part Eleven in my series on my six years in New York)
“YOU CAN TEACH AN OLD DOG NEW TRICKS—IF THE OLD DOG WANTS TO LEARN.”
—THOMAS “TIP” O’NEILL
Give or take a few months, I have always been a New York City dog owner. I find New Yorkers to be attached to their dogs in ways that people in other cities are not. Indeed, New Yorkers anthropomorphize their dogs in such a way that they are not “Riley’s Owner” or “the person responsible for Maisy’s care.” Instead, they are “Rocky’s Mommy” or “Leroy’s Dad.” They become “pet parents;” they “adopt.”
I encountered this phenomemon for the first time in my early twenties in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica, where I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I could not own a cat — I could only hope to have what I later learned might be called a life estate in a cat…a transient property interest. There was no such thing as pet ownership; pets were people, not chattel.
I think this is sort of how New Yorkers see their pets — their dogs, in particular.
There is a sense of community and collectivity in dog-owning in New York. One can talk doggie daycare and leashes and vets with random dog-owners on the street or Central Park — and perhaps this is what parenting is like. Do parents talk strollers and toys and challenges and joys with strangers at the playground? Maybe.
In New York, there are dog-spas; dog-bakeries; dog-boutiques. Dog everything. Dogs in sweaters; dogs in coats; perfectly normal people who put slickers on their dogs…which, on balance makes a lot of sense because there is nothing grosser than a wet dog covered in New York City street grime.
I have, in the past, taken Roo to daycare, on the advice of my vet when she realized my dog was getting too fat. When one takes her dog to daycare — the same daycare as her ex-husband, for example — there are myriad complications and complexities inherent in this, such as a strange sense of blame for creating aggression in my “dogs of divorce.” (My ex-husband has our dogs chauffeured to daycare. He also puts them in Halloween costumes and sweaters, which he hangs on baby hangers…) The ex-husband’s quirks and the blame aside, the daycare adventure only served to heighten my own sense of having seen my dog(s) as human, particularly when seeing my ex-doggie in the window…and realizing that Julius no longer recognized me.
About that loss….beware of dog! Does the dog-as-human become a way of keeping out the slightly-less-hairy-humans? In my old life, it was dogs on the sofa; dogs in the bed; dogs as a way of keeping the silence at bay. I realized there was a problem when Lilly died (after a month or so of palliative care when I’d gone to the Animal Medical Center to learn to give her fluids under the skin and she’d been hooked up to an IV bag specially rigged in our living room). Maisy arrived almost instantly after that because for those three weeks, even in our immense grief, we had nothing to talk about.
As my divorce progressed, Maisy became increasingly aggressive and attached to me: no mamma, don’t go. It was then a gradual transition from mere dog to child of divorce. She went from being the thing in bed between me and my husband — indeed the thing that barked nonstop and shat on the floor and probably contributed to turning a marriage into a companionate relationship — to two and a half-years later, she was a screaming child, clinging to me, begging not to be left behind.
I never thought I would be that kind of dog owner. But in New York, and no one bats an eyelash when I say those kinds of things.
But now, I try to remember that Roo is a dog — a shelter dog I adopted when he was eight weeks old, and that I love so much my heart bursts sometimes. But he is, nonetheless, a dog. There is no dog on the sofa any more. No dog in the bed. We take our existential walks; we learn the ways of my neighbors (for instance, the Great Dane is walked at 7:00 and I see her if we are running late; the geriatic Tibetan terrier is walked at 5:45; the daschund who Roo quite likes is on a schedule we can’t really divine). I am not Riley’s Mommy. I am Riley’s Owner.
I cannot make up for my past mistakes or misjudgments in raising dogs in this city. And I love (and am endlessly amused) by what it has to offer pet owners. But in this dog-eat-dog town, sometimes, a girl’s best friends are other people.