Three years ago, I decided to adopt a dog with my ex. It was about six months before we would split up, but of course, we didn’t know this at the time.
From the first time I saw him and his scruffy beard on the Lucky Dog website, I knew he would be mine. He was 31 pounds and about a year old. They found him wandering the back highways of southern Virginia, no tags or chips. He was a long way from home and about to start a whole new life. I wanted it to be with us.
His name was Tramp at the time but we quickly renamed him Poncho. It fit with his classically cute look (I get told often on the street that he looks like a dog in the movies) and rebellious personality. He loves to have you chase him around the house while trying to put on his leash, a typical smarty-pants terrier.
I loved him immediately. The first night he was in our apartment I couldn’t sleep and kept getting up to pet him. I couldn’t believe he was ours. We now shared our life with an animal. Such wonders!
And right away, I began worrying about his well-being. Was he happy? Traumatized from his time on the run? Content in our home? I became and still am obsessed with giving him good exercise. In his first six months of life with us, he got six to seven walks a day and I still didn’t think that was enough. It took me a while to understand that three good walks a day are enough.
Looking back, I’m not sure why we got a dog. I like dogs of course. A few years back I even started a pet photography business with a friend that left us covered in hair and slobber most Saturdays afternoons.
But I never wanted to own a dog by myself. I cared way too much about my freedom to move as I liked in the world and knew it was a huge responsibility to care for a dog well, especially in a city.
Perhaps my ex and I got the dog because we were trying to play house and see if we could maybe one day do this with an actual human child. Maybe we needed to a dog to open up our hearts enough to say “wow we both really love this being and no, I still don’t think we will be good parents together.”
We broke up, and my ex moved out to a place that wouldn’t take dogs. He would sneak Poncho now and then and still split the cost of his food and care for me. Our drop-offs started off a little awkward but now they are normal. It’s the next phase of modern family. I am the single dog mom and my dog’s father is a good one.
Three years ago, I was looking for a husband. Instead I got a dog. It wasn’t my plan and I don’t regret it at all. Poncho is an amazing companion and most definitely my best friend. He always wants to hang out and continues to shower me with his ridiculous good looks.
Still I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about him and I sense that some other dog owners are anxious for their dogs as well. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned to help me balance my own self care with Poncho’s and that help us create a happy life together:
1. Let them be. One of my greatest worries for Poncho is his lack of socialization and loneliness. I’ve tried to take him to doggie daycare, trolled him to dog parks and attempted to bring in dog walkers. He let’s it be known that he hates them all. The reality is that he’s an introverted soul and clearly prefers to wait patiently for me at home.
I’ve come to see that really I am projecting my own fear of loneliness and isolated onto him. The truth is that I worry that I am too much of an introverted soul too. But if I focus on creating a fulfilling social life for myself, my anxiety for Poncho decreases. We always have a good cuddle session when I get back from hanging in the world and both seem pretty happy.
2. Ask for help. I really truly could not have Poncho and keep my travel schedule without my all-star aunt who lives in Arlington. She is retired and always willing to take Poncho when I go out of town. At first Poncho was resistant to be away from home but relaxed when he realized that I always come back for him. Plus my aunt spoils him with long walks and human food treats. His tail wags when we show up at his dog and mine would too if I had one. It’s always hard for me to receive help but I simply cannot do it on my own. I am eternally grateful for my aunt’s support and think every single dog owner needs one or two people like my aunt in her life.
3. Reframe the exercise. Poncho has big energy and needs a lot of exercise. It turns out that I do, too. We walk or jog from 1-2 hours a day. I think we have those required 10,000 steps down easy. Having a dog means that I rarely worry about getting enough exercise. By caring for him, I am increasing my own health and enjoying the benefits. Whenever I catch myself thinking, “Oh, I’m too busy to give him a walk right now..” I re-frame it as, “Aren’t I lucky this isn’t a choice right now?”
Even in bad weather, we suck it up and go out and I’m always grateful to have done it. Some of my favorite mornings are when we come back soaked from a rainy jog. He tears around my apartment, rubbing his wet, furry body against my bedskirt and then curls up into a little ball. I put on the kettle, melt into a warm shower, and eat a soothing bowl of oatmeal before giving Poncho his kibble.
4. Plan quality time. Also, as often as I can, I try to take us somewhere outdoors and pretty like the Rock Creek Park, the National Arboretum and the Shirlington dog park (he likes that one because he can splash in the creek while easily avoiding other dogs in the expanse). My tendency is to get carried away with work and social obligations. Without him, I would forget how much my spirit is recharged by nature. Poncho is assurance that I don’t skip this necessity.
And he’s a great date! He loves riding in the car, usually perched up on the console next between me and the passenger seat so he can intently watch the outside world. (Yes, he’s too big to fit on there, and no, he won’t be dissuaded). He’s usually a very respectful guest at other people’s houses. I always feel proud to walk out of there with him by my side. Again, this isn’t the relationship I had imagined but it’s amazing how many of my companionship needs it satisfies.
5. Learn the benefits of sacrifice. It’s really easy for me to be selfish about my life. I’m single, work for myself and don’t have too many people dependent on me. It’s mostly awesome yet there are moments when I think a little burden can be healthy. Caring for Poncho well means sacrificing my ability to out of the house for more than eight hours. I say “no” to invitations because it means he will be alone most of the day. My ex and I buy him nice food and I save him a little something off my plate most meals. All of this helps me to stay grounded between my own needs while helping my ego remember that it’s ok to not always have it my way. I think this keeps me a more mature and pleasant person.
Recently I’ve been dealing with a new sacrifice. My ex has moved into his own place and asked to share Poncho with me 50/50, a week on and a week off. At first I was resistant, then consented because Poncho loves his dad and I’ve gotten so much joy from living with him. Why not share?
The first few days without him in my place were both strange and sad. I felt lonely and missed his sweet presence. Then I remembered what it felt like to have my own time back. I planned back-to-back activities, biked over to the Renwick Gallery to see their Wonder exhibit (amazing) and had a longer home yoga practice in the mornings instead of our walk. This week I have him back and appreciate his presence even more than usual.
It’s crazy to think that I may have him for another 10+ years. Will we still be sharing him then? I have no idea. Will I still worry about him? Probably. That just may be my nature. When love is involved, I also tend to worry. My single dog self care is to just worry less about the worrying and then work on finding the right balance between his and my needs. I think that is what we both need most.
I’ve heard that dogs can inhabit their wners emotions and I think this is definitely true for Poncho and me. What I don’t hear about as much is how much dogs can be teachers to their humans. Poncho has taught me a lot. He shows me every day it’s possible to take care of myself and compromise with another. He’s teaches me just how joyful it can be to create a very happy life for two.