The Perils of a Pandemic Puppy

Margot Singer

I was the holdout, the naysayer, the mean mom. For more than 20 years, I said no to pets.

Our children begged and pleaded. They pored over the dog encyclopedia, memorized the names and traits of breeds, assembled their arguments as meticulously as trial lawyers on a death row case. When she was in fifth grade, our daughter presented us with a binder filled with dog adoption guidance from the ASPCA, a budget (total: $1,017.14), recommended kibble brands and doggie beds. She’d take the dog for walks, she promised. She’d give it baths, clean up its poop. She wailed, “Why do we have to be the only kids without a pet?”

Dogs did nothing for me. I didn’t like it when they jumped and scratched and humped my legs. I didn’t care for the way they dragged their butts across the rug. I wasn’t a fan of their slobbery tongues or fangy teeth. My daughter’s diligence didn’t sway me. I knew I’d be the one vacuuming the dirt and hairballs, shoveling the poop, running to the vet. Neither my husband nor I had dogs when we were growing up. We had full-time jobs, two kids, a hillside yard that could not be fenced. We liked to travel. “No way,” we said.

Our kids brought home feeder fish from the street fair in plastic baggies and sobbed when they found them floating belly-up. My son caught a salamander, and we stuck it in a slatted terrarium from which it promptly escaped into the ductwork, never to be seen again. That Christmas, my husband broke down and let the children get a gecko, a tiny creature that bore an uncanny resemblance to the Cockney lizard from the Geico ads, but it had to be fed live crickets dipped in calcium powder, which was gross. Poor Don Carlo the Gecko. He lay on his rock beneath the dull glow of the heat lamp and malingered. Every morning, I crept upstairs before anybody else woke up and prayed that he’d have made it through the night. But by New Year’s, he was dead.

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The years passed and our kids went off to college. And against my better judgment, I found myself wondering whether a dog might help ease the loneliness of our empty nest. I began to fantasize about long walks with an amiable companion, about cozy evenings on the couch with a pup curled at my feet. Still, every time I heard a story about a friend’s doggie mishaps—the Sheltie who gobbled a makeup sponge, the hound who chewed through an electric cord, the golden retriever who destroyed her crate—I reined the daydreams in.

But after COVID-19 locked us down in March, things changed. Here we were, stuck at home for as far as the eye could see. Here was our son, back from college, lonely and bummed out. Summer was approaching, and there would be no travel, no vacations, no hanging out with family or friends. Before we knew it, the dinner table conversation had turned to pups. We told stories of dogs we’d known and all their antics. We tossed out names. We browsed the web. My son held up his phone. Did we like the looks of Reggie the basset hound? Or Molly the retriever mix? The shelters were closed to visitors, and the listings of dogs available for adoption were thin, but for the first time in weeks, our son looked hopeful. Maybe the time was right for us at last.

I downloaded “Perfect Puppy in 7 Days” and “The Art of Raising a Puppy” on my Kindle and stayed up late, reading in bed. My husband raised his eyebrows, but I ignored him. “Puppies are a lot of work,” friends warned. “It’s like having a baby all over again.” I called a trainer. “Don’t rely on good intentions. Take your time,” he said. But as with so many other aspects of our lives during the pandemic, I succumbed to magical thinking even as I told myself that I was gathering the facts. I was a realistic person, I rationalized. I liked long walks. I’d raised two kids. I scrolled through page after page on social media showing happy friends and happy pets. If everybody else could do this, why not me?

Things moved quickly after that. I got word of a local breeder with a litter of 8-week-old Goldendoodle puppies, born the week the lockdown started. My son and I went to visit them. There were three puppies left. They chewed our shoelaces and chased each other around between our feet. One had brown and white fur, blue eyes, floppy ears. He was incredibly soft and small and sweet.

Reader, I adopted him. We ran out and bought a crate, chew toys, a collar, a leash, a harness, a door gate, a bowl, puppy kibble, enzymatic cleaner, poop bags, training treats, a comb and brush, shampoo, pee mats, a plush dog bed. We brought him home on my husband’s birthday, when our daughter and her boyfriend were home for a visit. The puppy scampered around the house, nibbled our shoelaces, then curled up on his little bed and slept. “Looks like you got yourself a good one!” my daughter’s boyfriend said.

I’d like to tell you that I fell in love with my pandemic puppy there and then. But the truth is there hasn’t been a single easy moment since. “A Perfect Puppy in 7 Days”? Yeah, right.

I thought I was prepared, but I knew nothing. I didn’t know that “mouthy” meant I’d have bleeding nicks and scratches up and down my arms and legs. I didn’t know that “energetic” meant I’d develop a painful case of tennis elbow in both arms due to yanking on the leash. I didn’t know that we’d be chronically sleep-deprived, flea-bitten, that it would be so hard simply to sit and read or watch TV. I knew that puppies had to be watched closely, like toddlers, but I hadn’t factored in the slashing claws or snapping razor teeth. I didn’t know that it would be impossible to work unless the puppy was asleep.

The puppy was … a puppy. He peed on the dog bed. He peed in his crate. He chewed up his toys. He broke down the gate. He barked at his reflection, howled at sirens, growled at the workmen on the neighbors’ roof. He jumped on the kitchen counters, jumped on us and humped our legs. He put everything in his mouth: twigs, leaves, shoes, socks, clods of grass, bits of paper, cigarette butts, toxic flowers, acorns, rocks. He stuck his nose into a ground bee nest and had to get a cortisone shot. He developed vomiting and diarrhea and had to go on antibiotics for two weeks.

We hired a professional trainer. Masked, standing 6 feet back, he showed us how to praise the puppy’s good behavior, how to get him to walk on a loose leash. The trainer deftly slipped the puppy morsels of “puppy crack,” and he transformed as if by magic into the model pet. We went home and things fell apart again. We watched more YouTube videos, kept channeling the New Skete monks. We doled out a hundred pounds of kibble, piece by piece. But on more occasions than I’d like to admit, I wept.

Our son adores the puppy. The puppy adores my husband. And there are moments, to be sure, when I feel a glimmer of my early hopefulness. The puppy sweetly licks my hands when he is sleepy, and eventually tires out enough to doze off for a while at my feet. His fur is still incredibly soft, and from time to time he’ll stop nipping long enough to let me rub his belly for a bit. But for the most part, he tests my patience, my sense of humor, my equanimity. I am exhausted. My elbows burn and ache. In our battle of attrition, the puppy’s way ahead.

On social media, friends continue to celebrate the blessings of their pandemic puppies. There are a few funny tales of chewed-up shoes and miscellaneous minor mishaps, but mostly there are pictures of docile-looking, easy-seeming pets. Is this fake news? Or, is my problem me?

Time has warped in strange ways during the pandemic. At first, I counted the days since the lockdown started (186 as of this writing), then weeks (26.6). But even after the restrictions lifted, little changed. Infections surged and ebbed. Now our son is back at college, but I’m still tethered to the house, to our small village. I haven’t stepped inside a restaurant or store except the local IGA. I chafe at the cabin fever, the Zoom fatigue, the isolation, the existential angst. It seems clear that things will not go back to “normal” for many months to come—more likely years.

And so it is with our puppy. At the outset, I thought we only had to make it through the first night or two, endure the first few weeks. “The first six months are hardest,” well-meaning people said. But as the half-year mark approaches, I understand these challenges are only the beginning of what is really my new life.

My friend Laura posts a birthday tribute to her dog on Facebook. “Atticus is 9!” she writes. “And yes, I’ve loved him dearly for the past 6 years!” Three years on, will I have come to love our pandemic puppy? Will I be able to look back on these dark times and laugh? Will COVID-19 and our puppy have taught me how to take life a day at a time, be more resilient, accept what I have no choice but to accept? 

Columbus Monthly