By Susan Wilson
Guest Columnist
Oak Bluffs, MA, USA

Four Life Stages of Dog Ownership

For those of us who have always had dogs, surely the most fondly remembered is that dog of our early childhood. Perhaps a puppy came into our lives when we were very young, a puppy sibling whose life stages so very quickly surpassed our own, launching into adolescence even as we began to learn to walk. Or, maybe there was already a dog in the house when we arrived. Did our arrival on the scene create some kind of Lady and the Tramp scenario, where the resident canine’s status in the pack was dropped from alpha to something less than beta? (More on that later.) We might not actually
Susan Wilson & Bonnie
recall that dog except when vague memories are prompted by family photos. A dog remembered in photos, not experience. Then there was the dog who became our boon companion on our adventures in the neighborhood. I speak, of course, of the time when dogs were more free to roam than nowadays, an improvement in both dog health and neighbor relations. This dog might have been a Christmas puppy (also a thing frowned upon in these enlightened times) or a stray gathered into the family home after a certain amount of pleading and empty promises to spend one’s own allowance money on food for it. This was the dog left behind when college began. This was the dog, when you got home from your third year of college, was suddenly old and thin and no longer interested in long walks. Maybe this was the dog the news of whose passing your tearful mother gave you on a Skyped-in call to your posting overseas. And you were flush with guilt at not having thought much about him, always expecting him there when you finished your deployment. It might have been the moment when you suddenly realized that you were an adult. 

Then there is the young or youngish couple newly married or in a freshly minted commitment. The ceremony is past, the honeymoon a memory. The apartment is decorated, the careers are flourishing, the old gang is dispersed and little more time is on their hands. It’s an almost biological urge. “We should get a dog.” This is known in some psychological manuals as the Practice Baby. Breeds are studied, dog shows attended, and the debate rages: buy a purebred or go to a rescue organization and find the best, neediest, most perfect dog ever? With one option they flirt with the idea of showing their dog, dreams of Westminster dance in their heads; with the other, sustainability issues factor in; they should be good citizens of the earth. In any event, a dog joins the couple, making them a family. They are pet parents. Little Figaro’s chewing up of Dad’s Nikes is annoying, but he really shouldn’t leave them within reach of the puppy. Miranda’s grooming bills are just worth it, the dog spa is the only place where they treat her like a valued customer. Dog Chow won’t cut it, their baby must be fed only organically sourced premium kibbles. Baby Dog must accompany the happy couple everywhere, and Heaven forefend to kennel her. A sitter, in the home, is the only way the couple will leave for a weekend if they absolutely, positively, cannot bring the well-behaved, slightly neurotic dog with them. Then, of course, they have a human baby. “Did you feed the dog?” “No, I thought you did.” Suddenly it’s enough to get Human Baby bundled up and installed in a car seat, the dog gets left behind. “He’ll be fine.” Baby Dog is now just a dog. Hopefully the demoted dog doesn’t pull what Lady of Lady and Tramp did and hook up with a questionable element of canine society, or, worse, run away. Most likely the dog and the human baby will, like the childhood dog in paragraph one, bond and have lots of cute pictures taken together. 

Hunter & Baby Claire

A relative of the practice baby is the dog acquired by that single guy or gal, maybe a bachelor or a divorcĂ©e, a dog who isn’t a replacement or placeholder, but that person’s immediate family. That’s where the old “love me, love my dog” adage is a closely held truism. That dog has it made. I see them all the time, big old heads stuck out of truck windows, ears flapping—the dogs I mean. My lady friends who have dogs instead of boyfriends are a pretty satisfied lot. Unconditional love and no underwear left on the bedroom floor.

On to the next stage. The day will come to those who have raised children when the human children grow up and leave, and the dogs that were once part of the family dynamic are but memories. There is a quiet in the household that hasn’t been there for many years. A gap. An empty space on the couch. That’s when it slips out: “Maybe we should get another dog.” We all know what this is termed: the Empty Nest Syndrome. In our case, the nest wasn’t quite empty when we decided that, after a hiatus of several years, it was time to get a new dog. To this day, some fourteen years later, I think my kids resent her as much as if we’d decided to have a late in life baby upon whom we lavished all the spoiling we never lavished on them. Not true; but, that’s another essay. The kids are grown, have kids and dogs of their own and we are still looking for babysitters when we travel someplace where dogs aren’t entirely welcome. Bonnie has not replaced our children, who are, after all, irreplaceable, and around often enough that we don’t forget what they look like. She’s simply the one who makes certain demands on us, and in turn fulfills our demands for companionship, a reason to exercise, a snuggler while dozing on the couch, and company as I work at this solitary profession.

Which brings me to the last stage of a dog’s life. Senescence. Ours. One of the hardest things to hear about is the old dog whose human companion is gone, or unable to care for him. I mention the elderly dog in particular because with today’s dogs living well into their teens, a dog acquired when an older person in still relatively active may find himself in old age living with an elderly, physically or mentally compromised human. Suddenly that person is gone, in one way or another, and the old dog is abandoned. The most heartbreaking thing to me is seeing those rescue sites advertising a canine senior citizen. The owner may have had the foresight to find his old companion a new home, preferring to give up that pet before circumstance takes the decision out of his hands. However, I think that most times it comes from the placement in a nursing home or the death of that owner and that’s when the future of the old dog is most jeopardized, when no planning has occurred. For those of us of a certain age, thinking that we’ll be around long enough to see a young dog live through his appointed days, make sure you have contingency plans for when you are unable to care for him. (For those folks looking for a first time dog for their kids, the young couple, the single guy, the empty nesters, take heed. There are some really nice older dogs out there who are essentially orphaned by circumstance. Already trained, ready for lovin’.) 

The presence of a dog in the house—and, let’s be fair, cats also make quite effective surrogates—is the difference between living well and simply living. Who doesn’t appreciate a wagging tail upon returning home after a day away? Who doesn’t prefer the idea of another living breathing creature sharing our homes? Fish are okay, and certainly birds are hours of entertainment, but dogs are our boon companions whatever stage of life we are in. 



Susan Wilson is a New York Times bestselling author. Her newest novel, Two Good Dogs, was published in March 2017.
All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.