I don’t know when I realized I needed him. I was doing a rocky first year in Teach for America and nursing my sorrows with giant servings of pasta and white wine. One morning I woke up and didn’t go to work. I didn’t even move. I marathoned Friday Night Lights and cried through the whole of the fourth season. I don’t remember eating or drinking anything or getting up to use the bathroom. I just lay on my couch alone in my apartment and cried in the dark for thirteen episodes. I was in such a bad way, even Tim Riggins couldn’t fix it.
There was another day when I got off work, walked into a bar, and drank alone until I had made up my mind to hand in a letter of resignation. It was time for me to get out. It was too late, as a matter of fact. I had already become an irreparably broken version of myself. I didn’t feel like I might be drowning; I felt like I had drowned. Like my soul had stopped breathing. But it’s funny — it still hadn’t occurred to me yet that I needed him.
It wasn’t until later. Until I woke up and saw sunlight instead of anxiety. Until I thought of myself as someone who once did that TFA thing and thank God it’s over now. It wasn’t until it was over that I realized I needed my dog.
He was not a replacement for romance. Or friendship. Or family. He didn’t take the place of workplace success or physical fitness or a productive hobby. He didn’t fill some specific empty place in my heart or my life or my household. He wasn’t some kind of therapy. He wasn’t a fix.
In fact, there wasn’t really room for him. Isn’t, still. My dog doesn’t have a yard. He doesn’t have an owner who takes him running every day. He doesn’t have one of those toys that teaches him logic or expands his vocabulary (yep, those both exist). He is squeezed in between work and classes and sleep and friends and trips and everything else that I manage to fit into my 20-something carless, savings-account-less existence.
But in spite of the fact that I can’t really afford to spend half my expendable income on dog food every month, and in spite of the fact that my dog didn’t, wouldn’t, couldn’t fix what TFA did to me, I need him.
The benefits of pet ownership seem obvious. Living with animals has been linked to increased life expectancy, fewer allergies, better physical, mental, and emotional health, the ability to overcome stress or trauma, greater social skills, and just general happiness. Everyone seems to think this is a pretty straightforward set of correlations: cute puppy antics + cuddle sessions + more cute puppy antics = happier, healthier humans. It’s why Buzzfeed is so popular (this and quizzes): I want to smile and laugh at something, so I will watch this adorable animal be adorable until I smile and laugh. Problem solved.
But this isn’t why I need my dog.
I need him to wake me up at 5 am on a Sunday morning with an urgent bathroom problem when I’m hungover and cranky. I need him to throw up on the rug the next day when I’m late to work. I need to serve him gross, smelly, wildly expensive canned dog food pâté twice a day and mop his drool off the floor and clean up his shit.
Owning a dog has made me more patient and less angry. I am used to being pulled (literally) in random directions. I am used to being interrupted and jostled and (again, literally) dogged. When I feel like I can’t be bothered, I still know how to get off my butt and do what needs doing. I have another life depending on me. I can’t always afford to pick the selfish option.
My dog has taught me more than any human about the limits of my temper and how to expand them. How to handle things with grace. How to laugh when I come home to find him, triumphantly happy, sitting on the remains of my comforter, now torn to shreds. I’m better at remembering that most things aren’t that big of a deal, at the end of the day. I’m better at seeing the humor, even in things that are.
My dog is a rescue and I know the world has been rough on him. But his faith and forgiveness and love are utterly bottomless, and that humbles me. I can’t explain to him why people have done such terrible things to him. I can’t make amends for his past. I can’t even apologize for the things I’ve done wrong as I’ve stumbled through the early days of my dog ownership. But the amazing thing is that he doesn’t need me to. It’s enough for him that today is here and today could be good. Today could be really good.
Adopting my dog was the best worst decision I’ve ever made. A financial planner would tell me I can’t afford his special diet. A therapist would tell me I exert too much mental energy trying to conquer his anxiety problems. My dog is a tough little kid — he’s a survivor and then some — but he’s a little bit broken, just like I am. It’s expensive and time-consuming to try to give him what he needs.
What I’m really paying for, aside from companionship and cuteness and all that, is the ability to witness every day the life of a creature who still believes in human goodness, against all odds. I get to learn from him and play with him and hang out and be lazy with him. He doesn’t really care what we do, he just wants to be together. And being together, of course, is exactly what both of us need.