Much has been written about the loyalty of dogs, but what I love about them isn’t their devotion to me so much as their devotion to being alive. – Steve Bauer
I found my dog, Bear, who will be 10 years old this summer, at a gas station in Jackson, Ohio. I’d been driving the rural roads back to my college home in Athens. I stopped for gas. At the front door of the service station, piled into an empty Rubbermaid trash can, was a litter of tiny brown puppies.
I wasn’t looking for a dog. I was 21, a senior in college and in no position to take on responsibility. I could barely afford to eat. A dog was out of the question.
But when I peeked over the rim of the trash can there sat Bear, as small as a newborn kitten. She looked up at me. Fleas jumped like madmen off her little body. I picked her up; she fit in the palm of my hand. Her eyes were round and lonesome.
I pulled her to my chest and carried her to my car, sat her down on the passenger’s seat. She watched me silently, skeptically. Don’t pee! I told her, more of a plea than a command. Try not to pee. And then: You’re okay now. You’re safe. I’ll take care of you.
I was already hopelessly in love.
In the decade since the day I scooped up Bear and brought her home with me, she’s never left my side. She’s seen me through loss and love. We’ve climbed mountains together and run hundreds of miles through the forest. She’s been witness to some of my biggest moments. She tolerates the songs I sing her and the Halloween costumes I dress her in.
Bear on Halloween
I’ve watched her morph from a hyperactive pup to an excitable adolescent to a shuffling old lady. I’ve watched as her fur lost color and her hips gave out.
I’ve moved her across the country and into five different homes. But no matter where I lay my head at the end of the day, Bear has always been there next to me, snoring like a freight train on the floor. She’s mine, and I’m hers too.
When Brian and I joined forces I inherited his pooch Macy and together we became a family of four. In my happiest memories we are together, tromping through the woods or camping under the stars. Brian and I love our dogs, plain and simple.
Bear and Macy in Forest Park
I tell you all that in an effort to stress that we did not take the decision to leave our dogs lightly. In the beginning, the thought was so unbearable that we dismissed it completely. We couldn’t travel because we couldn’t leave the dogs.
But over time my desire to take this trip grew from a peck to a pounding and I knew we couldn’t wait until the dogs were gone to travel. So we started the slow process of shedding our stuff and saving money and hoped that a solution would present itself over time.
Leaving the dogs with strangers was completely out of the question and the idea of splitting them up was so heartbreaking that we agreed that couldn’t happen either.
We spent months weighing our options. It became evident that the only real choice was to turn to our parents. When the time came to ask my parents refused, but Brian’s told us they would consider it.
We commenced stressing out and meditating on the hope that they would say yes. But even as we sold our house and started the countdown clock on our departure, we weren’t sure what would happen with the dogs.
We were worried. Brian’s parents are the kind that will do almost anything to help their kids reach their dreams, but we were well aware of how we’d be putting them out. We’d take off to travel and in exchange leave his parents with piles of dog hair, trips to the vet and an all too frequently used pooper scooper.
But you know what? They said yes. I’ve said in the past that it takes a village to raise a dream and Brian’s parents are king and queen of that village. Without their sacrifice we would not be leaving to travel right now. We are grateful, but that word doesn’t begin to describe the extent of our gratitude. Sometimes language just comes up short.
At Brian’s parents house the dogs will be loved and spoiled. They’ll get walks and treats and belly rubs. Bear can lay outside in the afternoon sun again which is her favorite thing. Macy will be surrounded by people and that’s her favorite thing. The dogs will be happy there, much happier than they are in this cramped little apartment we’ve moved them in to. Once they’ve adjusted to their new home, I wonder if they’ll miss us at all.
It’s the best possible scenario.
Yet, the reality of leaving them behind does not get easier. I look at the calendar and see that we have 60 days until departure and I think only 60 days left with my babies.
I feel so much guilt in leaving. I know some might think: Get a grip, they’re just dogs. But they’re my dogs. From the moment I plopped Bear’s little puppy butt down on the passengers seat of my car, I vowed to take care of her. I love her fiercely. And now here I am, abandoning her in her old age.
Here is what I tell myself when I get upset about leaving the dogs: All that matters to them is this moment. I’ve been crying myself to sleep at night, thinking about the future without them, but our dogs aren’t concerned with the future. All that exists is now. And right now we are beside them, patting their bellies, singing them songs (Come on potty people is a favorite), or walking them to the park.
Right now everything is as it has always been. And later, while Brian and I are exploring the world and the dogs are living with their grandparents, all that will matter is what is happening in that moment. They’ll be scratched behind the ear, or offered a treat, or walked around the neighborhood and they will be happy.
This leaving part, I think it will be harder on us than it is on them.
Bear and her proud Momma, Triple Falls 2010
Update 12/13: It’s been almost two years since I wrote this post. Brian and I are still traveling and our dogs are still happy and content with Brian’s parents. It all worked out! We were home this summer to visit and I videotaped our reunion with the dogs. You can see it here.