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Personal Essays

Hard Times Dog

From the financial crisis to the election and even the weather, unhappiness abounds.

The line times are tough—or some variation of it—keeps showing up. I can’t even count the times I’ve read or heard it lately, but I’m prepared for more. The economy, that election, and the weather—we went from 92 degrees a few days ago to 62 this morning—seem to be sudden changes even if we knew and were hoping that some of these shifts were bound to come.

During the booming dog-craze in this country, my ex-husband and I raised two hunting dogs. Times were good. We owned a house and were married. We were fat enough for two dogs; my husband was home and I went to work. The three of them went hunting; gas was cheap. In those years, dog toy stores and dog-bakeries showed up here on the west coast, and we lived near Newport Beach and close to Fashion Island, where dressing dogs and walking them like babies in strollers screamed the excess of the times and the region. But the mall feels different now; I see bigger dogs, fewer strollers for them, fewer dresses on poodles. The dog-treat store I pass by a few times a week sometimes seems empty except for a dog or two. Like other things in this country, this Mecca of over-the-top dogworld is shifting. Worries about houses, work and food means that dogs have begun to seem, to some, a luxury.

In the meantime, my life has taken turns. Divorced now and living near work in an apartment that I love, I have missed living with dogs. I’ve missed the way that they ruled my life and made me better. They made me sleep less and do more. They made me laugh, and they got me home on time. In the past year, I had a relationship begin and end, and I moved twice. Not exactly a stable year among the many I’ve had. For months, I’d been thinking that to get a dog would be a good for me, but what about for the dog? Was it selfish? Unreasonable? And then a few weeks ago, I read about the rates of kills at local shelters climbing and read that our county was not alone in seeing this trend. Missing dogs in my life and hating the idea that struggling families were being compelled to turn in their dogs, I started loitering at the local animal shelter.

“You need to change your life today. Go outside. Not so much sitting anymore. You need to be happy, find a way.” I was visiting, I told others and myself. But then I started asking to see the dogs; there were so many and why not play with them a little? One of the first dogs I asked to see was supremely ugly and reminiscent of my last dog that went off to live with my ex-husband when he moved away to New Mexico. These visits went on for a few weeks; I spent hours walking past cages, talking to the dogs, and taking them out on the grass to play. I dragged my sister with me, and she, also missing living with a dog, promised to help take care of any dog I brought home. I was unconvinced. I kept leaving empty-handed.

Then, last week, I went to see an acupuncturist as a last resort for back pain I’ve had for over a year. The woman asked me how old I was. When I told her I was 42, she said, “You look so old! I thought you were much older.” I would have been offended, but I felt like she was saying what I felt and that the back pain was making this true. My face evidently was showing tough times too. She promised to fix me—that remains to be seen—and, as I was leaving, she said, You need to change your life today. Go outside. Not so much sitting anymore. You need to be happy, find a way. I walked out thinking I’d gone to a therapist or a fortune-teller. I felt sick for a few hours after that, possibly more from what she’d said than from the needles, and when I woke from a nap, I went directly to the animal shelter.

I walked the cages to find an adult dog, no more than 35 pounds, which was the limit for a dog in my apartment complex. I wanted an adult dog because that is often what ends up in shelters, but also because I had vague recollections of the puppy-phase being horrendous. I passed by barking, wagging, and jumping. And then I passed a cage and couldn’t see the dog. I called out and this puppy ran to the grate. He’d been born at the shelter in a six-pup litter of a pregnant stray Chihuahua, but everyone agreed he was a mix of a larger dog. He looked like a husky, really. The note on his cage said, now who would return me? And it explained that a family had adopted him but brought him back after just a few days. The shelter managers told me that it was the craziest reason they’d heard when the puppy was returned; the family said that the puppy cried and that he was biting a lot. He’s 10 weeks old. I sat there for five minutes and really didn’t think hard. I didn’t think about the cost I’d bear or the sleep I would lose the fact that I might not have my job, a real possibility, next year.

I thought about how much bad news there is. I thought about deficits: money, love, happiness, dogs, and good cheer. I thought of the bank-sale signs I’ve seen on houses in my neighborhood, evictions, nasty politics, and just plain losing. I thought of the acupuncturist telling me to change my life. A dog can do that. I took home the puppy and have named him Ranger. I’m hoping that years from now, when we are still a pair, I will recall that I found him in hard times, that we struggled a little together in our different ways, and that he became a companion with which I watched the world weather change as it always does.

Colette LaBouff Atkinson’s prose has appeared in Santa Monica Review, Seneca Review, Orange Coast Magazine, Babble, and elsewhere. Her first book of prose poems, Mean, was recently published by University of Chicago Press. She lives in Southern California. More by Colette LaBouff Atkinson