Once a Dog Mom, Always a Dog Mom, I Guess

It’s 6 a.m., rainy and dark here on the Oregon coast.  My dog Annie is sleeping beside my bed, but I have work to do. I’ll be quiet so as not to wake her. She needs her sleep, and I need time to focus without her nudging me for food and attention.

“Writer/musician/dog mom,” it says at the beginning of the bio I use when I submit my writing to publishers. Dog mom. Other writers’ bios say “X lives with her husband and children in X,” but this is what I offer.

My dog Annie is old now, almost 14. She’s can’t hear. She’s arthritic and loaded with benign fatty tumors. She has a permanent head tilt since her bout with vestibular disease last winter. When we walk now, she weaves back and forth, unable to stay in a straight line. I know one of these days she will die. I will have cared for her through her entire life from puppy to old dog.

Today she is sleeping next to my bed, and I’m wondering if I should call the vet about her constant itching and licking. It’s always something. That’s parenthood. That’s also caregiving, not so different from what I did for my husband and my parents before they died although I didn’t have to dry them off after they went out in the rain to relieve themselves.

In a couple weeks, I plan to leave Annie overnight for the first time since the pandemic began. I am finally going to see my family in California. I have hired a dog-sitter who will sleep here and watch the house as well as Annie. No way could I put my dog in the kennel or leave her alone with someone dropping in twice a day to put kibble in her bowl. When she was younger, yes, but not now. She’s not just a dog. She’s my best friend, my baby, and my family. Dogs are not children. They don’t grow up, move out on their own and become independent adults dropping in occasionally to visit “mom.” They are your responsibility till they die.

Annie has fallen in love with my neighbor Cheryl and her partner Alec. When we walk, she drags me to their house. On good days we sit in the sun, and on rainy days we sit inside. As we talk, I watch Annie every minute because this old dog suddenly acts like a puppy or a toddler. She’s into everything. She devours the cats’ food. She runs off down the hall exploring. I’m constantly removing items from her mouth, whether it’s a garden tag, a stray piece of plastic, or a dropped popcorn puff she found beneath a chair. “What’s she up to now?” is our theme song until she finally wearies and takes a nap.

I can’t imagine life without a dog, yet I’m beginning to think Annie might have to be the last one. Or at least the last big dog. Many of my aging dog mom friends are saying the same thing. We want to travel. We want to be free of constant care. We worry about tripping over the dog and breaking a hip.

I know I can’t have another dog that I can’t pick up and put in the car. Annie is too heavy to lift, and, after two knee surgeries, she can’t jump. Getting her to the vet in an emergency is a nightmare.

But who am I without my baby? Without being a dog mom? I’m thinking of fostering dogs in need of homes. Or maybe I’ll get a small dog. Because I’ll still be a dog mom.

Dogs are not children, even if some of us put them in baby strollers or dress them up for Halloween. They are beautiful creatures, my favorite in the whole world. But they are not children. On our walks, I greet the neighbors’ dogs by name. Hey Oakley, hey Dewey, hey Harley, hey Scout. Hey Booboo, nice sweater. The children? I don’t know their names. I’m a dog mom.

When people ask about my children, I don’t counter that I have a dog. I say no, no kids. Having dogs is not the same. It’s a wonderful thing, but not a substitute for children. A dog will never call you on the telephone or sit by your hospital bed. They won’t sort your stuff when you die. But they will snuggle with you by the fireplace on a cold night and force you to get out and walk in the rain when you’d rather watch another episode on Netflix. They will love you unconditionally and don’t care whether you are dressed up or look like an unmade bed.

Writer/musician/dog mom—yes, I’ll probably get another dog when Annie goes. She won’t be Annie, but she’ll be my friend. My companion. My baby.

And now my baby wants breakfast. And a cookie. And an arthritis chewy. Gotta go.

The Christmas season has begun already, not even taking time for a breath after Halloween. Hang in there. Meanwhile, tell us about your dogs and how they are or are not your babies. I look forward to your comments. 

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My childless dog and I face old age together

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April 10, 2008

Fred and I adopted two 7-week-old puppies last week, and it really feels as if I have two babies. They’re the same weight as babies, have the same needs, and fill the same needs in my heart. Last night, my church choir surprised me with a puppy shower. There were two baby blankets, but of course no little onesies. I did get dog treats, chew toys galore, balls, wee-wee pads, and lots of advice. There was a gorgeous white-frosted cake with big red flowers on it. This may sound totally nuts, but it felt as if I had received something I’d been waiting for all my life. I sat on the floor of the chapel opening presents and soaking it all in.
As assistant director, I was surprised that there had been a wave of e-mail that didn’t include me. Those sneaky singers.
Puppies are certainly not the same as humans. They won’t take care of you in your old age. Conversations are rather one-sided. And they poop and piddle on the floor. But for the childless woman who wanted children and didn’t have them, they’re one way of filling that emptiness.
Has anyone else found that to be true? What other ways can you feed the maternal need? I’d love to hear your ideas.

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I wrote the above in 2008, shortly after my late husband and I adopted 7-week old puppies Chico and Annie. Those dogs took all my attention in those early days. Messy, needy, adorable. They were my babies, or as close as I was going to get.

It was absolutely the wrong time to adopt dogs, especially two at once. My husband’s Alzheimer’s disease had reached the point where I couldn’t leave him alone, and within the year, he would be living in a nursing home. Three years later, in April 2011, he would die. By then, I had just one dog, Annie. I had to give up Chico, prone to jumping fences and attacking other dogs. I have a bite scar on my leg from when I tried to keep him away from a visiting dog. It broke my heart to lose him, but I couldn’t keep coming back from the nursing home to find that he had run away again. I don’t know what happened to him. As in old-fashioned human adoptions, once I signed him over, I gave up all rights.

Now it’s April 2021. My Annie has gone from baby dog to middle-aged to old. She’s stiff with arthritis and loaded with benign fatty lumps. Her once-tan face is now completely white. Instead of saying how cute she is, people comment on how old she is. Some hint that she won’t be with me much longer. I know. That’s the hell of “fur babies.” They don’t live as long as we do. In less than two decades, we watch them go through the entire life cycle from birth to death.

I’m feeling very sad because she has lost her most of her hearing. Yesterday, the vet confirmed there was nothing they could do about it. I wish I could give her my hearing aids. I know what it’s like not to be able to hear. Both of my parents had severe hearing losses, and my hearing isn’t great anymore. Even yesterday at the vet, trying to communicate from the parking lot (COVID restrictions), I had to admit to the technician that with all the traffic noise in the background, I couldn’t hear what she was saying, even though the phone was turned all the way up. She came out to talk in person.

Annie doesn’t hear me coming and going anymore. She curls up in the doorway so she can watch me and know where I am. She doesn’t respond to verbal commands. I try to use gestures now. She mostly understands. I talk to Annie all the time—since Fred died, she’s the only one here to talk to—but now I know she can’t hear me, and that breaks my heart. She is still my beloved companion, and I thank God for her every day.

I know I should be writing about you and your childless by marriage situation. I will get back to that, but I know that for many of you, your pets are part of the family. Feel free to tell us about them. With Mother’s Day coming very soon, we all need a dose of kitten or puppy love.

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