I’d just set out my mat for Pilates when I felt the instructor’s eyes on me. “Rona, your skin looks beautiful!” she exclaimed. “Are you in love?”
The last time this woman remarked on my appearance, she was urging me to tighten my tush. But something had brightened me, and it wasn’t a facial. I’d fallen hard for a ragged-eared rescue mutt named Casey, whose frolicksome presence cast a glow on the world. My step felt lighter, my outlook more playful. After more than 60 years of could-have-beens and should-bes, I was loving my life as it was right now. And all because of a dog I hadn’t even thought I wanted.
When my husband and I met Casey, under the eager gaze of a fast-talking yenta who called herself his foster mom, nothing about him said, “I’m yours.”
His legs looked too short for his barrel chest; a pointy snout gave him a woebegone air. But within minutes he’d parked his rump on my right foot as if staking his claim. “He likes you!” crowed Foster Mom. My right toe hasn’t bent since Brad Pitt married Jennifer Aniston, and I rather liked having it warmed by a dog, although I still wasn’t sure about the beast himself. My husband clearly had no such doubts. His tender smile told me we’d found our starter dog.
This whole project was Paul’s idea. When he said, “Let’s get a dog,” I nearly retorted, “Let’s not!” In more than 40 years together, we’d managed just fine without a dog. First we had too many commitments, between our son and our careers; then we came to like having no commitments at all. I reminded Paul that we loved to see the world; a dog would slow us down. We loved the soothingly empty nest where no one but ourselves ever repositioned a book; a dog would slobber and shed.
And what about walking this dog? Within recent memory, Paul’s knees had been so bad that he could barely make it to the bank two blocks away. The cane he no longer used still hung on our coat stand, just in case, and he’d become increasingly sedentary. I couldn’t coax him out to the park on balmy days; a dog needs to walk no matter the weather. I could picture myself nagging, “Dear, you haven’t walked the dog” before eventually taking the dog out myself with gritted teeth and operatic sighs. We’d been down that road as 20-somethings arguing about the dishes. Damned if I was going back for a dog.
There sat my husband with his hand on mine and a bring-it-on look in his eyes. Yes, he was up for all the walking. This was no whim. “Okay, then,” I said. “But there’s one condition: the dog stays off our bed. I don’t want paw prints on the sheets.” I thought I was making one of those compromises that a healthy marriage requires. I couldn’t foresee how loving Casey would change me.
We set the bar high for our starter dog. Smallish but not itsy-bitsy. Yapping, shedding and chewing not allowed. Grandchild-friendliness essential. As condo dwellers not up for potty runs, we’d need a housetrained dog, which ruled out buying a puppy from a breeder. Of the rescue dogs who met our criteria, we found just one with all four limbs, no daunting medical or behavioural problems and years of life ahead — Casey, then known as Tucker and before that as Shotgun. The first thing he did in our condo — and, thankfully, never did again — was lift his leg against a dining room chair and drench its taffeta skirt with dandelion-yellow pee. A designer and I had spent hours on the choice of that silk. To my surprise, I didn’t care. Love had already softened me.
With humans, I’ve been slow to fall in love. On early coffee dates with my husband, I kept asking myself, “Can I trust him?” When my infant son screamed at night, I asked, “Am I a bad mother?” Casey made loving easy. He whimpered all the way from Foster Mom’s place to ours, struggling for balance on the back seat while I stroked his neck and murmured, “It’s okay, Casey.” By the time we got home, he knew his name and my touch.
I don’t wonder why Casey was nervous. The last time he was driven anywhere, in the van that brought him to Toronto from a shelter in rural Ohio, he got the worst of a fight with another dog who ripped his ear and scarred his legs. Like most rescue dogs, he’d knocked around a lot. Born unwanted, he spent his first year in a prison program that matches dogs with convicts who school them in the basics. Someone must have loved him there but didn’t get to keep him. Next stop: Death Row, the overcrowded shelter where he had the good fortune to be spirited away by Canadians who’ve made it their mission to give endangered dogs a second chance. In downtown Toronto, he started over with us — two sexagenarians ready for a fresh start of their own.
We’d allowed things to get too quiet around our place. Casey introduced joyful noises: clinking of tags when he shook himself, thump of his tail against furniture, squeaking of his ball as he chased it all over the living room. The cheerful tumult recalled our son’s toddler days, minus tantrums and pep talks about big-boy pants. With Ben, we looked for signs of intelligence; with Casey, we could revel in his goofiness. He’d perk up at the mention of his name — but he did the same for Kevin Spacey, Count Basie and John Wayne Gacy. So what? We weren’t prepping him for Harvard. All we wanted was to love him now.
On Day 1, Casey chose Paul as his best pal. I stepped out; Casey didn’t lift his head. Paul went for coffee; Casey kept vigil at the door, bleating. He sauntered to me but galloped to Paul, ears flying: How can I serve you, Adored One? I didn’t mind being his second-favourite human. The only thing better than receiving canine devotion is watching it lavished on someone you love but don’t always like — the not-liking parts being all but guaranteed in a long marriage. When I catch myself wishing I could change a thing or two about my husband, I look at him from Casey’s perspective. I see my two guys roughhousing together, a no-holds-barred display of licking and bellowing. I wonder why that couples counsellor never asked, “Have you thought of getting a dog?”
The open-hearted spirit Casey brought to our home extended to our morning walks. Walking had once been my mental and physical workout, pursued with an assertive stride and a don’t-bother-me expression. Wherever I thought I was going, the real destination was my private world. In Casey’s company, I had to slow down so he could choose just the right peeing spot, a process that involves much sniffing, several reversals of position and at least one aborted hoist of the leg. Stillness opened my eyes to the neighbourhood’s small delights — tucked-away gardens, redwing blackbirds in flight. It made me receptive to strangers who asked, “Can I pet him?”
One day I waited with Casey at an ATM, gritting my teeth as an elderly woman laboured to complete her transaction and stuff the bills, one by one, into a faded wallet. Didn’t she realize her walker, slung with overstuffed bags full of oddments, was blocking my approach to the machine? The woman turned, saw Casey, held out her arms. He leaped into her embrace. It might have been the highlight of her day. Lucky me, I got to share the pleasure.
Walking Casey presented one challenge: his blood lust. Squirrels abound in downtown Toronto, and Casey’s a hound mix, designed by nature to hunt. His baying, back-flipping, leash-yanking gyrations nearly knocked me off my feet. Thanks to our trainer, he now sits when I curb his antics, ears back in a sign of submission. He yawns, as dogs do when stressed. “I’m trying,” he seems to say, “but I’ll always be a hound. Bear with me.”
I’ve sometimes wished I could be more like Helen Mirren or Gloria Steinem. Lately I’ve realized I should try to be more like Casey. If he could talk, he’d never ask, “Why did I fail to catch that squirrel?” or “Does this harness make me look fat?” He thinks his day is fine the way it is. Every rattle in the kitchen, every waft of bacon from the stove is to him a promise of happiness. When no tasty scraps come his way, he just waits for next time. He reminds me to hope for the best instead of bracing myself for the worst the way I did when Paul said, “Let’s get a dog.”
Despite my fears, we’ve never fought over walking Casey, nor have I done a minute more than my share. Between us, we give him two hours a day, except on weekly trips to doggie day care for a high-energy romp with his own kind. I’m an early-bird walker, out the door with school kids and office workers; Paul’s been known to walk in the middle of the night, when he and Casey have the streets to themselves. I find this perplexing but whatever works for Casey works for me – and is doing great things for Paul. A few months after Casey joined us, my husband’s cardiologist noticed a significant improvement in his blood pressure and blood work. Had he lost weight? “I wish,” said Paul. “I’ve been walking a dog.”
People with dogs exercise more, worry less and enjoy a stronger sense of purpose, studies have shown. Dog owners over 60 make fewer visits to the doctor. But while these findings ring true for me, they’re not the main reason I’m glad we finally have a dog. Casey’s greatest gift is the sense of comfort he radiates, wherever he happens to be.
On Casey’s first road trip, we discovered the truth about dog-friendly hotels. The ones without ruinous pet fees often have drab rooms reminiscent of college dorms. Yet with our dog curled up on the bed, every one of these rooms felt like home. All the sheets came to smell like Casey instead of laundry products. The gentle sound of his breath lulled us in the night. I told myself that with his patience in the car, he’d earned his place with us in hotel beds. Our own bed, meanwhile, remained a dog-free zone. Months went by, and quite a few hotel stays, before I realized what should have been obvious: Casey’s “special treat” had also been a treat for us humans. Why deny ourselves any longer?
Our sheets have paw prints now, but I can’t see them in the dark. And I’ve found Casey a first-rate sleeping coach. When I’m wakeful, I rest my hand on whichever part of his torso feels right. His breath travels the length of his body, all the way to his thigh. My hand rises and falls as he breathes me to the edge of sleep.
Sometimes I marvel that the three of us became a family. If Casey had gotten any breaks as a puppy in NRA country, he wouldn’t have landed with us. He’d be riding around in a pick-up truck with a gun-toting hunter who praised him for leaping at squirrels. As for us, we might have waited for a different dog if we’d known the truth about Casey. Foster Mom told us he was only 30 pounds; in fact he’s 40 pounds of muscle. She said our grandson would love him; they keep a wary distance from each other. She assured us he “hardly sheds at all;” his fur turns up in the strangest places (kitchen counter, bathroom vanity). Her sales pitch built to a ringing conclusion: “He’s the perfect dog for you.” She nailed that part, the only part that matters.