The Life I Never Intended to Love: Dog Owner

From a Wall Street Journal story by Katherine Bindley headlined “The Life I Never Intended to Love: Dog Owner”:

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a dog person. One of my earliest memories of a dog is from when I was around 5 years old and a neighbor’s golden retriever knocked me face-first into the concrete.

As an adult, I harbored both a mild fear of dogs and a major irritation at their seemingly entitled owners who would bring them into places they don’t belong, let them invade my personal space and then say, “She’s friendly!”

This made it all the more curious that I should become, during the pandemic, the sole caretaker of a German shorthaired pointer named Bo. He has proved to be an inexhaustible and exhausting daredevil, prone to illness and injury, a chronic whiner who relentlessly demands my attention and takes up most of my time and energy—challenges I hadn’t considered or in some cases even knew existed. He cost me a fortune in medical bills and made me spend days disinfecting my apartment. Weirdly, he also turned out to be the surprising way I filled a hole in my life that I never knew existed.

A GSP, as they’re often called, isn’t a starter dog like a golden retriever or a bernedoodle. It’s a dog bred for hunting, with so much energy it’s hard to imagine it unless you’ve spent real time with one. A dog that during its adolescence, according to a popular meme, resembles the velociraptor portrayed in “Jurassic Park” as an absolute terror. The websites of rescue organizations looking to rehome GSPs describe them with words and phrases like “exuberant” or able to “sail over a 6-foot fence,” offering some clues as to what owners can be in for.

I read none of these cautions in the spring of 2020. San Francisco was under shelter-in-place orders, and as an avid runner who was single, living alone and going a little batty, I wanted to see how many days in a row I could run. On day 27, I was bored enough, despite my lifelong antipathy toward canines, to try running with my friend’s dog Edson, an impeccably trained GSP. That first day we ran together, I let him off leash amid the wooded trails of Presidio national park. I recognized that I felt joy watching that dog run.

A few months later, I was looking at litters of GSP puppies—just for fun, I told myself. Then I reached out to a breeder named Amelia Brockelbank in Alpharetta, Ga., and soon we were having regular phone conversations. I peppered her with questions and confessed my deepest fears. What if I don’t love him? She’d take him back, no questions asked. When I saw number 24 among her six-week-old puppies’ headshots, I knew my fate was sealed.

When I told my GSP-owning friend that I was getting one, he congratulated me. Then he texted me the GSP-as-velociraptor meme. Still, people said Bo would be a great fit for me and in many ways, they were right. The December before the pandemic hit, I had run a 50-kilometer trail race with more than 5,000 feet of elevation gain. I was surely active enough for this dog. Five days after I brought Bo home, and on the eve of my 39th birthday, he slept through the night. I had the perfect puppy.

The transition into full-on dog mom was swift. My Instagram feed was soon full of Bo’s antics: Bo asleep on the couch with his legs so straight I call it his rigor mortis pose; Bo tagging along while I clambered up Snowmass mountain on skis at sunrise; Bo leaping in the air with the backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. I cuddled him; I coddled him; I made up rap songs for him.

The first signs of trouble came when Bo was around 8 months old. He jumped out the car window after getting a whiff of a milkshake on the side of the road, ran across four lanes of traffic and relieved himself at a gas station before I was able to get him back.

Then he started escaping the dog park and raiding nearby picnics. I’d chase him around, screaming his name, until some poor soul would tell me what he’d managed to steal: a pork bun here, some chicken wings there, a marzipan pastry that left him smelling like a French bakery. The $470 emergency room visit after he inhaled the better part of three slices of Indian-seasoned pizza was when I knew I was in over my head. Much of a dog’s behavior, of course, is a reflection on its owner, and I admit there was no shortage of mistakes I made.

Around the time that Bo hit adolescence and seemed to forget all the training we’d done, he started having consecutive bouts of a parasite, which required me to sanitize my entire apartment. I lost count of the vet trips, canceled vacations and the number of times I stood alone on the streets of San Francisco at 3 a.m. with him wondering why I had ruined my otherwise responsibility-free life. GSPs can be a “vocal” breed, and Bo whined constantly, no matter how much I seemed to do for him. Some nights the whining got so bad, I’d go sit in my car and cry.

I took some comfort in meeting other owners who could relate. One guy confessed that he and his girlfriend had almost broken up over their pointer. The wife of an ultramarathoner posted to Instagram about asking the TSA to please take their GSP as an airport sniffing dog after a series of incidents that included the dog getting into a neighbor’s house and standing on their dining table eating their meal.

Then Bo was diagnosed with a partial cruciate ligament tear. Surgery would cost nearly $9,000. I had pet insurance but had already blown through most of it. For around five months, Bo couldn’t run, and I had to somehow limit his walks at first to between five and 10 minutes. I ached for him, sitting in the park watching another dog play fetch, his snout moving with the arch of the ball, back and forth, back and forth.

In my lowest moment, I googled, “When is it time to rehome a dog?” Why had I ruined my life with this idiotic choice, I thought. I don’t even like dogs!

Yet I never came close to giving Bo up. Part of it was not wanting to be someone who made a choice she wasn’t strong enough to handle. But more than that, I thought about my life before Bo and remembered how I was often lonely. Life before Bo was more free, but it was also less full.

Bo will turn 3 years old in August and just like the meme indicated, he has become less like a velociraptor and more like a dog again. We are back to trail running and long walks on the beach. He’s not perfect, but he’s an exceptional dog, well-behaved enough to go anywhere with me (and he does).

It is a strange thing at this stage in life to have discovered a new kind of love. If I have a good day or a bad day, if I am cranky or if I am sweet, it doesn’t matter: In Bo’s eyes, I am worthy of only love. And in my eyes, despite everything we’ve been through, Bo is the best dog that has ever lived.

I called up Amelia recently to ask her why she let me have Bo. She doesn’t give a dog to just anyone who wants one, and I wasn’t exactly an obvious candidate. Amelia said she always takes a walk with her own GSPs and asks God for guidance on the right homes for her puppies.

“Dogs add spirit to a family, and some people need them,” she said. “To me, you needed a dog.”

Katherine Bindley is a technology reporter for The Wall Street Journal in San Francisco.

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