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Our Pandemic Puppy Was A Terrible Idea

The author's pandemic puppy, Wally (Courtesy)
The author's pandemic puppy, Wally (Courtesy)

“Dogs are needier than children,” said my divorce attorney, when I told him I intended to bring home a pup as my legal case wrapped up last year. “Don’t get one.”

“COVID-19” was not yet part of our lexicon. As 2019 drew to a close, I amped up my efforts to locate the right breeder. Getting a dog seemed like a fitting way to move forward after a grueling 12 months, offering a source of love, affection and laughter in my household in 2020. I dismissed my attorney’s edict as characteristic gruffness.

My attorney’s wife, who keeps the books at the family law practice, also warned me. “I often resented having dogs,” she said. “As the mom of four boys, the dogs were just one more thing I had to keep alive at the end of the day. It added to the mom guilt.”

But I ignored the advice of my attorney (he’s always so blunt!) and his wife (I’m the mom of two — not four!). After all, I had pined for a puppy to welcome into our family of three. I was so certain that we would be getting a dog that I broke a cardinal parenting rule: raising the hopes of my kids, both under the age of 7. My daughter wanted to name our future dog “Unicorn Rainbow.” My son opted for “Baby.” I suggested Walnut, a nutty play on my last name, which means “Almond” in Yiddish.

So, on March 14, we brought Walnut home. “This is the happiest day of my life,” my daughter declared. And I felt that after a year of immense personal distress, I was finally doing something nice for my almost 7-year-old.

Wally chewed on laundry, clean and dirty. (Courtesy)
Wally chewed on laundry, clean and dirty. (Courtesy)

The next day, Governor Andrew Cuomo declared schools statewide would close until further notice.

“Talk about good timing!” a friend texted when I shared a photo of Wally, asleep on the carpet, his velvety fur picture perfect. “Way to go, mom of the year, you get a puppy for social isolation time!”

But I was not overjoyed. Now that the dog I pined for was an actual presence in my home, I was not smitten with his adorableness. I was worried. The words of my attorney’s wife took on a heightened resonance as the stress of the raging pandemic seeped into every pore and neuropathway of my being. Nine-pound Wally was, quite frankly, one more thing to keep alive.

Puppies acquired during a pandemic may be the latest family trend, but as someone who brought home a 2-month-old dog as society shuttered, I am now officially cured of puppy fever.

Walnut lasted nine days in our household before I reached a conclusion with even greater certainty than the desire to get a dog in the first place: I needed to return him to the breeder. The first clue came a few days in when my mom, who lives in Lynnfield, Mass., asked if Walnut’s fur feels as velvety as it looks. “I don’t have time to pet my puppy!” I scoffed into the phone. Nearby, Walnut was gnawing on my piano bench, a mere centimeter from an exposed staple.

What type of terrible person resents an adorable puppy?

News accounts cite “time” as a good reason for getting a puppy during a pandemic. People are home and therefore “have time" to socialize and love on a dog. But my experience was wholly different. As soon as Wally moved in, I experienced a complete deficit of time. It tore away at my ability to cope. The children’s demands for attention — for snacks, for help, for iPad passwords, for schooling, for reading, for playing, for cleaning, for clinging to me — competed with the need to keep a watchful eye on Wally, as he chewed on outlets, electric cables, laundry (clean and dirty), rugs, shoes and plants; and then subsequently squatted to expel bodily fluids.

“Wally — no! No!” And, “Kids, wait — just wait!” became constant chastisements and directives. I’d have to pause my daughter’s schooling, mid-math explanation, to take the dog outside; or leave a half cut-up snack on the counter — knife flung onto the cutting board — because Wally was nipping at my 3-year-old son’s feet, his cries punctuated by sad hops away from the razor-sharp teeth.

And then there were the nights. With a puppy, time is not restored to you after lights out. Typically, after the kids’ bedtime, I’d take a relaxing shower and hop into bed early with my novel and my knitting. But with Wally I could do neither. It was the witching hour and he wanted to play. I was bone tired and I needed to replenish my stores. And yes, per my attorney’s wife, I felt resentment — which fueled self-loathing. What type of terrible person resents an adorable puppy? I’ll tell you who: a person who goes to bed on her puppy’s clock, and who is woken to whimpers for potty breaks at midnight, and 3 a.m., and up for the day at 5:45 a.m. That’s who.

The bone that broke this dog owner’s back was diarrhea on Day 9. Silver-dollar-sized squirts of fecal matter added to the generalized morning chaos in the kitchen. The thought of schlepping to the vet — if Wally’s gastrointestinal distress worsened — pushed my caretaking capabilities to the brink. I just didn’t have more of myself to give. Wally quickly rebounded but I was set on a new course. Thanks to Wally I learned to listen to my limits, and I realized something about myself at this stage in my life: I don’t need one more being to care for. I need to take care of myself in order to take care of my children.

Breaking the news to my daughter, however, was a lot more difficult. “This is all your fault,” she yelled when I told her we’d have to bring Wally back to the breeder because having a puppy during “the sickness” (our in-house term for the shutdown) was more than I could handle. But despite her sadness and disappointment, my daughter demonstrated — deep down — that she grasped the stress of the situation. “We had to give the dog back,” she wrote in a school assignment. “It was too much work for mommy to look after the dog, my brother and me.”

The thing about mom guilt is it always lingers. It’s there when you have a puppy, and it’s there when you don’t. On a good day, I tell myself that this incident is teaching my daughter about resilience. On a tougher day, I give into my mercenary instincts to throw a few dollars at the problem to make my kids feel better. It’s been six weeks since we returned Walnut to the breeder, and it’s been seven days since our most recent acquisitions, courtesy of curbside pickup.

Let me introduce you to our goldfish, Lego and Sofia.

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Hinda Mandell Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Hinda Mandell, a Boston-area native, is associate professor in the School of Communication at RIT in Rochester, New York.

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