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A Doggy Business

It started because my dog had just died, and I was getting all of this mail for him. There was a condolence card from the vet’s office, another card saying the practice had made a donation to a shelter in his name, a few more cards from friends. He never seemed more like a person to me than he did after he died.

When I adopted him they gave me a discount, because he was almost a year old and most people want puppies. I made up the difference in price with a donation to the shelter. I couldn’t believe the deal I was getting, after all — I had wanted a dog since childhood, and they were letting me leave with him. It’s such a strange feeling to get exactly what you want.

My best friend drove with me to pick him up and her car broke down on the way home, forcing us to wait, sweating, for another friend to pick us up near the junction to the highway. I think that was my first indication that having a dog would be much more than I had bargained for.

Like owning a car, there were many hidden costs to having Jasper in my life. In addition to the usual food and care expenses there were obedience classes, grooming services, toys, boarding costs — and that was assuming nothing went horribly wrong. I knew that pet insurance existed, but it seemed like a boondoggle accessible only to the very rich, and I was still in college and poised to move across the country. He was only a year old, still a puppy. There would be plenty of time to plan for him getting older and more expensive to care for.

Jasper, of course, was oblivious. He was a spry, prickly and attached mutt, the type to start violently and leap to his feet every time I left a room, even if he had been napping peacefully on the floor a moment ago. He was one of the few constants through my last year of college, a cross-country move and a difficult graduate program. Although he was my companion, he wasn’t my baby. I didn’t understand people who considered pets their children, though I did get a kick out of my parents referring to Jasper as their grandson. Every time I would take him to the vet or to a class and hear someone refer to me as “Mom,” I bit back a correction. I didn’t feel like his master, either. He was too independent and capricious, and I was too young and indulgent and afraid to completely assert my authority. I felt like we were occasionally contentious roommates more than anything else.

He was, by far, the most expensive roommate I had ever had. Shortly after I adopted him I paid $100 for eight hours of obedience classes that we drove to complete on Sunday afternoons at a pet supply store in Arizona. He would ride next to me, reclining on the passenger’s seat except when he perked up as we pulled into the parking lot. He was easily bribed (“food-motivated,” the trainers called it, I think out of politeness) and I learned quickly that the easiest way to interrupt an annoying behavior was to offer literally anything that looked edible proffered between two fingers.

The longer I had Jasper, the more his personality emerged, and I didn’t always like what I saw. When he stayed with my dad for a few weeks after I first adopted him he later told me he initially thought Jasper was “sweet but limited,” but found him more interesting as he grew more comfortable. As our time together went on the list of things Jasper didn’t care for grew longer — thunderstorms, sharing toys with my roommate’s dog, people running in our direction on the sidewalk (even if it was recreational), having his easily tangled thick black fur brushed, baths, rain, or any kind of moisture.

After I moved to New York I paid another $200 to have a trainer come to my apartment for a house call when Jasper started refusing to let my roommate, the same friend who had been there the day I adopted him — who knew him exactly as long as I had — take him out with her dog in the evenings. It took ten months for him to come around and let her coax him out again, and it had nothing to do with her or with me. He just changed his mind.

I spent $100 to have Rod the Brazilian groomer, who worked year round in a tank top and shorts in the basement of my vet’s office, transform Jasper from the half-wolf/half-bear hybrid he normally resembled to a skinny, mutton chop-sporting black fox in the summer. Each time that he got his hair cut I would drop him off with great anxiety, expecting to get a text message from Rod about having his nose bitten off or something similarly disastrous. Each time he was happily returned to me looking about 50% smaller, trotting home with an extra spring in his step, the way I imagined I might if I were able to finally shed a fur coat I had been forced to wear all spring. It made me laugh at how much his mood was lifted by a change in hairstyle, like a person. I only got to do it for him twice.

I paid around $1000 (probably more; I’m still in denial) in boarding costs when I went out of town for the holidays, still too new to New York City to burden any friends with the task of taking care of him. God only knows if he would have let them. That he could be so difficult was a source of great frustration, but it made me love him so much too. Of course he wouldn’t let anyone but me take him out in the evenings — I had raised a codependent child! Of course he barked incessantly at the slightest rumbling of thunder, not a huge problem in Arizona but a much bigger issue on the East Coast — I had adopted a dog with generalized anxiety disorder! His quirks and grumpiness almost made me happier than the devotion that I always knew I’d be getting by getting a dog. I liked being the only person who had him really figured out, as much as he could be.

Like me, Jasper’s skin didn’t take kindly to the prickly humidity of New York in the summer, and I was surprised one morning to find that he had licked the fur almost entirely off one of his flanks, leaving raw and red skin exposed to the air. Though it certainly looked bad and felt apocalyptic to me, as it was his biggest health issue to date, it was resolved quickly at the vet with an Elizabethan collar, antibiotics and topical ointment, for about $150.

With this and other expenses I was usually cheerful — they had to happen, after all, and it could be worse! The question of pet insurance slipped further and further into my queue of things to worry about, and soon disappeared entirely. I worried every day about accidents or illness, but it was the kind of anxiety I had dealt with all my life, that hummed along as a low accompaniment to everything I did, like feedback on a microphone. I was so used to chronic worrying that I stopped believing anything serious would really come to pass.

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