What To Know Before You Get a Dog

an original watercolor by Wallace May featuring Gabrielle, a blond woman, sleeping with her small white dog Kimberly on top of her

Original art by Wallace May featuring Gabrielle and Kimberly together

It’s going to seem like a really good idea.

You’re 22 and three months out of college and have been dating the same woman for almost a year and therefore you are an adult and totally ready for this. You make $15/hour which seems like a lot, definitely enough to support you and also a small mammal. Besides, your girlfriend says she needs to have an animal to be happy. It’s non-negotiable. You’re allergic to cats; ergo, dog it is.

So you’ll spend weeks on PetFinder before just going to the animal shelter with your sister and noticing the smallest, sickest, quietest dog hiding in the corner while every other dog barks at you. The dog is tiny and white and crusty. The woman working there, who has a dream catcher tattoo on her arm and an unzipped fly, immediately sees you noticing this dog and puts her in your arms. The woman is being aggressive; you can tell between that and the look on your sister’s face that this isn’t a dog a lot of people have wanted.

The dog smells like something is rotting and nestles her head underneath your chin. She weighs almost nothing and fits in your arms like an infant. The woman tells you about the horrific circumstances the dog came from; backyard breeding, whole life in a cage, etc etc. The dog is four, she says. You know you are not qualified to take care of a special-needs dog, but you tell the woman that you’re taking her no matter what.

You’ll bring her to the vet and the vet says, this dog is not four, this dog is at least eight or maybe even ten. Also, her teeth are rotting. Look how swollen her face is. She’ll need to get most of them out. She will otherwise die of the gum infection. It’ll cost $1,000, but don’t worry, it’s worth it.

You’ll bring her home and she’ll be terrified. She’ll hide in her crate. You bring her outside and she just sits there. She waits for you to go to sleep before she poops and pees everywhere.

You’ll bring her to the groomer, someone you find on Yelp that has good reviews for people with traumatized dogs. The groomer tells you that you should kiss the dog’s face. That’s how dogs show love to each other, he says. He buzzes her down to the pink.

Mostly she’s still afraid of everything, but one day she looks at you with recognition when you bring her food to her. She starts to connect the dots. You’re not scary, you’re feeding her, and not only that but you do it at the same time every day. You’re keeping her alive. Her tail wags when she sees you, a little. She starts letting you kiss her face. Fear will turn to trust. You’ll just have to be patient, consistent, and gentle. No sudden movements.

One night you’ll wake up to the crack of thunder and can’t find her. You check everywhere until you find that she is hiding in the back of your closet underneath a pile of clothes. You bring her into bed, where she curls up on your chest and never leaves.

After that you’ll be inseparable. Instead of hiding from you she’ll follow you at your heels. She can’t get on and off furniture by herself and cries to be picked up. She needs to have as much of her touching as much of you as possible at all times. She’s still peeing inside but who really cares. She sleeps on your shoulder or in your armpit at night.

You’ll wonder if this needy behavior is normal. You do a google search and learn about “velcro dogs.” You wonder if she’ll ever be attached to anyone else, like the girlfriend who insisted you get her in the first place. But mostly you love that she loves only you. It’s kind of the best feeling in the world. Besides, she seems happier like this. Sometimes she plays with a little stuffed giraffe. Sometimes she rolls in grass.

You’ll get a cool new job and the office is one of those hip downtown startups where they say you can bring your dog to work. You really shouldn’t do this — trust me, just get a dog walker — but you will. You’ll make some friends this way, because in general when people see a little white dog in your lap they understand that you are nice. But then one day the owner of the company finds your dog pooping on the vintage rug in the lobby, and he’ll probably think of this moment every time he sees you for the rest of the time you work there.

Eventually it will be time to break up with your girlfriend. You both see it coming but neither of you do anything about it for a while. When the time comes, you agree to try shared custody of the dog, maybe every other week or something, because over the past four years they’ve grown attached to each other — it didn’t happen as quickly as it did with you, but they love each other now and you’re trying not to be cruel, not crueler than you need to be at least.

You tell your therapist you’re glad that at least the dog is not a baby and she says, is the dog not your baby?

You’ll live alone for the first time in your life. Shared dog custody means some weeks you can go out after work and other times you have to sprint home and fall to your knees to greet her; she’s been alone all day and it’s the saddest thing in the world. You hate yourself for this. You’ll be flooded with guilt. But you’ve never really given yourself a chance to be wild before; you’re the kind of person who rescued a special needs dog at 22, for fuck’s sake. You need this time, you need to get a life. But you also need to keep her alive and it’ll be hard to balance the two things. Sometimes at the end of the day she’s so happy to see you that she pees on the floor. It doesn’t hit you how hard it is to raise a dog alone until the day you both get sick; she wrecks every surface of your apartment with diarrhea and vomiting and you have a fever and it’s winter. You’ll both get through it.

Soon you’ll start introducing her to new people. Some of them are charmed by her and the way you sometimes have to feed her by hand or bring the water bowl up to the couch. Some think it’s very funny and very gay that your dog is the child of lesbian divorce. Others ignore her and that’s how you know they’re not right. You’ll hurt a lot of people’s feelings during this time. You don’t mean to, but you’ve made a promise to yourself to never again let something go on past its expiration date. You’ll get hurt a fair amount too, and when you cry on the couch about being unlovable and then accidentally like an old Instagram photo of someone you shouldn’t be looking at, she will just sleep soundly next to you; she’s not one of those animals that wants to make you feel better, but her quiet presence does just that.

You’ll have the very strange experience of making a new friend and learning that she has already met your dog, through the person your ex is currently dating. Your dog’s reputation will precede her. She’s known, at least among a specific subsect of queer millennials in Brooklyn. Also, on the internet. She’s starred in a few videos for the various digital media companies you work for. People know you have a very cute very old white dog before they know anything else about you. One day in a room full of people a psychic will close his eyes and ask if someone present has a small white dog very attached to her spiritual energy. You figure he has googled you before this interaction, but a small part of you believes that he hasn’t, and that your bond is that intense.

She’ll never be good with other people, though, and this, you’ll think, adds to her charm. She doesn’t want strangers to pet her or even look at her. You can relate.

After a few years you meet a gorgeous woman who lives down the street who also has a dog, a huge squishy pit bull. That you both have dogs is really the only thing you know about each other, and one night at a party with mutual friends she turns to you and says, “How is Kimberly doing?” and you realize that she’s trying to think of ways to talk to you.

After you move in together, her dog and your dog will coexist peacefully. Sometimes they’ll cuddle and you take 100 photos of it. Mostly they’ll ignore each other.

When the pandemic starts and you’re both working from home, your dog will insist on spending the day in your lap, farting and snoring. It’s hard to work like this so you’ll say no, and she’ll take to asking to be put in your girlfriend’s lap instead. Your girlfriend is much more patient than you about this and she’ll let your dog sleep on her arm while she paints. It will be very sweet and you’ll be so glad that finally the dog has bonded to someone new. You will marry this person. She’s the love of your life.

One night after she eats dinner your dog is in an uncharacteristically bad mood. She starts growling and barking at nothing. You try to pet her and she snaps at you. She’s never done that before. Moving forward every night when the sun goes down she’ll have a similar fit of growling and barking. The vet tells you that dogs get dementia and this isn’t dissimilar to what humans experience. It’s called sundowning and she’ll do it for the rest of her life. Eventually the growling at night becomes so severe that she no longer wants to sleep in bed with you, she just wants to be left alone. This breaks your heart a little bit but it’s for the best, and it’s kind of nice to sleep without worrying about accidentally kicking her off the bed. You will miss it, though. You’ll miss the days when she would have let you use her like a loofa if you wanted. Now she just wants less and less from you.

One day she’ll cough up blood. You’ll take her to the vet who will tell you that it’s because her remaining teeth need to come out. This time, the price tag hurts your bank account a little less, but otherwise you’ll feel just as upset. It takes her longer to recover from the anesthesia. She has two teeth left.

Eventually you’ll get a job in Los Angeles and convince your little family to move across the country. You’ll have a hard conversation with your ex about finally ending your shared custody situation, and to your relief she agrees quickly that it’s for the best. She says she’ll come visit, and she does. She’ll bring her new wife, and you’ll feel glad that you can leave your dog with them while you go explore California, glad that this weird arrangement has allowed you and your ex to become family.

In LA, your dog will sleep in sun patches and smell flowers, but she’s lost her sight and her hearing by now so you’re not sure how much she knows about her new surroundings. It’s nice that there’s a backyard so you don’t have to put her harness on her, as by now she has started being sensitive about things touching her neck.

She’ll make it in LA almost a year before she starts having trouble standing up, like she’s experiencing her own personal earthquake. She falls over a few times and so you’ll take her to the animal hospital, where they tell you that because of the kidney failure and the liver disease and the arthritis in her spine, she probably has weeks, not months.

They’ll give you drugs to make her comfortable and you spend the next few days watching her sleep. You say things like, when the dogs die let’s move to Europe for a year. Or, should we just get a puppy? What if we had a puppy. We should get two puppies and name them Linda and Asparagus. Imagine their little bellies. What do you think Kimberly looked like as a puppy? She was probably so small.

You’ll watch her sleep some more. Sometimes you can’t find her, which hasn’t happened since that thunderstorm a hundred years ago, and eventually you’ll see that she’s wedged herself into some weird corner. Her little tail is still wagging a couple of times a day and you decide that once her tiny joys are gone, you’ll put her out of her misery. She shouldn’t be in pain, she’s too small.

Because bad things happen all at once, while she’s dying, you’re going to lose your job. I’m sorry. It’s going to feel like the world is ending. I don’t know what to tell you. In some ways, a version of the world is ending. But you’ve been here before. You’ve lost before. You always rebuild. Your life will contain a series of worlds that begin and end, overlapping in ways you don’t yet understand.

You’ll say to your wife, I don’t know how long to let this go on for. You’ll have kept her alive for 11 years, and since she was a senior adoption, that will make her the oldest dog on earth. You’ll know that other people have lost their dogs, and they’ve survived. But this feels sadder. It is, and it isn’t. Your instinct will be to feel that no one understands. They do, and they don’t.

But back to you. Back to this decision. When you first meet her, scared and sick and alone, you’ll know that if you don’t take her with you she’ll probably die. Of course, she’s going to die either way. Better to have a life with you first, you’ll decide. You’ll make it nice for her. You’ll try your best, at least.


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Gabrielle Korn

Gabrielle Korn is a writer living in Los Angeles with her wife and dog.

Gabrielle has written 93 articles for us.

18 Comments

  1. Adopted my girl Honey in 2000. My partner and I went to the shelter just to volunteer (that never works). One dog sat there smiling in her cage, looking deep into our souls – Honey, a German Shepard and Rottweiler mix. She was new to the shelter, malnourished, but so happy. We adopted her. Took her home. She became a couch cuddler and a bed snuggler. She sang along to music and movie musicals. She loved Frosty Paws and Jumbones. She loved cats, a Chihuahua named Casey, and a Pitt named Casper. She lived in 3 states with us. Her Memom and Hubba doggy sat while we were at work.

    She developed cancer. She was 15. It was a rare form that started in the cartilage of her thigh socket near her tail. It spread like all cancers do. She lived 13 months longer. We’ve never adopted another dog. No one will ever sing Come What May as good as her. When she passed, our vet gave us a room and took 2 hours to go through the entire process to allow us time to say goodbye. We played a soundtrack of her favorite songs and wrapped her in her favorite blanket with her baby between her paws. She fought it. She didn’t want to let go. We told her it was OK. We’d be OK and we’d see her again. She closed her eyes and faded away. We lost her cat sister to brain cancer in 2019. Very quickly. A few weeks. Now we have two sibling kitties – Smeagol and Arwen. But there will never be another Honey.

  2. Your story touched me at the core. I can’t imagine how hard it must be without her there.

    My little boy is 16. He limps, he can’t see well, he can’t hear, he is incontinent.
    On his bad days, I think I’m being selfish for not putting him down.But on his good days….
    “Her little tail is still wagging a couple of times a day and you decide that once her tiny joys are gone, you’ll put her out of her misery” This sentence perfectly sums it up
    He still gets excited to go on walks, he still steals my dad’s chicken,he still chases after rats.
    I’m thousands of miles away from him right now and my biggest fear is that he’ll die alone, before I get back. I don’t know how I would cope with that.

  3. We just lost our little white dog yesterday at 14. I don’t think I’ve loved anyone or anything as much as I loved her. She was so so so perfect. It hurts so much that part of loving them is helping them go. Love to you and your pup ❤️

  4. Thank-you for the beautiful reminder of how our four legged friends are so much a part of our lives. I have always had dogs since my college days and the absolute heartbreak at the end is still worth all the joy that comes in between.

    Bocce (our current rescue dog) also thanks you for this and sends his love to kimberly in doggie heaven.

  5. I’ve had two dogs that I had to have euthanized- one for cancer, the other for liver disease. The first one was healthy up until the cancer. We were together for 11 wonderful years. The vet bills and medicines at the end of her life were affordable. The second one I adopted as a senior dog. She was sweet and we had a lot of fun together, but the liver disease needed a lot of attention and vet visits. When it got worse, I had her hospitalized, which didn’t help. She became so ill, I made the heart breaking decision to let her go. The entire ordeal cost several thousand dollars. It took a long time to pay off. I’m retired and on a fixed income now, and as much as I love them dearly, I’ve decided not to adopt any more dogs. I don’t think some people should unless they know they can take a hit from a huge vet bill. I know the feeling of seeing “the one” at the shelter and having the confidence that I can pay for its care, no matter what. However, many dogs are left at shelters now days, because owners can’t afford their care. I won’t do that to a pet. It’s sad, but that’s how I feel from my experience, speaking only for myself.

    • This may be less common elsewhere, so I don’t want to assume that it absolutely will be an option, but in case it is: where I am (in Canada, Southern Ontario) some animal rescue groups have a “forever foster” option for dogs and cats who are either seniors or who have known health issues. It means that you keep the dog at home and pay the day-to-day expenses of pet care, but major surgeries or ongoing medical expenses are covered by the organization. It’s not for everyone (often these are animals that aren’t going to survive more than a year or two), but if you are looking at older animals and it’s just the financial part that’s stopping you, that may be an option.

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