What My Dog Taught Me About Shedding Pounds, Licking Stress and Getting A New Leash On Life

(And I thought things couldn’t get worse!)

Forget what Charles Dickens said … “It was the best of times…it was the worst of times.” The winter of 2002 was just plain the WORST OF TIMES. I was fresh off a broken romance. It was the coldest winter the East Coast had seen for years. The country was on the brink of war, and I was on my couch, miserable, wallowing in total self-pity. There was no measure to the depth of my dejection. Most of my bleak days began and ended with tears. I read travel magazines, longing to go somewhere warm, but knew that my body was nowhere near bathing-suit ready. I made half-hearted attempts to get motivated to do something to improve this by trying various new weight loss strategies, but I fell terribly short of implementing anything long enough to see even the weakest result.

Instead I comforted myself with mashed potatoes, a most excellent cold weather comfort food; Starbucks Ice Cream, which really doesn’t make you cold if you eat it wrapped up in a blanket in front of the fireplace; and, of course, the ultimate food for melancholy…chocolate. I had chocolate in every room of my house in every form imaginable. Hershey’s kisses, Godiva sea shells filled with chocolate cream, Hershey’s Almond bars, raspberry filled chocolate bars, white chocolate mints from a favorite candy store back home, and of course, chocolate peanut butter cups. I even had chocolate coffee and a chocolate scented bubble bath. When everything became too much, I just stocked up on more chocolate.

Spring found me pudgy and pitiful, feeling my life was worthless and without promise. In short, I reveled in my misery, much like Matthew Arnold described in the last lines of his poem “Dover Beach,” where he saw “neither joy, nor love, nor light, nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.” I also spent many hours reading depressing literature and memorized pertinent passages to provide validation for my dejected condition. Finally that masters degree in British lit had a useful purpose, but I was absolutely inconsolable.

It was in the midst of this disjointed condition that I did something totally out of character. My action was completely out of left field for a neatness-obsessed, control- freak, Type A personality. I got a dog!

How this dog idea had begun, I’m not even sure. I’d actually made two previous trips to the local shelter and I didn’t really think I’d get a dog anymore than I thought I’d lose the 25 pounds I’d been trying to lose for the last several years. I’d picked out a dog on my two previous trips, but left without them. One dog was snatched from my grasp just as I was slowly filling out the papers; its happy owner had been found. I didn’t get the second one because I arrived at the shelter long after the other prospective dog parents had gotten there. Even though the shelter didn’t open until noon, these earnest folks had arrived at 8:00 a.m. to wait for their chosen canine. I strolled in about fifteen minutes before the actual opening. The dog I’d chosen was snatched up immediately by the people way ahead of me in line. I was outwardly crushed when I didn’t get the dog, but breathed a sigh of relief as I cruised back home.

When my heart fell apart, I retreated into my house, which became an unbearably lonely prison. I sat in my pristinely clean palace jail, longing for any form of living company and started thinking that maybe that dog idea had some merit. If I was going to be miserable, I no longer wanted to do it alone. Even a dog might be better than this solitary isolation.

As many people who know me well will tell you, I was absolutely the last person on earth anyone would even think should ever have a dog. For the first four years I owned my house, no one was allowed in with their shoes on. I called repair men to fix only things located in the basement because it had an exterior door. I didn’t want them tracking into my house with dirty shoes and tools. I even sat on the floor in front of my new sofa for over a year…it was light colored and I didn’t want to get it dirty. If my house was for sale, I’d be a real estate agent’s dream client…it was presentable at all times. After all, who can you blame for the house being a mess when you live alone? I always hung up my clothes, washed the dishes immediately after using them, and my linen closet looked like it belonged to Martha Stewart.

My yard was also meticulously groomed. I inherited a yard guy named Roy when I bought the house. I gave Roy detailed instructions about picking up grass clippings, keeping leaves off the lawn, weeding the roses, and watching for trespassing dogs. I detested the thought of a dog trampling my flowers, or worse, taking a bathroom break in the front yard. I created a sign and saved it on my computer under the title DOG OUT, to print out and give to Roy as needed to place in the front yard.

As a single professional woman, I loved to travel and I enjoyed, or so I thought, having no one to consider when planning a get-away. I often bragged that I liked the fact that, when I went home and turned the key in the lock, there were no surprises and no one there to disturb me. I ate when I felt like it (which took up a lot of my time), went to the gym unencumbered, stayed out as long as I wanted.

Ah, and then the winter of my discontent found me unsettled, wasting away in my near sterile environment. This perfect setting no longer held solace or joy for me. I was the lone prisoner of my own entrapment. And so, I emerged that rare, sunny Saturday in March. The sun had reappeared after a very long absence, and I was tooling along in my recently detailed convertible to PetsMart. Yes, the crazy thought that a dog might lift me out of my doldrums somehow had been occupying my idle thoughts, and I was going just to get a look. After all, it was a step in the right direction to be out of the gray fleece robe I had lived in all winter and not lying on the couch with a cup of hot chocolate.

Once in PetsMart, the din of dogs and kids should’ve been enough to cause my hasty retreat, but I didn’t leave. Cautiously, I made my way over to the area where the local animal shelter brought homeless cats and dogs in for adoption. I observed from a distance as kids hovered around the fence with the puppies and a volunteer walked an older dog around meeting prospective “parents.” One of the volunteers was busy talking to a few people while holding some sort of puppy over her shoulder. I thought I would get a closer look at what was behind the fence where the children were hovered when it happened.

“Here,” she said as I passed, “just hold her for a minute while I help these people.” I looked around thinking she must be talking to someone behind me. She was not, and suddenly I was holding this little dog at arm’s length much the way I’d held the baby or two that had been thrust upon me in the past. I thought if I didn’t look at this dog, the “minute” would soon be over and I could hand her back. But the “minute” did not end and I looked at her…this little black and tan creature eyeing me warily.

Two dark brown eyes stared at me from beneath tan eyebrows that had these strange wild black hairs reminding me of spider legs. Her eyes had a suspicious expression—you know, like your high school teacher used to give you when she was trying to decide if you had broken a rule. She had floppy ears covered with hair resembling a bad permanent wave. But it was her little licorice black nose that quivered ever so slightly, discerning my perfume that got to me. Something about that dainty nose was quite endearing and I relaxed my arms and drew her closer to me. She was softer than any cashmere sweater I had ever worn. I held her over my shoulder braced for the inevitable tongue licking I detested from dogs, but it didn’t come. Warily, she put both paws on my shoulder and pushed herself back to look into my face—what was this little dog doing? She just kept her paws on my shoulder, keeping a distance between us, and she studied me.

I felt the sharpness of her toenails digging through my sweater, which I realized was probably getting snagged beyond repair, but I couldn’t move. I could feel her little breaths on my face and I tried to figure out…what was she thinking? Better yet, what was I thinking?

When my romance had ended the previous fall, my world became a maze of misplaced dreams. Nothing seemed to make sense anymore or fit into any of the many rigid patterns that made up my life. I couldn’t see any of my numerous accomplishments, just discarded diets, procrastination, and failures. I dragged myself to work, overwhelmed with the many responsibilities of my job. I simply had no spare time to care for a dog when I was doing such a poor job of caring for myself. I spent my time feeling sorry for myself and worrying about the future. The last thing I needed, I realized, was a dog, albeit a cute one with a surprisingly intelligent manner.

The pet shelter volunteer came back after what seemed the longest minute in the world and started putting things away. She suddenly remembered me and said, in a breezy manner, “Oh, well, do you want her?” Want her, I gasped silently, I don’t even know really what she is. I quickly composed myself and in my lawyer persona said that I really liked her (lawyers never lie you know), but it was impossible to make a decision of such magnitude so quickly, and thanks, but here she is. However, there she was not. The volunteer just ignored my spiel and kept picking up papers and clearing off the table set up for the adoption transactions. “Well, we really don’t like to send them back to the shelter on Saturday nights since they just have to come back here tomorrow, so why don’t you take her home with you for the night?” I felt panic like I never had before, even on the night before a trial. However, instead of protesting, for reasons I haven’t yet discovered, I asked what I had to do and before I knew it, there she was in the back seat of my car.

I’d heard stories of how “grateful” shelter dogs were just to get a home and how some people felt this instant bond with the adopted animal. Such was not my case. This dog was quite reserved in her consideration of me for her “Mom,” as the shelter volunteer called me, and with my house for her home. There was no tail wagging, no wild joyous running around, no immediate acceptance by her for me or me for her.

That first night she was, at best, cordial to me. I usually go to the refrigerator as soon as I am in the door of my house. But now I had the little dog to care for. So I fed her first. I gave her some of the food that had been sent along with her from PetsMart. She sniffed it and then ignored it. I got her some water in a Styrofoam cup and as she drank, it sounded like a drain unclogging when the Liquid Plumber has finally worked. I was amazed at how this dainty little dog could lap up water with such gusto. I smiled watching as she ran around the kitchen sniffing everything….having a feast of crumbs licked from the floor. I should’ve recognized that something was happening here. It was Saturday night and instead of planning a melancholy lonely feast, I was not hungry and I was smiling.

I placed her small pet carrier in the kitchen and took her for a walk. No leash or collar? No problem. I slipped one of my terry headbands over her head and made a leash from a garden cord. I was beginning to get this dog thing down rather quickly, I thought.

I live two short blocks from our state Capitol. The neighborhood is an eclectic mix of single-family homes, apartments, and houses that have been converted into offices for small government offices and lobbyists. My house, like the others in the area, is a large three-story brick colonial. Much too large for one person, I bought it because it was a good deal and within walking distance to my job as a government attorney at the State Capitol Complex. It is also one block from the Kanawha River, where there is a jogging path, and people walk their dogs. After stress-filled workdays, I’d usually just dash out my front door, straight to the boulevard for a fast 4-mile walk. Today though, there would be no dashing, because I had this small dog on the end of a garden cord.

So, we strolled through the neighborhood on an uneventful, but interesting walk. She looked everything over carefully. She stuck her head through the fence next door and examined the cat. She ran up and down the banks of yards we passed. I noticed a neighbor already had a small plot prepared for a garden and a house was for sale. We walked down the boulevard, past the Capitol where she got the attention of the Capitol Police. She jumped up into the yard at the Governor’s Mansion. The splendor of the lovely Georgian colonial house was lost on her, as she took a pee. I looked anxiously at the security camera’s angle and hurried her on. Then I laughed. I admired her nonchalant attitude about peeing in the Governor’s yard. My small tour guide was showing me things I walked by every day and never saw.

Bedtime arrived soon enough and I placed a soft towel in the crate, put her in and shut the door. I went about my usual bedtime routines and got in bed only to hear these
unbelievable noises coming from the kitchen. At first, I thought that my security system had somehow malfunctioned sending these horrendous …

Click here to order your very own copy of The Dog Diet, A Memoir: What My Dog Taught Me About Shedding Pounds, Licking Stress and Getting a New Leash on Life and pick up one for a girlfriend! I did and mailed it to her with a print out of the shelters in her area and a little dog bandana …)

© Copyright 2006 by Patti Lawson. Excerpt with permission from Ms. Lawson. All rights reserved.

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