Our dog recently had a birthday, which got me thinking about this piece that was written three years ago.
My wife and I are seasoned empty nesters, and we’ve gotten pretty good at it.
Our daughter is out on her own, we’re done with dinner by 6:00, we’re in our pajamas by 8:30 and we’re watching The Mentalist or CSI Wherever in bed at 10:00. This is vastly different from a younger couple with no kids who are out and about, don’t even start dinner until 9:00 and intentionally watch Craig Ferguson rather than waking up during his monologue and realizing that the TV is still on.
These couples are often referred to as DINKS, a not so flattering term that stands for, “double income no kids.” Empty nester is the same bottom line but a slightly friendlier title.
Here’s how it all began.
Our daughter moved away to college when she was just seventeen and aside from a few summers and a scattered ten months or so after college when she moved back, we’ve been child-free for almost nine years, slightly less if you count laundry days. I firmly believe that the modern washer and dryer are responsible for parents getting to know their adult children better, for without these wonderful appliances, we wouldn’t see our grown up kids half as often as we do. Parents like to capture the Kodak moments when their children grow up, such as the first steps, the first day of kindergarten, the prom and sending them off to college. I’d like to be there with a camera when my daughter buys her first washer and dryer.
Becoming an empty nester is a transition that all parents go through and each of us has a different experience with this cycle of life. Some cope better than others. Me? I miss having my daughter around, both as a child and as an adult, but this is the life that parents sign up for. If we parents did our job well, we’ll have raised happy, healthy non-pole dancers who will still stop by the house because they want to, not because they have to. Or because they’re out of clean towels. Or they’re hungry. Whatever. I’m not picky.
Some empty nesters fill the void with travel or yard work or date nights. Some even have twenty kids so they can die of old age before the nest ever empties (what’s up with that, Duggars?). All of these are compelling options but here’s what we did to put a little noise back into our house.
We got another dog.
To say that Milo was a coping mechanism for a grown child wouldn’t be fair to Milo or our grown child. Dogs are dogs, not people, and every reasonable person knows that in spite of the Halloween costumes we put on them. By the way, Mrs. G. dressed Milo up as a cowboy. He was less than thrilled.
We had a great dog, Bailey, for fourteen years and after he died the house just felt out of kilter. It was neater, but it was also colder and less fun. We both missed coming home to a dog, and really—is there anything better than flopping on the couch after a long day and having a dog curled up next to you? And you just know a dog-free house has crumbs all over the place that would be hoovered up in a nano-second by a dog. It’s like having a Roomba that barks at squirrels.
I’ve written about Milo before and how he came to be with us, but here’s the recap in case you missed it: We met him in utero, we saw him two days after he was born and every few weeks after that, and when he was seven weeks old, we brought him home. He’s just about nine months old now and he’s settling in nicely with practiced routines and habits that are equal parts playful and exasperating. In short, he’s a dog.
Bailey—our first dog—was a Shih Tzu, and he was a great companion, but we did have some medical issues with him that can pertain to that particular breed that were both sad and expensive, so I was a little hesitant to get another one. Mrs. G. would have gotten six of them; however, in a rare case of male spousal victory, we didn’t get another Shih Tzu. We got half a Shih Tzu. The other half is a Poodle. I claim that as a rare victory on my part, since I pushed for the Poodle element.
The portmanteau name for this dog would be Shih Poo, but I flat out refuse to use that for too many reasons to list. Mixing a purebred Poodle with something else is a growing trend in designer dog breeding, resulting in Labradoodles, Goldendoodles, Maltipoos, Cockapoos and a myriad of Frankenpoodle puppies, all of which inherit the Mensa-level Poodle brain and whatever traits come with the other part.
Milo’s dad was a seven-pound purebred toy poodle, and his mom was an eleven-pound purebred Shih Tzu. We met both of the parent dogs and they looked good and had great temperaments. Milo was supposed to be smallish, coming in at around nine pounds fully grown and about the size of a Shih Tzu—certainly no bigger than his mom.
Well, that didn’t happen. When he stands on his hind legs, his toenails catch in my belt, and I’m six foot two. He currently weighs in at a rock solid sixteen pounds, but I think he’ll put on a few more as he gets more muscular. Standing on all fours, he’s twenty-one inches tall to the top of his head.
He can spring up from the floor much like a grasshopper and gracefully land on the back of the couch without a running start and if he’s really cranking around the yard, he has a horizontal leap of about eight feet with a hang time that would make Michael Jordan weep. As big as his front legs are, his hind legs are jacked up like a tractor.
He started out mostly chestnut brown with tan spots and white paws but he’s mostly tan and apricot now. He has straight (non-shedding) hair like a Shih Tzu, with a little curly piece on the top of his head as an homage to his Poodle lineage. His eyes are Poodle and his nose and ears are somewhere in between. He has teeth like a Poodle, but an underbite like a Shih Tzu. His traits are definitely more Poodle, though. He’s tracked birds in the sky like a water dog since the day we brought him home and he absolutely loves being outdoors.
When we brought him home at seven weeks old, we put him in a crate at night, and all he did was whine and plaster the bars of his crate with poop missiles. After about a month of this, my wife laid him on the bed when I was too tired to say anything and he slept like a baby for eight hours. He’s been there ever since.
All I have to do is start turning off lights at night and he bolts for our bed. When my wife and I are both on our respective pillows, he walks up and flops between us for a few minutes and then flashes grateful puppy eyes that seem to say, “Thank you for not sticking me in a crate, but just in case that thought does cross your mind, I could easily conjure up a turd the size of an Easter ham.” After a few minutes of this pensive staring, he moves to the foot of the bed.
One of his many quirks is that he doesn’t spiral around before he lies down like every other dog I’ve ever seen. He just falls over as if his legs gave out, letting his full weight just slam down. Sometimes I wonder if he’s part horse.
He also senses when I’m about to get up in the morning because he throws his body across mine and tries to hold me down. He does this every single morning. If I even flinch, he repositions himself and goes for the pin. I get up, let him out, and he runs back to the bedroom until my wife gets up.
He took to housebreaking within a few weeks and once he figured it out, there weren’t any accidents. His biggest problem, or rather ours, is that he doesn’t bark to go out. He growls. Small correction … he talks. Not in some Disneyesque anthropomorphic way (we’re not insane) but he moves his mouth around and has actual tonal growling. Sometimes he’ll do this while we’re watching TV and he won’t shut up until we scold him, then he sort of mumbles, much like a surly teenager, and walks away. I think he’s swearing at us, but I can’t tell.
He also uses his paws like hands. He has freakishly long legs (arms?) and he bends them at the wrist, using his forearms and paws to grab things and hold them. He’ll often pull our hands towards him if he wants to be petted. He was in the basement with me one afternoon, and I took a four-foot long piece of rope and knotted it up into a ball. I looked down about twenty minutes later and he had untied every knot. I’m willing to bet I could train him to peel a banana.
He can open his crate door from the outside and will run inside and remove whatever we put in there within seconds of hearing the door close. The only time he won’t go in there voluntarily is when we are trying to leave the house. As soon as we put on our shoes or grab the car keys, he takes off in a blur, attaining enough gravity-defying speed to run along the back of the couch. On the plus side, he has gotten really good at “stay” and will practically skid to a halt once I say this. He can also sit on command and responds very well to, “where’s (fill in the person’s name).” He understands the names of his toys (red bone, blue ball, Frisbee) often enough that it’s not an accident, and will usually organize them all in one spot. If he gets too wound up over something, we just say, “enough” and that usually does it.
He is a chewer, but so far, not in any destructive way. We found something called bully sticks that are very satisfying for hard chewers. Milo loved them, we didn’t. Why? Well, I’m not exaggerating about this—they smell exactly like dog crap and not just any dog crap. Grade A, just ate a steak, chili, and a pound of lentils dog crap. There really is no better way to describe it. Luckily, we found a place online that sells a “premium” odor free variety, so we buy those by the box load.
Oh, and he’s very protective. He’ll tear off after squirrels, cats and the UPS guy as if they’re terrorists and he all but stopped our neighbor’s wandering dog from dumping in our yard. The other day, he got up on his back legs and walked about six feet while boxing his front paws at a mourning dove. I’m not sure what the mourning dove equivalent of “what the hell is this” would be, but I’m pretty sure that’s what it was thinking.
We realized that Milo was a runner soon after we got him, so we had an underground fence system installed. It took him all of twice to figure out that getting zapped wasn’t fun. Being the curious sort, I held the collar and zapped myself. It isn’t any worse than scuffing your feet and touching something metal. It’s a great system with all the peace of mind we need.
He also fetches like a maniac. He’s not 100% sold on the dropping part because he loves to tug, but he took to fetching immediately. I’ll go outside with him and a handful of tennis balls and we’ll have a blast until he’s too tired to move. If a ball gets too close to the underground zapper, he’ll slow down until his collar beeps. This gives him about two feet until he gets zapped. He’ll carefully crawl in, guerrilla-style, grab the ball in his mouth and then he’ll back up slowly, like a garbage truck. Once the beeping stops, it’s full speed ahead.
We have soft toys for inside, but unfortunately, Mrs. G. lacks the genetic code that tells her when to let go of thrown objects, so dog toys will bounce off lampshades, furniture, the floor, the back of her head and whatever else is in the way. I’m expecting to come home one day and find one of Milo’s toys up in a ceiling light with Milo hanging by his teeth trying to get it loose.
Are there downsides to having a dog? Sure, but not many. Probably the biggest one is that having a dog does put a crimp on spontaneous traveling. We do crate him when we’re not home and he doesn’t seem to mind once he’s in there. He usually just sleeps, but we only have about a seven-hour window of crate time. After that, I can feel my bladder starting to complain. He might last longer than that by now, but we don’t want to push it. We still haven’t figured out what to do with him on vacations.
It also seems like I’m always mucking up dog poop in the yard. If I let it go for a couple of days, it’s rampant. Whenever I think about it, I just scoop it up with a shovel and chuck it into a wooded corner of the yard. In the near future, this should produce trees the size of redwoods.
When we brought Milo home, our daughter was living here and slightly less than a month later, she moved out into her own apartment. He bonded with her though, and he goes absolutely nuts when he sees her car pulling up in the driveway. She stopped home a few weeks ago with her laptop and some schoolwork (she’s finishing up her master’s degree at night) and she left her bag in the laundry room. A few nights later, she sent me a text from class: “I found a chew toy and a biscuit in my school bag.” He hides biscuits in my shoes, but I never got a chew toy. That has to say something.
When I watch her play with the dog, I can’t help but be reminded of how she was with Bailey when she was just a little girl and he was still a puppy. This is the melancholy part of having kids and having dogs, but it’s also the part that makes the spontaneous day trips or vacations seem secondary. This is the part that has rounded out my life and fills the voids in my thoughts and in my home when I need them.
What else is there to say?
UPDATE – 2014
There is more to say.
Milo clocks in today at a very athletic twenty-three pounds, and at three years old, he has calmed down a little but still has his moments of unbridled dog rapture.
Our daughter has moved three times since the original story was written, has finished her masters program, got a great job in town and is engaged. She doesn’t have her own dog yet, but Milo still goes berserk when he sees her car coming up the driveway. He has also taken a shine to her fiancé.
We ditched the crate entirely. When we go out, he retreats to the upstairs guest room, where he has a bird’s eye view through the window from the bed so he can guard the house against FedEx drivers. We found a very swanky kennel not too far from our house, which we have used twice when we went on vacation. He forgave us within seconds after we picked him up.
He will fetch stuff until the Earth falls out of orbit, but still has a problem dropping. His desire to chew has waned, so we are no longer going broke buying designer bully sticks.
Two big thumbs up on the underground fence. If you have a dog that likes to run, this really is the best way to go, and he’s never once broken through it.
No major dog accidents to report, although if he does decide to barf, he will find the tiniest square of carpet on which to do so.
By some freak chance, we ran into a person who had one of Milo’s littermates. Her dog was about eight pounds and super calm. Milo would need to be on Ambien to be that calm and his legs weighed more than her entire body—and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
©Rick Garvia 2014. This column is protected by intellectual property laws, including U.S. copyright laws. Electronic or print reproduction, adaptation, or distribution without permission is prohibited.