My brother, twin sister and I grew up in aging and sometimes ancient rental homes. Most of the time, we were situated on or close to a small, family-run farm. My parents grew up in some of the toughest neighborhoods of Baltimore City. While they could never claim any great financial security, they sought refuge from the crime and negative influences they experienced as children. Put simply; they wanted to raise their kids out in the country.
Life near the farms meant we had plenty of experience with animals. Well, mainly cows. We became accustomed to the mournful, scary, midnight sounds of calving every summer. The pungent smell of cow manure meant we were almost home, and the most excitement we ever had as a young family was when a cow got loose late one night, discovered our screened window, and let out a fierce, forceful snort onto my sleeping sister's hand.
My older brother benefited greatly from our locations with solid work as a farmhand. Every summer, he would get taller, tanner, and stronger. Oh, and a little more affluent, by our standards.
One day, a litter of five or six brown puppies showed up in the basement of the farmer's house, and his son took my brother down to meet them. No one knew how long they had been there or where they came from. Perhaps some ne'er-do-well dropped them off at the end of the lane, and one of the more coordinated pups must've found a cozy spot for the group under the house.
One of the puppies took a particular interest in my brother, running over to play and following him around. The farmer planned to take them to the pound, and adoption wasn't as expected back then as it is now. So my brother boldly decided to take the particularly pesky one home and ask to keep him.
My brother knew this would be an uphill battle with our parents, and he had learned to start with the unequivocal softie of the two, Mom. He also figured that waterworks could get you far. My unsuspecting mother was taking refuge in the bathroom. For that's what mothers do; it's not about digestion issues; it's about finding some quiet time to make it through the latest Reader's Digest.
My brother decided to chop up some onions to trigger the tears he couldn't quite conjure up on his own. When my mother acquiesced at the hounding outside the bathroom door, she exited to see her tough 11-year-old son crying and begging for a puppy. You all know the answer; say it with me:
"I'll have to ask your father."
Somehow, that little brown puppy ended up at our house. My brother spent a few days focusing on nothing except his pro-puppy argument. Considering my father's no-nonsense, strict nature, I know my mother also must've wanted her kids to have the dog–because my father was neither a fan of pets nor one to give in. But inside his tough exterior was a heart big enough to know he couldn't be the one to say no to his son, effectively becoming the one to send the puppy to the pound.
The Wonder Dog
The puppy was a mess. It turns out; he wasn't even brown. He was black! The brown dirt of the cellar floor took some time with a hose to completely clean off. And he did not appreciate the hose at all! He ran all over the yard, trying to escape the torment, and I honestly have no idea how we kept control of him those first few days without a collar or leash and even less of a clue. I remember our first treats for him were rolled-up ham and cheese because we had no dog food yet.
After much deliberation, we named him Flash Waggles Weeks. We'd never seen anyone run so fast after a soccer ball! Because of his speed, Flash was a Wonder Dog as far as we were concerned, but his biggest superpower was his doggy intuition. He always knew when we needed comfort; he'd come and shove his hairy little face under our arms as we sat in the backyard sulking about life as a teenager. Maybe he was also asking for a brush, which we didn't do enough. It turns out he was a Cockapoo; what we labeled a mutt was part of the growing craze to cross every breed with a poodle to ramp up the intelligence and reduce the shed factor. We all learned that dogs that don't shed are even more work.
Flashy was with us for nine years. Living out in the country was starting to catch on, and prices were climbing. Our senior year in high school found my twin sister and me moving to an apartment building with our parents. My big brother had grown wings and flown the nest. As you can imagine, dogs were not allowed in the apartments. We had to give Flash away.
Looking back, we may have taken Flash for granted. He was always there, flying around from the backyard to greet the bus, walking beside us on moody teenager outings in the woods, and snuggling with us on the couch after school, unbeknownst to our parents, of course. He was also a pain in the ass. He always escaped, launching us into these grand neighborhood searches followed by some of my first sleepless nights. Once, he returned with a massive gash in his side, likely from a barbed-wire fence he ventured under. That landed him in the cone of shame for a while, but at least his favorite ham and cheese rollups disguised the antibiotics.
Letting go of Flash was my first taste of grief and loss, but I didn't have a name for it back then. I generally expressed it through anger and a dose of melancholy. And then we lost him again, for the last time. I finally had the nerve to visit him and rode my bike to my old neighbor's house to get the number for his new family. My neighbor yelled up the stairs, asking his mom for the information. Instead of a phone number, I hear, "Oh, yeah, that dog died."
Not only did I have to ride my way home, crossing a four-lane highway sobbing like the little 8-year-old girl that first fell in love with Flash, but I had to tell the rest of my family. And call my brother. I felt like the grim reaper.
The Therapy Dog
A quarter of a century passes, and my life with a furry friend seems like a galaxy far, far away. However, the anger and melancholy were back, thanks to the loss of my husband, Eric, in 2020. During our time together, we discussed getting a dog, and the answer was always the same: too much time and worry and a damper on freedom; ironic from a man who raised two children. But Eric took his kids everywhere—try doing that with a dog. Some might sit well in a canoe; others might become great hikers, and most love sharing dinnertime with you. But good luck with grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, mountain peaks, and the cincher for Eric: National Parks. And, like I always say, a dog will never grow up to make their own PB&J.
Even though Eric's best friend growing up was his dog named Nipper, as an adult, he had zero interest in dog hair on his clothes, swirling around the floor, landing in his coffee and food, let alone the mess of dirt and detritus that dogs donate to the house during the long mud seasons of West Virginia. And don't get him started on ticks and Lyme Disease or the post-holing of ski trails.
Admittedly, I largely agreed, and upon Eric's passing, my first thought was not, "I should get a dog," even though it was a suggestion by many of my canine-loving friends.
Instead, it took me about ten months.
I began envisioning a rambunctious little black puppy that reminded me of Flash, running around the house, getting underfoot but making me laugh even when I was depressed. I was warmed by the thought of having someone to care for again, someone excited to see me come home, someone to ride bikes and travel with. I could see this dog sitting in my passenger seat, tongue hanging out, taking in the scenery on our long drives to the West. I'd named this imaginary friend "Jasper." I was seeking a loneliness cure, pure and simple.
The puppy search ended as quickly as it started—I'd reached out to an organization that seemed reputable online but rapidly exhibited all the red flags of a "puppy mill." For some reason, I had my heart set on raising a puppy instead of adopting an older dog. I spoke with my friends, who recommended a very small, reputable breeder, but all those puppies already had homes.
When none of this puppy stuff worked out, I remember the disappointment being much heavier than expected. I would've thought I'd been relieved, thinking, "This dog thing is a bad idea; Eric was right." Instead, I remember lamenting to my friends that I wanted a dog like theirs.
"I just want a dog like Jasmine!" I blurted out one afternoon.
Jasmine is a small Black Labrador who, I'm convinced, will act like a puppy her entire life. She quivers at treat time, her butt never hits the floor while sitting, and she jumps higher than the countertop during her meal prep. Jazzy runs out to greet her people like she hasn't seen them in a million years and chases the ball with gusto, beating her older sister Pepper many times, but not always! And boy, does she love attention; not a stitch of love can be bestowed upon another dog without her getting her nose in the middle for her share.
But my puppy search leads me to Jasmine's mother, Hazel. She was seven, already graying. She was significantly more subdued than Jasmine until the treats came out, and the ball. Our time together began as a four-day trial period in December 2020. That first night, she lay on her doggy bed, and I sat across from her on the couch. We stared at each other. I didn't feel much at all except fear and uncertainty. We were in the same boat; neither knew yet we were meant for each other. She missed her pack. I missed my husband. "This dog is not going to replace him. She doesn't seem to like me; what was I thinking?"
As if reading my mind, she let out a long, grunty groan, relaxed her head onto her front paws, sighed deeply, and fell asleep.
She woke me up at 5 am to let her out and feed her breakfast. That hasn't changed.
I often imagine Hazel's past life as one of purpose more than excitement. Her previous family trained her well on hiking trails, and she had an intense love of jumping in ponds and lakes, so she must've had some adventures. The first time I took her out on a mountain bike ride, I wasn't sure what to expect. I knew her daughter, Jasmine, would have run off looking for the nearest cache of cat food given a chance. But Hazel stayed with me, following my wheel closer than I was comfortable. I still tell her that if she gets nose-burn, it's her fault. She also loves cross-country skiing, following so closely behind that I worry about her paws getting caught on the metal edges beneath the snow.
In the two and a half years I've had Hazel, she's traveled all over the country with me. First, in what I used to call my sports car, the Honda Crosstour, which I built out as a car camper. All separation of human/canine space disintegrated on those trips. Now, she's at home in my Ford Transit with a Vandoit build I purchased in 2022. She seeks refuge there during thunderstorms, waits for me patiently in the driver's seat while I do errands, goes nuts over pup cups, and has become quite comfortable napping while I take a second bike ride as long as she gets to go out on the first. She's not a fan of the front seat while we're moving, and that's fine; it's safer that way.
While she prefers stretching out and napping on her perfectly still, oversized leather couch at home to long days on the road, she is obsessed with sniffing out new places. Much like showing a loved one a new place for the first time, dogs bond with their people by exploring new ground with their noses, their humans walking obediently beside them. So while I'm stoked to show her a New Mexico sunset for the first time, or walk her to my favorite place of peace in Sedona, or zip her around the dusty trails of Salida, she is busy collecting all the scents she can, and leaves behind her share of messages.
I've come to love traveling with Hazel. She keeps me company, can sound extremely viscous if prompted (well, not really), alerts me to oncoming severe weather by nosing her face under my arm while driving, and ensures that I see every sunrise when on the road—because once she wakes me up at 5 am to go out, I might as well make a cup of coffee and get on the road.
Every love has its thorn, and Hazel's downside is the opposite of Flash's: She never wants to let me out of her sight. Oh, and she constantly begs at mealtime, but whose fault is that? Mine, 100%. But, back to the separation anxiety.
Hazel's separation anxiety qualifies as mild. She does not like being left home alone and will search all over the house while I'm gone, resorting to mournful howling when she can't find me. She's been known to wedge open a sliding glass door to sit at the intersection looking for me, ruffle through the trash to keep herself occupied, and rescue any lonely, defrosting fish I might've accidentally left on the counter. This may sound like quite the boatload of trouble, but I consider myself lucky compared to dogs that try to claw their way through the drywall.
I have tried to train her to get used to being home without me, but any progress is often interrupted by a six-week van trip where we are usually attached at the hip 24/7. So I've pretty much gotten lazy and given up. Instead, she goes to doggy daycare at my neighbors', who love her as their own and are family to her daughter Jasmine and best buddy Pepper. In a way, they are her second home, and I am so grateful. Training for the Leadville Trail 100 MTB race has required many long rides or days away on the bike, and never once do I worry about my pup.
There is no doubt that Hazel can give me a run for my money and can spend my money while she's at it. She insists on being my 5 am alarm clock, can't control her drool at the smell of food, and snags half a stick of butter off the counter even after getting a freshly cooked egg. And the hair! The hair is everywhere, especially in the summertime. As I write this, she has wedged herself under my desk, tangled up my power cord as she seeks shelter from the barely-audible thunder miles away.
But she is so incredibly worth it. Sure, I could cite scientific analysis where dog ownership is linked to human longevity, improved mental health, and an uptick in dopamine and oxytocin. Or, just share the straightforward reality that Hazel makes my life better. Riding through the woods with her gleefully leading the way is usually the highlight of my week. She gets me outside on walks in the worst of weather, and I always feel better for it. She cracks me up with her doggy antics daily and has taught me how to nap like a pro. She has allowed me to be a mom and has more than ticked the box of someone to love and care for. She harbors no grudges or judgments and has little expectation beyond meal time and post-potty treats.
Hazel is an ever-present source of comfort, helping me move through the grief with less anger and melancholy and more gratitude and excitement for the richly-scented world that we live in.
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