How Adopting (and Losing) a Dog Taught Us to Trust Our Kids

We were at the animal shelter, and although we’d always had good luck adopting a pet this way in the past, today it felt like a scene from Prison Break. As one dog banged his water bowl against the bars, 40 others barked obscenities and snapped at the air.

“I don’t think today is the day,” I said. My husband agreed. But unfortunately, we’d brought our kids along. “HOW ABOUT THIS CUTE ONE?” Sophie shouted. She was pointing at one of the hardened criminals we’d already taken a pass on. “LOVE CUTE! ” Zoë yelled. “CAN WE TAKE HER OUT TO PLAY?”

We asked the shelter employee if that was okay, and unfortunately, she said yes. And so we took Ma Barker outside, but only because we didn’t want our kids to think we’re the types who judged a book by its cover, even though we were.

We walked her around a muddy path, our girls pointing out her features like over-excited used car salesmen. “Lookit! She has ears! And… and… a tail! ” But what she didn’t have: teeth. The bottom row was gone. And fur. She’d lost most of hers to mange.

As the dog plodded along in a way that indicated this wasn’t her first rodeo and she already knew how it would end, I went back inside to read her rap sheet. Turned out she’d been seized from a home due to neglect. “Severe neglect,” an employee confided. “The owner was jailed.”

“What happened to her teeth?”

“Tried to chew her way through the chains. Ground them all the way down to the nubs. ”

I felt instantly ill. “Do you know anything else about her?”

The guy looked at me. “She’s been here for nine days.”

“And?”

“Ten is the max.”

I went back outside. “What do we think?” I asked my husband and the kids, hoping the dog would have snapped at someone by now and we could go. “SHE’S PERFECT!” the kids screamed. I looked at my husband. “Is it just me,” he said in a low voice, “or does this dog smell weird?” Fun fact about David: He lost his sense of smell decades earlier in a high school chemistry lab accident, and when it finally made a comeback, it was without the standard set of noxious odor alerts. This made him great at changing diapers but little else. So for him to say, “Does this dog smell weird?” meant something.

two girls with adopted dog

courtesy of subject

“It’s the mange medicine,” the shelter employee assured us. “Once she’s off that, she’ll be good as gold.”

“GOLD!” our kids shrieked.

Fifteen minutes later, we’re in the car with this semi-toothless, bad-smelling dog, partly because of the way our kids were beaming, but mostly I could not stop hearing, “ten is the max.” “She’ll need a name,” David said, and the kids start reeling off possibilities – Sugary, Princess, Sweetie. “Great start!” we lied. “Keep going!”

The name game kept them occupied while the dog sat like a stone between their two car seats. As I whipped around to check on things, I found her staring at me as if awaiting the words, “Turn the car around.”

The kids continued their parade of saccharine names (Lollipop! Tootsie Roll!) Until Zoë shouted, “FRIDAY!” and Sophie agreed. “Friday !!” “TGIF!” “Hooray! Friday! ” David and I quickly endorsed the name because we liked it, but also because it wasn’t Kit-Kat, which was starting to gain traction.

By the way, it was Saturday.

Friday didn’t get off to a great start

When we got home, we introduced Friday to the yard, the house and all of our shampoo. And then we rubbed her dry and plied with her snacks. She ate them with gusto, then vomited.

“That’s okay, Friday!” the kids cried, throwing themselves all over her.

Next up: a walk. Remember the calm walk on the muddy path? She didn’t. She lunged and pulled as if testing our upper body durability.

“What have we done?” my husband swore as she attempted to disconnect his arm.

This What Have We Done theme continued to the following Monday when we took her to our vet for advanced mange management.

“Bad news,” the vet said, “she has two kinds of mange. But you’re lucky; she doesn’t have the kind of transmissible to humans. ” (There’s a kind transmissible to humans?)

author's daughter on the floor with friday the dog

courtesy of subject

“What about her teeth?”

“I’m more concerned about this.” She tapped some strange scars. “Cigarette burns,” she said. “And this, here? Probably a knife. ”

I felt like vomiting.

We returned home with new mange medicine and heightened worry. David and I had some experience with rescue dogs; we’d raised two and fostered several others. But this felt different – harder. Nevertheless, after all she’d been through, the thought of returning her vanished.

The dog needed us, and we needed her too

We started working with her using our time-tested strategy, Snacks Galore. And maybe it was because she already knew how bad life could get and was not about to tempt a repeat, or because of the snacks, or because she was smart – probably all three – but she quickly learned all the basics (sit, stay, come) then flew past that. Within a few months, she knew countless words, but also specific things like, “Could someone please get Sophie out of bed! ” That was usually followed a minute later by Sophie yelling, “Friday, get off me!”

Doubleday

Lessons in Chemistry: A Novel

And despite her bad beginning, she didn’t seem to have a mean bone in her body. We had hamsters; she let them rest on her head. We got a rabbit; they became best friends; we vacation-sat our neighbors’ pets – cats, dogs, hedgehogs – she invited them to share her food, bed, and toys. Basically, she was Gandhi.

But she did have one drawback. Remember the smell? Actually, it was more of a stench. Friends would mention it all the time. “Someone needs a bath,” they’d say looking directly at our embarrassed dog. This was after we’d bathed her. We asked our vet to test her for allergies, yeast infections, bacteria. But everything came back clean.

“Some dogs just have body odor,” the vet said, breathing through her mouth.

I bet Gandhi didn’t smell great, either.

Friday wasn’t just a pet, she was family

So we accepted it. Because how a dog smells is secondary to how a dog feels, and Friday felt everything – from sensing Zoë’s bad day at school, to picking out the bully on the playground who’d made Sophie cry. Friday never had to witness the hurt to know things had gone south. “Thank god it’s you, Friday,” our teary kids would say as they collapsed into her putrid fur.

And that was life with Friday for years and years. Until the worst happened: our kids grew up and went to college.

Still, they’d call all the time. “TGIF!” they’d shout across the phone lines.

“TGIF!” they’d scream at Christmas when she was back in their arms.

“TGIF,” David and I would say to each other whenever we missed our kids.

And Friday would stare back at us as if to say: I told you do not have to let them go.

But then came that awful day, 13 years later, when we finally had to let her go. Once again, I felt ill. But this time it was because I realized had we not listened to our kids, there wouldn’t have been a Friday at all. And I couldn’t imagine a life like that. Even though I was about to live it.

As we held her one last time, our noses buried in her neck, we clipped a bit of her fur and put it in a box. So we’d always be able to smell her.

Then Friday slipped away, departing just as she’d arrived. Quietly.

On a Saturday.


Bonnie Garmus’s new book, Lessons in Chemistry, is now available from your favorite bookseller. This essay is part of a series highlighting the Good Housekeeping Book Club – you can join the conversation and check out more of our favorite book recommendations.

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