The pandemic puppy

Dealing with loss and learning to love again is a uniquely human experience

Early in the pandemic tragedy struck our family. Not only were we sheltering place and trying to maintain our sanity, but our beloved Dachshund, Cocoa1, was very ill. Cocoa wasn’t elderly but at 11 he was no puppy, as much as he tried to deny it. He was suffering from back problems (like every other wiener dog) and from a congenital heart defect.

This little guy, who was once so energetic we thought he would explode into a being of pure energy, was lethargic, depressed, and in constant pain. He was a shadow of his former self. Instead of running off the deck and chasing squirrels, we would have to carry him outside to go to the bathroom. He rarely left his bed and stopped even barking at the postal carrier, a sure sign of something wrong.

We took him to the vet but the report wasn’t good. Cocoa wasn’t just getting old, he was dying. His heart was about to give out. In what was probably the most difficult decision in our lives, we decided to end his life2.

Thankfully, we never had to go through with it. That evening, after an unusual burst of energy, Cocoa laid down and began coughing. I laid his head in my lap and stroked his ears, telling him how much I love him. After what felt like an eternity but was probably only 15 minutes, Cocoa stopped breathing and died. His last moments on earth were spent in my arms, with all of the family around him. He died the way he lived, as the center of attention.

Some of the light of the world went out that day. I know it’s basically a meme at this point to make fun of people who call their pets “fur babies” but Cocoa really was a part of our family. In a lot of ways he was our fifth child. When we ate dinner, he was right there with us. When we went to the park, he came along. As we watched TV in the evening, he was sitting on the couch watching with us3. So I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say we lost a family member that day.

As part of the grieving process a lot of people told us to get a new dog. It would bring back some of that joy. I just couldn’t understand this. Cocoa was a unique individual, not an easily replaceable toy. It felt like a betrayal and I wouldn’t even consider. Our youngest, only 5 at the time, didn’t understand but I just couldn’t do it.

As time went on it became obvious our family needed a dog. There was something missing and even though I was still grieving, I knew we needed a dog. My wife was adamant that we didn’t need a dog. I disagreed but I understood her point of view. The burden of taking care of the dog would inevitably fall on us. Kids are great at wanting a dog but not good at following up and taking care. And since I’m at work all day, my wife would be the one to do a lot of the work. She didn’t want that.

Eventually, she relented. It was in the kids’ best interest to have one and of course parents usually give in for stuff like that. But there was a major snag: our oldest daughter is allergic to cats and dogs. Cocoa was short haired and didn’t bother her allergies too much, just enough to inconvenience her.

Not only would we have to find a hypoallergenic dog, but it needed to be a rescue. I am mostly against dog breeding, although I understand why people do it. My daughters, on the other hand, are vehemently against it. They see it as a moral issue, and being the good dad that I am I don’t want to cause them to against their strongly held beliefs.

We looked at every rescue shelter, told everyone we know, and even checked on Craigslist4. For months we looked, but nothing ever seemed to happen. We could our hopes up only to have someone else come in and take the dog we had already decided was perfect for us.

It was frustrating and I began to wonder whether it was actually worth it. I told myself that maybe we didn’t need another dog. We could travel more without worrying about finding a place that takes animals, or getting someone to watch the dog. Without a dog we wouldn’t have to go through the pain of loss again. But I kept searching, if only because it gave me something to do as the long darkness of winter set in.

One day while at work I happen to be scrolling on Craigslist during my lunch break and saw an interesting ad. Someone moving out of town and they needed to find a good home for their miniature Schnauzer. I messaged them immediately, but expected that a hundred people had already done the same. Miraculously, only one other person had asked about the dog. If it didn’t work out with them, I would be next in line.

I didn’t tell anyone at first because I wanted to make sure we would even have a chance before I got the kids hopes up. Sure enough, a few hours later they texted me back and said the other people had cancelled. If we wanted to we could come over and meet the dog.

As soon as the door opened and I saw Scotty the miniature Schnauzer, I knew he was supposed to be in our family. He was miniature, as advertised, and had a curly salt and pepper coat that kind of reminded me of a sheep. I sat down on the couch and he ran over to me and jumped into my lap. He looked up at me with dark, almost completely black eyes. He had such a compassionate, loving look. In my mind, he was already a part of the family.

It didn’t take much convincing to get the rest of the family on board. They had fallen in love with Scotty just as much as me. We talked with the previous owners about his medical history, eating habits, and behavior, but it was really all just a formality. That evening we took Scotty and welcomed him to our home.

We were worried he would be traumatized by being taken from his home of over a year, but he just jumped into our lives without a second thought. That first night he didn’t hesitate before jumping into bed with my and sleeping at my feet. He explored the house and found what would become his favorite spots. He ran through the back yard and peed on everything. He met Barry, the next door neighbor’s American Bulldog and decided they would be best friends forever.5

After Cocoa died, a coworker told me that I would have a dog-shaped hole in my heart that only another dog could fill, but that’s not exactly what happened. I had a Cocoa shaped hole and Scotty didn’t fill that. There was still an emptiness from my friend being gone. Scotty enlarged my heart, made me love him, but the sadness of loss is still there. I’m getting to the point where sadness doesn’t beat out the joy of having known Cocoa, but some days things flip flop.

In the face of all of the loss in the world, it sometimes feels silly to have cared about a dog so much. People lose their spouses, siblings, parents, and friends all of the time, and here I am writing a long letter about how much I loved an animal. I have to tell myself that it’s not demeaning to other kinds of loss to grieve after Cocoa. One thing that makes us human is our ability to love unconditionally, to form attachments not because we biologically have to but because we choose to. We took a little wiener dog, only six weeks old, and chose to love him. We chose to make him a part of our family. And now, in the valley of the shadow of death, we have done it again. Even though we know we will lose again we choose love. Love conquers all.

1

Yes, this is a traditionally female name but Cocoa wasn’t bound by human gender norms and stereotypes. Also, it was my wife’s family tradition to name every Dachshund either Cocoa or Oscar.

2

I try to avoid the euphemism “put him down” because that kind of hides what we decided to do. We were going to have the vet euthanize this member of our family and I don’t think we should dance around that.

3

OK, maybe he didn’t watch the TV. He mostly just slept and farted.

4

For various reasons Craigslist is a bad place to look for pets. It’s a haven for backyard breeders and scam artists.

5

Barry moved a few months later and the new neighbors’ dog is not very friendly.