How to give away a dog you love.

Pets and people.
Oct. 4 2004 10:53 AM

Goodbye, Homer

Can you ever give away a dog you love?

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

Homer was my good dog and everyone else's, too. He was one of those dogs who fits most people's image of what a great pet should be. He didn't chew things he wasn't supposed to chew or mount strange canine females. He wasn't overly needy or intrusive, didn't jump or slobber.

In other words, he did few of the things most dogs naturally love to do. Submissive, wary, and good-natured, he was sent to me in the first place because his breeder believed him to be one of the few dogs who could live peaceably with his tempestuous housemate. This turned out to be true, but it cost Homer a lot.

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Studies of submissive dogs show that they often adapt by becoming background pets, living on the periphery, staying out of the way, waiting to edge toward the food bowl or before daring to chew their biscuits. They do what they need to do to stay out of trouble. This is what Homer had learned—what I had allowed to happen.

Trainers and behaviorists know, of course, that the good dog (like the bad dog) is a myth. Dogs are neither good nor bad; they are shaped by all sorts of factors: their mother's feeding and nurturing habits, life in the litter with their siblings, their first few months in the world, their owner's instructional methods. They adapt to their environments depending on training and circumstances and on varying degrees of luck, instinct, and skill on the part of human beings. It wasn't a case of Homer being good or bad but of how well I'd taught him to live in our world.

Like the shy, awkward kid growing up in the shadow of a more charismatic older sibling, Homer lived entirely in the shadow of Orson, my first border collie. You couldn't help loving Homer, of course. A profoundly amiable creature, he would collapse with joy at the sight of the mailman, his favorite UPS driver, and every other kid getting off a school bus. Each morning, he braved Orson's possessive wrath to hop onto our bed and wrap himself around my wife Paula's head for a snuggle. He and Paula were crazy about each other, seeing in each other the stability, predictability, and sanity so often missing around them. Unlike Orson, a pest in his affections who never knew when to quit, Homer was gentle and discreet, crawling up to offer a few licks, then skittering away.

While I did love Homer dearly, I'd known for a while that in some ways our relationship was incomplete, troubled. Although it is heresy to say so, we don't love all our dogs the same way, any more than we love all people equally. Nor do dogs love us in the uniform, unwavering way often depicted in dog lore. When I first picked Homer up at the Albany airport, he cringed and backed away from me. We'd gotten much closer, but I'd never completely shaken a sense that he didn't really know what to make of me.

I should have paid more attention to certain idiosyncrasies. Homer was the first dog I ever had, for instance, who rarely stayed in the same room with me. When I was working in my basement study, Orson was always Velcroed to my leg. My third dog, Rose, more independent and less needy, came and went, but continually touched base and checked up on me. Homer usually went upstairs to doze until the next walk or meal.

Some of this, I knew, was the result of our chaotic years with Orson, who for a while had glared and glowered whenever Homer came near me. Orson was a powerful, dominant, and possessive creature, Homer a docile, submissive, and cautious one. Some of it, I was repeatedly told by trainers, was the result of my inadequate or haphazard training.

But some of it, I also believed, belonged to the peculiar realm of chemistry. At the core, I was no longer sure I was really the best owner for Homer; I also wondered if he was the right dog for me. My other dogs and I seemed almost eerily in tune. Things didn't always go smoothly, but there were few places I wanted to go that didn't involve Orson and Rose, and vice versa.

How ironic, given that Homer had generally behaved impeccably. Orson raided the refrigerator, opened screen doors, jumped through windows. He roared off after longhaired shaggy dogs he thought were sheep. He herded bicyclists and skateboarders and scarfed food from babies' strollers. He escaped over, under, and through fences. I love him beyond words. Homer did none of those things, yet our relationship seemed a struggle.

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