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In this 3-minute video, I share a story from my early days as a writer, in the hopes that it will provide some insight and help to others.
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I was never meant to be a dog lover.
When I was a child, growing up in upstate New York, my grandparents lived on the outskirts of a one-traffic-light town. From the time I was very young, we would go there most Sundays, and while in later years I relished the unfettered access to my grandmother’s library (where I discovered Mary Stewart and Victoria Holt along with the bodice-rippers), when I was young I was terrified of going because of The Dogs.
My grandparents did things on a large scale. The house was a sprawling ranch. The hand-built stone fountain out back was a bulky, three-tiered affair. The in-ground pool was so deep I couldn’t see the bottom through the murky green water piped in from the Black Creek nearby. And the dogs were full-grown St. Bernards.
There were three of them, and, with their large heads and black-rimmed slobbering jaws, they might as well have been Cerberus. One of them was named Brunhilde. (My grandparents were German.) One of my earliest memories is running away from them, for they’d been let out of their gated area. I was perhaps three or four. They chased me around the front yard and driveway, and as I looked back and up at their great heads, I was terrified (of course) and screaming. My grandparents called, “Stop running! They think you’re playing a game!” Against all my instincts I stopped running … with the predictable effect that they ran me over. My grandfather burst out laughing.
Years later, we had some neighbors, the Ensleys, who lived behind us. They had a German Shepherd mix that snarled and growled, and no fence, although usually the dog was in the house. One spring day, coming home from school, I took a shortcut between their yard and the neighbor’s—and the Dog Was Out! Barking! Running at me! I raced through the muddy yard, losing two of my shoes and one of my socks in the process.
Not good dog experiences.
So when my daughter Julia was eight, she decided she wanted a dog, and I said no. I don’t usually put my foot down, but I had no interest. We have friends who have dogs, and I enjoy visiting and hiking with their pets, but I didn’t want the bother. Besides, I'd heard from my friends about the trouble of housebreaking, the vomit in the car, the expensive vet trips.
My daughter Julia is now twenty, and she is loving and generous and wonderful but tenacious as all get out. She launched a campaign with the cunning of a secret agent: “Daddy, do you want to do a quiz with me on the computer? It tells us what kind of dog would be good for our family!” They did quiz after quiz; no matter, I thought. We aren’t getting any kind of dog. But the quizzes kept coming up with the same answer at the bottom of the page: YOUR IDEAL DOG IS A BEAGLE!
Sometimes it would be accompanied by pictures of beagle puppies. Or a cartoon drawing of Snoopy. Or confetti love hearts.
Oh, good grief.
Then my husband went online and discovered that Beaglefest was being held the following weekend in Tempe.
Beaglefest? I asked skeptically. There are enough beagles in Arizona to have a three-day festival for them?
Apparently so, for on Saturday we took some out-of-town guests (who love dogs) and headed down to the festival. There were beagles everywhere—big beagles, howling beagles, small beagles, beagles in costumes, beagle clothing, beagle masks, beagle play-spaces, beagle furniture, beagle bagels. And there was a Beagle Rescue Society tent.
“There it is, Daddy!” Julia pointed.
The Rescue volunteers saw her coming from a mile away. “Hi, honey. Would you like to take one of our dogs for a walk?” They handed her a leash, and I looked at my husband. He shrugged and took off after her, not wanting her to get lost in the crowd.
And somehow I found myself with a clipboard and a pen, filling out a form. The AZ Beagle Rescue Society would have to come to our home to be sure it was “appropriate for a beagle.” Was there something special about beagles? I asked. Yes, in fact. Beagles dig like mad, so you must have large rocks or bricks against all gates and possible openings. They tend to be eaters, and you really have to watch their weight. Most important, you can’t let them off leash, especially in the desert, as they will follow their nose and can run for miles—and then be too dehydrated to make it home.
I felt resistance rising in my chest. Why would I want to be responsible for an animal that might be bent on running away? I saw myself out in the car, driving around in the middle of the night, trying to find the dog—having something terrible happen—finding it hit by a car—dehydrated—set upon by coyotes--
But Julia returned from her walk in love with Rosy. My husband was nodding and smiling encouragingly at everyone. My son was hopping around with excitement. I was outvoted.
We installed Rosy in our home, and in small, mundane ways, she began to change the dynamics of our home. My son, age 5, was no longer the “baby” of the family. “She’s shorter than I am,” he explained, and he took on the responsibility of feeding her. He measured her food with earnest care, two scoops morning and night, and topped the kibble with a kid-sized fistful of frozen green beans because we were told they were good roughage for her GI system. When my daughter had a hard day at school, she’d pull Rosy up on her bed, as it seemed one of the only things that helped. Rosy was my husband’s “other girlfriend,” snuggled right up against him, her paw on his chest, as he watched football.
And yet now Rosy is more my dog than anyone else’s. She is my faithful companion, lying on the chair during the day when I write. Like most authors, I get stuck sometimes—wrestling with my plot or a character’s motives—and there is nothing like a dog walk to clear my head. On days when I'm feeling frustrated or overwhelmed, her breath, steady and audible, reminds me to breathe. Her joy in the simple events of the day—breakfast! wahoo! a walk! yippee! a greenie bone! yes, yes!—has buoyed my spirits these challenging past nine months. She is around seventeen now, with the inevitable health issues. She has a brain tumor and a heart murmur, and until she has her three medicines, some mornings she falls over a few times before finding her feet. She naps more than she used to. I’ve never lived through losing a dog, and I don’t know what that’s going to look like. Some people urge me to get a puppy now; some say not to, and that it will take a few months before I’m ready to have a dog again. Though I think losing her will break off a piece of my heart, I imagine I will want another dog. Because my memories of dogs now are sweet.
What about you? I’d love to hear from dog owners about your favorite memories and experiences.
Karen Odden is the author of bestselling novel A Lady in the Smoke, the award-winning A Dangerous Duet, and A Trace of Deceit (Dec 2019).