Last summer, my family moved from New Haven, Conn., to Washington, D.C. That is to say, most of my family moved. My husband, my two sons, and I made the trip. We left our dog, Shadow, behind. When Paul and I cried as we said goodbye to Shadow, we were crying tears of shame. What kind of couple gives away their dog—not because he is snapping at the children or even chewing on the furniture, but simply because they feel too taxed to take care of his sweet, lovable self? I was raised with dogs. I consider myself a dog lover. Yet somehow I’ve also become a dog abandoner. In our family’s case, though, heartless as it sounds, that has turned out to be a good thing.
Shadow is a Lab mix who came to live with us seven years ago, when he was 2 and his previous owner went into a nursing home. I volunteered to adopt him during a week in which Paul was on the other side of the country. When he got back, he reminded me that he is allergic to dogs in general and to Shadow in particular. But it was too late—Shadow was already my starter baby.
When our first son, Eli, was born, Shadow’s stock remained high. I was determined not to fulfill the prediction from Lady and the Tramp—”When the baby moves in, the dog moves out!” But then our second son, Simon, arrived. One rainy morning in the park, I found myself reining in Shadow with one hand while holding on to a crying Eli with the other. Simon had been sleeping on my chest in his Bjorn pouch. The crying woke him up. He wanted to nurse. I let go of the dog so I could sit down and breast-feed. Shadow took off with a joyful yelp. I tried to go after him, which, of course, enraged Simon. Eli refused to budge and then wailed when I ran across the park without him.
So, Shadow’s walks grew shorter and fewer. He’d stare longingly at the door before heaving himself into a morose hump on the floor. When Eli or later, Simon, toddled over to make friends, Shadow would disdainfully, if gently, depart for another room. Maybe if the kids had been older, he would have bonded with them, but Shadow had no use for babies and preschoolers. On the weekends, Shadow’s needs should have dovetailed better with Eli and Simon’s. And once in a while, on an afternoon when the kids were happy to throw sticks into the local river for Shadow to fetch, we’d have a Kodak-dog moment. But we lived in a city. When the kids wanted to go to the playground instead of to the river, Shadow wasn’t allowed inside the fence. Tying him up made him crazy. Leaving him at home on a beautiful day made me crazy. Shadow had become our cause for guilt, and we’d become his cause for depression.
We broke down and hired an occasional dog walker. Ed came highly recommended. It was easy to see why. He was as much dog as a human being can be. His pockets brimmed with crumbly little treats. His clothes were covered in black and white and brown hair. On the days that Shadow got to go with Ed, the spring came back into his step. But Ed wasn’t cheap, so those days weren’t many.
We wouldn’t have had the nerve to dump Shadow if we hadn’t decided to move to Washington. A bigger city meant a longer commute, exactly during the hours when we tried desperately to eke out time for dog walks. Our new neighborhood had plenty of parks, but they weren’t the kind of woodsy places where dogs could run free. Then there were Paul’s allergies. They were bad. Doctors promised improvement in a dog-hair-free house.
When we tested the idea of leaving behind Shadow on a few friends, they departed from their usual nonjudgmental ways and squawked: “But he’s part of your family!” One said that Eli and Simon would think we were planning to give them away next. Another argued that the move would be much harder for the kids if they lost Shadow along with everything else familiar. Paul and I didn’t think Eli and Simon cared much about the dog. But what if we were wrong? To steel myself, I imagined the bit of extra peace I’d have at the beginning and end of each day in a Shadowless home. The vision was intoxicating.
I was too embarrassed to ask Ed if we could leave Shadow with him. Luckily, Paul wasn’t. Ed reacted with appropriate disgust. But he was willing. One night, we casually told Eli and Simon that Shadow was going to stay with Ed for a while. After they went to bed, we tiptoed around the house collecting Shadow’s things—his dish, his bed, his leash, his biscuits. When Ed showed up, we said our teary goodbyes and scooted Shadow out the door. We’ve been cringing ever since. Eli and Simon haven’t seemed traumatized, but they still talk about him as “our dog.” “I miss Shadow,” one of them sometimes says in a warm, snuggly moment, especially at bedtime. I say that I do, too.
Then last weekend, we took a trip to New Haven. We called Ed en route and he graciously offered to bring Shadow to the park to see us. I confessed to Paul that I wished he’d said no. The idea of confronting the consequences of our crime terrified me.
At the park, we spotted Ed and Shadow in the distance. While Paul locked the car, I ran toward them, Simon in tow and Eli behind me. When he saw us, Shadow whined, jumped, sniffed, and turned in circles, bestowing on us the markers of doggy enthusiasm. But he wasn’t ecstatic or frantic. He was like an old friend who is happy to go out for coffee but not so happy that he forgets to eye the cute girl in the checkout line: After a few minutes, another dog walked into the park and Shadow bounded after it. “Shadow!” Ed called, authoritatively. Shadow turned around and trotted back to Ed far more obediently than he ever had to me. Ed snapped his leash to his collar. Both were new and stenciled with SHADOW, followed by Ed’s phone number. Ed described Shadow’s new diet—some super Purina chow—and we all exclaimed over the dog’s coat of fur, a newly burnished black. The children, meanwhile, had long since departed for the playground.
I still think that it is morally unsavory—wrong—to ditch a pet. When we took Shadow in, we implicitly promised to take care of him for life. When we passed him off to Ed, we broke that promise. But seeing Shadow last weekend reminded me that wrong doesn’t always mean harmful. Our lives are calmer, freer, and in Paul’s case, healthier. In another life, we would have thinned our obligations by moving to the country rather than to a bigger city. Shadow would have been part of a more relaxed home—I can see the photo in the catalog. But in this life, I am grateful to have pared down the creatures that I take care of. My favorite image of Shadow is his tail waving in the air as he walked away with Ed that weekend. He didn’t look back.