How Giving Up a Pet Raised Particular Concerns for One Queer Family

Queer families can feel so fragile.

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Hey, Daddy! is a monthly column exploring the joys and struggles of parenting from a gay father’s perspective. Got a topic idea or question for Daddy? Send your letter along to johnculhane19104@gmail.com.

“We have to put her down.” That thought hung thickly between David and me, moments after our dog bit one of our kids’ friends. The weeks following that harrowing incident involved tears, research, and second-guessing—all leading to the most difficult conversations we’ve yet had with our 12-year-old twin daughters.

Three of us had wanted a dog for years. One of the girls had imbued “Softie,” her outsized stuffed St. Bernard, with heavy emotional significance. The other talked endlessly about my parents’ Australian Shepherd, with the unmistakable subtext—and sometimes text—of longing for a dog of her own. David knew how I felt, but I mostly kept my own counsel since he was the one who’d be doing most of the caring for any dog that came into the house.

Then it happened, suddenly, shortly before Father’s Day last year. There’d been talk of getting a cat, as a sort of consolation prize pet. The three pooch advocates were semi-resigned to Plan B, but David went out looking for a dog on the sly. He found a ten-month-old Lab/Pit Bull mix he liked at a nearby shelter, and let the kids in on the secret. I thought we were going to pick out a cat, and was overcome when I was led to the dog cages. When Valentine was released from her cage, a family-wide gaga moment ensued. The photo of those two beaming girls embracing their new friend outside the shelter is now too painful to recall, let alone to view.

If you’ve got the time and patience for it, raising and training a dog with your kids is just as good a lesson in responsibility and maturing as everyone says. Valentine was smart and very trainable. One of my daughters arose every morning at 6 a.m. to walk her around the neighborhood before getting ready for school. We all went to the local PetSmart for weekly sessions. Our dog was happy and socializing well with people and other dogs.

No one gets a dog just to teach kids discipline and responsibility, though. Valentine was also a lot of fun. We’re a highly aquatic family, and she loved the water. She could swim endlessly. She would take circus-worthy leaps off the dock that gave out over our favorite lake, just behind my parents’ home. And I think she would have retrieved sticks from the water to the point of drowning.

Clouds rolled in quickly, though. While she was friendly and playful with dogs she knew, with other dogs she was occasionally, unpredictably nasty. Our daughter could no longer walk her, because Valentine was so leash-reactive. She attacked a friend’s dog. She flipped out at the dog park, so we had to stop taking her there. Our world was shrinking, but things seemed manageable—if we squinted.

We didn’t just stand by. We brought in a fancy, low-talking canine behaviorist who tutored us in elaborate protocols to follow with her, in the street and the home. The kids were required to sit and listen, and we all did our best to stick to the rules. But it wasn’t easy. There were a zillion steps we had to take every time we wanted to introduce someone new into the home. We were all game, though.

Then the girls’ friend, a kid who wasn’t comfortable around dogs, was bitten. We were lucky the girl’s injury wasn’t worse, and that her mother was cooler about the situation than most parents would have been. Including, I bet, the parent writing this.

The bite incident woke us up. We kept the kids in the dark as we considered next steps. Phone calls for advice went out to family members and friends who had vast dog experience. They confirmed our sense that it wasn’t advisable, and probably not even possible, to place her with another family. One friend suggested how we might tighten the screws on her behavior even further, but that conversation just confirmed to us the impossibility of maintaining that level of vigilance for the next decade or so. Mostly, family members left the air thick with the unspoken conclusion that we had to do the unthinkable: Euthanize Valentine.

David and I had several anguished conversations about how we were going to tell the kids. Every time I allowed my imagination to creep toward that moment, I broke down. What would our kids think of us? Would they ever forgive us? What kind of spiral would this drive them into? I was barely mollified by the thought that the kids realized that what had happened to their friend was very serious. You shouldn’t find yourself in the emergency room with an injured friend. They were skittish when accompanying us on walks, now. And they didn’t peep when we kept the dog crated when even their closest friends came to visit. Yet, it was still too horrible to face breaking the news to them.

We made plans to have a vet come to our home to do what was still impossible to imagine. We were to tell the girls the day before. Discussion rehearsals were staged. Then, deus ex machina. Through a lucky chain of phone calls on the very day we were to talk to the kids, I learned of a home for dogs in Upstate New York, called Spirit Animal Sanctuary—cosmically, not far from the cabin in the Adirondacks we’d rented for the following week. The place is just what you’d think: A big farm, where the dogs are divided into packs of convivial canines, and live out their days much as you’d imagine a perfect afterlife for them. They have little contact with humans, except of course for the guy who runs the place. I didn’t even know such places existed, and David and I jumped on this chance at unexpected salvation, in large part because it allowed a very different conversation from the one we had been dreading.

That conversation went far better than I ever might have imagined. The kids understood, about two sentences in, why we needed to relinquish our dog. They even seemed to be expecting the news. And when we showed them photos of the sanctuary, with the dogs swimming and generally capering about, their tears reflected a kind of sad joy, signaling an adult level of maturity.

I didn’t realize they could be so empathetic, not just for their pet but for their friend who’d been bitten, too. I think my dread of the conversation, and my sense of vertigo over the whole process, has something to do my deep, though usually buried, sense that our family is contingent. All parents know at some level that our families could be sundered, instantly. But maybe that possibility hovers closer to the surface in our family than in some. The drawn-out difficulty of our adoption process, the personal history of anti-gay laws and attitudes, and the still-visible differences between our family and our straight counterparts’—these add up to a deep disquiet that percolates up through the ground during a seismic event. The loss of a pet changes a family all by itself, and I feared that the event also stood to send the kids into a tailspin that would cause a serious disruption.

Yet vulnerability has its uses, too. Sometimes (by no means always) I’m able to channel it into empathy for others who have gone through tough circumstances. And I allow myself to think that David and I might be having some role in building that space in our kids. During this time still suffused with such plangent grief, that thought has been a small but vital consolation.

In the end, it’s impossible to shield one’s children from loss. But we were glad that, at least for now, that loss was mitigated by the knowledge that Valentine will be happy.