Heavy Petting

Grandpa Got a Dog …

Oh, no!

Say it with me: “I’m an Adult Child of a Dog Lover.”

Don’t worry: You’re not alone. When we ACDLs were growing up, our parents were just like all moms and dads in the ‘60s or ‘70s. That is, they neglected us. If we had a fever, they told us to “shake it off.” They left us with baby sitters—a lot. Then we grew up and had their grandchildren, and they got a dog. Our parents realized that their laissez-faire attitude toward raising us would never do for Fifi, who is so sensitive. And, sure, the grandchildren were nice enough, but they didn’t have the distinguished bloodlines of Babycake.

In Me Talk Pretty One Day,David Sedaris sums up the experience of all ACDLs when he describes returning home for a visit and finding his parents had gotten a Great Dane they named Melina: “They loved this dog in proportion to its size, and soon their hearts had no room for anyone else. In terms of mutual respect and admiration, their six children had been nothing more than a failed experiment. Melina was the real thing.”

Holidays are particularly trying times for ACDLs, as we try to get our parents to leave the dog for a couple of days and come see us. Our parents are largely unconvinced by our assurances that the local kennel is no worse than the summer camp they sent us to. This has been the situation of my friend, Laura, whose father, Larry, is obsessed with his German shepherd, Princess. (She is one in a long line of Princesses, making their family history sound like a Gabriel García Márquez novel as retold by a German shepherd.) For years Larry’s routine was to fly from Michigan to Washington, D.C., the night before Thanksgiving, have the meal with his three grandchildren, then be back at the airport Friday morning flying standby, because he couldn’t bear to leave Princess to the callous kennel employees who wouldn’t understand her pancreatic condition.

One year Larry did go on a ski trip with his grandchildren, but only because his wife agreed to stay home and baby-sit Princess. Then Laura’s husband, Jon, accomplished the near impossible and got both grandparents to join them for a short family holiday cruise. Larry had a great time and wanted to do another one, though he asked Jon to find a ship that accepted dogs. Talk about a poop deck.

Another friend’s parents left their son’s wedding reception early—never to return—because they had to get back to their hotel to walk their dachshund, Argyle. (At least the hotel allowed dogs. Otherwise they probably wouldn’t have made it to the wedding at all.) My friend reports that her father spends hours throwing sticks for Argyle but can’t recall him ever playing catch with her brothers. (Argyle’s name and breed have been changed—to protect the spoiled.)

I am the oldest of four children and when we were growing up we had a German shepherd named Brandy. My mother’s fondness for him was mitigated by the fact that he was yet another small being underfoot who wanted constant food and attention. Eventually we left home, Brandy died, and my mother, now single, got her own dog, an Akita she named Yojimbo. My mother can enumerate her children’s flaws in an unblinkered way, but for her Yojimbo was “perfect.” No matter that during his life she was forced to become a recluse because he tried to dismember virtually anyone who visited the house.

I was luckily never attacked by Yojimbo, but my mother’s attempts to force us into a sibling relationship when I visited (“You big handsome boy, go smell your sister”) were foiled by Yojimbo’s penchant for urinating on me. When he died my mother pulled down the shades and went into a state of mourning. For years she wore a locket around her neck that was bursting with his coarse hairs, a piece of jewelry that looked like it was fashioned at Hogwarts. Her leaden state only lifted when my brother brought her a boxer she named Ali. She literally puts his welfare above hers. When she was undergoing (thankfully successful) cancer treatment, my brother had to repeatedly convince her not to cancel medical appointments simply because the procedures meant Ali would be left alone for the afternoon.

All this is familiar to James Serpell, director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania. He has frequently encountered older pet-obsessed individuals. While dogs engender a particularly acute form of the condition, he says he’s seen it with cats and even birds (parrots can be obsessively demanding). The aimlessness of retirement and some older people’s creeping sense that they are or will be a burden to their families are eased by attending to a needy pet. “The animals are very dependent and unashamed to admit it,” says Serpell. “Caring for them can be extremely rewarding.” Serpell also thinks a pet can become an excuse for an older person not to deal with the chaos of a houseful of grandchildren or the annoying personalities of their own grown children.

I bet most people who spend all day talking to their parrot didn’t dote on their children the same way. All this indulgence can lead to the pet being atrociously behaved. When we talked back, our parents threatened us with military school, but they applaud their dog’s incessant yapping as “feistiness.” We got grounded when we trashed the house while they were away. When the dog destroys the furniture when left alone even briefly, they count it a poignant sign of devotion.

In defense of the late-in-life pet are studies showing the animals improve the health and quality of life of their owners. One by McMaster University epidemiologist Parminder Raina followed more than 1,000 Canadians over 65 and found that the pet owners were more physically active and also carried out activities of daily life better than non-pet-owners. But another study by Australian epidemiologist Anthony Jorm disagrees. His survey of almost 600 Australians over 70 found that pet owners were no healthier than the non-pet-owners and that they also tended to have slightly lower scores on the Mini Mental State Examination. I can certainly understand the last finding. After listening to my mother go on and on about the magnificence of Yojimbo and Ali, I start to enter a mini mental state myself.

The looming fact about older people and pets is that it can be a race to the finish line. My friend worries that if 9-year-old Argyle dies, it could hasten her own father’s decline. Having suffered through the death of Yojimbo, my mother bluntly hopes Ali outlives her. As if to forestall his death, she regularly shaves four years from his age. I’ve never heard her lie about her own. Laura’s mother has made her husband swear that when this Princess goes, it will be the last Princess. Laura’s mother wants to be able to travel with her husband and spend more time with the grandchildren as a couple. That’s what they did when his last German shepherd died. He promised then he was done with dogs. And they did have fun, for the entire three months he was able to live Princess-free.