Confessions Of A Secret Dog Stalker

The author of To Keep Love Blurry reveals his fascination with dogs that aren't his to adore.

This past summer, my wife Brenda and I decamped with our family of four to the New Jersey suburbs. Our reasons were mostly the typical ones: We wanted better schools and outdoor space for the kids; we wanted to live like adults, with enough square footage in the kitchen to fit two standing people. Our family also had some uncommon reasons: Our nine-year-old son, Calvin, has cerebral palsy. Cal doesn't walk, so he needs to be pushed wherever he goes in his wheelchair. He deserved a home designed around his needs.

Our new house is perfect for us -- it's all on one level, the kids each have their own rooms (a first), my wife and I each have an office and we got a lift installed to bring Cal and his chair up the five steps. We have a little yard just big enough for our four-year-old Simone to run around in, a driveway where she can master her scooter and try out her bike and, inside, Brenda and I can both (barely) fit in the kitchen. There's a great public-school system for Simone, and an amazing special-needs school for Cal. Our biggest problems are the brazen deer who poop out back and the rabbits who keep pulling up our flower bulbs.

And, also, I've fallen in love with our neighbor.

Betsy is one of the most gorgeous creatures I've ever laid eyes on. She's a Bernese mountain dog, with lush black fur and caramel patches around her mouth and eyes. Her belly is one big white fluff. And I am obsessed with her.

True, she is the size of a modest bear, but she has a gregarious intelligence -- not unlike a well-intentioned, slightly dopey giant who wants nothing more than to love you and be loved in return.

I work from home, sometimes, sitting on the deck with my laptop. Mostly, I'm tuned to the screen, despite the twittering of birds and the sound of the wind in the trees. Except when I hear the jingling of Betsy's tags as she comes outside into her yard behind ours. It feels Pavlovian, except I'm the dog -- I hear her and secretly wish she'd come visit. Sometimes, she'll actually sniff right around the bushes that separate our yards, and I'm tempted to call out. I feel almost embarrassed about it, this inappropriate crush on someone else's dog. What would the neighbors think?

Betsy belongs to the family whose house is behind ours. They've got a four-year-old who plays with my daughter, Simone, and an infant daughter. The mom -- we're moms and dads here first and foremost -- walks Betsy around the block, often with the kids in tow, and sometimes stops in front of our house to chat. Betsy flumps down to chew on the sticks she finds on our lawn and it's almost as if I forget my family. For half an hour, she has all my real love and attention.

Betsy couldn't care less whether I pet her or not -- those sticks urgently need to be ground to splinters -- but still, I pounce on her.

During this visits, Brenda and I try to bring Cal's chair closer to Betsy, but unless Betsy feels like getting up, it's hard for him to reach her. Though he's nonverbal and has poor control over his limbs, I can tell he's into her and not scared at all. A dog would be great for Cal, Brenda and I both think, and we've talked about getting one for years, but held back. We've considered a service dog, trained to do things like open doors and fetch him stuff, but we've wondered whether he'd be able to communicate to the dog what he'd want to. And our previously cramped living quarters kept us from seriously thinking about adding even a small dog to our family.

At nine, Cal is a deeply joyful person, despite the many challenges he faces -- we must push his chair wherever we go, he can't speak (he coos when happy, screams piercingly when not) and depends on us and other caregivers for all his daily activities and for access to most everything he wants. For him, what I wish for most is independence, more ways he can interact with the world on his own terms, of his own volition. Our move to Jersey offers some of that, but I think -- I wish, I almost fear to hope -- that a dog could help him express his feelings in new ways. A smart, loving creature who could meet Cal on his own terms and who he could get to know in his own way might give him things we simply can't.

The grace of Cal's body is hard to describe if you've never seen him in action. Though his arms and legs sometimes whip and jerk furiously, mostly, his movement is slow; I often think of those stop-motion films of flowers and plants opening and unfurling. When his hand comes to rest atop something, it reminds me of snow falling, that kind of deeply soft, almost invisible touching-down. I like to imagine that hand alighting on a dog's soft fur. I like to imagine him, feeling her warmth, her presence, her kindness. Most of all, I imagine him feeling possession of, control over, his love for her, because dogs can love like that, too, gently, almost passively, by keeping company.

But what if getting a dog doesn't change anything for Cal? What if they don't form any kind of special relationship? What if, like so many past birthday gifts -- accessible bongo drums, the giant, light-up egg, countless pieces of seating equipment -- the dog becomes another thing that Cal doesn't, or can't, interact with, something else at the periphery of his world. That, though I hate to admit it, is the deep fear that's holding me back from getting a dog, why I've become the new secret, neighborhood dog stalker. (OK, there other dogs I court: Max, some sort of poodle mix; Bella, an enthusiastic golden retriever; Pica, the angry, brown dog fenced in the yard right next door; and, a mysterious jet-black creature ever perched in the bay window of a house I pass a lot—she never seems to move, like a statue consigned to watching the world pass by.)

But if there's one thing Cal has taught us, it's that love is always surprising -- we never love how and what we thought we would. I don't know exactly what Cal will make of a dog, but I bet it will be joyful, as it will be joyful for Simone and Brenda and me. I want our dog to be Cal's first. Maybe that will happen, maybe it won't. But it's just foolish not to find out what a dog might teach our little family about love.



Lessons Kids Learn From Pets