It's always embarrassing when my local pet store hires a new employee. As she fights off carpal tunnel syndrome from ringing up all the treats and toys I'm buying, she assumes I'm a pet hoarder and asks, "How many dogs do you have?"
"One," I say. "But he's an only child."
I didn't believe in love at first sight until July 25, 2010, when my husband and I walked into an animal shelter and met our first dog, Rio. He was a yellow lab mix with a bite on his cheek and skin stretched thin over his ribcage. But his rough start in life hadn't dampened his spirit -- his tail never stopped wagging as we took turns having him jump into our laps to lick our faces. And he didn't pee on the floor, which we took as a sign of great sophistication.
When I signed the adoption papers that day, I had no intention of becoming the 40-something that neighborhood kids sometimes call "The Dog Lady." I wasn't going to be one of those childless women of a certain age that replaces having a baby with a "fur child." But nearly four years later, my favorite mug says: "Dog Mom -- my child has four legs and fur." (I also love my t-shirt that reads: "Dog is My Co-Pilot." And the one that proclaims, "Whoever said diamonds are a girl's best friend never had a labrador" ... but I digress.)
I can't help it -- Rio has made my life even more fun. I get to hike with him in the woods near our home twice a day (as I told my dad, "If nothing else, he'll keep me from getting diabetes!"). I love stopping to chat with other dog owners while our pups play, and even made a close friend at the dog park. She won me over by saying, "Sometimes I run into people who are hiking without dogs and I think, 'What are you, a sociopath?'" I've found my tribe.
Rio loves to come on vacations (anywhere we can drive, of course -- air travel is too dangerous for a dog of his size), and has run wild on abandoned golf courses in Lake Las Vegas, socialized in dog parks in Des Moines and Flagstaff, devoured a roast beef dinner from the "yappy hour menu" at a restaurant in Taos, splashed with his human "cousins" in a lake in Wisconsin, met tourists at the Grand Canyon. Often Europeans will stop to pet him and show me photos of their dog back home, just as I do when I'm abroad and I see someone with a pooch. I still feel a little guilty about the time I bolted from a sidewalk café in Rome to chase down a young boy with a puppy -- he looked decidedly wary of the blond American brandishing her wallet photos and trying (and failing) to say "I have a dog" in Italian.
Like all good parents, I'm diligent about Rio's health. He has pet insurance, I brush his teeth several times a week (who knew they made chicken-flavored toothpaste?), he gets a "V.I.P. discount" from his veterinarian because we're there so often. And of course, he's microchipped in case anyone tries to steal him (labs are so friendly -- it happens!).
In fact, my first clue that I was headed down the crazy dog lady path should have been when I was filling out the online form to register his microchip information and it asked for his nickname. I typed in "Baby, Cutie, Fuzzy Buddy, Little Love, Prince Rio, Mr. P, Sweet P, Wookiee, Pal, and Mr. Perfect Handsome Boy" -- then hit "enter" and learned I had exceeded the 12-character limit.
Lucky for me, Rio is a good sport during the holidays. I buy him a Halloween costume every year ostensibly to amuse my friend's two small kids (he looked so cute in his Spiderman outfit!) and we were delighted to learn while trick-or-treating that some people give away dog treats as well as candy. He's taken photos with Santa three times, and I wrote in one holiday letter that Rio has taught me the meaning of life (to spread as much happiness as possible to others and to yourself -- how can I not love this dog?).
Last month I fractured a couple of bones in my foot when I hit a stair wrong while teaching some children how to play hide-and-seek with Rio (yes, I cringe when people ask me if I was injured skiing). I've spent my convalescence writing pet articles and planning Rio's upcoming birthday party.
And that's when it dawned on me -- I've officially become a crazy dog lady. But I'm okay with it because Rio loves me right back -- the amazing thing about dogs is they love you at least as much as you love them. Now if you'll excuse me, I need to go order a custom birthday cake for a Labrador.