There is no Dog

Hey Lyle Letter #006

Hey there.

I don’t know about you, but I have zero plans this weekend. Not by choice, though. A kid in my daughter Em’s special ed preschool class has a sibling who tested positive for COVID yesterday. So we’re in “an abundance of caution” mode right now. It’s part of the deal when you have a kid who’s less than the minimum vaccination age and has a history of respiratory issues. We’re all fine, thankfully, but this is starting to feel eerily similar to last winter when I wrote this piece.

Anyway, I hope you’re doing well.

Below is my latest Hey Lyle advice column piece. If you’d like to ask me an anonymous question to potentially be featured in a future issue, tap this big blue button:

Ask me a question

Hey Lyle,

My wife really wants a dog. She never stops talking about it. We live in a 500 sqft apartment. She leaves the house every day to go to work (I'm WFH). Plus, I'm allergic to pets (cats and dogs).

What should I do?

Disinclined Doggie Daycarer

Hey Disinclined,

The conventional wisdom, among people who don’t have kids, is that getting a dog is like training to have a kid. While taking care of a dog, especially raising one from a puppy, can be difficult, this view is patently false, mostly.

Before I got married, the first time around, my ex really wanted a dog too. We lived in a smallish place without a yard and I worked from home playing online poker. Unlike you, I’m not allergic to dogs. I also had one of the best dogs I’ve ever known when I was growing up, so, overall, I would consider myself a dog person. But, like you, I didn’t want a dog then either.

Getting a dog was a burden I didn’t want to deal with at the time. I was too busy trying to improve my poker game, usually clocking in well over forty hours per week at the virtual tables. Yet after I proposed and she said yes, getting a dog started to sound more appealing. Maybe it was the idea of settling down or the prospects of one day starting a family together that did it. Why not first try on some doggie training wheels?

For years prior, I had joked that if I ever got a dog it would be a male pug and I would name him Bootsy Collins. Yes, like the iconic bass player who wears a top hat and bedazzled sunglasses shaped like stars in George Clinton’s band Parliament-Funkadelic. I’m a bass player and I had met both Clinton and Collins at a music industry event in the late ’90s. But mostly, I just thought it was funny.

After some online research, we found a pug breeder in Bakersfield. We booked a time to meet her new litter of puppies and made the three-hour drive from our home in Santa Barbara for an evening visit. Shortly after we arrived, she suggested we sit on the floor of her living room and she would bring the puppies in. Moments later, five tiny pug puppies were bouncing around playing in front of us. It was exactly as adorable as you might imagine. Eventually, one of the fawn-colored male puppies made his way toward me. I gently picked him up, his tiny body not even as long as my hand, and he fell asleep almost instantly. I was sold and we left the house with a slightly lower net worth and we looked forward to coming back to pick him up when he was a few weeks older. 

When we brought him home, we quickly discovered that Bootsy was not the chill dog we met that night. No, instead he was neurotic with separation anxiety issues, which meant he would tear our house apart whenever we left—biting the corner of our couch to shreds and dragging toilet paper all throughout the house.

After some more online research and a chat with a pug owner at a local dog park, we learned that pugs often do better in pairs. So within six months, we bought yet another pug, this time a black-colored female puppy from a breeder in Georgia who put her on a plane to LAX. Her full name was Miss Cinderella, which was based on a David Cross stand-up joke about a rich lady who leaves all her money to her cat—a joke that’s apparently so old I can’t find it on the internet. But we called her Ella for short.

The difference in Bootsy was almost immediate. I’m telling you, Disinclined, the addition of Ella was like magic.

For a long time, I was also adamant that I didn’t want to have a kid, citing similar reasons as to why I didn’t want a dog before. And my ex agreed. But as the years went by, the idea of having a kid started to sound more appealing too. I had dreamy visions of playing catch with my son or pushing my daughter on a swing set at the park. Which is to say, my predisposed evolutionary urges began to assert themselves.

At first, she seemed more interested in the idea of having a kid than she had before. But the more I brought it up, the less she wanted to talk about it. After a while, the conversations went nowhere and I all but stopped bringing up the topic. And, well, you know what happened next since I keep referring to her as my ex.

Still, Disinclined, after all these years since, I can’t help but wonder if the dogs had something to do with our divorce in some small way. Was owning the dogs a test of whether or not I’d be a good father?

I mean, I was never the best at cleaning up after them, although I’m not sure why cleaning up their poop from the backyard mostly fell under my purview. I also didn’t take them for walks often enough. And I repeatedly forgot to give them their tick and heartworm medicine each month.

But I loved them and I cared for them when we divorced and I brought them to the vet when they were sick—even when I had to rack up more credit card debt to do so—and I was there with both of them in their dying moments. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not bitter about these things. I wouldn’t change any of them.

Now, do I actually think my ex thought getting a dog would be a test of my worth as a father? No—at least not consciously. Instead, she likely thought it was a kind of test-run for our relationship. In other words, a test of how well could we work together as a team to take care of another living being. Plus, puppies are just really cute, which is how they get you in the first place.

I’ve reread your question over and over, Disinclined, revisiting it from time to time since you originally sent it. It seemed mostly innocuous to me initially. My first thought was, “Just get a hypoallergenic dog, dude.” But that’s the easy answer—and not a very good one either. There’s more going on in the words you chose. The words are like tiny white flags. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them red flags, but white flags can lead to red flags very quickly if left unchecked.

It’s clear that you feel as if you’re not being heard. Despite your reservations, your wife keeps mentioning wanting a dog. And since you work at home, you probably feel like the bulk of the dog-caring responsibilities would fall on your shoulders if you got one. This misalignment only serves to build up resentment in you and her. If you immediately get defensive and bring up all your—totally valid—objections for a dog, I imagine she feels similarly not heard. To flip it around, pretend you say you really want like, I don’t know, a new TV or something, and then your wife instantly launches into all the reasons why you shouldn’t buy the TV—it’s too expensive, the one you have already works fine, or whatever. Wouldn’t it feel like she didn’t even hear what you said at all? Wouldn’t it feel not so great?

In your question, you said, “She never stops talking about it.” Using words like “never” or “always” when talking about someone, especially if you’re speaking to them directly, comes across as a criticism of their character, not of the specific action or behavior they made. Instead of addressing the issue at hand, which in this case is your wife wanting a dog and you not wanting one, it can come across as judging her as a whole person. Her knee-jerk, defensive response might be something like, “That’s not true. I don’t always talk about it.” Even if she doesn’t specifically say that out loud to you.

These are all festering, resentment-building white flags that you must burn to the ground at all costs.

All this being said, I’m not suggesting that getting a dog—even a hypoallergenic one—will inevitably cause your marriage to spiral into divorce. Not at all. I’m suggesting that you take action before a dog—and especially a kid—enters the picture.

I can’t tell you whether or not to get a dog, Disinclined. But what I can tell you is that your marriage will be much better off if you and your wife respond to each other with compassion and patience. You will both inevitably falter, of course, but instead of looking at them as failures, think of them as opportunities to repair and reinforce how much you care for one another.

Because it’s these little things, these little opportunities, that all add up to a healthy, long-lasting relationship.

Thanks to Harris Brown, Shivani Shah, and Mark Koslow from Wayfinder for their editing help on an early draft and Jesse Evers, DJ McCauley, and Steven Ovadia from Foster for their thoughts before I even wrote a word of this piece.

And thank you for being here.

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