If the myth about 1 dog year being equal to 7 human years weren’t a myth, our new buddy Parker would be just a few human years younger than I am. Since it is myth—or, to be precise, since the equivalent in human years depends on the size of the dog and a few other factors—let’s just state the facts: We got a new dog in mid-June, his name is Parker, he’s a shepherd mix, and he’s approximately 6 years 11 months old, which means he’s approximately middle-aged.
I said “approximately” because Parker was found as a stray, so the shelter did what shelters do in these cases and assigned him a birth year and month based on how worn his teeth appeared. They gave him a birth day as well, more or less randomly, just so his new people would be able to post about it on Facebook, since in these uncertain times, as every TV commercial solemnly asserts, we need something to celebrate. The shelter also gave him the name Parker. We’d had a couple of potential names in mind as we started looking for a dog, but we needed to see what would fit the dog’s personality. Whether Parker “is a Parker,” we felt it was a decent name, and as he’d been through enough already—he’d been at the Humane Society for over a month, not surprising given his age—we kept it.
Like most people who look at shelters for dogs, I had initially focused on younger dogs—though not puppies. I squeal as much as the next person when I see a puppy, but I also live with macaws. No matter how cute those posts are where a pet bird balances adorably on a dog’s nose, the reality is that many dogs, even the shlubs, go after other animals. “Going after” can mean anything from a playful chase to serious canine seek-and-destroy, and it’s not easy to know what you’re going to get until you get it—or some poor bunny rabbit does. In any case, I figured a slightly older dog might be calmer, especially if we found one that had been well-trained by its previous people. In short, my strategy for a new pet was similar to my strategy for children: get ‘em late in life after someone else with more patience and skill has managed the tough stuff for you.
Parker was the first dog we went to see in person, and we brought Fred Bird with us as a test. We were not optimistic. I tried to keep my excitement in check; chances were, I told myself, we’d have to “Fred Test” a lot of dogs before we found a compatible match. K’s daughter J has two pups which she sometimes brings over; one of them does fine with our macaws and the other gets so crazed with barking, we’re pretty sure his head is going to explode one of these days, or else ours will from screaming “SHUUUUT UUUUP” at him endlessly. Which would Parker be?
We needn’t have worried. The big meeting was a big anticlimax. When K brought Fred over to the fenced-in area where Parker and I were getting to know each other, half the workers at the shelter came clambering out to see Fred, oohing and ahing over his brilliant colors, taking pictures, asking questions. And Parker—did nothing. He did not even notice Fred; there were too many interesting things to smell. When he finally did seem to realize K had something on his arm that he hadn’t before, he stared for a moment, did a slight doggie head-tilt, then resumed his sniffing activities. Perfect.
And as it turns out, he is perfect for us. While he’s years removed from the hyperactivity and chaos of puppyhood, he’s no couch potato. Parker loves to run, loves it, and prefers trails to roads just as we do—so much more fun! so much to explore! At home he bounds up the stairs, eager to prove he’s still fit and spry even in midlife. Oh buddy, I know, believe me. The fact that he’s nearly 7 means his time with us is even more limited than is usual with a new dog, and obviously this is why most people want puppies, or at least younger adult dogs. I can’t blame them much for that. At the same time, distressingly, the surge in dog adoptions that occurred in April when a large portion of the population found themselves with a lot of extra time at home—well, all too predictably that surge has corrected. Shelters are again glutted with animals who—surprise!—require more than a few hours of a bored person’s free time.
It bothers me a little when people gush about the unconditional love of a dog—or, more generally and even more bothersome, when they compare people unfavorably to other animals and smugly state their preference for the company of the latter. Well, yeah, it’s a preference I share, but that’s not exactly something to be proud of. If anything, sometimes I consider it a failing on my part. Who am I to demand humanity live up to my expectations of it? And as regards the so-called unconditional love—it isn’t unconditional, or at least it shouldn’t be. Yes, it’s true that thousands of years of domesticity have ensured that today’s dogs ooze with tail-waggy loyalty for their people, even when those people are cruel. What that means is a dog is not just a pet, not even merely a companion in life. A dog, perhaps, is the ultimate test of ethics. You don’t have to do anything for them—you could, in fact, abuse, neglect, or abandon them. They’ll still love you. Will you do right by them even when you don’t have to?
This applies to so many things, including humanity itself. Most of the time we can’t perceive the harm our actions might cause to other people, so it’s even easier to blithely keep acting this way since, well, we want to, and quite frequently we get to. We want to buy those cute shoes that are made under questionable conditions for workers; we want to tell that joke that we think hilarious but someone else may find offensive; we want to go where we want, when we want, and we don’t want to have to worry endlessly about the potential repercussions. I get it. There’s a lot I want, too. I wanted a dog and I got one, and now I have to keep trying to earn that privilege. Whether or not we deserve the goodness of our world, whether or not we think its great many problems are our responsibility, here it is, and here we are.