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Counting a Marriage in Dog Years:

How Our Pets Save Us From Ourselves

Illustration 114005513 © M-sur |

During the long and twisty road of my 27-year marriage, I’ve told many stories. Most are partial truths.

On social media, I’ve posted happy vacation moments, loving tributes and family portraits over the years. In person, I’ve had “can you believe it” drinks with friends, “this isn’t working” therapy sessions, and many “mommy/daddy need a minutes” that we hid from our kids. Smashed together, they still don’t tell the full story. For that, you’d have to know what our dogs saw.

If our marriage could be counted in dog years — I’ve had different relationships with the same person.

Each dog — from Zulu who was our newlywed dog, to Elvis who was the puppy of our lives, and now Maggie who is aging with us — joined a different family.

I’d had a childhood filled with pets — gerbils, hamsters, guinea pigs, cats (Mr. Puffy and Mocha) and a Rhodesian ridgeback. My new husband never had pets. He didn’t ooh and aah over friend’s animals and rarely stopped people on the street to pet their dog. He didn’t want one. But, we’d just moved into our first home and were preparing for parenthood. Having a dog was part of my family plan. Since studies have shown that dogs improve relationships, I thought it was a good one.

Jonathan indifferently watched me scouring the internet, reviewing different types of dogs and visiting pet stores for advice. A few friends had wonderful Labradors so that became my focus. We selected him from a large litter of pedigreed puppies. Zulu, named after a Mardi Gras parade, came to live with us in February; our first baby was born in December.

Like our young marriage, this floppy-legged puppy was young, excitable and had lots of energy for everything.He also needed help with honing his relationship skills and frequently ran into trouble. Also like our marriage.

We spent those first pregnancy months pretend parenting with our new dog. We’d talk about his milestones, laugh over his antics and smother him with love. We also talked a lot about poop. All good practice for having babies. I watched my husband take pride in the responsibilities of pet ownership. It confirmed what I’d already suspected: he’d be a great father. We often held Zulu like a baby, which was a challenge when he became an 80-pound adult. Mostly, we adored him as a giant brown bear of a dog who fit perfectly into our growing family.

Two children later both my husband and Zulu had learned to sit patiently through little league games, family outings and the many sleepovers where small hands tugged and pulled them around. Neither seemed to mind their needs being counted after the children’s.

Even though I’d been the leader in getting our dog, after our third child was born Jonathan became the Alpha Dog; Zulu waited each day for his Daddy’s key in the door. Sometimes, in his hurry, Zulu would knock over a small kid or two who were also padding to the door in their footed pajamas. No harm, no foul. Big hugs for all.

Unlike the children, Zulu was inside our bedroom for marital squabbles, angry words, and occasional crying from the stress of parenting. He saw it all and kept our secrets well. Sometimes, after an argument, he would find his way to one side of the bed, forcing us together on nights we might not have chosen it.

Looking back I agree with psychologist Suzanne Phillips who noted that the many values, including unconditional love and acceptance, we share with our pets should be applied to our relationships.

As the children grew, Zulu slowed down until one day his big heart gave out. In the time he’d been part of our family, we’d bought a bigger house, celebrated our 15th anniversary and changed jobs a few times. Our marriage had survived some bumps; but I had been right about my husband: he was just as good at being dog owner as he was a father. On the day we had to say goodbye to Zulu, Jonathan took care of our youngest daughter missing the final goodbye so the rest of us could have one.

I don’t remember the days after his death. Life with three small children was so busy. More than a year later, our youngest began asking for a “forever dog” like her siblings had. So, I started the hunt again despite my husband’s reticence. He was still heartbroken. And, with the pressure of a new independent career after years of corporate jobs, Jonathan’s worries over finances were real. A sixth mouth to feed wasn’t in his plan. We didn’t fight over it but as a compromise on expenses and, because it was the right thing to do, we agreed to adopt a dog.

Even when I found ‘the one’ — Jonathan wasn’t convinced. The four-year-old apricot poodle we brought home was scrawny, had mange and had been rescued from a puppy mill.

Like our marriage at the time, our new dog showed some signs of neglect. He demanded less attention than our Labrador and perhaps didn’t realize he’d been missing affection. All of us needed more attention to stay happy and healthy.

As the older kids entered the teen years, however, Elvis began keeping us company when the only soft cuddles were now from this poodle who had grown a gorgeous apricot fur coat. Apparently love can change dogs too. As the years passed, he became known as ‘the puppy of our life’ especially as our own puppies were growing up. Jonathan and I dug deeper into our roles of raising teens, making ends meet and trying to find some rare times alone.

Elvis was there when we discussed our worries for the future, our concerns for our children and ourselves. He was Jon’s companion as I started travelling more for work. And, both of ours when the children started leaving home. He nestled even closer by our side as the house grew quieter with each passing year.

Some people get a dog for company after their children leave home. It was true that my ‘empty nest’ worries seemed less intense because I’d have more time for Jon and my dog, whose young spirit hadn’t diminished even ten years later. I imagined us with whole weekends open to hike, walk and relaxing together. Sadly, it didn’t happen.

One weekend while we were all away, Elvis got very sick and despite every intervention, didn’t survive. There was no goodbye. No preparation. No time to gather our thoughts. Just gone. On the heels of my father’s death, the added loss of our pet was a reminder to cherish the ones close to us.

Take nothing for granted I told myself — and this included my husband and our marriage.

We mourned Elvis in small and large ways — the loss of hearing his little feet on the wood floors, the ghost of him curled on couches, in his bed and on ours. I saw him in every cranny of our house. Jonathan left for his office each day and seemed to recover more quickly. But for me, there was an emptiness that wouldn’t go away.

We’d celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary, were reaching the end of a parenting journey and launching young adults into the world. Some friends had faced this enthusiastically while others floundered and divorced after the kids left home. Which marriage were we, I wondered?

Finally, I boxed up all of the dog toys, food bowls and dog beds to donate. Just carrying it inside the shelter brought me to tears. When I opened the door, I could hear the howling of all the animals. I asked if I could see the dogs. That’s when I saw her.

Like me, Maggie’s long brown hair had streaks of silver in it. Her dark brown eyes watched me cautiously. She looked as haggard as I felt. Maybe she needed another chance; perhaps we could heal each other. After all, a dog had cemented our relationship as a family when we were first married.

We looked at each other cautiously and then she licked my hand. Broken hearts can recognize each other.

Suddenly, I felt many conflicting emotions at once — happiness to have the sudden attention of a dog, guilt for having this feeling so soon after losing Elvis and fear over what my husband would say. An intense feeling overwhelmed me. This was an emotion I knew. Like falling in love, it was followed by the pain of separation. I couldn’t leave her. Every time I stopped petting her, she turned and pawed at me hungry for more affection.

Bringing Maggie home turned out to be a blessing. Shortly afterwards, the pandemic shuttered our social lives, centered us inside our home and gave us an opportunity to live inward with gratitude.

With this third dog, we committed again to pet ownership and many more years of togetherness. Maggie seemed to recognize the difference in joining our family and her personality changed from an impatient, quick-to-anger dog into an affectionate, more relaxed companion. She trusted us to take good care of her and each other.

No matter what outsiders believe about a marriage, a family dog always knows the truth.

Our little Maggie Maltipoo


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