Dogs of Our Lives
When you’ve got a matched set of toddlers and a huge, sloppy animal, even a walk in the park becomes a major production.
Hey, Judith! How are you? How’s your handsome boy?” My smile is dazzling as I do a desperate flip through my mental Rolodex, trying to figure out who this person is and which handsome boy she’s talking about. I have 2-year-old twin sons. Do I know her from the playground? From Gus’s music class? Henry’s swim class? (Please, God, not that; it means she’s seen me in a bathing suit.) Then I notice her black pants are covered with blond fur. “His name’s Monty, right?” she continues. “And your boy’s Oliver!” I say with relief. As it turns out, we had been running into each other at the groomer’s, where we had bonded not over our sons’ nursery-school placements but over our other children’s unique talent for carrying three balls in their mouths.

In much of the country, here is the order of things: You have children, then you want your children to grow up with a creature to cherish, so you get a pet. New Yorkers, on the other hand, don’t have that much room, in either our frenetic lives or our apartments, so we get pets as child substitutes first, then perhaps get the children. A pet is a New Yorker’s toe-dip into the murky waters of responsibility. In fact, getting an animal is often a first sign of adulthood in quasi-adolescent lives that can easily extend into our forties.

Certainly that was the case with me. I had gotten Monty from the Animal Rescue Fund the day after my third round of IVF—and third miscarriage. The massive, shedding golden retriever had been safely ensconced in my 750-square-foot apartment for a year when I finally got pregnant and stayed pregnant. I still remember, after bringing tiny Henry and Augustus home, that suddenly Monty’s head looked frightening, less like a golden’s than a polar bear’s. Still, he was my first baby. Something about his presence helped me have children. I owed him.

People who live outside a city often mock the urbanite’s predilection for treating pets like children. But what choice do we have? We have no backyards or woods to let our animals—or kids—run in, which means that when they go out, we must be out, too. It would be nice if I could let Monty out in the hope he’d bring back a pheasant for dinner, but on Bleecker Street, that’s somewhat unlikely (though I have had to wrest away innumerable flattened pigeons). A dog in the country or suburbs can get cleaned up with a bucket of suds in the driveway. Ever try to scrub a 100-pound golden retriever in a New York City–size bathroom? A $60 trip to the groomer is a negligible price to pay compared with the damage done when he bounds out of the tub and shakes all over the new Restoration Hardware sofa. Of course I bring Monty to Pup Culture, just as I bring in my kids for a haircut: I know the perils of trying to do the deed myself.

“I heard myself screaming at the dog after he’d eaten yet another pacifier, ‘Okay, mister, now you’re in time-out.’ ”

And oh, God, the logistics. I admit this is a peculiarly New York arrangement, but after ten years of marriage my husband and I still don’t live together. (He has a rent-stabilized apartment, my place is too small, and besides, marriage and children are one thing, but cohabitation? I don’t like to be rushed.) Which means that he sometimes isn’t here in the mornings. So what do I do with the dog standing cross-legged by the front door? The children can’t be left alone. Yes, dammit, the $25-an-hour dog walker at 7:30 a.m. is a necessity, not a luxury.

A far more common dilemma for city people: Children and pets all need to run around in the fresh air, yet (Mr. Bloomberg, please take note) there is no place in the city where tots and dogs can run around together. (Dog park? No.) Now, like many New Yorkers, I live here because one of the last things in the world I crave is to be outdoors. If I wanted outdoors, I’d be in Wyoming. So imagine my surprise to discover, too late, that my entire life revolves around . . . being outdoors! My day goes like this: Take out kids, take out dog, kids, dog, kids, dog, kids, freaking DOG.

Not that I haven’t tried to take them all out en famille. The last time I did this, I had the dog on his leash and was steering my then-5-month-olds in one of those Humvee-like twin strollers. The dog saw a squirrel, and the next thing I remember, I was reenacting the Odessa Steps sequence in Battleship Potemkin, minus the czarist soldiers and the gunfire. The only thing that saved Henry and Gus was a jogging NYU muscle boy who grabbed the stroller just before it careened into traffic.

People with indoor pets also have tsuris. My friend Marjorie had her spherical, diabetic, retarded cat, Sebastian, for fourteen years before her daughter, Josie, made her appearance. Josie turned out to be allergic. “I remember sobbing at the allergist’s,” says Marjorie, whose small apartment is vacuumed twice daily; she has cornered the market on hepa filters.

Given our sacrifices to have pets and children here, is it so surprising we get a little confused and use the language of childhood when talking about our beasts? I’m afraid I’ve taken to making “playdates” for Monty with his friend Riley, a Gordon setter; the other day, I heard myself screaming at Monty after he’d eaten yet another of Gus’s pacifiers, “Okay, Mister, now you’re in time-out.” Many of us even use the same pool of professionals for our kids, whether quadruped or biped. Recently, I lost one of Henry and Gus’s babysitters, who has her master’s in child psychology, to a basset hound.

Perhaps the biggest reason the city dweller overindulges both children and pets is guilt. Often we’re here for selfish reasons: career, or love of the eccentricity and electricity of the streets. We know kids and pets would be better off in green, wide-open spaces. So we compensate: the fabulous wardrobes, the Spanish lessons at 3, the weekly trips to Serendipity.

And for our pets? Well, recently the school where my boys take their toddler classes had a fund-raiser and silent auction. There was one item I won. Monty will be having private sessions at the Dog Run, which has the only indoor dog swimming pool in Manhattan.

Trust me, I wasn’t the only one bidding.

Judith Newman’s new book is You Make Me Feel Like an Unnatural Woman: Diary of a New (Older) Mother

From the Fall 2004 edition of the New York Family Guide