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June 15, 2010

The Ditched Dog and the Dumped Spouse

Even a couple of wounded guys can help each other

Coltrane Carman 270x224

Carrie Allen/The HSUS

Editor's note: The following feature was first posted on humanesociety.org in February 2004.

by Tim Carman

When I walked into the shelter to audition dogs to play a starring role in our household, I had a mental list of qualifications that the pooch needed to possess. I wanted a smaller dog, preferably a terrier-mix like my last canine, a dog with the playfulness and grace of Charlie Chaplin and the fierce intelligence of Teddy Roosevelt.

The dog who became known as Coltrane had none of those qualities.

Buddy

When I first met 'Trane, his name was Buddy, and he was cowering on a small bed that lay near the gate of his kennel run. The other canine hopefuls barked for attention, confident that their charms were worthy of a place in my wife's and my little domestic drama in Silver Spring, Md. Buddy, on the other hand, lay there pathetically. He tried to make eye contact with me, bashfully peering up with his head still flat on the bed, clearly not sure if it was his place to make a fuss over himself.

Whether out of pity or sympathy—or both—I asked the shelter volunteer about Buddy. He was surrendered by his former family; the family claimed they were moving and couldn't bring the dog along. Buddy was five years old, a beagle mix boasting large continents of brown fur and the occasional archipelagos of tan fuzzy dots, all drifting in a sea of silky white fur.

The volunteer took Buddy into an office with a dull tile floor and cheerful animal posters on the wall. The volunteer and I took chairs on opposite sides of the room. Buddy sat there, balancing on his hind legs with his front paws delicately placed on the volunteer's bended knee, as if this were his only friend.

The dog briefly wandered over to me when I called his name, but then quickly circled back to his praying position on the volunteer's knee. I remarked that it seemed like this particular dog—how could I phrase this?—may have suffered in his previous home. The volunteer didn't attempt to correct me.

'I was staring at Homer Simpson'

I was torn about Buddy. Part of me wanted to try to fix his broken spirit, but the other part knew he was far from my ideal pooch: He was stocky, graceless, and slow. I wanted Charlie Chaplin. I was staring at Homer Simpson. I told the volunteer that I usually prefer more affectionate dogs, my first maneuver in distancing myself from this pooch. The volunteer was quick.

"He could become more affectionate in the right household," he said. I was doubtful.

One week and a change of heart later, I went to pick Buddy up from the shelter. From now on, my wife and I decided he would be called Coltrane. At least his name would be cool, I thought.

On the way home from the shelter, as Coltrane tried to make himself invisible in the passenger seat, I turned to him, put my hand on his head, and told him, "Don't worry, my friend, you will never be abandoned again. You're going to your last home. I promise."

Little did I know that I would be abandoned instead. My wife abruptly left, address unknown, and suddenly the world shrank to me and my recently dumped dog. We were the perfect pair.

Pack of two

Dog tributes are stock-in-trade items in the animal publishing business. Scan any shelf in the animal section at your local bookstore, and you'll find plenty of odes to the loyalty, bravery, and companionship of the common canine. Many are predictably maudlin, others are tense and inspiring.

More recently, the popular dog press has moved into a deeply psychological state: analyzing our modern culture's need for dogs as human surrogates, looking at our increasing reliance on pooches to satisfy our emotional needs. This mini-trend seemed to start in 1998 with the release of Carolyn Knapp's absorbing canine confessional, "Pack of Two."

"I have fallen in love with my dog," Knapp wrote in her prologue. "This happened almost accidentally, as though I woke up one morning and realized: Ooops! I'm 38 and I'm single, and I'm having my most intense and gratifying relationship with a dog. But we all learn about love in different ways, and this way happens to be mine, through a two-year-old, 45-pound shepherd mix named Lucille."

"When he lay next to my home-office chair, snoring away on his doggie pillow, I sometimes just smiled to myself. I am content."

Knapp is not alone. The anecdotal evidence, both in book form and online, would seem to indicate that people are increasingly turning to their dogs—and cats—for the kind of emotional nurturing that typically has been supplied by humans. Theories abound as to why this is occurring: high divorce rates, social isolation, increasing workloads, and so on. The phenomenon has even inspired a book, "The New Work of Dogs," by Jon Katz, who carefully examines the lives of a handful of people and their dogs to better understand this new dynamic.

Katz places his emphasis on the psychological field of study called attachment theory; he suggests that early childhood attachments to primary caregivers (or lack thereof) can help explain what kind of attachment an adult will form with a dog. Some folks are aware of their own emotional history and how it plays out; others are not. To the latter group, Katz issues a directive.

"Moving and powerful examples abound of dogs working hard and profoundly helping the humans they live with," Katz writes. "Like almost everybody else, however, I've also seen dogs placed in impossible, even disturbing, situations, overwhelmed by the pressure put on them to fill complex emotional roles in their owners' lives. In part, this book is an effort to remember that dogs are voiceless, that a critical part of having dogs is emotional responsibility: learning how to understand them and, when necessary, to speak and act on their behalf."

A roly-poly pooch

Coltrane came to me as an emotionally complicated dog. He was frightened of people, terrified of loud noises, and had a tendency to leave little reminders that his digestive system was in proper working order. Some of his problems could be remedied with training methods, such as crating him when I was away from home. But other behaviors were less obvious to treat. I could only trust that constant attention, affection, routine veterinary care, and healthy food would help alleviate some of the stress he felt in living each day.

A year later, Coltrane was still not Charlie Chaplin, but he did a mean John Candy impersonation: He was a roly-poly pooch—playful, funny, and endearing to just about everyone he met. Unlike that afternoon at the shelter when he couldn't even meet my gaze, Coltrane insisted on being loved. I like to think that I helped Coltrane with some of his own attachment issues.

In return, he helped me through a difficult transitional period. Make no mistake: Coltrane was not an emotional crutch for me. Yet there are times when he made me feel loved, when his very presence made the house a little less empty. When he lay next to my home-office chair, snoring away on his doggie pillow, I sometimes just smiled to myself. I am content.

At night, Coltrane slept on the bed. He could sleep anywhere he wanted, but he chose to sleep with our backs pressed together. Sometimes during the course of the night, a tiny space would appear between our bodies, though we might still be touching in spots. And sometimes, late at night, I would hear Coltrane rustle. He struggled to gain his balance on his wobbly night-time legs. In my half-awake state, I thought he'd finally sprawl out on the other side of the bed. Then I felt him plop his entire weight against my back, looking to secure an even tighter bond between us. I smiled to myself. Content.

That's why I have just one thing to say to my dog: I love you, buddy. I mean Coltrane.

In memory of Coltrane Carman.

Tim Carman is a former managing editor of humanesociety.org. Eight months after this essay was published, he began dating Carrie Allan, the editor of The HSUS's Animal Sheltering magazine. She eventually became Tim’s wife and Coltrane's mom. Coltrane lived happily with the couple until his death in June 2010.

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