Diversions: The Therapy Dog

In this week's episode, a heartwarming tale of a man, a dog and what happens when you unexpectedly go to Rag & Bone.

This week’s newsletter is going to be something different. OK, not entirely different, it’s not like I’m gonna actually use this space to publicly state that All Lives Matter. No, this week’s installment is actually a never-before published essay I wrote two years ago. I’ve got projects piling up and deadlines looming on the horizon, so I decided to reach into the archive.

While this piece wasn’t published, I actually performed it for Chris Duffy’s show “You Get A Spoon,” back when Chris and I worked on Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas. This was probably the first time I’d ever performed anything other than a Power Point presentation, but it was a lot of fun and I’m grateful Chris gave me the chance. (You should subscribe to his newsletter!)

Hope you enjoy the essay, it’s a kinda personal story that I was actually happy with. So much so that I locked it away in the archives to never see the light of day before now.

For now, stay hydrated, wear a mask, talk to your loved ones. And, also, let’s dismantle white supremacy in all its forms, abolish the police state and create space for Black life. Also, the cops who killed Breonna Taylor still haven’t been arrested and that needs to happen. Here’s a few ways you can take action to keep the pressure on.

Therapy Dog: Part I

You know how some people adopt a puppy from those sketchy pet shops in a strip mall, the kind typically located by a bubble tea or a dollar store? People tend to warn you off those joints because it’s next to impossible to know how the animals were treated or where they even came from. Like...a dollar store. 

I got a puppy at a Rag & Bone in Greenwich Village. 

I can explain.

It was a Sunday in April, and I had just spent my afternoon at an event hearing about women’s reproductive health, everything ranging from improving your diet for a better period to the threats to birth control posed by the sexual predator running the executive branch, and, naturally, female orgasms. (Spoiler: They are real.) 

Earlier that morning in search of breakfast I stopped at a coffee shop in the Lower East side. It was the kind of spring day where a particularly bold barista throws open the windows to natural air, even though most of us are really pushing the limits of light jacket season. 

I drank my coffee on a stool looking out the window and saw this petite dog with eyes the color of nutmeg, golden hair and floppy ears, cheerfully playing as this otherwise unremarkable white couple chatted. The leash said “adopt me,” and suddenly I saw a vision of our life together: rooftop cookouts, driving a mini with the top down for weekends in the Hudson Valley.

When I asked the anonymous white couple about the dog, they handed me a business card. It said “Waggytails Rescue,” an organization dedicated to the salvation of only the tiniest of god’s creations. And, that afternoon, they were holding an adoption event at Rag & Bone.

This was not the transaction I was expecting. But who doesn’t enjoy an invitation to join a cult on some nice quality card stock. The fact is if you were designing the perfect trap for someone like me, it likely would involve small dogs, mildly expensive menswear and an assemblage of charcuterie. I love a European cut, both on my meats and my suits. 

This was still on my mind later that afternoon when I walked into Rag & Bone. Worst case scenario is I enjoy some free wine and contemplate which looks better on me, a miniature schnauzer or black denim with a shearling collar. 

And here, again, I encountered Mindy. Did I forget to mention her name? She of the floppy ears and subtle leash. She was a cotton candy sugar rush on four legs, a dog you can’t help but bend down to scratch and play with, a dog that’s all boundless love and sparks. 

She was already off the market. “Oh she’s been very popular! We’ve already gotten a few applications for her,” one of the helpful volunteers told me. 

Well, fine then. I’d at least be able to leave with my sense of righteous indignation intact. So I browsed; the clothes this time rather than the flock, in the “fly casual” way I’ve grown accustomed to that says “I’m aloof, confident in my style excesses, and would rather be ignored than followed through this store just because I’m black.” And let’s be honest, I was mostly hovering around the markdown racks, the sweaters moving out of season and the Chelsea boots looking to extend their life. 

I was looking up and down the collection of shoes when I first saw him. Hiding. Under a chair.

He was a microdog almost, with a black and tan coat and big brown eyes scanning the room. He had the same “adopt me” leash and he wore a bright orange neckerchief, making him look like Fred from Scooby Doo. His ears were, well, the best way to describe them is cocked in disagreement, one rigid and alert, the other drooped and relaxed. More or less like an old TV antenna. “This is Jax,” said Nadia, one of his foster moms.

I knelt down to get on eye level and extended my hand for a sniff. That’s when the barking started. “He’s can be a little anxious around people,” said Sally, his other foster mom.

What breed is he, I asked. (Jax barked.)

A chihuahua-terrier, they said. (Bark)

How old is he, I said. (Bark)

Around two, we think, they said. (Bark)

Do we know what happened to him, I said. (Bark)

(I think you get the point.)

There wasn’t much to know about Jax’s previous life. As saccharin as the name might be, Waggytails wasn’t stretching plausibility by calling itself a rescue. They scooped up dogs like Jax from kill shelters, often while the clock is ticking down on them. Not just in New York either, they had people in California and throughout the south. They were pulling dogs and cats off lists that would otherwise see them euthanized, ferrying them to New York by plane in that precious under seat space we all have to sacrifice our bags to once the overhead bins are full. And they’re always full.  

What they knew about Jax is that he didn’t have a particularly good first home, as evidenced by the fact his owners surrendered him to a shelter, and that the little guy had a high degree of mistrust for people. “He seems really reactive to men,” Sally told me. (Bark)

You could tell he was a mess of frayed wires and exposed feeling. I sat with him, got him to finally take a treat from me and got close enough to pet him. Granted, this was not enough to stop the barking, the stimuli of so many random people and dogs running under foot was far too strong.

Is there an application on him yet, I asked. (Bark)

There was not, they said. (Bark)

I decided to think about it. 

Three weeks later I was sitting on a bench by the fountain at Grand Army Plaza in Prospect Park, once again making an active attempt to look casual. To the untrained eye it may have been clear that I was in the middle of a post-brunch purchase with my weed guy. The Untrained eye, of course. Those dudes deliver now. Unlike getting a tiny dog, which is best done in the bright light of day under the eyes of strangers. 

He came with $350 an adoption fee. That was on top of another $300 to my landlord for a pet deposit. All told I was on the hook for almost $700 before I even brought him home. One tiny dog for the price of two cashmere crewnecks from Rag & Bone.

We got in my car, off to start our new life together. Two hours north.

AT this point we should talk about the fact I wasn’t living in New York. I was, in fact, living in the middle of Connecticut. On purpose. Almost two years earlier I upended my life, I took a job as an editor at ESPN, I got out of a 10 year relationship, and I pretty much cut myself out of my adult life as I had known it. 

And what better place to rediscover yourself than Connecticut? (Many, many places, yes I can hear you say. And in this case I agree with your silent—or not so silent judgement.) But in the time I was there, I had discovered something resembling what we now come to call self care. I started going to therapy—consistently—for the first time in my life. I started eating healthy. I started doing yoga. I created a regular gym routine—this may come as a surprise to you but the global sports network has a well conceived gym, where your odds of sharing space on the elliptical line with a former NBA player is very, very high. 

I know it was just like Eat, Pray, Love. But in West Hartford. With a black guy. But self discovery can be a harsh process—not eating bread was really hard and still makes me emotional—but because truth is an unforgiving flashlight. And my truth was this: the Nutmeg State can be a very lonely place if you’re not a full-time bro or a full-time white. (Which, OK, is redundant.)

And yet, I’m neither! 

I did not have a wife or 2.5 kids, or a smart but sporty luxury SUV. But by god I would have a dog, and that would put me one step closer to some kind of demographic permanence in that weird state.

In my adoption application I wrote:

“I met Jax at the adopting event at Rag and Bone by coincidence. Meeting Jax (or “JJ” as his fosters call him), I definitely felt a connection. And I also felt a desire to give him a good home and overcome some of what he’s been through in the past.”

Doing THE ABSOLUTE MOST. If Roscoe was The Bachelor, he and I would be off to great start: “I just think we could be really happy together, and that we would have a lot of chemistry in a hot tub. (winks at camera. Oh, I wasn’t supposed to read that).”

But the fact remained I had a big empty home, a fairly consistent schedule and an inconsistent social life in the greater Hartford area. He wasn’t my first dog, not even my first small dog. I knew the familiar routines of walks and feedings, the tricks for getting attention and trust. I knew what to buy, and more importantly had a list of names. Some of which felt too pretentious: Hugo? Felix? Others were just a little too cute: Kirby? Bandit? (You can read into those names what you want about me.

In his first week with me, every day I returned home I’d find him sitting on the couch, waiting, and subsequently, growling at me.  As if I was the uninvited guest in his home. This was part of the developing rapport between us: I attempt to establish a bond, he growls. I encourage him with toys, he barks. I feed him treats; he actually bites the hand that feeds him. 

I figured it out: He needed a name that said “gruff old man with a warm heart buried deep inside.” So, I started calling him Roscoe. 

And Roscoe needed help. We couldn’t take walks without him lunging at people as they passed by. Even the smallest noises from my neighbors would lead to a barrage of anger, as he stared at the door and barked. Now, to be fair, this is something the rescue had been clear about: They suggested finding a trainer to work with him, a professional to help deal with the ways he reacts to strangers. So I enrolled us in a month long class at the local humane society.

(And now: I want to make another, quick, small, digression here. I would never want to compare having a pet to having a child. While both involve love and care and cleaning up a fair amount of poop that is not your own, they’re INCREDIBLY different experiences. It wouldn’t be fair to say what a loving mother and father do in raising their child is comparable to my struggles with an anxious dog.)

AND YET (you all see where this is going), friends. Have you ever been out at the store, or walking down the street, and seen a mom or dad trying to corral a toddler in the grips of a full-blown, Three Mile Island emotional meltdown? The tears, the snot bubbles, screaming that can be heard from a five block radius. You can picture that parent, trying to pull the child along, having already moved past the negotiating phase into the acceptance and need to find shelter phase. 

This was Roscoe in obedience class. Week after week, an unceasing string of barking and growling at the other dogs and their humans. A particularly twitchy springer spaniel always seemed to set him off, and from there it was no use trying to bring him back to earth. He’d work himself into a panting frenzy, convulsing his tiny body so much that he’d gulp air in between snarls. And no command, no treat, no matter how appetizing, could win him over. 

The trainer, Stephanie, did not seem fazed. Which is what you would hope for. She encouraged me to get him more appetizing treats, real food, human food. I plied him with string cheese snacks, all-beef hot dogs, even chicken strips. I was basically throwing a Lunchable at this 13 pound meltdown, only to have him ignore it, or eat it with the kind of ferocity that made me fear for the tips of my fingers. There were rare occasions where it was enough to buy time for him to sit, to lay down. But never enough.

So Roscoe started getting time-outs. IN OBEDIENCE CLASS. I had to take him to door leading outside the classroom, shove him outside and close the door behind him while still holding on to his leash. When the fury subsided, he was allowed back in. When it returned, he was sent back out.

After a while he was spending more time out than in. Still, Stephanie was undeterred. Roscoe kept his spot in class, but there would be some adjustments.  Now he would have to hang out behind a bed sheet intended to cut off his line of sight with his classmates, like that fucking springer spaniel. And there we were, actual outsiders looking in, banished behind the curtain of shame. 

I knew Roscoe was smart. He could recognize the words for all the tricks. And when we were alone at home he seemed almost eager to learn. Both ears would stand at attention, his antenna finally tuned, his eyes focused on something other than encroaching threats. And his tail. Finally, it would wag with a kind of reckless glee.

But class was all fury and failure. Or something that felt like it for both of us. As much as I redoubled the efforts at home, carving out training time before and after work.

Normally this is the part of the story where the montage starts as the two of us grow into our friendship. Chasing after his trail of bubbles when he escapes bath time, throwing the ball to play catch and it sails over his head, Roscoe affectionately licking my face as I’m passed out on the couch, a copy of the Dog Whisper’s secrets to training resting on my chest. All set to Kenny Loggins “House at Pooh Corner.”

You know what, maybe that’s the wrong framing. It could just be a classic training montage? Roscoe lifting weights, the two of us dance fighting in the abandoned Chevy factory at the edge of town, Roscoe running in slow motion on the beach as I triumphantly pump my fist. All set to Scandal’s “The Warrior.”

Either way, the truth is I wasn’t expecting him to pass. And, yet, on the final day of class, when Stephanie asked the owners to demonstrate their dog’s skills, Roscoe and I locked eyes. This was my inspirational speech, it wasn’t “Clear Eyes, Full Hearts, Can’t Lose,” but what does he know? I asked him to dig deep, to believe in himself.

And then he started barking at everyone. 

At the end of the session, Stephanie announced everyone had passed and their certificates would be sent in the mail. Aside from taking a moment to wonder who would print off and—let’s be honest—most likely frame an obedience school certificate, I also couldn’t help but think that maybe this wasn’t a fully accredited and academically recognized institution.

Also: I realized it’s possible Roscoe’s problems were maybe not going to have an easy solution.

- End of Part I -

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