What I learned from a dog who was a whole lot smarter than me.
I got my first dog as an adult in the summer of 1988.
I was twenty-six years old and my husband and I had just purchased our first house. It was a tiny, 700-square-foot bungalow on an oversized lot — a lot so large you could have built two more houses on it. We didn’t have kids, yet. Despite being a teenage bride, I wanted to do life in the right order: graduate from college, start a career, buy a house, get a dog, have children.
We hopped in the car that hot July day and drove to the local Humane Society. As we wandered among the kennels, a small blond dog caught my eye. With his golden locks, floppy ears, gentle eyes, and coal black nose, he stole my heart the moment I saw him. There was no need to look any further.
We named him Sundance.
We bought him a little wooden dog house and placed it in the backyard next to the fence. He had plenty of room to run and play, and a sheltered place to sleep. He was an outside dog because that’s all I knew at the time. As a kid growing up, all of our dogs were outside dogs. In the sixties and seventies most dogs were. So I thought nothing of leaving Sundance in the yard. We lived in San Diego and the weather was always nice.
One of the things I hated about that 1950’s bungalow was the fact there was no direct access to the backyard from the house. To get out back we had to go out the kitchen door into the garage, and then through another door into the backyard. There was a small deck off the garage, and beyond that a huge two-tiered yard, covered mostly in unkempt grass and weeds. While we were wowed by the size of the yard when we bought the house, the realities of maintaining all that space soon overwhelmed us.
The only view to the backyard from inside the house was out two small bedroom windows. That landed the yard in out-of-sight-out-of-mind territory much of the time. Unfortunately, that mentality carried over to Sundance, especially after we had our first child.
A year after adopting Sundance, our daughter was born.
We followed the requisite let-the-dog-sniff-a-baby-item before introducing Sundance to her. I’m not sure it was necessary. It’s not like Sundance was inside the house with us and our newborn. But we were young and trying to be good dog owners and people parents so we followed the rules in an effort to keep everyone safe.
It’s not like there would have been room in that tiny bungalow for Sundance even if we had been inclined to let him inside. The house was so small that after our daughter’s first birthday, it was overflowing with so many toys and toddler essentials that it wasn’t big enough for us three humans anymore.
We decided it was time to move.
With real estate appreciating and my advertising career progressing, we were able to move up to a house nearly twice as big, but with a backyard half the size. Sundance moved with us, but he didn’t last long at the new house. One evening after work, I was returning the empty trash cans to their spot behind the gate when I realized Sundance was not in the yard. The backyard gates were closed, but he was nowhere to be found. If not for those trash cans I’m not sure I would have even noticed he was gone that night. In the busyness of moving in, working full time, and raising a toddler, he’d fallen pretty far down the priority list.
I called the nearby shelter to see if they’d picked him up. He wasn’t there. I didn’t know what else to do, so we waited, hoping he’d come home. He never did.
I’d pretty much given up on getting Sundance back when the notice showed up in our mailbox.
It was a small postcard. On its front was the familiar yellow forwarding sticker I’d seen on so many pieces of mail since moving. The postcard had been mailed to our old address — probably because that was the address on file with Sundance’s dog license — and by the time it landed in our new mailbox, several months had passed. The notice was from an animal shelter twenty miles away — a shelter I never thought to contact when searching for Sundance.
Questions immediately began racing through my mind. Do I call after all this time? What will they think of me? How long do they even keep dogs before…? I couldn’t say it, much less think it. For the past few months I’d been telling myself Sundance had found himself another family, one with more time for him. He was a good looking dog, surely he’d been adopted. I couldn’t bear to think, or learn otherwise.
I tossed the notice in the trash.
The person I am now shudders at that thought.
I’m ashamed of my behavior. We took Sundance in and then we abandoned him. I was the kind of dog owner I might very well judge harshly today. I remind myself that back then dogs weren’t part of the family the way they are today. It helps a little, but it doesn’t erase the guilt.
It’s been more than thirty years since Sundance disappeared. We’ve had six dogs in that time: Dakota, Maverick, Cheyenne, Chance, Hope, and Faith. Each one has burrowed a little bit deeper into my heart. And every single one of them has been warmly welcomed into our house. They’ve peed on floors, eaten brand new shoes, chewed newly installed hardwoods, and broken my heart, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. They’re family.
One day after my daughter moved away to college, she commented on a photo I sent her of me and my husband at a baseball game, with our golden retriever Hope, “Oh my god mom, it’s like she’s your child!”
She wasn’t wrong.
I thank Sundance for being a pioneer in my pet parenting journey. He helped me see the kind of dog owner I did not want to be. He taught me that living life isn’t about doing things in a specific order, it’s about being responsible for the choices you make, and taking care of the people, and dogs, who rely on you.
Thank you Sundance, for teaching me those lessons. I’m sorry it was at your expense. You were smarter than I gave you credit for. When you weren’t getting the love and attention you deserved, you went out and found it on your own.
This story was originally written and published in The Narrative Arc on Medium, as an entry in the Furs and Feathers Writing Competition. If you’d like to read and applaud this story on Medium, you can do so here.