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  1. Life & Culture

For one man, owning dogs has created a warm and fuzzy change

David Gartner plays with dog Daisy, 13, who was adopted for the two Gartner children but has had David as primary caretaker.
David Gartner plays with dog Daisy, 13, who was adopted for the two Gartner children but has had David as primary caretaker.
Published Sep. 2, 2015

We went to brunch on Father's Day, me and my parents, who had driven over from West Palm Beach. We'd gone to a nicer restaurant than usual, and my father had let me order oysters even though he thinks they're gross.

We had left Daisy at my apartment, thinking she'd be more comfortable there than at the hotel. When we got back, the dog was lying on her side, not moving. That's what struck us: She wasn't moving at all.

My childhood dog — or, my parents' dog — but really, all along, my father's dog — was perfectly still.

For months Daisy's health had been declining. A Chow mix, she can't hear or see well, and the vet said she may have dementia. It hurt my father's heart to hear that. For 17 years he has been a dog owner. He has become a different person.

But she wasn't moving. She couldn't really be gone, could she?

My mom said her name.

My dad said her name.

My dad said her name again.

My dad said her name again.

Her chest started to move, and she opened her eyes.

• • •

When my dad was a kid, he had turtles. He was one of three boys, all of whom had asked for dogs and were told, "You're allergic." He had never sneezed around a dog a day in his life. But that was neither here nor there.

Dad didn't grow up in an emotional household. They did not hug hello or say "I love you" before turning off the lights. They kept stiff upper lips, as they say; getting in trouble could mean your mother not talking to you for a month.

My dad wanted to be different with us, and he is. I have always known what it is like to be unconditionally loved, something I have learned not everyone has, and something for which I could cry in gratitude.

But the warmth my father has given my brother and me didn't always extend beyond his family.

When we first asked for a dog, he would quip, "A Hebrew National?"

Or worse, he'd say: "Do you know what my favorite kind of dog is? A dead one."

Only out of wanting to give his kids everything did my father begrudgingly become a dog owner.

He was working as an accountant at a medical company when a co-worker who was a Shar-Pei breeder mentioned that one of her dogs had been returned. Because the dog was paid for, we could have it for free. With all the originality we could muster, my brother and I named her Wrinkles.

When we took her in for grooming at PetSmart, my dad must have known he was walking into a trap.

Rule No. 1 for Men Who Do Not Want An Additional Dog: Don't take the kids to PetSmart on a Saturday. On this day, an adoption event was being held, and three tiny black fur balls were running around in swirls of diarrhea.

We picked one out. Named her Daisy. Found out within an hour that she was responsible for the poop art.

My brother and I promised to walk and feed the dogs, and we did.

For two or three days.

I guess that's how it started. Dad walked the dogs. He fed the dogs. They relied on him; they favored him. They looked for him to give them scraps at the table, and they knew that when he went away, he would always come back.

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My brother left for college, and three years later I did, too. I guess we didn't come home too much.

When my dad lost his job, he wasn't alone in the house because he had the dogs. He had someone to talk to. He had a ritual that started and ended with walking the dogs.

When he got his job back, he was greeted at the door by the applause of the dogs, standing on their hind legs, throwing their front paws on his pants, a barking explosion to say, "Welcome home, Dad. We love you."

Then one night, my father found Wrinkles breathing wrong. Loudly, raspily. She was maybe 10. He sat on the floor next to her and rubbed her belly. He said, "It's okay." And then the breathing stopped.

I have been alive for 27 years. In that time, I have graduated from high school and college. My brother got married. My mom's mother died. My dad's father died. But in my lifetime, the death of Wrinkles is the only time my father has cried.

• • •

It is May 8, a Friday. I get an email from my dad with the subject line: "Good dog story." It's an article about a dog who protected his owners from coyotes after their car crashed in the mountains. My dad especially likes this dog because he looks like Daisy. "Doesn't Sako's face look like someone we know," he writes.

Every year, my dad donates hundreds of dollars to the Humane Society and PETA. He is a member of the SPCA. When I adopted my dog, a beagle mix named Landon, my parents started calling him their "grandpooch."

When my mom watches the news and a story about an animal comes on, it doesn't matter what room my dad is in or what he's doing. He wanders in to watch.

"Animals are helpless in a lot of ways," he starts to tell me before my mom calls him "Doctor Dolittle" and we all laugh.

It has been seven years since Wrinkles passed away. My dad thought about getting another dog, but Daisy seems happy alone, he says. "Plus, I don't want her to feel like I'm grooming her replacement."

My parents are also older now. They were about 40 when we first got a dog. Now they're pushing 60. They don't want to keep up with a puppy.

Daisy is 13. She has a gray mustache on her snout. She does not want to keep up with a puppy, either. At the park, she doesn't play with other dogs. At home, she puts her head on my dad's knee.

My dad loves so much about her, even her nervousness. She takes two steps gingerly and then stops to look around. He calls it "the Daisy two-step." He laughs when she tries to nudge him into darker, cooler rooms where she likes to rest. She licks his face and looks him in the eye. He says it feels like she's giving him a hug.

She used to watch television with my parents, on the rug in front of the couch. Now she lies down on the tile behind them, where they can't see her. My mom says, "I feel like she's not with us when she does that."

Sometimes when Daisy tries to jump into the car, she falls and my parents scramble to catch her. Sometimes she whines for food, forgetting she has already eaten.

Often she doesn't go to the door anymore when my dad comes home from work. She can't hear. She doesn't know he's there.

It's usually not as bad as it was on Father's Day. My dad finds her lying on the floor in the living room, or sleeping in my parents' room next to the bed, always on his side. First he checks that she is breathing. She is.

Slowly, my father lowers himself, careful not to startle her. He lays down on the floor of his bedroom. And then he strokes her paws, softly, until she opens her eyes and sees him.

Contact Lisa Gartner at lgartner@tampabay.com. Follow @lisagartner.

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