In April 2009, I stood in front of a full-length mirror and stared at my distended belly. I’d given birth to twin girls eight years earlier but looked and felt as if I was about to go into labor, except I was not pregnant. What I was—was a mystery. My runner’s body had vanished overnight. I struggled to stay balanced on my feet. My dark hair, once shiny, had turned dull and fell out in clumps. I was shedding as frequently as the Golden Retriever that sat at my feet. Something was very wrong and he knew it. Buddy stared up at me, yearning for attention and a chance to play, but any activity other than sleep was more than I could handle. He was barely a year old, but I swear he was trying to apologize. His big brown eyes asked, is it really my fault?
My fraternal twin daughters, Abby and Jolie, begged me to get a dog after we read every tale of Biscuit the Puppy and watched all the “Air Bud” movies. By May 2008, my husband and I finally gave in and contacted the breeder that my sister used the prior year. We told the girls we were going to the “dog farm,” the breeder’s house, to play with purebred Golden Retrievers.
I melted seeing the girls sitting on the kennel floor surrounded by a new litter. I didn’t care that it was filthy—it was a kennel after all. Abby and Jolie were ecstatic.
“What would you say if we told you that we can bring one of these puppies home soon?”
A chorus of “OMGs” were followed by a round of “THANK YOUs!”
Two weeks later, we returned to choose our puppy.
Choosing a puppy required some preparation and a lot of reading. I had done my homework, determined to find just the right dog for our family. What exactly did that mean? I wanted a smart dog, an affectionate dog, a dog that behaved and was good with children and made bad people run like hell from our house. I wanted a dog that looked cute, that we loved very much and that loved us back unconditionally. I wanted a dog that the girls would learn to take care of. Like a 4-H project. We could do this, I kept telling myself. It might even be fun.
I did not have a dog growing up and hadn’t considered myself a dog person until I spent time at my first boyfriend’s house in junior high school. Stephen owned a beautiful blonde Golden Retriever with a seemingly submissive personality. He made it look like taking care of a dog was easy. I thought so, too, until his dog pinned me against the door in Stephen’s laundry room, where he stayed when people visited. All he wanted was to play with someone and receive some attention. I knew he wouldn’t hurt me but I panicked and screamed for help.
Later in college, I had another chance to become a dog lover when my roommate agreed to keep her boyfriend’s new litter of Bulldog puppies at our apartment. Their hairless bodies fit into the palms of our hands and I found myself racing home from class every day to play with them. Once they were sold, our apartment seemed empty. I was startled by how quickly I had bonded with those puppies and I missed them very much.
When my daughters fell in love with the storybook character “Biscuit,” it didn’t take much time for me to start dreaming about our new lives together. I could imagine myself in our local dog park, chatting with my new dog lover friends, tossing Frisbees and balls, comparing dog foods and obedience training. Adding a dog to our family would complete us, I believed. The picture was almost perfect. I wanted ‘the perfect dog,’ but every puppy squirmed right out of my arms before I could complete the four personality tests recommended in Good Owners, Great Dogs; What All Good Dogs Should Know; Children with their Dogs and Golden Retrievers for Dummies.
“You think those tests will work completely?” my husband, Jeff, asked dubiously. I continued petting the puppy between my legs, aware of my husband’s smirking.
I refused to let his healthy skepticism alter my plans. He nudged me a few times in the arm, then flashed his goofy, dimpled grin and raised his eyebrows until they disappeared under the lid of his baseball hat. He raised his hat in one hand, pushed back his brown hair with the other and winked—as if to emphasize his teasing. I elbowed him and rolled my eyes.
The breeder helped narrow the selection for us, removing the puppies we didn’t want, leaving us with three males whose fur wouldn’t get thick like a wolf. We didn’t want to ruin the carpets for God’s sake.
Abby insisted we take the runt. “He is so calm and not biting my shoelaces like the other ones. He’s small and cute like me,” she said and smiled.
“No way I’m taking the runt!” I declared. I wanted a healthy dog. Maybe even a show dog. A dog we could rally behind, the centerpiece of holiday cards. Abby flipped me a look.
“How about this one,” Jolie asked. “He’s cute and sort of calm.” She laughed when he jumped right out of her arms and looked at us. “I guess. It’s so hard to choose.”
Jeff held one of the puppies for a while. The puppy seemed calm. Jeff turned the puppy on his back to cradle him—using the personality test he had mocked. “Trace, he’s really sweet and he’s been hanging out in my arms the longest. We’re never going to know what any of these pups will be like in a few months. We’ll train him and he’ll be great. Take him.”
I grabbed onto the six-pound bundle of fur. He was sweet and looked directly into my eyes. I turned him over, rubbing my hand around his little bald belly, feeling the warmth and softness. It struck me, here’s my chance to have a third child—despite his performance on those personality tests. Suddenly, I forgot about the books. My future pulsed with possibility. It was as if I’d finally get to experience what caring for a newborn “baby” would be like without the constant worry of splitting my attention equally like I had always done with the twins.
I paused with my hand over his heart and scratched under his chin. He hardly moved, clearly relishing this connection. Cradled on his back, he didn’t squirm much, and he nipped only playfully. Clearly, this was a gentle soul wrapped in just the right amount of soft blond fur. He passed all four tests. I glanced at my family. “I can’t believe I am going to say this, but I like him. I think he’s the one! I think we found our Buddy guys!”
At ten weeks old, Buddy would be ready to leave his mother and siblings and start a new life with us. We gave the breeder a deposit and returned Memorial Day Weekend to pick up Buddy. While I filled out the last of the paperwork, the breeder told us that Buddy had a parasite.
I paused and looked up at him. “A parasite?”
The breeder shrugged and nodded. “Yeah, giardia. It’s very common among puppies. Nothing that this won’t cure,” he said and handed me a Ziploc bag with tubes of liquid antibiotics, instructing us to inject them into his mouth every day for a week. His relaxed manner eliminated the need to inquire further. I figured parasites, especially in puppies, were no big deal, like my girls having the stomach flu.
“Easy, right?” he asked.
I nodded, recalling the times I gave Jolie acid reflux medicine when she was an infant, and within a few days her stomach got better. I could handle this.
We took more pictures and headed home while my daughters bickered over who got to have Buddy on her lap. I refused to let anything ruin our beautiful day and sat in the back seat between them while Buddy laid on my lap, completing the perfect picture.
Later that afternoon, Jeff and I stood on our deck, watching Buddy interact with our girls in the backyard. Jolie sat on the grass Indian-style, with her dirty blonde hair in a low ponytail, her back against the tree, coddling Buddy. She looked more relaxed and confident than I had ever seen her. Caring for an animal came naturally to her, and she clearly appreciated Buddy’s attention after years of sharing everything with her fraternal twin. I was amazed that Jolie kept up with him after hours of play. Her intentions from the start were genuine. She was looking for a companion in this puppy.
Abby had a slightly different experience. She enjoyed Buddy’s attention when she was in the mood to play with him, establishing a more conditional love. When Abby decided to move on to something else, such as the swing set, she expected Buddy to leave her alone, but he nipped at her clothing. Abby was frustrated, so I sat her down on the grass and tried to help.
I gently swept away Abby’s thick brown hair behind each ear, revealing her tiny face and light brown eyes. “You have to ignore him when he nips at you. It’s a puppy’s way of teething and playing. If you keep moving every time he does it, he will do it again. It’s a game for him.”
Abby’s eyes welled up with tears. “It’s annoying. Why doesn’t he do that with you guys or Jolie? We should have picked the runt,” she said, crossing her arms. “Besides, you like him more than me.”
“Oh Ab,” I said with a slight chuckle. She couldn’t possibly believe I would favor a dog over her. I continued, “Come on. You don’t really believe that? You’re my sweetheart, and I love you so much, but we just brought a puppy home who needs to be watched at all times. This is the part about being responsible that Daddy and I discussed with you girls. Remember? We have to train him and teach him how to be a well-behaved dog.”
“Buddy likes you guys better than me,” Abby said between gasps. Tears ran down her face. I wrapped my arms around her.
“Buddy is just looking for attention and will take it from anyone who gives it. Why don’t you go inside the house and grab a treat,” I offered. “Next time he deserves a reward, I’ll let you be the one to give it. Trust me, he’ll remember who gave him the good stuff and come back for more!”
House-training Buddy demanded even more of our attention. By the third day, the only thing I was scrubbing was his poop off the terra cotta tile floor in my kitchen. While I was on my knees, I wondered if I was really cut out for this. I had never felt more exhausted, and yet only three weeks ago, I had run a half marathon. I wondered if we should have gotten the runt.
Jolie pointed out the spreading mess, “Uh mom, he made over here, too.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” I said, convinced I had picked the wrong puppy.
After Memorial Day Weekend, I was left alone with Buddy. Jeff was back at work and the girls were off to school. Buddy explored the kitchen while I sat at the table, dressed in gym clothes, yearning to go on my morning run. Since Buddy cried the first couple of nights in his crate, we didn’t sleep very well, although no one else in my family seemed to be affected. Their energy was intact. I attributed my fatigue to the stress of being responsible for this new puppy. However, my exhaustion from caring for infant twins didn’t compare to what I felt like now, and I had spent only a couple days with him. This should have been a cakewalk, but I could barely lift my head off the table.
I noticed Buddy slow down as he approached the corner below the kitchen island. It was obvious he was about to make another mess. I shut my eyes for a brief moment and sighed.
“Just fabulous, Buddy.”
I should have swept him up, run outside, and used his bathroom command, “go hurry ups,” but I did nothing. I was on my knees cleaning his mess once again. I felt a lump in my throat and an uneasy sensation in my stomach, this time attributing it to constipation, knowing it had almost been two days since I’d gone to the bathroom. I fought tears as I cleaned Buddy’s mess. I didn’t recall my sister complaining too much about raising Jagger, her Golden Retriever, which she had affectionately called her “third child.” How could I feel so tortured by our adorable puppy?
The telephone rang. At first, I didn’t get up to answer it. I had no desire to speak to anyone and give them the opportunity to ask how things were, because I was embarrassed that I couldn’t handle this simple situation. My machine picked up and I waited to hear the message.
“Hi Tracey. This is Debbie returning your call. When you get a minute.”
Thank God, I thought. It was the dog trainer to rescue me.
I struggled to get off the floor and dove for the telephone before she hung up.
“Thank you for returning my call. I am so happy to hear your voice!” I said, a little breathless. “You have no idea. I need serious help. My dog is having accidents all over the place and I’m exhausted and miserable. When can you come?”
Debbie listened to my desperate pleas for help and calmly redirected my focus. She explained that Buddy was acting as my master, when the roles should be reversed. She wrapped up our half hour call, explaining that we would start lessons when he was twelve weeks old.
I could barely wait. Until our first appointment, I listened to her instructions as if my life depended on it. She told me to get him on a leash and follow him in circles outside until he went to the bathroom after I said my command, hurry ups. If he didn’t go after a few minutes, I should bring him back into the house and put him immediately in the crate. When I was ready to take him out of the crate and try again, I should repeat the whole routine in the same spot with his leash: command, praise and treat. CPT, I told myself. It wasn’t that hard. Then I was supposed to let him back into the kitchen, but at no time should I let him roam around the house.
“Keep him in a confined area,” Debbie reminded me. “You are the master, not him. Make that clear and you’ll be fine. He is following your lead. I’ll see you in two weeks as originally agreed.”
I scribbled down her tips as fast as I could so I wouldn’t forget anything. I was grateful for Debbie’s instructions. Crate training meant I could put the puppy in the crate even while I was home. Somehow I missed that important detail even after reading all four books.
A week later, I had become Buddy’s master. I had even gotten used to our new schedule, but was still feeling constipated and extremely fatigued. Jeff and my mom agreed. “You’re probably getting run-down from Buddy and should take something so you can go to the bathroom.” I wish it could have been as simple as using a laxative or any such remedy. It had been a week since I had relief and the size of my belly was the proof. I looked like I was starting a second trimester of pregnancy, and what I was about to give birth to remained a huge mystery.
Saturday afternoon, I joined Jeff in the backyard while he laid on a lounge chair. Buddy ran in circles while the girls played on the swing set. I waved, forcing a smile. It was great to see everyone in such good spirits, but I was feeling crummy. They waved me over to join them.
“Sorry, girls. I just need a little break,” I said, catching Jeff’s eye. I rarely turned down the chance to join the girls for any kind of play, especially when I was training for the marathon. I welcomed any physical activity to stay pumped with endorphins; however, the most exercise I’d gotten lately consisted of bending down to clean up after Buddy.
Jeff flashed me a look of disbelief as I feigned relaxing on the lounge chair, face turned up to the sun with a pained smile. My bulging stomach felt like someone had put a vice around it. I shifted on the lounge chair, trying to find a better position until I could no longer ignore the discomfort. I finally confessed to Jeff. “I really don’t feel right. It’s been like this all week, especially now. Something’s wrong. I think I need to go to the emergency room.”
Jeff wasn’t too surprised by my news but dreaded the ER visit. He was running a small company and had to pay for our health insurance himself. Any extra out of pocket medical appointments would deplete our monthly budget. Hospitals scared him to death for good reason. It had taken us a while to recover from our infertility expenses and the complications that went along with the twins’ birth. At the start of my pregnancy, we found ourselves in the ER every week. I either needed IVs, relieving extreme dehydration that my around the clock ‘morning sickness’ caused, or took tests that confirmed I wasn’t going into pre-term labor. Each time I laid on the gurney in those ER cubicles, I stared at the walls, fixating on the high-risk pregnancy that was distressing my body and worried for the health of my babies. If it wasn’t my sister waiting with me, it was Jeff, who found solace in the chair nearby, aimlessly channel surfing the television stations. During most visits, the majority of long hours were spent in silence, coping with our fears. Clearly, the hospital was the last place that Jeff wanted to visit with me.
“If you think you need to go, then let’s go. You know your body best. I mean your stomach does look sort of… huge,” he said staring, incredulous, at my belly. I knew what I looked like but his acknowledgement stung. I worked hard at maintaining my body size.
We canceled our dinner plans and spent the night in the emergency room instead.
Much to Jeff’s dismay, I had to complete all the required tests and body scans. The doctor attributed my constipation to not eating regular meals or drinking enough water during the week. “I ordered an enema,” he said. “The nurse should be here any minute. You’ll feel much better once you’re relieved. We will watch you to make sure it does the trick before you go home.”
After all this time, an enema was all I needed? His explanation did not add up.
“How could I look like this from a change of food and lack of water intake in just one week?” I offered my own theories. “We just got a puppy last weekend. Is it possible I am allergic to him?” I asked, suddenly recalling the conversation with my sister after we brought Buddy home. When I mentioned the breeder supplied us with medication for parasites, she wasn’t concerned because her dog also had this parasite and she left the breeder’s property with the same antibiotics. Was this a mere coincidence? Even though no one in her family got sick, I felt like this was important information to share. “Oh, wait, he also has some sort of parasite named, uh, giardia. Could I have gotten that?”
The doctor’s beeper went off. He grabbed it from his belt buckle, glanced at the message and looked back at me. “Your dog should have nothing to do with this situation. Humans don’t typically get that from dogs and your symptoms don’t match up either. We’ll get you better before you leave. I am sure you are frustrated and tired at this point. I’ll be back once you take the enema and let’s see where you’re at.”
Jeff saw my face fall and knew I wasn’t satisfied. After the first enema was unsuccessful, the doctor ordered a second one. While waiting for this one to work, I wracked my brain for a better explanation. I came up with nothing, banking on the doctor’s expertise.
Neither enema procedures relieved my symptoms and only caused more discomfort in my abdomen. I was too sick to ask why I had not improved. The doctor ordered a third enema and a hospital room.
“Once you get transferred, the nurse upstairs will give it to you. You should see your internist during rounds tomorrow morning in case you have further questions. Good luck and feel better.”
I was not feeling better, but it was a comfort to have Jeff by my side for a while. I encouraged him to go home and relieve the babysitter. “There’s no point to sit here with me while I wait to be transferred. I’ll be sure to text you if I explode. Besides, I don’t want the girls to worry about me. And, someone has to deal with Buddy.”
Jeff planted a kiss on my lips before leaving the emergency room cubicle.
“I love you, hon. If you can, try to get a decent sleep and I’ll call you in the morning. Hang in there…and oh, good luck with that explosion!” he said and winked.
Once I was transferred to the second floor of the hospital, the nurse reminded me, “Third time’s the charm sweetie.” I had high hopes for relief. Within minutes, I felt the kind of pressure inside me as if someone turned on the faucet to a backyard hose. I grabbed the bathroom side rail to keep my balance and prayed for good aim. I was sweating profusely and losing my balance. My body was growing weaker by the second and my hands trembled, and I wondered why we ever got Buddy.
I bristled hearing my internist’s response the next morning.
“I hear you finally had some relief last night. That must have felt good. Now what do you think happened for you to have experienced such severe constipation?”
I briefly reviewed my week, emphasizing my new puppy, the parasite he had and the many symptoms that led to my situation. The doctor was silent, then recommended I exercise more and stop taking Advil, which I had taken to relieve the onset of headaches. He closed my chart, stood and said, “I’ll put you on a laxative for a short time so you can get back on schedule. Let’s chalk it up to one action that spiraled into the next. You’ll be fine.”