Puppy love, it’s not

A Labrador retriever provides a couple with a lesson in listening and love.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Small dog playroom at a doggie day-care center in Washington, D.C.

My husband’s nemesis weighs 35 pounds this week, although the vet says he will be 50 pounds within a month. He has gigantic paws. 

To other people, these paws are adorable. They are the object of much gushing – from the mother and daughter near the library, the silver-haired matron at the farmers market, the men with callused hands wearing plaid. 

“Just look at them! He’s going to be huge!” one says, getting down on his knees with the goofy smile of a grown man confronting a Labrador puppy.

My dog wags his baby tail. A college girl squeals. “Soooooo cute!” she says. She also kneels down to pet my dog, coos as she strokes his ears, and then gazes up at her date. 

I smile proudly, slipping the pup a treat because I have read that this encourages socialization. My husband rolls his eyes. 

My husband, I have discovered, is not a dog person. He doesn’t like the big paws. He doesn’t like the puppy smell. He doesn’t want to cuddle the dog (gross!) or laugh at puppy antics (totally not funny, actually kind of destructive, and why did we do this to ourselves?) or look on proudly when that roly-poly body works itself into a sit, dark eyes eager and expectant. 

This puppy, this adorable yellow Labrador retriever with a face that Hallmark would covet, makes my husband miserable.

At first I found this bewildering. How did this equation keep coming out wrong? Cute puppy plus dear husband equals ... misery? 

Then it was distressing. I began getting up earlier and earlier to catch the pup before anything puppylike could happen. I worried every time he sniffed, let alone squatted. I wanted him to be the perfect dog now. That way, my husband would see how wonderful it was to have a puppy.

Our older dog was young in a different life, long before children, when a night or two of barking didn’t deplete a sleep bank already dangerously low. That dog was well trained when my soon-to-be husband met him, happily retrieving tennis balls in the leafy garden outside my apartment building, wagging and politely endearing.

“This is the only dog I’ve ever liked,” my husband told me then, scratching behind my dog’s ears. My heart melted. One day we’d have children, more dogs, and a big yard. We’d live happily ever after. And then he’d realize he loves dogs. Of course he will.

And of course he hasn’t. 

The simple clarity of it came to me one evening after our girls were asleep, after I looked around at the scene I had imagined in all of its rural perfection, except for the increasingly stressed-out husband. The moon had turned the yard silvery gray. The candles I’d bought for the dark New England winter flickered prettily. (The books on hygge, that Scandinavian winter survival strategy, suggested that candles would lift spirits. They also sort of cover up dog smell.) My puppy whined up at me, eyes adoring. My husband sighed.

“Oh,” I said to him, as I started toward my jacket and the dog’s leash. “I think I just figured something out. You just really don’t like dogs.” 

He gave me a look. And then laughed. A beautiful laugh that I hadn’t heard for a while. “No,” he said. “I really don’t.” 

And that was the start. 

We read about those phrases in the news analyses of today: hearing and acceptance, others’ points of view, differing realities. They are our world’s divide, our country’s heartbreak. I have written a book about them. I lecture about them. 

But somehow it took a Labrador retriever puppy to make me understand what they might mean at home. I am not sure how I feel about this.

The next months would be a new sort of dance for us, of figuring out how to connect across this difference I didn’t realize could exist. My husband would begin to relax. I would begin to relax. The pup would grow, and even gain – now and then – some of my husband’s affection, if not adoration. And we kept practicing, in our admittedly blessed life, in this teensiest, silliest way, that necessary combination of listening and love.

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