Joint Custody Dog

I didn’t want a dog.

In 1998 I was a single mother of three young children (ages 4, 7 and 9), trying to find my emotional and financial footing following an explosive divorce. I had just started a new job as a real estate agent, and was trying to juggle being on call 24/7 to my clients with the demands of motherhood. Space and privacy were at a premium in our 1,000 s.f. condo, and we shared a postage-stamp-sized back yard with our upstairs neighbors. It was early summer, and the kids were out of school and in day camps; I worked until about three o’clock and spent afternoons ferrying them around to play dates and playgrounds and running errands while compulsively checking my office voice mail.

I didn’t have time for a puppy.

But seven-year-old Cecily never missed an opportunity to remind us she wanted-deserved-couldn’t-live-without a puppy, and that summer she finally wore her father down. George informed me that he had decided to get a puppy, and proposed that we share it. I reluctantly went along with the plan, so long as this “joint custody dog” was small and non-shedding. We settled on a cockpaoo (or “cockerpoo” — there’s no consensus on what to call a cocker spaniel-poodle mix). George picked out the puppy from a breeder and left it in a friend’s care until the following weekend, when he planned to surprise Cecily with “her” new puppy.

I remember the puppy’s entrance into our fractured family as vividly as I do the days when my children were born. The kids and I were waiting on the front porch for George to pick them up for the weekend. He climbed the steps cradling something small and yellow, which Cecily initially mistook for a stuffed animal. All three kids squealed when they realized that it was a real dog, one not much larger than the Beanie Babies they collected. Soft, cuddly and button-eyed, “Teddy” all but named himself.


Naming him was easy. Loving him took a little longer. I had no experience housebreaking a dog, and with the joint custody arrangement Teddy’s training was inconsistent. Mopping up puddles of pee on my floors and rugs, I resented that I was back to the canine equivalent of changing diapers. Crate-training him was a bust; he whined whenever we shut him in it. (The crate itself was a gigantic plastic eyesore that ate up precious space in the kitchen, which doubled as a dining room. I couldn’t wait to get rid of it.) I put a baby gate across the kitchen doorway to corral Teddy in the room where he could do the least material harm, but he was a hazard underfoot while I cooked or unloaded groceries, and he whined whenever we left him alone behind the gate. An indiscriminate chewer of shoes, toys and chair legs, he trailed the kids from room to room, seizing whatever they dropped in their wake. George and I talked about enrolling him in puppy kindergarten, but neither of us found the time, so Teddy never learned to walk properly on a leash — not that either of us had time to take him on regular walks. He jumped up to greet visitors of all sizes, flattening and frightening several of little Olivia’s playmates. Our first year with Teddy was pure chaos.

But all along he was irresistibly cute, making it hard to stay mad at him for more than a minute. Once he outgrew (most of) his bad habits he proved to be the perfect family pet: sweet-tempered and playful with the kids, sociable with other dogs (and the cats, birds, guinea pig and chinchilla who followed him into the family fold). And he wasn’t barker. He loved everyone he met, unconditionally, and his bonhomie inspired two of my friends to take the plunge and get dogs.

I couldn’t ask for a better dog.

In time, we moved to a bigger house, I remarried and changed careers and the kids grew up, but Teddy was the constant. George often worked late and traveled on business, and the joint custody arrangement gradually grew impractical. Even Cecily was too busy for a dog. The past few years Teddy spent most of the time with me and Peter, whose schedule was flexible enough to accommodate midday walks after I went back to work full time. He slept in our bed, on top of my feet. I used his name as a password and his photo as a profile picture. As a senior dog, Teddy grew stiff with arthritis, lost an eye to glaucoma and sprouted unsightly growths, but his stubby tail still wagged as fast as ever at the mention of his name or the whiff of a treat.

I didn’t want to lose a friend.

A few days ago, when the time came to say good-bye to Teddy, I could only think of the gaping hole his loss would leave in our family. We knew his days were numbered, and Cecily and her older brother had said their farewells before returning to college after winter break. Only Olivia, now 16, was left at home to see how miserable he was on his last day. We found a vet who makes house calls so Teddy could die at home, in his own dog bed. Olivia, George, Peter and I sat on the floor, circling his bed and stroking him as the vet administered the lethal injection. The older of our two cats, the one Teddy spooned with on the sofa and whose ears he licked lasciviously, sat nearby, bearing witness.

At the decisive moment, though heavily sedated, Teddy let out a primal howl that shook us all. It wasn’t a sharp yelp of pain, but a deep, lusty baying, as if he was calling out to his ancestral pack, “Wait for me, I’m coming!” And then it was over and he was still. That piercing howl echoed in our heads as the vet bundled Teddy’s body into a mylar sling and carried him away.

Our house is too quiet without Teddy.

My husband, Peter C. Johnson, wrote a song called “I’m A Dog” for his 2001 CD, “Bloodshot.” In the background, you can hear the children “barking.” Teddy had a special affinity for this song. Whenever we played it he would howl, singing along from the very first note, right through to the end. It was a great (his only) parlor trick.

One of the Family


9 Responses to “Joint Custody Dog”

  1. 1 Martha Johnson January 22, 2011 at 7:06 am

    Succinct. Perfect. Now that is a real ‘Love Story’. I still trip over our Golden Retriever at least once a week because she follows me wherever I go. She breathes in my face to wake me up in the morning. Poops on the deck just outside the door on snowy days, and jumps up only on women wearing black wool pants. She loves to ride in the car but won’t get in it unless I lift her in. But she’s our dog. We’ve had a lot of dogs and each time we walk the new puppy or grown up gift dog into the house for the first time, I think ‘what are we doing?’ We will fall in love with her and then she will die. Why are we doing this to ourselves? But then she trots back over to us and stands there looking so hopeful and worried that she might not be allowed to stay, that we get down on our hands and knees and touch that soft fur and allow a slobbery salute, and we’re done.

    • 2 jandev January 22, 2011 at 7:33 am

      Thanks, Martha. Teddy took to relieving himself on the front porch in bad weather, too. I had to cover up the yellow snow so it wouldn’t remind me of him. If only dogs lived longer, say, as long as pet birds. “Cecily’s bird” could outlive us all!

  2. 3 Jeff January 22, 2011 at 9:13 am

    Wonderful tribute!

  3. 4 Elizabeth January 22, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    love story, indeed!

  4. 5 Kate Ditzler January 24, 2011 at 3:57 pm

    Wow, Jan, what a beautifully written tribute. Made me cry (gosh darn those hormones at 52!) and really reminded me of our Apollo….who is extremely lovable and dominates me virtually non stop….I haven’t trained him very well, but he remains my most faithful companion and is definitely a beloved family member. You’re a gorgeous writer and we’ll miss Teddy in the Christmas photos!

  5. 7 David Rhee January 25, 2011 at 2:38 pm

    Hello Jan,

    Thank you for the pics of Marcus today! The photos look fantastic! Also thank you for pointing your blog about your Teddy to Steph. She forwarded your email. You see, our dog Pluto’s ashes were delivered to our home yesterday, and we all sat around and cried over it… reading your blog about Teddy made me feel a bit better knowing that other people share similar emotions. Thank you for sharing. 🙂


    • 8 jandev January 25, 2011 at 3:24 pm

      Thank you, David. When I saw Marcus with Steph in the foyer this morning, my heart melted. He is such an adorable puppy (though he’s already almost as big as Teddy was full grown!). He was so calm and sweet, even with all of us around wanting to pat him. I can tell he’s going to be a gentle giant. He definitely brightened my day!

  6. 9 Kasey February 15, 2011 at 11:18 am


    What an extraordinary story. A touching tribute to Teddy and so much more than that. You’ve written an inspiring story about love and loss and hope. Beautiful and poignant. What a gift you have!


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