By Cassandra Lane
My husband and I have been promising our son a puppy for years, but some obstacle – usually brought up by the mister – always stood in the way.
“He’s still too young. Not responsible enough yet,” Marcus said when Sol was 5.
“You’re probably right,” I conceded.
“But we live in an apartment,” he cautioned during our two-year stay in Downton L.A., where dogs were among the fastest growing population in that concrete neighborhood.
When, six years ago, we moved to a house with a decent backyard, the interior became the excuse, “Listen, I want our kid to have a dog just as much as you do, but we have a new white couch! And these bamboo floors smudge so easily. We don’t want paw prints everywhere.”
“So we have to wait until we pull up perfectly fine floors?” I shot back. “The kid’ll be in college by the time you come around.”
Still, every now and again, my son and I would stop in at Adopt & Shop in Culver City. “What if we just surprise Dad and bring this one home?” Sol asked once, pointing at a black pup with a white beard and stomach. Giddy, I approached the staff. “We have to have the whole family in for the consultation,” the woman said. “We have to make sure everyone is on board.”
Thwarted once again!
As the years ticked by and even I had to admit that our family was too busy to add a pup to our passing-ships-in-the-night routine – work, commutes, school, gym classes, martial arts, social commitments – the appeals for a dog subsided.
Until the pandemic hit.
Like many parents, we became increasingly worried about our son’s prolonged isolation, especially since he’s the only child at home. Just after his 13th birthday, we became first-time dog parents, becoming part of the pandemic’s uptick in first-time pet parents.
“The pet industry…is thriving as dog adoption rates have seen a 700 percent increase, allowing Zoom Room to continue providing exceptional and much needed dog training and socialization,” says Mark Van Wye, CEO of Zoom Room, a national indoor dog training gym with the motto “We don’t train dogs. We train the people who love them.” The company, which has a location in Culver City, offers socially-distanced classes, positive dog training, interactive playgroups and more.
Dog trainer and behaviorist Orlyn Phillips says he’s also witnessed “a giant boom of people getting pets because they have the time now to invest in them.” Still, he says, “a lot of people have no idea how much work it takes.”
We surely did not.
“Everyone likes the ‘idea’ of getting a dog — a good dog,” Phillips explains. “Even if they’ve never owned a dog, they grew up watching dogs in the movies. People want their Old Yellers and dogs like that, but to get there is what you don’t see in the movies. It takes hard work. In the end, it’s worth it, but you have to be invested.”
As a realist-optimist, I like phrases like “in the end, it’s worth it.” And I especially love the way Phillips describes his relationship with his childhood dog. “I had a dog growing up and it was virtually my only friend at the time,” he says. “I got to really understand my dog. We didn’t’ have words, but you get to understand each other by what you feel and sense.”
This is exactly what I wanted for Sol: a furry friend to help him feel less lonely, get off the screens and even learn how to be more responsible.
Choosing a pup
By the time we started our search in earnest late last summer, the pet adoption explosion was well underway. With COVID-19 restrictions in place, appointments were required, and several of the shelters and agencies we reached out to didn’t have any more dogs.
Thank goodness for Instagram. I landed on a photo one day of Jennifer Aniston showing off her newly adopted pup: a sleeping white cloud of cuteness she had named “Lord Chesterfield.” In the video, Lord Chesterfield is lying on his back on the sofa, his feet in the air, a chew toy in his mouth. Sleeping like the baby pup he was. Like the other 13.4 million viewers of the video, I swooned. Then, I scanned her caption to see if she tagged the adoption agency and, lo and behold, she had: @wagmorpets!
Wagmor Pets is an adoption and foster agency located in Studio City. Clicking on the handle immediately, I was in puppy heaven. There were photos of adorable puppies (and adult dogs) up and down the feed. In its IG bio, I clicked on the link to adopt, which takes you to an online adoption application form to fill out. Before filling out the form, you have to visit Wagmor’s list of available pets because that is the pet whose name you’ll put down on the form. On the form, you have to include photos of where your new pet will sleep and play, indoors and outdoors.
Sol and I narrowed down our puppy choices, finally settling on a black-and-white greyhound mix, called Jerry by his foster parent. We decided to rename him Pepper, having no idea that we were choosing a name that fit his personality perfectly.
After the application was processed, we were matched with our liaison, Eon, for an interview and tons of back-and-forth questions. The adoption would include a wellness check, deworming, vaccinations, microchipping and more. Eon notified the foster parent that Pepper had a forever home. Meanwhile, our family rushed to get pet-ready.
First: What to do about the white couch?
“Who gets a white couch?” one of Sol’s friends asked once. Laughing, I defended myself: “Technically, it’s off-white, Mister, and the linens are washable.”
Still, I placed a long piece of mustard-colored mud cloth across the couch, forgetting how much I prize that piece of mud cloth. I also had no idea how much Pepper would love my (prized) plants.
- Create a dedicated storage for your pet. “Like kid’s toys, pet toys and accessories have a way of exploding all over the house. Baskets are a great option, as the open-top means your pet can “self-serve” in retrieving their toys, but they can also integrate into the rest of your décor,” she says.
- Use color to mask pet hair and stains. “If leather isn’t your vibe, there are plenty of other upholstery options to consider when looking for pet-friendly furniture.”
- Cover up: “If you’re worried about your pet causing your furniture to age prematurely, you can also cover it up.”
In addition to covering our – ahem – off-white couch, we visited our nearest Petco to grab a crate, doggy bed, food, potty pads, shampoo, grain-free food, doggy bowls, toys and more. We had no idea what we were doing. Luckily, a Petco extraordinaire, Vanessa, held our hands through the hold shopping experience.
“New pet parents need to do some research” before they go to the store, Phillips says. “They don’t really know what to buy. Either they buy everything in sight or not enough or expensive stuff that just looks pretty.” Retractable leashes? “A retractable leash for a puppy is a hell no.”
Weighed down with our new items and brochures, we walked around our home that night, trying to imagine how our world was going to change the next evening when we brought Pepper home.
An early riser, I wrote in my journal the morning before he arrived. “Is it possible to hear the ghosts of things to come? I am walking around the house this morning while it’s still dark and can almost hear our soon-to-be pup here, padding beside me. The early mornings in this house are mine, Pepper. Will they be yours now, too, or will you sleep in with your teen parent?”
We picked Pepper up on a Sunday. At just five months old, he was surprisingly tall, gracefully lean. His jet-black coat glistened. The white fur lining his throat and belly gave him added charm, His amber eyes, wide and somber, led us to peg him as a low-energy pup.
We were wrong.
The car ride from the adoption center was brutal – Pepper does not like car rides – so by the time we got home, we were all frazzled. Nevertheless, Pepper got busy sniffing out the place right away. Every room, nook and cranny were visited by his snout. His first “accident” happened in the master bedroom. Marcus left to pick up an item we’d forgotten: a doggy gate.
When I saw my son cuddled up with Pepper on his bed later (and not on his cell phone!), I smiled. We had done the right thing.
I still believe that, but if I’m being honest, it has been no walk in the park. After Pepper showed his more peppery side – barking, howling (in the middle of the night!), biting – we decided to sign up for puppy training. Here’s the thing “they” don’t tell you: It takes a village to raise a pup.
We were lucky enough to schedule our first training sessions with Phillips, and one of his many pieces of advices that has helped us out tremendously is: “A tired dog is a well-behaved dog.
“Most of what people call bad behaviors are linked to lack of exercise,” he says. “And play time is necessary. Walking is necessary, but walking is not play time. Play time is when you are bonding with your dog, learning his habits, personality. This helps the dog want to listen to you.”
With the influx of new pet parents has come an influx in pets being abandoned or given up. “You have some people who are toughing it out, sticking through it,” Phillips says, “and then you have that percentage who are like, ‘This is too much,’ and with the stress of COVID and everything else, they relinquish the dog.”
To become successful pet parents, families have to be open to changing themselves. “If you’re not willing to change a little bit, to compromise and invest time, you shouldn’t have a dog,” Phillips says. “If you’re not willing to co-exist with this creature who has his own desires, drives, mind, nature and free will, you should not have a dog. Some people get these dogs and treat them like an object and not a living being.”
If you like cats, on the other hand, that might be a better option. “We’ve seen a lot more cat adoptions as well,” he says. “You don’t have to train cats.”
‘Furever’ home, forever changed
In addition to teaching Pepper new commands (with Phillips’ help, we’ve mastered “sit,” “roll over” and other communications), we’re learning what makes Pepper tick.
One of his sweet spots is food. He goes absolutely bananas for the tantalizing options from Pet Plate, a customized meal plan of healthy, fresh food for dogs. “Nutrition is important. Feed your dog good food that’s good for them, and you will eliminate a lot of vet visits and sicknesses that a lot of dogs suffer from when they’re older,” says Phillips.
This was part of Pet Plate founder Renaldo Webb’s mission when he started Pet Plate, which really took off after he appeared on Shark Tank. He left his consultant job in 2016 to partner with a veterinary nutritionist to craft each recipe. “As a pet owner myself, I really wanted to feed my dog the best food I could buy that was also convenient, so I started my own,” Webb says. “All of our ingredients are human grade and made at a USDA facility.”
My husband and I didn’t grow up thinking and talking about dogs in this way, so each day is a learning experience.
As the world opens back up a little more each month, we are introducing a little more of that world to Pepper whenever we can with hikes and neighbor meets, park visits and a plan to visit the Zoom Room in Culver City.
“Most people have been at home during the pandemic, but you have to start getting your dog acclimated to being alone during the day as things open back up,” Phillips says. “It’s very easy for a dog to believe that you are their whole world. You are not their whole world. So, get them out. Give your dog hobbies outside of you. Take them to socialize with other dogs at doggie daycares and things like that. That will start to rectify any separation anxiety.”
Whenever school and work places do reopen, I wonder whose heart in our home will flutter the fastest as we leave our pandemic gift of a puppy alone.
Right now, he’s sleeping at my feet as I write, his head snuggled under the off-white couch. The sofa is now more than off-white and my mud cloth now has a snout-sized hole in it, but I’m learning to adjust.
Cassandra Lane is editor in chief of L.A. Parent.