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Toby (a Love Story)

“Don’t you think that dog is beautiful?” she asks, showing me a picture of a pit bull on the animal adoption website for the hundredth time.

She sees something in them that I just can’t quite find, and believes with unbated optimism that, given enough opportunities, I too will fall in love with a dog sporting a military buzz cut and the physique of Dwane “the Rock” Johnson.

Maybe this picture will be the one that changes my mind?


We agree on many things, but haven’t quite found an ideal compromise on the issue of puppers.

Her position is that dogs are essential to a well-rounded childhood, perfect four-legged therapists for our four small kiddos. A family just isn’t quite complete without a domesticated carnivore asleep on the couch (and apparently I don’t count).

To me, a dog just sounds like a lot of work.

Don’t get me wrong — I like puppers as much as the next millennial. But I’ve never loved a dog.

Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, there was always a golden retriever or two in our family but they were outside dogs who ran around in the woods all day and preferred to sleep in the snow even when I built an honest-to-god dog house for them. Every summer there’d be a new batch of pure-bred puppies and a few weeks later they’d all be sold to their new families. Puppers were a pretty much a commodity to me — an adorable commodity, sure, but not real family members. They came and went, and we took care of them when they were ours, but never got too attached.

So when she talks about a dog being a real family member, till death do us part, I don’t have any experience with that. The whole routine of walking a dog, bagging his poop, brushing his hair, washing him in the bathtub — these were all new to me.  I’m not used to having a dog on a couch, or a dog in my bed, and to be honest I’m not sure I love that idea very much.

We already have four children who constantly beg for food and pee in inappropriate places and trash the house and jump on us when we’re trying to sleep. Adding a four-legged creature who specializes in those specific shenanigans sounds exhausting.


One day in February, she took a few of the kids to the humane society “just to walk the dogs”, as she tells it now.

I didn’t know that the boys were going to want to bring one home.

I roll my eyes and laugh, because who can go to the humane society and “just walk dogs”?

So when Keenan fell in love with Toby and insisted that we needed to bring him home, it was an accident that no one could have seen coming.



I have always felt like it is my job to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.

Maybe it’s because I was the oldest boy in a large family. My dad worked a lot when I was a kid and it usually fell to me to mow the lawn and haul firewood and fulfill all the other stereotypically manly duties.

Maybe it’s because the Christian patriarchy drilled into my head the lie that I am responsible for the well-being of everyone around me: women cannot be trusted to manage their own emotions or earn their own money or make their own decisions or take care of themselves.

Maybe it’s just how I manage my fear that I won’t be loved — if I can hold the world together with my bare hands, perhaps it won’t fall apart and leave me on my own.

This feeling — that I carry the world on my shoulders — is painful and isolating and exhausting and most of the time I am completely unaware of it. It’s buried under quite a few layers of constantly planning ahead and also getting shit done(!) and most of the time I don’t put it into words.

Instead, I say things like “I don’t think I want to get a dog. It sounds like a lot of work.

When you feel like you alone carry the whole world on your back, adding a pupper to that mountain of responsibility sounds like just a little too much to handle.


But I’m learning that I don’t have to hold the world together all alone.

She tells me that this is the whole point of having a partner — which makes sense in my head but is still hard to trust.

Still, I’m trying.

So I went to meet to Toby.

I walked in and there he was, sad and lonely, his ribs showing through his golden-red coat. When he saw me, he sat up and reached between the bars of his cage to gently rest his paw in my hand.

At that moment, I knew he was ours.

I didn’t have to think about it or decide or even make a pros and cons list in my mind.

He belonged with us, and we had come to bring him home.


When we got to the house, I opened the fridge and got some sliced cheese for Toby, ready to put some weight on those skinny ribs. He gobbled it up and wanted more. Over the next few days, we’d fill his bowl and feed him cheese by hand and refill his water over and over as he drank up ten times as much water as a dog his size should and proceeded to piss it out all over the house in enormous puddles.

I’d sigh and grab the paper towels for the third time that day to mop up the latest iteration of Lake Tobypee, but I never hated him for it. He was ours, and we were going to take care of him.

But we also began to wonder if perhaps we had taken on more than we bargained for. Was this smol pupper not even housebroken?

(The universe has a sense of humor.)


Toby is an absolute goober.

Anybody who loves Toby knows that he is not the smartest pupper to ever pup.

All he cares about is food and cuddles and he spends most of his time trying to figure out how to acquire one or the other. (We have a lot in common.)

But none of his strategies involve scheming or sneaking. His go-to move — in fact, his only move — is to follow us around the house being needy and hoping somebody will notice him. When you make eye contact with him, he’ll lock his gaze on you and slowly roll onto his back, thumping his tail against the floor and waving both paws at you to subtly hint that he’d really really really like a belly rub right now please.


Toby naps for about 20 hours every day.

He’s apparently saving up energy for his one 10-minute burst of daily manic physicality — running laps from the living room to the bedroom and back again, his tail flailing wildly and his tongue flapping in the breeze. Every few seconds, he pauses to growl and yap and twerk his little dog butt in the air so that everybody knows he’s just playing and we’re all still friends.

He’ll do this outside in the snow too, if you let him, but he has a bad habit of running around the block sometimes without supervision, which wouldn’t be such a problem if he’d use the sidewalk. Of course, he prefers to gallop right down the middle of the street.


Toby hates goodbyes.

When Ellen leaves for work, he jumps up and paws at the door as she walks away. After a few moments, he sprints to the living room and leaps up on the back of the couch to stare out the window as she pulls away from the curb.

For the next ten minutes or so, he walks circles in the house crying. Sometimes I pick him up and hold him and tell him it’ll be ok. He doesn’t stop crying, but I think he appreciates the gesture. Eventually he  consoles himself by chewing on somebody’s stuffed animal and taking a nap.


I’ve never known what it feels like to fall in love with a dog.

But I love Toby.

I love his dumb adorable face. I love the way he wags his whole body when he hears me open the fridge. I love when he stands up on two feet and eats hot dogs out of my hand. I love when he curls up on the foot of our bed and snores like an old man and barks at whatever critters he’s seeing in his little pupper dreams. I love the way he flails around when he sees fresh snow. I love watching him play with the kids. I love walking around the block with him right before bed, his tiny little legs trotting along at double-speed to keep up with my long strides. I love running my fingers through his soft fur, especially the white patch under his throat.

He is beautiful. And I love him.


It turns out, Toby is indeed housebroken.. But he just couldn’t help peeing everywhere because he he was drinking so much damn water. Being a medical professional, Ellen soon suspected that something else was wrong. So she took him to the vet down the block from our house and her suspicions were confirmed.

Toby has diabetes.

Of course.

While I was worried about all dog-walking and poop-bagging and fur-brushing, we went and got a dog who needs all that plus twice-a-day insulin injections and homemade zero-carb dog food slow-cooked in the InstantPot every weekend.

The universe is funny like that.

But it’s ok, because I love that dumb pupper with all my heart. And giving insulin injections isn’t that bad once you get the hang of it.

Also, I’m slowly coming to accept that it’s not my job to carry the weight of the world on my shoulders.




So I guess the moral of the story is that when you open your heart, sometimes more is asked of you than you even expected, but in the end it’s better than you had imagined.

I love you, Toby.

I’m glad you found your way home.

published April 23, 2018

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