Dog daze: Confessions of a struggling dog sitter

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 2/17/11]  

Dogs are great, but at this point in my life, I just don’t have the time or the desire for that kind of a commitment.

That reality, however, has once again failed to stop my parents from charging me with the responsibility of dog sitting for them while they spend the next few weeks in Florida.

Honestly, there are worse assignments. The dog, Kelsey, is a 5-year-old golden retriever.

She’s fairly low maintenance; well behaved, not a chewer and better house-trained than some humans. On top of that, she’s got a great personality (to the extent that dogs have personalities).

My parents bought Kelsey when I was in college, when it was just the two of them at home. From puppyhood, she grew up with only my parents around and she is very much their dog.

When my parents are home she will follow them from room to room, flopping herself in the middle of the kitchen floor while my mom prepares meals, and napping at my dad’s feet while he naps in his recliner.

At night, while my parents watch TV, Kelsey, in between bouts of fervent, attention-grabbing tail chasing, will proudly haul her toys out of a nearby basket and put them on display until she finally throws herself on her back demanding a belly rub, which my parents have no choice but to oblige.

By dog standards, Kelsey is spoiled. She’s got her own couch in my parents’ bedroom (like, a nice one).

My father — never one to spoil his real children (we have mom for that)— frequently takes Kelsey along with him on his daily errands.

The two of them bombing around town in my father’s decommissioned orange CVPS truck (that’s another story entirely) are a sight — like “Travels with Charlie” if all Steinbeck did was go to Big Lenny’s and Home Depot.

Indeed, Kelsey is the perfect accomplice for my father’s daily adventures, which typically involve sneaking food like the aforementioned hot dogs: she’ll never talk and will always finish any leftover evidence.

Kelsey’s got it pretty good with my parents.

So imagine her perennial dismay when that luggage appears in the hallway. By now, you’d think she’d be used to it, but every year the sight pushes her over the edge into a melancholy display of moping about that is precisely designed to make my parents feel guilty about leaving her behind.

Last week, Kelsey really upped the ante. Over the last year or so, she’s developed limp brought on by a bad hip. Lately, though, it’s been fine. But in the days leading up to my parents’ departure, the limp came back with a vengeance.

And she really laid it on thick, too, staring at my parents as she pulled herself up off the floor or hobbled into a room, as if to say, “Go to Florida, don’t mind me. I probably couldn’t make the trip anyway because of my hip, but you go and enjoy yourselves. I insist.”

A day after they left, the limp was gone.

Kelsey and I are reluctant roommates. It’s an arrangement that neither of us particularly enjoy because it means major disruptions in our regular routines — mine of not having to be responsible for anyone but myself and her hers of being my parents’ spoiled, four-legged favorite child.

For a few days after my parents leave, Kelsey is inconsolable. She will just sit on her couch and stare listlessly out the window. It’s sad, but at the same time, kind of humorous — this dog really has a flare for the melodramatic. Dogs are supposed to be creatures of boundless enthusiasm and positivity. To see them any other way is just sad, even when it’s entirely over the top as is Kelsey’s case.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a very good dog sitter. I’m competent — Kelsey gets fed and let outside as needed — but compared to my parents, I’m like that substitute teacher who shows up to class determined to follow the lesson plan and not have any fun.

The biggest part of my fun embargo is promptly putting Kelsey on a diet. Keeping her weight down is important because of her bad hip. My parents, being too soft to be the bad guys, rely on me to do their dirty work every winter so they can come back and re-spoil her in the spring with ice cream and extra cups of kibble.

(And just like the petulant student to my stern substitute, Kelsey will have none of my “You’ll thank me for this later” justifications.)

I am also allergic to dogs. It’s not a bad allergy, but getting too close to one for too long usually results in itchy eyes and a lot sneezing. That means that Kelsey — a dog who craves affection — and my interactions are not exactly warm.

Add all this up and it’s a wonder the poor dog hasn’t taken off on her own “Incredible Journey” to Florida in search of my parents.

This year, looking to better myself as a dog sitter, I decided to seek some professional consultation. I paid a visit to Candy Bourque of Canine to Five in Rutland, who has 15 years experience as a certified obedience instructor.

Candy said exercise and extra attention and stimulation at the end of the day are essential to keeping a dog happy and preventing anxiety.

I do try to make it fun for Kelsey. Weather and time permitting, I take her out for walks in the neighborhood or up to Pine Hill Park.

On those days when I can’t, Candy suggested I encourage Kelsey to play with her chew toys.

“Using their mouth is exercise ,” she said. “It stimulates the brain.”

She also advised that dogs shouldn’t spend more than six hours alone inside — a schedule I try my very best to keep.

“And if you’re feeling guilty, you can always give her a treat,” she said. It might not fit with Kelsey’s diet, but Candy assured me that a treat every now and then wouldn’t hurt.

Living with my parents, Kelsey is accustomed to an lively home — people coming and going throughout the day, phones ringing, TVs on at the old-person level.

I am considerably less noisy so I try to make it a little louder. When I go to work, I’ll leave the radio on, another good idea according to Candy. (Though, the radio in question is tuned to NPR, which some might consider cruel, especially during the recent pledge drive.)

I also talk to Kelsey; not in that condescending baby voice people often do with dogs. No, I prefer to have sincere conversations with her. I tell her about my day, talk about what I’m making for dinner, ask her if she listened to that day’s episode of “Fresh Air” — you know, small talk. While most of these talks are one-sided, I get the feeling she kind of appreciates it.

After the first couple days of sulking, Kelsey does finally come around. When I get home, she will greet me at the door. When I’m cooking, she will lay on the floor like she does with my mom. And when I go to bed, she will park herself outside my bedroom door (which is sweet until I trip over her in the middle of the night).

When my parents return, Kelsey and I will go back to our respective lives. But with each year, we bond a little more and the idea of getting a dog of my own with all its requisite responsibilities doesn’t seem so bad.

Kids, on the other hand, are whole other story.

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