My Dog, My Kid and Me: A Love Triangle

What the dogs in my life have taught me, and my daughter, about love.
By: Vanessa McGrady
My dog, my kid, and me: a love triangle

I precisely remember the moment I became a dog mom: The first time I saw Lucy was in the spring of 1998. She was on a sliver of shoulder on a twisty road. One wrong step would have sent her down a sheer cliff to the frigid waters of Discovery Bay on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula.

I slowed down to get a better look at this sleek, quick mutt, a cross between a beagle and a hound. Pretty. Redheaded. But there was no place to pull over for about a mile and when I finally did, I couldn’t find any trace of her.

A month later I went to the pound and lo, there was that same dog from the road. She’d been picked up a couple miles from where I’d seen her. They gave her a name — Popcorn, for good reason. She was super spazzy and just wouldn’t be still, jumping around the pen or trying to lift off and take flight when she was on a leash. I named her Lucy.

The first night we settled down by the fire with Cabernet for me and a bone for her, and she happily drifted to sleep. In the morning, she jumped with a slight start, furiously wagged her tail, broke out into a huge doggie smile, and peed a little with excitement. It was, truly, the first day of the rest of our lives together.

She never fetched one thing her whole life and greeted all strangers (even a burglar, once) as if she were running for mayor and could she please have their vote. She licked infinite tears from breakups and disappointments. She moved with me to three different places in Seattle and two in California. She logged thousands of miles, sitting shotgun as we traversed the Pacific Coast. Wherever we were, as long as Lucy was with me, I was home.

14 Years Later

Lucy became “The Best Dog Ever.” She welcomed a small, irresistible rat bastard, a Chihuahua my neighbor found on the 5 freeway and whom we called Cinco, with polite disdain that led to genuine affection. When my child, Grace, arrived in 2011, Lucy became my stunt double. She was endlessly patient with Grace, with an eye out for trouble, always. I learned to juggle everyone’s emissions and infractions.

Slowly, a tumor took hold in Lucy’s abdomen. It made it hard for her to pee at her own will; she had gloppy masses on her body that broke open and oozed. Sometimes she would fall over on her side as her hind legs seized up. We’d go outside about ten times a day, walking slowly, doing nothing. Two girls, just walking together. Going anywhere. Nowhere.

Cinco became her protector, licking her constantly, standing guard so nobody could get too close. In solidarity, he wouldn’t eat, either.  Lucy died and we were all bereft with grief—especially Cinco.

One morning, he pleaded to be let on to the bed with me, my husband and Grace, who was eight months old. Grace got a little too close to him, a little too curious, and he lashed out and took a nip under her eye. Without thinking, in a swift move, I swept Cinco from the bed to the floor, horrified that he’d gone there. My loyalty was clear.

We’d go outside about ten times a day, walking slowly, doing nothing. Two girls, just walking together. Going anywhere. Nowhere.

The scar on her cheek is nearly invisible, so faint, like the mark a pencil makes three sheets of paper down. Even though Grace has no conscious memory of the incident, she spent her young life nervous about dogs—all animals, actually—no matter how friendly they are. In a bittersweet parting, we found Cinco another home with big-hearted, child-free friends in Northern California.

I became a single mom when my husband and I split, and it felt like every free second I was wiping up something from someone. I vowed no more pets, at least until I had a place with a yard and a doggie door, or until my baby was fully potty trained so I only had to worry about one being’s poop in addition to my own. Maybe never, because there could never be a dog as good as Lucy. And also, my daughter was now terrified of all animals.

Hello Manuka

In the spring, when Grace had just turned four, I felt a stirring—the same kind I got nearly 20 years ago in the woods before I found Lucy—maybe it was time for a furry friend again, even though we still lived in the same apartment and Grace hadn’t been out of diapers a full year yet. We visited doe-eyed mutts at the farmer’s market where rescue groups set up shop and I scoured the internet. A couple hundred dog profiles later, we made our way to a stinky, cramped rescue organization in downtown Los Angeles. Grace, overwhelmed and freaked out, leaped up into my arms.

She was too scared to even hold a kitten the size of her hand. I gave up. Maybe she’d need to be older, I thought, though I worried that if she didn’t love dogs when she was little, she never would.

As we were on our way out, the rescue lady suggested maybe Apple was more our style. She pointed to a shy fluffball maltipoo puppy, about seven months old, which could easily have been mistaken for a wadded up grey sweater. I bent down to say hello, interrupting her gentle flirtation with a calico kitten, and gathered her in my arms.

Underneath all the fur, matted with what looked like crusted pancake batter, was a pair of tiny, sweet, pleading eyes. I held Apple to my chest. “Get me out of here,” she pleaded, sweetly, silently. “Yes baby. I will,” I said.

Grace was not convinced, still traumatized by the onslaught of smells and fur. “I don’t know if I want a real dog,” she said, mentioning that she had several stuffed toy dogs that suited her just fine. We agreed that we’d foster Apple for a week, to see if we liked her, and she liked us. Grace would have the final decision.

A few days later, I brought Apple home. Sweet and unsure, she glued herself to my heels. She didn’t know anything about walking on a leash and would spontaneously flip over onto her back for a tummy rub in the middle of the sidewalk. She desperately wanted to please us, to love us, to be the third girl of our family.

“Get me out of here,” she pleaded, sweetly, silently. “Yes baby. I will,” I said.

Within two hours of fostering, Grace had begun asking if the dog could sleep on her bed, and if we could keep her. Grace, herself an adopted child, knows the difference between a foster home and a forever one.

Grace, now 5, treats her like a pesky sister—sometimes she’s annoyed with her, often she wants to direct her behavior. But she’s also proud: Her charismatic pet has become sort of playground status symbol. Even a driver stopped in the middle of the street, backing up traffic, to gaze at our and inquire about her breed. She’s the new mayor of our neighborhood, and falls asleep on Grace’s bed every night, watching over her, not moving from her spot until Grace wakes.

We changed Apple’s name to Manuka, after sweet honey from New Zealand, where my mother is from, that has special, magical, healing qualities. It suits her perfectly.

Illustration: Josh Carter