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The Price We Pay

We lost our first family dog last December. When we got her five years ago, we weren't looking for a dog, even though our kids had been begging for one for quite a while. Our contention was that with three kids, two of them in travel sports, and with how much we stay on the go, it was hard to imagine how a dog would fit into our lives. It didn't seem fair to even have a dog--any dog, no matter the breed. BUT, we insisted, IF we ever did get one, it would HAVE to be one that DIDN'T SHED. And those are the kinds of things that we say that make God laugh I think.

My wife found out about Rhya on a Saturday afternoon. It was sort of a military rescue situation, with the owner needing to find his dog a new home soon as he prepared for an extended absence. Now, it could have been because she was pouring champagne as she began to tell me the details, but something immediately felt right about it. I knew we couldn't handle a puppy, and I've never been a small dog person. This was a two year old German Shepherd, already crate trained. By Sunday morning we were going to meet her, and while I remember seeing hair stuck to pretty much everything in the owner's house, it wasn't my house, so it wasn't real. Not yet anyway. I probably thought, naively, that we could do a better job cleaning up after her, but this was before I knew the breed was affectionately known as German Shedder. Plus, Ryha made it easy to overlook anything negative we might have otherwise noticed. She was smaller than a lot of Shepherds I'd seen and had none of the intimidating features. Instead, everything about her demeanor suggested she was calm and sweet. We knew the owner through kids' sports, well enough that he offered to let us trial her for a few weeks while he was away and before he would be relocated for a much longer period.

Her size, sweetness, and personality were key, as our youngest son was terrified of dogs at the time. He'd been tackled recently by a ginormous Great Dane who only wanted to lick and play, but as I'd told his older brothers to discourage them from giving him too hard a time, proportionally it was like them being tackled by a dinosaur. We knew it was going to be an issue, but were hoping that we could ease him into the situation. As such, we'd driven separate cars, so after a brief meet and greet, I loaded Rhya up in one car and my wife took our boys home in the other. Once home, I thought if I brought her in through the back door that I might be able to just slip her in without him even noticing. Not so fast.

Instead, there he sat, on the couch, shedding an ocean of tears and begging for me to take her back home. As parenting situations go, this one was tricky. My older boys, who'd been the ones begging for a dog, were thrilled, while my youngest was beside himself terrified and pleading with me not to continue torturing him. I knew he would get over the fear eventually, but I had no idea how long it would take and wondered if we might have to return her before sundown at this rate. But in a fortunate turn of events and a testament to her nature, after our son cried himself to sleep, I let her inside. She immediately snuggled up beside the couch and laid down just below him. When he awoke, after some initial trepidation, he put a reluctant hand on her. That tentative first pet soon turned into a rub, which later turned into a hug, and by sundown instead of loading her back up to return her to her previous home, I heard him whisper "I love you, Rhya" and texted the owner that the trial was over.

Five years later, she wasn't just our pet. Neighbors and friends loved her. Family members, like my wife's grandmother, who swore they didn't like dogs of any kind, found themselves in love with her after even a short visit. She was so chill, in fact, that I made it a habit of taking her to my retail business most days in the offseason. It seems almost crazy to me in hindsight (and hopefully my insurance agent isn't reading this . . .), but I used to work in my office and just let her roam the sales floor--unattended except by my staff, who loved her like their own. That's how much I trusted her. Shoppers in town for the week would often meet her early in their visit, then return daily just to see her. Countless customers cried right there in the store because they'd recently lost a dog, and she served as therapy for them. Many of those customers have returned this year looking for her. Just the other day, a staff member came into the office misty-eyed because a customer had asked where Rhya was.

After we lost her, people gave our family a little time and space to grieve, but soon started sending us messages about dogs that needed a new home. Once it started, it seemed like it would never stop. There were puppies for sale or up for adoption. Rescues of various ages all over the region. Different sizes, breeds, and situations. Everyone had great intentions, but nothing seemed like the right fit. A few months ago I was ready to hop in the car and drive to Baton Rouge for a Shepherd, only to find out they absolutely would not release a dog to a family that didn't have a fence. We briefly flirted with a puppy rescue, but a thirty second phone call reminded me that there's just no room for a puppy in our current situation. My wife and I both work, and for the most part, between school, work, and sports practices, we're all gone 12 hours a day give or take. It's not easy saying no to your kids when they show you their friend's dog that's having puppies. They don't understand, but after a while I did wonder if we'd ever find the right fit again. Part me of me couldn't help but wonder if I was making excuses out of selfish convenience. Lord knows it had been easier to travel without having a plan for Rhya, and even though we missed her, we didn't miss the flexibility, and we definitely didn't miss the hair.

And then, just as suddenly as Rhya had come into our lives, my wife got a picture of not just a Shepherd, but a two year old military rescue in need of a new home. The circumstances were indeed similar, but the pictures were uncanny. I think the first pictures came on a Tuesday, and he was laying in the grass in such a way that he looked almost identical to Rhya. On Wednesday I texted the owner to explore the possibility of a meet, and by Thursday, I had cleared my schedule and was headed west on I-10 to go meet Axel. After all the doubt, questioning my own desires to even get a new dog and wondering if I was just being lazy and selfish, I was shocked at my own excitement to go meet him. It was like as soon as I committed, I couldn't get there fast enough. And even though we agreed to just see how things went, that this would be a trial, I'd been here before and somehow just knew--and there wasn't even champagne this time.

At the park where we met, he was glued to his temporary mother's hip--a combination of loyal protectiveness, but obvious separation anxiety as he'd been passed around a lot for his young age. But he checked me out and even let me pet him a little before running off to play. The mom was already having a hard time letting him go, even though she'd only had him a relatively short time. They'd bonded quickly, as she'd been in between travel nursing gigs and spent all day every day with him. After a while, though, it was time to put this thing to the test. He was super anxious when he first got into the car with me, scanning the rear window to try and find her as we exited the parking lot. As we headed east along Highway 90, he circled the tight space and breathed in quick, heavy pants. But by the time we reached I-10, his breathing had slowed, and as I approached Mobile, an hour or so from where I'd picked him up, he was laying down in the bed she had given me and was resting his chin on his paws, if not napping then at least at peace. At that point I knew the trial was over.

That said, as sweet as he seemed to be, reality came in waves as I got closer to home. The busyness of our schedule set in, and I thought about what this new family member would need. What it would take to care for him, especially after what he'd been through. Rhya was so laid back we used to let her wander outside unsupervised--sometimes to the chagrin of neighbors. Based on what I'd seen from him at the park and from talking to his mom, not only would Axel probably never have that kind of freedom, but I found myself worrying that maybe there was a reason that the shelters wouldn't release a dog to owners without a fence and that he would have to be on a leash 24/7. It sank in what lazy dog owners Rhya had allowed us to be and I worried we might not be up to the task. And yes, I thought about the hair, especially after I glanced over my shoulder a few times, laughing uneasily at the fact that hundreds of loose hairs were already velcroed to the carpet where I'd laid down the rear seats in my wife's car. But that's also when I looked in the rearview mirror and into his eyes and I swear it was like I was staring at Rhya. It was a Godwink moment, and that's when it hit me--that that's the price we pay for love. Whatever it took, whatever we had to put up with, however we had to change and adapt, we would do it.

We knew the hair would be an issue, but a month in, we now know he's also a really sloppy eater and drinker. The trail of food and water he leaves in the hall--it's like having a toddler around. He's all boy, and he can be rough at times. His bark is intense to the point of being borderline scary, especially to my youngest son's friends who come over. I love having a protector, but when he barks at one of us going to the bathroom in the middle of the night and wakes the whole house, well, you know. And I wake up early, but this dude wants to go for a walk when it's still nighttime on my clock, and he nudges me hard to tell me. He demands far more attention than Rhya ever did. She was content to sit on the couch on our back porch for hours by herself. If you're not paying enough attention to Axel, he lets you know. So much so that it's hard to type sometimes because he has a way of using his snout to lift my arm so hard and fast that if I don't use that newly freed hand to pet him, he'll continue thrusting until I give in. Which I always do, and end up hunting, pecking and typing with one finger, smiling and shaking my head as I do so and telling him he's a good boy. And the hair, of course, immediately began to accumulate, and it seems worse than ever. Like you can do a thorough vacuum, go take a shower, and when you come back, it's as if someone dumped the vacuum out onto the floor.

All that said, we fell in love with this dog so quickly it surprised all of us, as if we had no way of knowing what we'd missed until something came along to fill the void Rhya left when we lost her, no way of knowing the healing we needed but immediately realizing that's exactly what he had brought to our home. And even when I see his food strewn all down the hall or he's nudging me before dawn to get out of bed and play, it's different this time because I know that love always costs something.

I don't know that I'd ever thought about love that way until Axel came into our lives, or maybe he just crystallized it for me, but as that idea sank in, I realized how much that concept governs all our relationships. That for everyone we have in our lives, at least those that we keep close--there is always a price to pay because none of us are perfect, and when we allow people into our world, we have to make decisions about whether we're willing to continue to pay whatever price that relationship comes with. We all tolerate imperfections, disappointments, tribulations, even transgressions from those we love. Until we can't, or won't any longer. And that's what we have to consistently evaluate throughout our lives: whether we are willing to pay the price. That price can often mean sacrifice, whether it be time, convenience, or even pride, and we also decide the amount we're willing to pay, constantly adjusting the time we devote to others and how much we put into the relationship. Some people choose to sever ties rather than pay the price; at the very least, we pay less and less until the relationship is essentially gone. I've seen family members fight, then just stop talking. Some have gone to their graves without reconciling, while others seem destined to. I've seen family members' buckle under the pressure of caring for loved ones. I've seen other relationships come under strain, whether it's with friends who just don't get along anymore or have moved into a different phase of life and things just aren't the same--even with, actually often with, my employees. Relationships come and go, but I've lived long enough to see how time takes its toll on everything. The greatest teacher to ever live taught us to love our neighbor, but even He knew how hard it would be for all of us.

Axel's been with us almost a month now, and while we all talked in the early days about how awesome it was having a dog around again, the novelty for the most part has worn off. And I don't mean that in a bad way. It's just human nature, and as I've gotten older I've better recognized that initial high, partly to guard against any letdown that it's gone because it cannot last. Just yesterday morning, my wife had a come apart over the hair, which was after she'd had to take him out early (she's not a morning person . . .) and he'd then spilled her coffee all over her because he's used to me wrestling with him in the morning. In the end, it was more about her being tired (aka hungover) and her whole life feeling like it was a mess. The hair was just the trigger. Soon she'd vacuumed the whole house, we'd cleaned up from the previous night's shenanigans, and life was back to normal (for good measure, she did command him to stop shedding for at least a little while). And as long as he's with us, our house will never be as clean as it was those nine months after we lost Rhya. But we know now just how empty it was without her, and that's what we'll remember when we grab the vacuum for the third time that day, clean up after him, or stumble through the dark to take him out or struggle to go back to sleep after he barks at an apparition--that it's a small price to pay for the love he's brought.

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