See that picture? That's Silas. He's my five year old, 22 pound, snorting, sniffling, drooling, panting black pug. And in the few years since I've been in charge of him, I've done an immense amount of growing up. How can such a dainty little nugget of an animal make anyone more manly? (Believe me, I don't feel particularly macho when I walk this little guy down the street.) It's not about the size of the dog in the household, it's the scope of the responsibility that falls upon the dog owner. And while this wee dapper doggy may look refined, he's much more high maintenance than you'd think. Co-existing with the little bugger has required more sacrifice, patience and maturity than I ever thought I'd have to muster before becoming a parent. What follows are a few important ways that owning a dog can make anyone a better man.
Squeamishness Be Gone
Congratulations! As a dog owner, you've just brought a permanent and prolific source of feces, vomit, drool, hair, anal gland leakage (you'll see…), urine and sometimes even blood into your home. If encountering a fragrant, auburn steamer coiled on your pillow sets your overly sensitive gag reflex off, then you've got some manning up to do. Luckily, as a dog owner, you don't have a choice. Grab some paper towels, roll them sleeves up and get down to “business.”
Routine, Routine, Routine
On any given Friday, it's a bachelor's prerogative to wake up at 8:55AM, punch in at 9:01AM, punch out at 4:59PM and have the first shot down by 5:15PM. Then, roll back in at 2 or 3 or 4 in the morning, crash on the couch and sleep like a hungover stone until 5PM. Try that with a pooch in your apartment and you're going to have some urine stains to deal with. Now, owning a dog isn't quite the same as basing your entire schedule around your kid's soccer practice. But it does mean that you're going to have to drag your ass out of bed ten minutes early to stand out in the rain with Fido while he finds a perfect spot to mark his territory every morning. And you'll have to do it again at least two more times a day before you pass out for the night. Don't worry, though. Sucking it up and being responsible when you least want to be is worth it. It builds character.
Letting Go of Selfishness
On that note, owning a dog introduces a concept that few single guys have yet to tackle in a real world situation: selflessness. Even when you shared a roof with roommates or frat brothers, everyone was pretty self-sufficient. Your laziness, tardiness or sloppiness didn't really hurt anyone but yourself. With a dog, it's different. Now, you have to think about his comfort, his rumbling belly and his insatiable need to go out and chase squirrels around the block at least once a day. Dog ownership is one of your first opportunities to care about someone other than yourself.
The Virtue of Patience
Don't let the cartoon stereotypes fool you–dogs are incredibly smart. They can read emotions, learn rules and even skirt around your authority in surprisingly ingenious ways. But the one thing that they can't do is read your mind. So, in order to teach them right from wrong and good from bad, you'll have to be consistent in your praise and punishment. Getting dogs up to speed on “sit,” “stay,” and “get your ass off the kitchen counter” takes everyday patience with no vacations.
Stand By Your Man(‘s Best Friend)
Adopting a dog isn't like renting a DVD. In fact, it's not even like buying a DVD. If it's defective, you don't like it or you find out you can't actually afford it, you can't send it back. It's yours for keeps–for better or for worse, in sickness and health and for richer or poorer. (Actually, you can bring it back to the pound or shelter if you can't handle it, but that'd be totally weak.)
That means you're going to have to learn to love and care for your new best friend even if he's a total jerk. When he chews up your autographed football collection, when he humps your date's leg, when he gets that pus-filled sore on his leg that smells like a zombie locker room, he's still all yours, forever and always. That's fidelity, man. And if you're faithful to him, he'll return the favor.
Asking for Favors
Unless you've decided to be a hermit, then there are going to be times when you can't take care of your dogs needs. Vacations, business trips, retreats, traffic jams–whatever it is that keeps you away from your dog, you're going to need a backup system. This introduces the social requirements of owning a dog. In order to do it right, you've got to know someone who (A) you can trust and (B) likes you enough to pick up your dog's poop while you're out of town. That can be tough. If you're thinking about getting a dog, then maybe now is a good time to introduce yourself to your neighbors. It's just not going to work out for you if you show up the day before your departing flight and say, “Hey, I'm Jim, I've been living next door for eight years. Could you walk my dog twice a day for the next week?”
Alternately, you can bring your dog to one of those abysmal kennels (where he'll likely get sick and tired) or hire a dog walker, but that's a whole other can of worms with its own vetting process.
So, your gracious neighbor agreed to watch your dog for a weekend. But while you were away, he got major separation anxiety and decided to separate the stuffing from the $5,000 Italian leather couch in your neighbor's parlor. Dumb dog, right? Dumb neighbor, too, for spending that much on a couch and then leaving a wild animal in there alone all afternoon. But guess what? It doesn't matter whose fault it is. Because it's your dog. You can argue and rationalize all you want, but in the end, the right thing to do is take responsibility for your dog's actions. It'll be tough, but it's your duty as man of the house.
Coping with Mortality
A dog year is worth seven of our years. That means that in less than the time it takes to pay off a car loan, you'll see your puppy grow up, live through his prime, start feeling his age and then, pass away. This can be tough. It'll probably be even harder than the passing of your great aunt, whom you only saw once a year at Christmas. This is your buddy. Your companion. The panting tongue and wagging tail that greeted you with unbounded enthusiasm after every hard workday. And now, he's gone.
Don't let your machismo get in the way of grieving properly, but don't fall apart either. There is a mature and beneficial way to mourn the loss of a loved one. And now's your time to learn it.
Becoming the Alpha Dog
All of the above lessons culminate into one achievement: becoming the alpha dog. It's what you, as an aspiring male, want to achieve metaphorically in life. Take charge of your career, take charge of your finances, be a leader in your community and be a stable rock in a relationship. And by literally becoming an alpha dog in your own household, you're already learning the core fundamentals that contribute to being the leader of the pack in all those other spheres.
Don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and get shit done. Instill a habit of routine responsibility. Be patient, selfless and faithful. Build your social connections. Don't be afraid to ask for favors and don't hesitate to return them. And lastly, learn how to let go of the good ol' days when it's time to grow up and move on.
It may seem like I just outlined the crib notes for “Marley and Me,” but the lesson still stands: owning a dog can make you a better man and perhaps, a better person.