Quite by accident last year I found a unique care arrangement for my golden retriever Lola, while at the same time pioneering a new extended family structure. My husband and I, and a lovely family in the next town are co-parenting my dog. It began as the serendipitous connecting of two posts on a community Facebook page:
Mine: “Would a loving family like a visit from my adorable Golden Retriever Lola for two weeks?”
Theirs: “Family with three adorable boys looking to “borrow” a Labrador Retriever this summer”.
I hesitated since Lola was a related, but different breed. But then I thought, what the heck?! Goldens are just as endearing as Labs and they both shed! I responded to the post by saying that my dog met most of the criteria, and would they be interested in meeting her. The rest is history.
The love affair between Lola and her “other family” began last year and has blossomed through countless weekend and week-long visits, some that we initiate and some that they do. We have reached out to them in anticipation of a vacation and they have scooped Lola up with relish. They have contacted us to request Lola for a weekend if too many months have passed since their last doggy fix. In the course of these exchanges Lola has been the happy participant in their beach vacations in Maine and on Cape Cod and skiing weekends in Vermont, she has been treated to doggy ice cream on a number of occasions and has enjoyed a level of play and activity that only three energetic, otherwise dog-deprived boys can bestow. This in sharp contrast to our relatively sedate empty-nester household, where Lola receives plenty of love, but certainly much less stimulation. She always returns a little fatter, but with a beautifully brushed coat.
I have reflected upon this mutually beneficial arrangement a lot lately, and how fortunate we have been to discover another family who appreciates our dog as much as we do and can give her the kind of attention that we cannot, or do not. Between us we meet all of Lola’s needs, just at different times. This relationship is a shining example of otherwise unrelated people coming together over a particular need, and how one dog can possess enough love to satisfy two families, and then some. It speaks to the power of social networking and its ability to unite people in new and interesting ways, of the types of non-monetary exchanges that have become possible through expanded channels of communication, and new definitions for what it means to be a community. It was once seen as radical to consider sharing things like cars and vacation homes, but incarnations like Air B&B and Uber have given us a new vocabulary for these transactions. Why not share a dog?
There have been other benefits to our canine-co-parenting arrangement on both sides which have provided opportunities for lots of creativity and joy in discovering ways in which Lola enriches our collective lives. Her other family never fails to send photos of Lola in the thick of their family adventures. Sometimes it’s an image of Lola chasing the boys on the beach, other times, just quiet moments with the boys using Lola as a pillow while they read or watch football. We send photos of Lola looking bored and dejected after they drop her at home. This past Halloween my husband called her other family offering to lend Lola to them for Trick-or-Treating because she has a football costume in which she looks adorable. The boys were thrilled. When we were in Peru we bought the boys Peruvian hats for when they played in the snow with Lola. The possible permutations are endless.
I don’t want to stray too far from the central message here; dogs enrich our lives immeasurably, helping us cope with whatever life throws in our path. We have all teared up over vignettes about dogs who light up the lives of nursing home patients, and offer their love and compassion to the sick. And there are enough adorable dog clips on YouTube to last a lifetime. As empty nesters my husband and I have come to appreciate even more the role that a pet, and especially a dog, has played in maintaining our family dynamic. Even as our daughters have grown up and become independent, Lola still requires us to provide for her basic needs and in turn gives us her unconditional, easy-going, exuberant and sloppy affection. She is happy to sleep in on a weekend, and she generally asks for permission to climb into our bed in the morning. She has no agenda (other than plotting to steal food now and then), requires very little maintenance and is eternally grateful for whatever attention we throw her way. She is the enthusiastic face we see upon returning home at the end of the day, making us feel like the rock stars we were when our children were small. I learned recently that just as humans are flooded with oxytocin when we embrace other humans or caress a pet, dogs enjoy the same chemical flood of joy by just staring into our eyes. It is the way that they hug us back.
There is something intensely personal and gratifying about sharing Lola with her other family. It is an acknowledgement that we have something of intrinsic value to share with others, and they in turn have shown us incredible generosity to us by opening their home to her and caring for her like one of their own. She is the bond that connects us. We represent two families of different generations, previously unknown to each other, but whose differences are far outweighed by what we have in common; our love for a dog named Lola.
Judy Trerotola is CJP's director of senior services.