September 24, 2020

Dog Diplomacy: How the Unconditional Love of Dogs Healed a Relationship

He throws his full weight against me before dawn and nuzzles up to my ear, not noticing my subtle turn away from his hot breath.

If he’s feeling particularly frisky, he pins me down and starts licking my neck, reminding me that it’s time to fix breakfast. He’s lovely and affectionate and I adore him. He’s Lucca, my ex-husband’s dog.

I don’t sleep with my ex anymore, but I do extend bed privileges to his 85-lb, two-year-old beast—a messy, hairy Italian Spinone. Occasionally, when Lucca is visiting, I take the liberty of trimming his beard. But then again, I often did do things without permission. This shouldn’t surprise my ex; it was one of my qualities he disliked most.

Lucca is the latest of the dog diplomats who’s made our post-divorce years go relatively smoothly and resulted in an enduring friendship. The dog pack forced on all a powerful message of acceptance. Even when my ex didn’t want to talk to me—hated me, even—he was kind to my two dogs, happy to give their bellies a scratch. He regularly invited them to come over and play.

By come over, I mean to cross the street.

I separated in 2004. I knew I wanted to live nearby, to soften the transition for our son, then 10. But I never imagined I would end up so close.

I scoured our town unsuccessfully for a suitable house but found only tricked-out places with no room for improvement. Then I saw the “For Sale” sign at my neighbor Stan’s. There was the project I needed, a soulful two-story, with good bones and several decades of deferred maintenance. A cheerful place where I could create the kind of sanctuary that would be a true home for our son. A backyard big enough for a dog. Or, two.

The fact that the house was almost directly across the street from my former home of 14 years didn’t bother me. To my mind, it made a certain sense: I hated leaving my other home, my first real palette, but this old wreck would provide another creative outlet. I didn’t have any desire to lose all connection with my ex. And how great would this be for our son?

The arrangement seemed modern and manageable. I told myself that my proximity would ultimately speed the healing.

To my heartbroken ex, however, my move was yet another example of me doing what I damn well pleased, with no thought to the consequences.

To complicate matters, I had a long-distance boyfriend, tall and pale in contrast to my ex-husband’s olive stockiness, but similarly calm and kind. He didn’t try to be a second father or undermine the friendships of my marriage. But, rightly or not, my ex blamed him for our rupture. So, for him, my move seemed a doubly disrespectful and cruel slap in the face.

Others agreed. My neighbors, friends, and family were horrified. I was “insane,” “twisted,” “aggressive,” “selfish.” I didn’t think I was any of these things. I still loved my ex but just believed we both could be happier.

I thought I had chosen the least disruptive option for my son. In my mind, my intentions were all good. But I was alone in this opinion. The venom that soaked the next few years was toxic and exhausting.

I naively thought my ex’s hurt and anger would subside with time, once it became clear how beneficial it was to be my neighbor. I was so sure.

I landscaped the front yard to eliminate any direct views of his house, sensitive to accusations of ignoring boundary issues. I knew it would take more than a grove of olives and arbutus to alleviate my former spouse’s fear of me usurping his privacy. But I thought a visual barrier of green and grey trees could help.

I erected a basketball hoop and got my own dog, a chocolate Labrador, Apollo. I tried to start a new life and stay out of his way. But, I admit, it was hard. I missed my old life and being a family, and, yes, being married. I wasn’t without regrets.

I didn’t feel aggressive or insane. I just felt lonely.

But happily, in the middle of many a bad day, my son would trot over from his other house with a hound or two. Perhaps he’d bring Amber, the slightly schizoid Shepard mix who belonged to his dad’s girlfriend. Or perhaps he’d bring Tess and Atticus, the sweet Springer Spaniels we’d gotten as puppies.

The next thing I knew, the occasional “Can you take the dogs?” was a regular thing, backup for all the social events and vacations that no longer included me. Amber, Atticus, and Tess became regulars in my yard, wrestling with my two Labradors, Apollo and Abbie. And just as often, my dogs crossed the street to his house.

As we grew to adore each other’s dogs, my ex evolved to accept me.

And now it’s a new dog, Lucca’s turn to continue the mending. His goofy puppy buoyancy is irresistible. There’s no way we can’t laugh when we compare notes about his comical personality, his Andy Rooney eyebrows. Or when we argue whether to alter the shocking size of his scrotum or to breed him.

We suffer when the other’s dog is sick or hurt, we share dog treats, our leashes and chew toys are interchangeable between homes. When Lucca tore up my kilim pillows and, to my horror, the blanket I was knitting as a wedding present, I let it go. When Abbie dug up my ex’s yard, he let it go.

The dogs keep our compassion alive. When they cross the street, escaping one yard to make an enthusiastic beeline to the other, they are ambassadors of peace, expressing their preference for unity, for friendship. They demand from us what they give—unconditional love.

Of course, there have been awkward instances.

If Lucca’s deep bark resonates through the neighborhood because his owner is spending the night elsewhere, it’s a tad awkward if I wake him with a call offering to go get Lucca. Same with vacations: When he jets off to Italy, Portugal, New York, Bhutan, or Ecuador, I tamp down my jealousy with silent thanks for the warm connection we’ve created. I always hope he feels the same when I travel and my dogs are with him.

In those cases, we focus on the basics—the feeding schedule, the meds, the contact numbers. I usually get a gift from wherever he goes, which at first makes me smirk—she got the trip, I got the T-shirt—but then softens to an appreciation that, finally, we are comfortable helping each other.

Until recently, there was still the problem of my boyfriend. He wasn’t having any play dates with my ex.

But Lucca has come to the rescue. Not everyone loves Lucca but Peter clearly does. My ex appreciates that.

Lucca is an acquired taste—with his long, soggy beard full of the day’s adventures, his saggy gums, and red-rimmed eyes, his ululating howl, and his Seussian personality. Not to mention his sheer size, a gangly giant whose loping approach can terrify. Knowing that Peter genuinely loves not only his son but also his beast has opened my ex’s heart.

Gradually, the sword has come down. And I give the dogs much of the credit.

Of course, it’s more complicated than that: It wouldn’t have been possible without the kindness and civility of the two men and the relentless optimism of my son.

But as we’ve all come to depend more on each other as backup dog parents, any residue chill has disappeared. The chats with Peter when dropping off Lucca have gotten longer, an offer for a beer or glass of wine more readily accepted. The two men watched a Warriors game and ate burgers together recently—respective dogs in their laps—and often talk companionably about my son. Conversations in the former DMZ of the street separating us have become commonplace.

Earlier this year, Peter helped set up the tent for my ex’s 60th birthday party. And, now, in a plot twist straight from a rom-com, the two of them have gone to Burning Man together. If that doesn’t honor the event’s theme of “radical inclusion,” nothing will. It’s a denouement that shocks our friends and makes me smile.

While they’re walking the desert under the riot of stars, dancing at a rave, curling up in parallel tents, I will be home, no doubt enjoying the sloppy affections of Lucca, Apollo, and Abbie. And thanking them.



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Megan McCaslin  |  Contribution: 195

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