Changing of the Guard (Dog)
It took me a while to warm up to Sam.
When we My brought our first golden retriever home, my partner picked the name Sam, and I agreed, if we could stretch the name out to Samwise Gamgee. I’m a big Tolkien fan, and I had the feeling this dog was going to become my boon companion, the way Samwise is to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings.
But at first, Sam was more fiend than friend. When he came to live with us, he was a five-month-old golden retriever with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. That puppy enthusiasm never seemed to let up, and after a month or two I was complaining, “That dog sucks all the air out of the house. He never leaves me alone!”
I took him for 45-minute walks morning and evening to keep him tired out. Fed him, played with him, kept him from destroying pens, cell phones and pieces of furniture. He slept in my room and followed me around the house. Every time I turned around, it seemed, I had to step over a big dog.
But all that time spent together bonded us to one another, and as time went on my obsession with him grew. I decorated my car and my office with stickers and slogans including “My golden retriever is smarter than your honor student,” and “If you don’t love goldens, you’re just stupid.” His picture was my computer desktop, and I forced him to submit to Santa hats and Harry Potter glasses for photo ops.
Eventually he even invaded my writing. With my friend, dog breeder and trainer Sharon Sakson, I co-edited Paws and Reflect, a book of essays in which gay men proclaimed their love for their dogs. I gave the hero of my Hawaii detective series a golden named Roby. But I had to go farther: I had to write a book about Sam.
Writing about the real dog, though, was boring, even for me. How many times could I wax lyrically about how cute he was when he perked his ears up? About the sound of his gnawing a bone while I was trying to concentrate?
Instead, I started to make up a dog. I called him Rochester, after the romantic hero of Jane Eyre, because when he entered the picture he belonged to a woman who’d given up on finding a human version of her ideal. Very quickly, though, his mom was killed, and he was temporarily adopted by her next-door-neighbor, who definitely did not love dogs.
He was a lot like me when Sam was a puppy. Rochester got into a lot of the same kind of mischief, but as Sam did, Rochester wormed his way into the heart of my protagonist, Steve Levitan. He’s a middle-aged guy recovering from his wife’s miscarriages, their divorce, and a brief prison term for computer hacking. He needs to rediscover his ability to love—which is something Rochester helps a lot with.
Since the book I was writing was a murder mystery, once Rochester won over Steve’s heart, he went nose to ground in search of clues to uncover his mom’s murderer. The two of them made a great team, and I enjoyed writing In Dog We Trust a lot, especially because my inspiration, Samwise, was always handy, snoozing behind my chair or sprawled in the hallway outside the office door.
Sam inspired another book, The Kingdom of Dog, and then the first draft of a third, Dog Helps Those. By the time I finished that draft, though, Sam was failing. He had open sores on his legs that wouldn’t heal, and our walks, once wide-ranging, grew shorter and shorter. Sometimes I even had to carry him home when he couldn’t make it on his own.
When we finally had to say goodbye to Sam, I put the manuscript for Dog Helps Those away. I couldn’t work on it any more, because it reminded me too much of Sam. Our house was quiet, and for the first time in twelve years there was no dog to welcome us home.
We had to grieve for a few months. Sam had been such a presence in our home that it was tough to adjust to life without him. But then, after some time had passed, a new puppy flew into our lives. (Literally; he arrived from Oregon on a Continental Airlines flight.) He came to us with the name Brody, and I added “Baggins” as his last name, to keep that hobbit connection to Samwise alive.
Brody’s just as wild as Sam once was, though he has a lot of new tricks that are uniquely his own. His early exposure to air travel has translated into flying jumps from one sofa to another, even up over the gate we put in place to keep him from traveling upstairs. He likes tennis balls more than Sam did, and he chases lizards and birds, along with the squirrels Sam was fond of going after.
Having Brody in the house let me go back to Dog Helps Those—he helped both of us get over our grief and enjoy the love of a new puppy. He’s also inspiring new tricks and antics for Rochester—the fourth book in the series is already starting to take shape. For now, though, I still have to stop, often while typing the middle of a sentence, to see what the little angel/demon has dug his teeth into.
But I’m warming up to him, just as I did with Sam, and I’m looking forward to another long, productive partnership.