My relationship with Short, Dark and Handsome started, as most modern love stories do, with a photo on a website. He was sitting on Santa’s lap, his warm brown eyes looking beseechingly into the camera. All I want for Christmas is a home, a chalkboard next to him said. It was love at first sight.
Things happened quickly after that. We went on a couple of dates, I met his foster family and, within two weeks, he moved in. I decided to call him Emerson, a nod to his Boston terrier heritage and my love of reading.
I had wanted a dog for years. I’d never really had a pet growing up, but I had done the research. I knew what a commitment it was. And after I bought a home in a quiet neighborhood, I had decided it was time. But no amount of reading had prepared me for just how much Emerson has changed my life — for the better.
1. My house is much cleaner.
No, really! Before adopting a dog, I vacuumed maybe every other week. But faced with a black dog that doesn’t so much shed as he violently ejects excess fur onto my cream-colored carpet and tan suede couch, I find myself breaking out the vacuum cleaner on a daily (sometimes hourly) basis. And a few swipes aren’t enough to suck up the fur. Nope. I usually have to use the fancy attachments to make sure I eliminate with every last patch. Additionally, my dog prefers company while he eats breakfast and dinner, which is served in the kitchen. To appease him, I usually wash and dry the dishes, wipe down countertops and scrub the oven range while he consumes his fancy, expensive grain-free kibble. My kitchen has never been so sparkling.
2. I’m getting more exercise.
It doesn’t matter what the weather’s like. Snow, sleet, rain, bitter cold, oppressive humidity — when a dog’s gotta go, well … you know. We walk four times a day: before breakfast, before lunch, on my dinner break and before bed. He enjoys getting out of the house, stretching his legs and sniffing EVERYTHING. I enjoy seeing the miles add up on my MapMyRun app. Most days, we log at least three miles. On Saturday and Sunday, sometimes we’ll go as many as seven miles while exploring local trails and parks. In fact, the app just sent me an e-mail with my half-year stats: 374 miles since Jan. 1. I adopted Emerson on Jan. 15, and I don’t always take my cellphone on our walks, so not too shabby, right? I’ve taken him to just about every walking trail within a 20-miles radius, and I’ve invited several friends to join us on our weekend jaunts through the hills and woods of Northeastern Pennsylvania. On a recent vacation in Washington, D.C., Emerson and I explored the National Arboretum and Great Falls with my mom and stepdad. The pup is definitely fulfilling his role of “walking buddy.”
3. I’m more connected to my neighborhood.
In the three years since I bought my house, my contact with the neighborhood has mostly been through a car window as I drive along the two blocks it takes me to get to Main Street. That all changed once I adopted Emerson. In the past six months, I’ve walked nearly every inch of our neighborhood. I’ve discovered parks I didn’t even know existed, including one that follows the curve of a nearby river that’s quickly become my favorite little spot. I’ve watched pots of basil and parsley on one neighbor’s side yard grow from tiny little seedlings to three-foot tall, deep-green monsters. At least three times a week, we stop to visit Walter, a lonely widower who knows Emerson likes to be scratched right between his shoulders. Shelby, a little Bichon mix, will bark at us from her perch on her porch. I tell Emerson she’s only flirting, but he’s not so sure. He prefers Aggie, a little beagle who likes to play with him on her front lawn. While they chase each other around the yard, panting like maniacs, I trade gardening tips with Aggie’s owner, Michelle. And Emerson has proven to be a terrific wingman when it comes to the hot neighbor with the full-sleeve tattoos. He’s always working on his motorcycle when we take our evening walks. “Hey, cutie,” he’ll call from his driveway. I like to think he’s talking about me, but again, Emerson isn’t so sure.
4. I’m on a more predictable sleep schedule.
Before the dog, it didn’t matter what time I went to bed. I work second shift, so if I was in the middle of an especially gripping book or the TV show I was binge-watching had me on the edge of my seat, I’d just “make up” the sleep I missed the next morning. I would often sleep until noon or later, meaning I’d skip the gym and save the errands and chores for the weekends. My weekday life was sleep, work, watch TV, repeat.
But my canine roommate is like an alarm clock, albeit one that is partial to Milk-Bones dipped in peanut butter. No matter what time we go to sleep, Emerson will wake me up at 8 a.m. He’s subtle about it. First, he’ll sigh loudly from his bed across the room. Then he’ll start rustling around a little, so his tags jingle. He’ll scratch himself and yawn a few times. If all else fails, he’ll walk over to my side of the bed and jostle my hand or foot — whichever is within easy reach — with his wet, cold nose. “I’m awake,” I’ll yelp. “OK. OK. I’m awake.”
I’m the type of person who needs at least eight hours of sleep to be a productive, so I know I have to go to sleep around midnight if I want to be a productive, pleasant member of society. But it’s amazing how much you get done when you get up at 8 a.m. I usually have time to make a hot breakfast, hit the gym, do the dishes and walk the dog twice — all before lunch.
5. I’m happier.
When I’m walking the dog, I don’t have the ability to multitask. While my hands are full keeping my wiggly mutt on the sidewalk, my cellphone’s in my pocket, passively tracking my steps. Whether we’re walking on the sidewalk or crashing through the woods, I can feel my whole body unclench. We’ve seen rabbits, squirrels, deer, opossums, foxes and the occasional skunk (eek!) on our walks around the neighborhood. At night, I notice the moon and stars as we walk down the street. I’ve begun augmenting those quiet, late-night walks by mentally listing all the things I’m grateful for — a kind of meditation/prayer that I’ve found helps me drop off to sleep faster once we’re inside and ready for bed.
People joke that they have a dog just so someone will be happy to see them when they get home. I don’t know who Emerson studied under, but he has really got the “Yay, you’re home!” act perfected. He’ll hop up and down, tear through the living room, nudge his head under my hands and bump up against my legs until I put down my stuff and greet him appropriately and with great enthusiasm. It feels pretty good, especially after a long day.
Even just hanging out on the couch has become a happier experience. Emerson will curl up next to me, laying his head or a paw on my thigh to take a nap while I plow through the latest TV show I’m watching too much of. He’ll close his eyes while I absently stroke his velvety ears. I swear I can feel my blood pressure drop. He’ll relax, too, enough to drift off to sleep and start snoring like a lumberjack with a deviated septum. It’s hilarious, trust me.
When I set out to adopt a dog, I thought I was doing a good deed. Turns out, Emerson saved me just as much as I saved him.
Follow Emerson’s exploits on his Facebook page.
Erin L. Nissley is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.