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A Shared-Custody Pet Teaches Her Humans New Tricks

Lessons in managing life after divorce gracefully, as taught by the family dog

By Jenny Douglas | October 17, 2012

Every other Sunday evening, shortly before dinner, a shiny sedan from the local car service rolls up in front of my house in Brooklyn and comes to a slow, careful stop. Out spill my 13- and 16-year-old daughters, saddled with backpacks, laptops, fencing gear and other assorted accouterments of a life lived between my brownstone and that of their father’s, half a mile away.
 
But first to emerge from the car, always, is a 62-pound, floppy-eared dog — the playful and affectionate 7-year-old poodle-golden retriever mix adopted as a puppy by our once-nuclear family.
 
With nearly four years of "commuting" under her collar, Lola’s as seasoned a pro as the most resilient human child of divorce. She may cock her head for a moment upon entering whichever home she’s returning to, but within seconds she’s darting between the legs of the parent she’s most recently been apart from, tail wagging just as it had been doing an hour before in a different home.
 
Lola’s new routine was never part of an original game plan. Then again, neither was getting divorced. As painful as the separation was — for all five of us — it may well be that this dear dog is the one who most helped me adjust.

(MORE: For the Sake of the Kids)
 
Daddy’s Little Girl
 
As had been the case with our daughters, the lead-up to welcoming Lola into our family was fraught with excitement, anticipation — and a lot of questions. Should our new arrival be a puppy or full-grown, large or small, from a shelter or breeder? A Japanese dog like the one I grew up with in Tokyo, a poodle like the ones C’s parents once owned or something altogether different?
 
Swayed by reports of good temperament, minimal shedding and adorableness — plus the girls’ insistence on a puppy — we decided to get a 7-week-old Goldendoodle from a breeder in West Virginia. In the weeks before collecting her, C spent part of our summer vacation ignoring his beloved works of fiction and immersing himself in The Art of Raising a Puppy, written by a group of monks in upstate New York who’d supposedly developed a foolproof method for training dogs.
 
Among the monks’ many words of wisdom was to select a two-syllable name, preferably one not used for people.
 
“Let’s call her Lola!” C announced exuberantly. That was typical of him: half-following another’s advice, half-ignoring it — and in the process, seizing command of the situation.
 
Shortly thereafter, a photo arrived of a sweet, sand-colored puppy sitting in a child’s green wheelbarrow with an orange bandana wrapped around her neck. Lola! That did seem like the right name for her. The four of us gathered around the computer and swooned.
 
But get this: While I was the one who flew to D.C. and drove two hours through the Shenandoah Mountains to scoop her up, bring her back and, as the “at-home” parent, bear the brunt of her daily care in the early months of puppyhood, it was clear from Day One that Lola was pretty much C’s dog.
 
It was his side of the bed that she approached at dawn, lifting one paw then another in a ladylike request for them to be massaged. He was the one who took Lola for long, off-leash walks each morning in nearby Prospect Park and whom she’d follow up the hill at our weekend retreat in the Catskills. And it was C who’d patiently brush her fur on the front stoop of the house I now inhabit without him.
 
C gave Lola a lot of attention while I somehow allowed my own connection to her to take a backseat. It was an unsatisfactory arrangement, but like with other things in the marriage, I felt strangely powerless to change it.

(MORE: How to Tell Your Adult Children You're Divorcing)
 
The New Normal
 
Lola was 3 when C and I separated. His first apartment didn’t allow pets, so Lola slept by my front door instead of upstairs in the master bedroom — holding silent vigil for C’s return.
 
But C didn’t return. And step by shaky step, each of us started to loosen our hold on the life we’d known together and toddle toward the new one that lay ahead.
 
C eventually got a real place of his own. Soon the girls — all three of them — were spending nights there, which escalated to half of each week and every other weekend. That Lola would travel in lockstep with the kids was, from the get-go, a given.
 
Losing the privilege to mother my children every single day was the greatest challenge of post-married life. At first it was almost unbearable. And yet an early shift in perspective came courtesy of a virtual stranger. A few months after C moved out, I welcomed a friend of a friend into my home for a few days, a French divorcée named Angeline. During the course of her visit, she and I became fast friends. We prepared elaborate French meals as she regaled me with tales of her devoted (and much younger) new beau.
 
When she was leaving, Angeline took hold of both my shoulders, looked me squarely in the eyes and said, “Learn to cherish the freedom you didn’t ask for.”
 
It didn’t happen overnight, and it didn't happen without major effort, but slowly I did learn. 

When my girls are with me, we eat dinner together every night, and after their homework is completed, we sprawl on the sofa together and watch a TV show, limb across limb. I've learned to step up in new ways. I don’t wait for someone else to take the dog to the park or drag the garbage to the curb on frigid winter nights or tell me what to do when the dishwasher breaks. There's no one to "save" me any longer, and what I've come to realize is this: I kind of like saving myself.

I now watch Lola play with abandon, joyful in the moment, not worried in the least about what will happen tomorrow, and there's a lesson in that. When the girls are with C, I miss them, and I miss Lola. But I’ve come to discover a new kind of freedom — without kids or the responsibilities that dog ownership brings — and I savor it.
 
Without intending to, the three of them are preparing me for another phase of life that’s still a number of years away, but I know will arrive all too soon. I feel like I've been given an early, enormous opportunity to practice grace and adaptability — attributes I'll be increasingly reliant on if I want to stay happy as I grow older.

For saving myself, what I get back are pride and independence, and no small measure of comfort, especially from Lola. Not long ago, I returned home from one of those days where everything seemed to go wrong. But just inside the front door, there she was — my dear dog — wagging her tail, burrowing her face into my legs, overjoyed to see me. I dropped my bags, drew my arms around her and gave her a long, sustained snuggle. 
 
A Dog Teaching New Tricks
 
The girls have adjusted to their dual-home arrangement and I truly believe that having Lola as a constant in their back-and-forth lives has helped them stay grounded. “People think it’s kind of amazing,” my wise 16-year-old told me. “Other friends whose parents are divorced don’t really share anything besides the kids. But you and Dad share another living creature, and that means something.”
 
I think she’s right. Not long ago, when an email exchange with C was exacerbating miscommunication more than easing it, I suggested we step away from our devices and meet for a walk in the park.
 
The next morning, a little after 8, he appeared over a distant crest in the Long Meadow, Lola at his side. When he spotted me waving my arms, he leaned down and removed her leash, then gestured in my direction. Without wasting a second, Lola dashed across the meadow toward me.
 
The three of us made our way through the still-misty field of green. Soon Lola was wrestling with another dog. We couldn’t tell if they were playing or fighting, so we stood by, ready to jump in. She tumbled to the ground, but quickly got back up, shook herself off and moved on.

Behind her lead, side by side, C and I followed suit.
 
Jenny Douglas is a writer and founder of The Brooklyn Cottage, an arts salon and community gathering space in Prospect Heights.