Back in 2004, at age seven, my son was hospitalized for depression. I had taken him to see a psychiatrist for a consultation, and she kept him for a week. My son and I were both shaken by this hospitalization, me not knowing what was going to happen to him over the week, him by the separation from me. When he came home, I wanted to do something special for him. My parents were talking about heading over to the Humane Society to adopt a dog for my father. Jonathon and I had several dogs already, but they were my dogs. I decided the best way to celebrate Jonathon’s release from the hospital was to give him a responsibility: he would raise a puppy of his own.
Jonathon didn’t have many responsibilities around our house. As a single working parent, I hadn’t had the time to sit down and decide on chores for him, and then draw up a plan on how to teach him to complete those chores. It had been easier just to do everything myself. Jonathon’s hospitalization brought me up short: he obviously needed more structure and more responsibility. And, with the depression, I thought he needed a responsibility with an immediate payout. Providing structure for a puppy seemed to be the perfect chore for Jonathon. It would provide structure for Jonathon, too, and the payout would be puppy kisses and romps around the yard.
So, one Saturday morning my parents and Jonathon and I met at the Humane Society and entered the dog room. My father quickly fell in love with a Shepherd mix who would love to run several miles with him three times per week. Jonathon and I weren’t having much luck. I found a Chow mix who wasn’t at all interested in us. Jonathon wanted to “free” all the dogs at the shelter. We went around from room to room and back again, but no dog stood out. Just as I was about to give up for the day, Jonathon let out a shriek. Tucked away by himself in a corner, off the main circuit of cages, was a little black puppy with enormous paws and an identification tag which read “Expected weight: 200 pounds.” Ahhhh. That’s why he’d been there for almost a month with no takers. Our very small house was already home to four medium- to large-sized dogs. Before I could discourage him, Jonathon ran to get the volunteer and then started to plead the puppy’s case: His cage was all alone in the corner, where nobody would see him. He had been dropped off at the shelter three and a half weeks ago. Our older dogs would help us train him. He was such a good boy, Mom. Did you see how big he’s going to get? I asked him. Do you have any concept of a 200-pound dog?
He will be your responsibility, I warned Jonathon. I will not feed him. I will not walk him. I will not pick up his poop from the lawn. The direr my warnings became, the harder Jonathon promised to take responsibility for this puppy. I was pleased to hear this enthusiasm, and half-way believed him. Half-way. Perhaps against my better judgement, I agreed to adopt the future behemoth. On our way home from the Humane Society, we bestowed upon the puppy the only name we thought suitable for him: Maximus.
Max was half Rottweiler and half St. Bernard. He ate and ate and ate, and grew and grew and grew. The St. Bernard in him made him tall, the Rottweiler made him thick. He developed huge jowls which stored up food while he ate and sprayed slobber/water all over the other dogs and the kitchen when he drank. To Max’s credit (and, I have to admit, my disappointment), he topped out at 160 pounds, about a year after we brought him home.
It wasn’t easy at first to hold Jonathon to his promises about caring for Max, partly because I was used to doing everything myself and it seemed easier to let the matter slide. But then I would remember the look on Jonathon’s face when I left him at the hospital, and my resolve to make him take responsibility for Max would return. Jonathon would receive no breakfast and no dinner until Max was fed. No TV until Max had been walked. No playdates until the poop was picked up. On this last item, I equivocated. Jonathon’s arms would get tired from carrying the scooper and the plastic garbage bag. He would actually heave when the poop was too mushy. So, I helped. Over the course of a few months, the chores became a routine, and Jonathon became more and more efficient at executing them. Having a routine with Max made it easier for him to adopt a routine with his homework. His grades and conduct at school improved. He was still shy with the other kids, but I think watching his puppy grow into a healthy dog gave Jonathon confidence that he was capable of accomplishing important things. When Max turned three and Jonathon turned ten, Jonathon was able to stop his therapy. His depression was in complete remission.
As for the boy-dog relationship, the two grew up together. They were inseparable. I never feared for Jonathon’s safety when he was out in the neighborhood with Max. Max was waist-high on me (I’m 5’9”) with a deep growl and a terrific booming bark. The neighborhood bullies were terrified of him and gave the two of them a wide berth. To Jonathon’s friends, Max was just a big, goofy dog. Jonathon’s bed was only a twin, but Max draped himself across it every night, the two sets of arms and legs and feet and paws intertwined from night until morning.
The day finally came, in 2014, that Max’s hind legs gave out on him during a walk. He was almost 11 years old. He lost control of his bladder and bowels shortly after. Then, suddenly, he couldn’t stand up at all. He couldn’t jump up to sleep with Jonathon in their bed.
“Mom,” Jonathon said one day, sobbing, “I can’t take this anymore! I can’t stand to see him like this. You’ve got to put him down!”
I was so relieved to hear this. I hadn’t known how I was going to break it to Jonathan that it was time for Max to cross the Rainbow Bridge. Jonathan had done the hardest part, realizing on his own that it was time to let go. We loaded Max into the car and took him to the vet to be put out of his pain. We each held a paw as Max went into his final sleep.
As I look back, I thank Max for helping heal Jonathan’s depression and providing him with a routine to build a healthy life around. I think every child should have the opportunity to raise a puppy.