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Facts and Arguments We had to teach our clingy puppy how to be alone – but he had something to teach us, too

facts & arguments

They call it puppy love?

Clingy, desperately needy and utterly adorable, Michael Harris had to learn how to live with Murphy

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I spent the past two years writing a book about solitude. But there is someone who's conspicuously absent from its pages, someone who plainly hates solitude and argues against it on a daily (no, hourly) basis.

This someone, is Murphy – part demon, part poodle and part golden retriever. He was teddy-bear cute and eight-weeks-old when we picked him up. But even then, a sharp observer would have seen something in the eyes. From the moment we handed over a month's rent as payment, he began to telepathically say it: "You aren't going anywhere."

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But back then, we were fools in love, Kenny and I, seduced by Murphy's playful manner, his marching little paws and wobbly tush.

I had a picture in my head. The writer and his dog. I would bring a notepad to the seawall, sit on a bench to puzzle over a paragraph and Murphy would sit by my side, watching the gulls with a doggy-philosopher look on his shaggy face. Later, we would go on long runs, galloping in tandem for an hour each day before retiring to the sofa for an evening of well-deserved Netflix and cookies.

Murphy had a picture in his head, too. It was different from mine. He would follow us from room to room until we stopped moving, at which point he would lie on the tops of our feet in an effort to pin us down with his six insistent pounds.

If we left him in a room, he whimpered. If we stepped outside to make a five-minute call – we returned to a howling meltdown. If we sat at a desk too long, an eye-rolling sigh would issue from under the chair. It quickly got to the point where I refrained from using the washroom for fear of upsetting the dog.

In designer puppy circles this is neatly called "separation anxiety."

Nights were the worst. We had read that the thing to do was let him "cry it out" in a crate, away from the bedroom. And so we lay, staring at the ceiling, while he howled for hours as though genuinely tortured. Which, I now understand, he was.

Dogs are, even more than humans, pack animals. To tear Murphy from his mother and litter, then place him in a plastic box and expect him to "self-soothe" because we added a blankie and stuffed pig was the height of naïveté.

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My eyes stung with tears to think what I was doing to this innocent pup. Kenny ended up comforting me while Murphy cried out for attention.

After two nights, the "cry it out" method was abandoned. We brought him into the bedroom. Murphy remained in his kennel, but we placed it atop a bench, angled so that he could monitor our sleeping frames from across the room. Sometimes, as I began to drift off, I would look over and see his two black teddy-bear eyes, glinting in the shadows. Silently, Murphy would raise a paw and place it against the metal bars; he would let out the smallest of whimpers then, as though to say, "Dear master, the magical box has separated us again. But some day, we will find a way to be together."

Meanwhile, in the nearby park, Murphy was an extraordinary success. The moment a stranger came into his sights, he would be up on hind legs, suspended by the leash and staggering toward the possibility of a new friend. We couldn't walk 10 feet without being stopped by someone who wished to handle him, love him, kiss him, maul him into a frenzy of sociable joy. I detested these people; and detested myself for becoming so joyless after a few sleepless nights. How could they be so blind to his exhausting neediness?

After I discovered a less populated stretch of park, our walks become tolerable. Then, Murphy's puppyhood became more charming. I began to see how he was looking at the world, his utterly fresh take on things.

Every time a strange sound was heard – an ambulance siren, the laughter of a child, a television in someone's house – Murphy would sit, wait, watch. Nothing could be taken for granted. Every quotidian thing was rendered fluorescent with wonder.

One morning, near the end of my work on the solitude book, I was deep in a mess of edits and dead to the world around me. Suddenly, I looked up. Where's Murphy?

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I hadn't heard his whining or the patter of his feet for an hour at least. Spooked by the sudden silence, I went hunting around the apartment. There he was: lying by the window and chewing silently on a rope toy. His eyes were half-shut in a dreamy meditation.

Success. I almost shouted for joy.

"Good boy!"

Naturally, my interruption destroyed the solitude I meant to encourage. He bounded toward me, needy as ever. "I'll take him," Kenny said. "It's my shift anyway." (Yes, by then we had divided our days into Murphy shifts.)

I retreated to my laptop and worked some more. But the day's stride was broken.

Getting up, I looked out the window, down onto the park where I could see Kenny and Murphy circling each other. Kenny was shaking a toy and Murphy was going berserk. He was euphoric under the lamp of Kenny's love. He let out a yawp of joy and happy outrage, which I could hear all the way up in our apartment. I leaned in the window frame and watched.

As much as we needed to teach Murphy how to be by himself, it was plain he had something to teach us, too.

Michael Harris lives in Vancouver.

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