Was a Puppy the Answer to Their Stale Marriage?

Could a 12-week-old golden retriever help revive their long union?

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Carol Kuykendall and his dog, Zeke

“I’m back!” my husband, Lynn, announced, shuffling into the kitchen that afternoon last September with his arms full of groceries.

“Sooner than I expected,” I said, without looking up from my computer screen. I’d finally hit my stride paying some bills and catching up on e-mail, and here he was, back home already!

“No hero’s welcome?” he asked, unloading the groceries on the counter right next to where I was working.

“Sorry. Just trying to get some things done.”

“I won’t interrupt,” he promised, putting away the cans and boxes in the kitchen cabinets. Then, as always, he left the doors wide open.


“Could you please close the cupboard doors?” I could hear the edge in my voice.


“Sure,” Lynn said, not looking at me as he banged the doors shut. Then he began loading the refrigerator at a glacial pace, making me crazy that he was leaving the fridge door open for so long, letting all the cold air out. What was it with him and doors?

I forced myself to hold my tongue and flipped my laptop closed. “I’ll go in the other room to finish up what I’m doing.”

“Sure,” he said again, his back still turned to me.

I headed down the hall to our bedroom and some solitude. Sitting down, I gazed out the window and wondered why I was getting so nitpicky and worked up over such minor things these days. I appreciated that Lynn did some of the grocery shopping now that he was retired. But I got annoyed by things like his goofy wool hat that made him look like a Smurf or the way he sometimes shuffled his feet. No wonder he didn’t seem to enjoy my company just now either.

Of course, marriage has its ups and downs, but after 52 years, it seemed as if we’d fallen into a cycle of mutual annoyance without even knowing how we’d gotten there. When did we stop looking at each other when we talked? When did we start watching television at dinnertime? This wasn’t the way I wanted to love Lynn or live out our lives. Something had to change. Later, when I was cutting up vegetables to make soup for dinner, our daughter, Lindsay, stopped by on her way to pick up the kids from school.

“Hi, Mom,” she said, leaning over the counter to grab a carrot. “Where’s Dad?”

“Downstairs in his office.”

“He’s always downstairs. And this house is too quiet these days,” she said, then grinned as if she’d just had the most wonderful idea in the world. “You and Dad should get another puppy.”

“You know we can’t do that again. We’re beyond that season. Especially the puppy season.”

“Of course you can,” she said. “You two have always been dog people, and dog people should have a dog. And there’s nothing like a puppy to shake things up and get you out of your own heads.”

After Lindsay left, I wondered how she could possibly know anything about our season of life. But she did know us, and so I thought about her suggestion. For the first time in our married life, Lynn and I were truly living in an empty nest. We’d always had a dog. A golden retriever puppy was our first baby. Then came three children and two more golden retrievers. Ten years ago, after we’d both been diagnosed with advanced cancers, we bought Kemo, our last beloved golden, as a reward for finishing chemotherapy. We survived, but Kemo died of cancer last year.

“Our last dog,” we’d vowed to each other. We couldn’t go through that kind of grief ever again. Besides, at this stage, all our friends had stopped getting new dogs. Still, I had to admit that our lives without a dog were certainly less active. Less interesting. Less fun.

That night at dinner, I said, “What would you think about us getting another puppy?”

Lynn stared at me, his spoon suspended between bowl and mouth. “I thought you were totally against getting another dog, especially a puppy.”

“Lindsay thinks a puppy would be good for us. It would definitely be a challenge, but we’ve always been good at loving something together.”

Lynn took his time answering. Finally he said, “Have you forgotten how puppies wreak havoc in the house? They chew up everything in sight!”

“I know, I know. They’re trouble, but they’re worth it.”

“And what about all the training?” Lynn asked.

“We’d have to share that responsibility, but I’d take a dog to puppy classes,” I said, my enthusiasm growing. “That would be fun for me.”

We carried on our puppy talk over the next several days. “I’m still not sure,” Lynn said several times, but I’d learned that, when faced with a tough decision, he asked lots of questions and voiced doubts in order to reach the right conclusion. It was clear he wanted me to convince him even as I was convincing myself. I researched local breeders, made a couple phone calls and texted several dog-people friends to see if they had any suggestions. One friend got back to me immediately. “Whatever you do, don’t get a puppy!” she texted, adding the hashtag #peopleouragedontdopuppies. I felt a determination to prove her wrong.

The very next day, I got a call about an available 12-week-old golden retriever whose initial arrangement to become a service dog had fallen through. While we weren’t ready to commit yet, I knew this “golden” opportunity wouldn’t last long. To my surprise, Lynn agreed to have the trainer bring over the puppy that afternoon. As soon as we saw the little guy bounding out of the trainer’s arms, tripping all over himself to meet us, we were totally smitten. I picked him up and breathed in that unmistakable puppy smell, then handed him to Lynn. “You want to come live at our house?” he asked, nose to nose with the puppy. And that was that. We had an adorable new member of the family.

The first task we tackled together was buying a puppy crate, a new bed and the food the trainer recommended. “Now we need a name,” I told Lynn. We pondered this important responsibility as we looked at the sleeping puppy.

“Needs to be a strong male name.” Lynn said. “But not like Bruno or Bubba.”

“We’ve always picked names with a special meaning for us, like Kemo and Rhody from Rhode Island,” I added.

“What about Ezekiel, after the prophet?” Lynn said. “We learned about him last week in Bible study. Ezekiel brought hope and encouragement to his people, and we could use some of both.”

I tried out the name. “Hmm, Ezekiel… No, Zeke! I like it.”

Lynn smiled. “Zeke it is.”

Before we knew it, squeaky toys and chew bones once again littered our floors. A puppy playpen filled one corner of the kitchen. In the bedroom, we wedged Zeke’s large crate in next to our bed. We fell into familiar routines, just as we had with all our other dogs. When I let Zeke out of his crate in the morning, he shared his “good morning” joy by jumping on the bed to snuggle with us. Next up were twice-daily walks, regardless of the weather, and trips with us to stores that welcomed dogs. When we first took Zeke outside, he’d run around and around in circles until he tired himself out and had to lie down on the grass, panting. Best of all was when we’d tell him sternly, “No barking!” He’d immediately switch to a sound somewhere between a low growl and a hum. We call it Zeke speak.

Of course, there were many days when our new housemate was nothing but trouble. I spent countless hours scrubbing and spraying the off-white carpet in the living room in a mostly vain effort to erase Zeke’s little accidents. His favorite search-and-destroy missions were to our bedroom, hoping to catch the closet door open so he could practice his shoe chewing. One afternoon after we’d had him for several weeks, I found him innocently gnawing the sole off one of my favorite sandals. The closet door was wide open, just like those kitchen cabinets!

I yelled for Lynn. “You have to remember to close the closet door!” I told him sharply, holding up the ruined shoe. “Why do I have to keep telling you?” Lynn looked surprised and irritated at my tone. It had been a while since we’d been snippy like that with each other. But then Zeke looked up at us with those big brown eyes and tilted his head, as if to say, “Hey, I’m just a puppy! What do you expect?” Lynn and I laughed, and the tension melted away.

“You think it’s time to sign him up for those training classes?” Lynn asked.

“I’ll see when the next class starts,” I said. “But I do remember the most important thing the trainer always taught us—that real bonding comes from direct eye contact with the puppy. She advised us to practice with people. Let’s try it.” I locked eyes with Lynn. At first it felt awkward because we hadn’t had that kind of eye-to-eye contact for a long time.

“Do you love our puppy?” I asked, holding my husband’s gaze.

“I do,” he said, smiling. “He makes our house happier.”

“Us happier too.” I felt proud that we’d met the puppy challenge at this stage in our lives.

“But he still needs some serious training,” Lynn said. “Or we’re both going to need a lot of new shoes.”

“We’ll manage,” I told him. “Just as we always have. By figuring things out together.”

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