My Heart Broke When I Gave Up My Dog — But It Was My Only Choice

Buster. (Photo: Donna Freydkin)

Lena Dunham, I get you. Now more than ever. 

One balmy summer afternoon, my husband and I were eating burgers outside at J.G. Melon, a meaty institution on the Upper East Side in New York. Our dog Buster was tied to a tree nearby, marginally content, glaring at his surroundings, malevolent as ever. 

And then — four kids (parents nowhere in sight) descended on Buster, screeching, petting, hugging, grabbing. My husband and I were literally frozen, unable to move or speak, waiting for the inevitable.

The lunge, the growl, followed by the bite. 

Only somehow, it didn’t happen. For once, and I cannot stress enough how miraculous this was, our dog just sat and didn’t react. Those kids ran away giggling, blissfully unaware of how close they’d come to developing what would likely be a lifelong terror of canines.

But let me backtrack a bit. Buster was both my emotional rock, and the greatest liability of my life. After reading Dunham’s searingly honest and heartfelt Instagram post — which received both fiery criticism and compassionate praise — about having to give up her rescue Lamby, a dog who never adjusted to being a pet, I allowed myself to think of my own canine, who was a Christmas gift from my college roommate. I had just started working at CNN.com, covering crazy overnight shifts revolving around major news like Princess Diana’s death, when this fluffy little ball of rage entered my life. Buster was a puppy. He was deadly cute. He’d never been abused. And yet. And yet. 

I called it moxie. Others, among them veterinarians and behavioral experts, called it innate aggression that was an anomaly in most domesticated animals. When Buster went to the vet for his checkups, he had to be tied down and muzzled; certain staffers refused to work with him. One vet tech emerged from the room covered in welts. 

At home, Buster bit me for the slightest infraction. If I moved while he slept in bed with me, he’d nip. OK, bite. If I stopped throwing the ball in the park, during our daily off-leash outings, he’d flip out. Once, he attacked a bulldog puppy and ripped his jowls; the owners, a lovely couple, told me that it was a good thing because, “the puppy has to learn that some dogs are just bad.” Gee, glad to be of service. 

But if Buster was bad, what did that make me? Together, we were a team, and he was the most loyal, affectionate, adventurous, tirelessly fun creature — when he wanted to be. If I gave him up, it would make me the the worst kind of person, the type who dumps something when it’s no longer working for them. I’m not an animal abandoner, I told myself. No matter what. 

Buster running through leaves. (Photo: Donna Freydkin) 

Not even my husband, born and bred in Texas around all manner of dogs, could control him. During one walk, Buster, out of nowhere, leaped on two massive huskies and bit them. In return, one of the huskies took a chunk out of Buster’s leg. The next day, we saw the same dogs. Buster again went for them. “What’s wrong with your damn dog?” yelled the owner. I had no answer.

And then suddenly, shrugs and apologies and casual jokes no longer worked to calm down a situation. Buster and all of his quirks were tolerable until I gave birth to my son Alex.

We brought Alex home from the hospital and we waited to see what Buster would do. For a while, nothing happened. Business as usual, at least for Buster, who got his daily park walks and plenty of attention. He wasn’t affectionate with Alex; he didn’t approach him or sniff him or lick him, but we figured that was just safer. But babies grow, and sooner or later our kid would start crawling and then walking. After that, all bets were off. And were they ever. 

One day, in our midtown apartment, Alex toddled over to Buster, who was laying on his bed. The baby tried to pet him. Buster lunged, and bit him in the face. I didn’t know what to do; I saw my kid shrieking in fear. My husband grabbed the dog and repeatedly and sternly said, “No, no, bad dog, bad dog.” It had no effect.

Kids stopped coming over for playdates with my son. They were afraid of Buster, who would glare and growl. That should have been my breaking point but it wasn’t. Even then, I was in some bizarre state of denial and self-inflicted guilt. “Buster just doesn’t ‘do’ children,” I told myself. “It’s not his fault.” I also knew that if I gave him to a shelter, he’d be immediately put down. Or worse, because he was so cute, some unsuspecting family would adopt him and then he’d maul one of their kids. Which again would be my fault. 

But life has a way of scuttling all your plans — such was the case when my husband was diagnosed with brain cancer. The average lifespan: 15 months. Most of them bad. One day during his treatment I was with my husband as he received chemo at Sloan-Kettering. My mother-in-law was home with Alex, helping out. It was sleeting out, and as I would learn, Buster was crying at the door, needing a walk. She called me, unsure of what to do. Alex was napping. The dog was desperate to pee. Should she wake the child? Ignore the dog? I was blocks away, trying to keep my husband upright. We’d hit a wall.

With the exception of one hardy animal-lover friend, no one was willing to take Buster, even for a day. Why would they, when he fought their animals, became hyper-aggressive around food, and bit with impunity? You know that feeling when your chest feels like it will explode, like you’re being crushed from every side? That was me, then. And I realized, game over.

So I made a decision: I sent Buster to live with my brother, who was, to put it mildly, a very reluctant pet owner. My last memory of Buster is me shoving him into a pet carry-on bag, and pushing them both out the door — I didn’t even take a picture, because I knew it would emotionally destroy me. Thinking about it now still does.

A year later, my brother had Buster put down. I never said goodbye. I never allowed myself to properly grieve for him, which is the least this dog deserved. It was because of Buster’s relentless energy that I went to the park every day, and thus met one of my best friends in the world — who had her own problem canine. It was because of Buster that I became a runner. I explored the city with him; we went to Lake Tahoe together; he and I shared nightly sushi dinners. Buster was a life force whose forcefulness knew no bounds in every sense.

So Lena and Lamby, you are in my thoughts, and barks. 

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