Dog Mom

A loving ode to everybody’s, and especially dog mom’s, best friend…

by: Regina Thomas


Urban Dictionary, the most trusted source for emerging vernaculars, defines dog mom as a “term used in online dating profiles to signal a woman’s decision to never have kids.” Upon reading this I furiously considered whether I should create an account to flag or, at a bare minimum, thumbs-down this offensive definition. My conclusion was that I had better things to do, like write this essay, so here we are. However, if that definition also annoys you, go ahead and make an account, log in, and have at it.

The definition of dog mom I’m going to go with is any owner of a dog who proudly proclaims that all of their spiritual, emotional, and biological needs are fulfilled by their dog ownership experience. It’s an identity in the same way everything in today’s fragmented society is a brand — an identifier, if you will.

Obviously dog dads are welcome under this umbrella, all are welcome. But, for whatever reason, Urban Dictionary doesn’t yet contain a definition for dog dad.


I was raised in Louisville, Kentucky, moved to Chicago for law school, and immigrated out to Northern California’s Bay area, where I now live in a small beach town called Pacifica. I’m still coping with the death of Ike, my first dog as an adult, but I just adopted a new dog. His name is Mingus and he’s a total psycho. Maybe we shouldn’t have named him after Charles Mingus, a brilliant but extremely acerbic and violent jazz musician from the turn of the twentieth century.

California is Mecca for dog moms. All we want to do is live in a dog-friendly town, in a dog-friendly house or apartment so we can get up early to drive to some random hill, cliff, mountain, or even just a flat outdoor circle where we and our pups can commune with nature.


My first memory of an interaction with a dog is quite perilous. I was six or seven years old, and I was speeding on my lavender Jiffy bike, heavily pursued by a golden menace. I’m not sure whose dog it was, but I just remember pedaling furiously out of sheer fear, my heart in my chest, with a little yellow rat terrier nipping at my heels, barking with a devilish glee as it pursued me in chase. At the time the farthest I was allowed to go was to the corner and back, so when I reached that demarcation, I just sat there on my bike, shaking in fear as the vicious beast barked up at me, wagging its tail.

Afterward my mom explained to me that though I should always be cautious around dogs, I had to understand that this particular dog most likely hadn’t meant me any harm. In fact, it had thought we were engaged in a game of chase, and it just couldn’t let me win.


MAG (Magnificent Animal Girl) was the acronym my mom gave the first dog we adopted when I was eight years old. My stepdad had decided he should have the honor of naming our gray border collie/pitbull mix puppy and wanted to name her Meg, which I patently disagreed with as I thought I should obviously be the namesaker. Even then I was too stubborn to back down without a second-place reconciliation prize.

I met Mag (pronounced Meg) at a cousin’s birthday party, where I discovered that the neighbor’s new puppies needed homes. That evening, when my stepdad picked me up from the party, I showed up on the curb with Mag in a basket after negotiating her adoption against the wishes of my mom, who told me no on the phone earlier. Mom later told me that my stepdad, a serious, gruff, no-nonsense Southern man, had been adamant that he wasn’t going to let me bring Mag home with us when he picked me up that day. They had both clearly underestimated the power of a super-cute puppy.


So why would someone willingly identify as a dog mom? I personally feel a bit conflicted about the phrase as it implies a parent-child relationship I’m not really into. I’m of the belief that we do dogs a disservice when we treat them like human infants when they’re really just super-hairy, domesticated quadrupeds.

On the other hand, when you’re a dog owner, you do feed, bathe, ass-wipe, coddle, hold, worry and fret over, pay for daycare and other modes of creature sitting, potentially even procure health insurance for your dog. Some of us even let them sleep in our beds, maybe even under the covers.


Where I grew up in Louisville, household dogs were lucky if they got to sleep inside at night. Most of our neighbors didn’t take their dogs on leash walks, forget about visits to the dog park; I doubt such a place existed in our historically Black part of town. Instead, most of the neighborhood dogs took themselves on their own walks if they were lucky enough to escape from their home enclosures, if any.

I have vivid memories of my childhood seated in the passenger side of the car with Mom driving around, looking out for Mag. Sometimes people would call if they came upon her, most memorably a bank located four miles away from home, who said Mag had casually walked into the bank branch looking for help, as she’d lost her way home. Now, as an adult, I understand the importance of dog exercise, that most of a dog’s chaotic energy can be explained by their need to run and go out into the world and be free, to sniff and piss on whatever they want without us humans stopping them from having their fun.


While Mag was my childhood dog, Ike was the creature whose care turned me into the dog mom I am today. My ex had wanted to get a pure English bulldog, but as he was this close to buying a plane ticket to import a bully from Georgia, I was able to talk him out of it, citing a New York Times article about the weird dog eugenics at play in the making of bulldogs (can only conceive through artificial insemination, give birth only through c-section, etc.). A few weeks later he surprised me (I know, red flag) with a cuddly, tan-colored English bulldog/puggle mix we named Ike.

Ike was a classic Chicago bully, confident and boisterous. He was an amazing city dog who grew up in high-rise apartment buildings and had no problem pooping on concrete. I mean he had no problem with pooping on concrete. The thing about Ike’s impact on those around him was his big spirit, his cocky bravado that came out in the way he carried his meaty little compact frame. Everyone called him “handsome,” which always felt like a weird description for a dog, but it fit. People who didn’t know him automatically knew that Ike was a “he” because Ike radiated that sort of masculinity that doesn’t have to explain or introduce itself. Which was weird because we took his balls out relatively early, at the same time we had his third eye, his cherry eye, removed. (Look it up, cherry eye, it’s a weird dog recessive gene thing.)


My ex joined the military at seventeen, and he got Ike right after returning from a year abroad in Kosovo. After that year of living in barracks, his whole life controlled by the United States government, when he came home there was a risk that he would become unmoored, the way most service people do when they have to adjust to civilian life. Instead, once we got Ike, my ex put all of that military training and discipline into raising a good, calm, submissive dog, and honestly, I watched them raise each other. My ex taught me the importance of putting a dog on a schedule, and his seriousness about consistent routine and stern leadership are principles I am employing to keep Mingus’s madness at bay.

Most importantly, he taught me the positive grounding force that dog ownership can have in your life. No matter how depressed or difficult your life is, all it takes is a wagging of your puppy’s tail, and it forces you to go outside, to be in the here and now instead of just existing and living inside your head.


I had a dog mom friend in Chicago who told me she had a reading over the phone with a dog psychic whose claim to fame had been having a show about their doggie paranormal activities on Animal Planet. The friend said the dog psychic had seen that my friend and her dog had been brothers in Italy in the seventeenth century who had once faced a great familial tragedy. The dog psychic posited that they had been reunited in their current forms, she no longer male, the dog no longer human, to heal some sort of latent ancestral trauma. To once again be able to care for each other and live together as they had centuries ago, before Rome was just a sinking tourist attraction.

I’m not sure why the story of that urban hippy has stuck with me all of these years later. I guess it’s because it made me contemplate the familiarity I always felt with Ike. I became convinced that in another life we had been related. Maybe Ike had been an older brother who looked after me and kept me safe, and our life together in this time had been my opportunity for me to repay the favor.


When Ike and I moved to Northern California, other dog moms warned me to be wary of foxtails, the prickly, spear-shaped little grass-like weeds that could get stuck in a dog’s coat, nose, ears, or paws. The new house we moved into boasted an amazingly large front and back yard that was ripe with foxtails. One day Ike started furiously chewing on his front right paw. At the time I didn’t think anything of it, but every day the chewing on the paw got worse, and raw, bloody flesh began to emerge. I took Ike to the vet to have it checked out, and in the waiting room there were pamphlets about at-home dog euthanasia.

Ike was already pretty old at ten years old on the day I found out about at-home doggy euthanasia, but all of his health problems, as well as his bulldog and pug mix genealogy, had me thinking about Ike’s final chapter and what that would all look like. Having him humanely put down at home when the time came felt like the obvious and least traumatic choice. Sadly, what actually occurred was something else entirely.


The day that Ike became terribly ill, in less than twenty-four hours I cleaned out most of my measly savings account, dropping over $10k. It’s what us dog moms do, we spend whatever time, money, or other resources are at our disposal to keep our pups breathing and by our sides. I mean, I once had a roommate who took her dog to an acupuncturist, well worth it in her eyes, and I can’t help but agree.

Even when the vet said that the best-case scenario was that I’d have to shoot Ike up with insulin for the rest of his life, I didn’t care. I couldn’t put a monetary value on his importance in my life. Ike had been there for everything. He was a gift from the first man I’d ever loved completely and unabashedly with abandon. When that same man and I broke each other’s hearts and I decided to run away to the West Coast to fully sever the final tie of space, Ike was next to me on the flight out of Chicago, after I bought a shady emotional support pet letter off the internet for him to fly in cabin. When I started my new life in California, Ike was the only creature I knew, and what a beautiful constant, bright-golden light of calm confidence that soul had been.


When Ike had to go under to have the foxtail removed from his paw, I was convinced that he wasn’t going to make it. During that time I realized that while I don’t fear my own death, it’s the ultimately inevitable deaths of my loved ones that really keeps me up at night. For the last year of Ike’s life following his foxtail surgery, I was filled with this existential dread about what felt to be his impending death. After his death I was distraught, and now I’m still upset that my best friend is gone, while also embarrassed by how upset about it I still am.

In the time of COVID, the Russia-Ukraine conflict, countless mass shootings, and the war on women’s bodies, it seems self-indulgent to so fully and absolutely grieve the death of a forty-five pound canine who lived well past his life expectancy. Maybe the real tragedy is that there is no tragedy. A dog has a lifespan way shorter than the average human, and maybe it’s the right fit for us. I mean wouldn’t it be weird if dogs lived as long as cats?

It’s the constant presence Ike had in my life for over a decade that I’m grieving. I know intellectually, based on his health diagnosis, that it was Ike’s time to go. On the day he died, Ike’s health had already been on the decline, and on his last day all of his organs had started to shut down all at once. But at the same time, I’m devastated over the loss of one of the most intimate relationships in my life. I mean we watched each other pee every morning.


After Ike passed away and we adopted our new dog, Mingus, I kept considering on how little I knew about our rescue mutt and had the intense feeling I had never met him before, until now. That, unlike Ike, I couldn’t feel any sort of shared metaphysical history, no kinship. Instead, Mingus and I were both meeting each other tabula rasa. Which made sense. I had just met the dog; Ikey and I had been together for over a decade. Mingus, my first rescue pup, is a blank-slate mutt with no ancestral paperwork to back up his provenance. All we know about Mingus is that he’d been abandoned at an apartment complex in California’s Central Valley, tied up and left by his owners with another dog that the owners had decided they were too lazy to deal with.

I asked my partner if he’d ever met Mingus before, and he immediately knew what I was getting at, that I wanted to know if he felt any sort of the familiarity with Mingus that I had instantly felt with Ikey. His response was a simple: “Yeah, I’ve met that guy before.”


Sometimes I feel like we got our new dog Mingus too soon, and that’s why he’s such a demon boy. That’s what my partner calls Mingus whenever Mingus lunges and barks loudly, as if in agony and pain, simply because he encounters another dog or a new person he’s never met before. At home Mingus is a sweet little cuddle-bug who follows us around with an adorable look of curiosity, who loves to show his affection through obsessive licking and adorable wagging of his curlicue tail. Most likely one of his parents was a Chihuahua, the other a mixture of Pomeranian, bull terrier, and super-mutt, at least according to the dog DNA test. Yes, I bought a dog DNA test, wasn’t satisfied with the results.

Out in the world Mingus is a different dude, a guy who lives by the prison principle of make yourself big, look and act super-crazy and vicious first so everybody will leave you alone. It’s sad to watch this creature live an alternate reality where he’s a persecuted Jason Bourne type, when in reality he’s a ninteen-pound scared little pup whose worst days are most likely behind him. He just really lacks the confidence that Ike had, the comfortability around other dogs and new humans. While Ike came from a pet store (I know, eek), he did seem like he’d had enough time with his mom before coming home with us. No matter how hard I try to employ the lessons learned from Ike to help Mingus become more user friendly, I worry I’ve saddled us with a real head case for at least the next decade.


For whatever reason, Mag’s death at the age of thirteen wasn’t as impactful on me as Ike’s death. I guess it’s because when Mag died, I’d already moved out of the house and away from Kentucky. I was in Chicago at law school by that time, and Mag had been having seizures for years, and the medicine she had to take made her lethargic and gain weight. By then Mag had become my mom’s primary companion, her best friend, and she was the one to take Mag to be euthanized when it was time.

Afterward the rest of the family had marveled at Mom’s stoicism, that she hadn’t told everyone else what was happening or asked for support that day. She’d been taking Mag to the vet for all of her old-dog ailments for years. She was the dog mom in the scenario, the leader who had known the pain from Mag’s inability to walk was creating a poor standard of life. She decided that Mag deserved better.


A few hours before Ike’s death, I had taken him to an emergency care vet clinic that could provide him with around-the-clock care with the goal of stabilizing his condition. Within four hours of leaving him, having tearfully said my goodbyes, I received a call from the vet that Ike had flatlined, and they needed my permission to try resuscitation, approval that I gave. A few minutes later I got a phone call from an unknown Chicago-area phone number. It was my ex, calling me out of the blue for the first time in years.

I tearfully told him what was happening to Ike, and we both cried on the phone together until another number dialed in. It was the vet, letting me know that the resuscitation attempt had not been successful. Ever since I had taken over full ownership of Ike, I had wondered whether I would ever tell my ex that Ike had passed away when it happened. While I thought he had a right to know, I also didn’t like the idea of popping back into his life out of the blue to be a bearer of bad news. That day the universe provided a solution I never considered.


Ike’s ashes came in a large, plastic sandwich bag, packed within a tasteful, rectangular teak urn. His remains also came with a small piece of paper that held a beautiful poem titled “The Rainbow Bridge.” The poem, in summary, posits that all dog moms will one day see their dearly departed pups again on the rainbow bridge, presumably a nondenominational pseudonym for the transport to the afterlife.

I hope it’s not foolish of me to hold out hope that I will see Ike again. Hospice professionals, in addition to Theresa Caputo, the Long Island Medium, have said that people who are at the end of their life, right before death, sometimes mention that they see and are surrounded by the family members and pets they have lost, finally reunited, and that they are there to welcome them to their new home. What a comfortable and soothing idea.


It feels good to put this all out into the universe. I started thinking about this essay when my dog-mom responsibilities increased with Ike’s age. Waiting in the vet lobby, I’d type ruminations on my phone about the difficult yet highly rewarding responsibility of being a dog mom, but I couldn’t think of how to get it down into something relatable, necessary, worthy of reading and writing. Now it’s all flowing out of me like lava. Now is the perfect time.


Regina Thomas is a writer based in Northern California. Her mission statement as a writer is to create the sort of works that were missing from the bookshelves when she was a young Black girl in Kentucky always maxing out her checkout limit at the local library. Her work has been published in The Courtship of Winds, Packingtown Review, The Penmen Review, and Press Pause Press.

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