Finding Comfort In Dogs When The Country Isn’t Going The Way You’d Like It To

zandy hartig

I adopted the puppy on Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day. I put in the application at 3 p.m. and brought her home the next Friday. I had been thinking about adopting or buying a dog for a while — my kids had been begging for at least two years — but I’d put it off.

“I already have two babies,” I told myself. “The kids are too young to share responsibility. It’s not fair to bring a little life home when I’m not sure I can take of myself. I have enough poop in my life.”

On that dark day, however, I found myself doing errands, driving around in a fugue state, which I’d been in since the election results started to turn away from sanity. Telling my kids — in particular my nine year-old, who had come crying to me two months earlier, scared Trump would become President (I assured him he absolutely wouldn’t) — that Trump had won was worse than when their dad and I told them we were getting divorced.

I could hold it together around them but it was harder to do when I was alone. I couldn’t work myself out of my funk. I’d wake up in the middle of the night thinking, and sometimes saying out loud, “Oh my god. Trump is going to be President of the United States.”

* * *

You have to understand, I grew up in New York City in the 1980’s. It was a parent’s job to instill in their kids a profound disgust of Donald J. Trump. And my parents did their job well. We all could see he was a buffoon, a barbarian at the gate; arrogant, mendacious, tasteless, mean, petty, self-obsessed. A vengeful, fraudulent joke. The New York elites wouldn’t touch him with a ten-foot pole. They might be racist and acquisitive themselves, but they did it quietly. Being showy was déclassé. He was a pariah and he knew it. He wanted their approval, but also hated these discreet assholes for thinking they were better than him. This is a long way of saying that, like most sane people, New Yorkers couldn’t believe his national popularity. And we certainly couldn’t believe he bamboozled the Electoral College and won. It was baffling to the point of vertigo.

These thoughts, coupled with burgeoning depression, raced through my mind as I drove north on La Cienega in Los Angeles. That’s when I happened to see Spot Animal Rescue. I made the most dangerous U-turn of my driving life, parked illegally, and rushed inside.

“Do you have any puppies for adoption right now?” I asked, with maybe too much desperation.

They had just received a new litter: five sisters, half chihuahua, half poodle. They looked like neither. They were adorable. In fact, they looked perfect, as most puppies do. I fell in love with all of them.

It took an hour of playing with them — not a painful job — to figure out which puppy would be mine: a sleek, black and white girl with white socks and a patch of white on her nose. She was funny, bright, and playful, but calmed down immediately when I held her in my arms.

I filled out an application. When I got in my car to go home, I felt a lightness and a sense of hope I didn’t have before I walked into that shelter. I had potentially good news and a video of the puppy to show to my kids. I was optimistic for the first time in months. Something to look forward to. One hour had vanquished a good measure of my depression.

After a week of waiting, I finally got the call. My application was accepted. I was ecstatic. It was like I’d booked a role in a Coen Brothers movie. I picked her up and drove home with her on my lap. She was too scared to go in the carrier, so I held her with one hand and kept the other on the wheel.

I brought her to my ex-husband’s office. He hadn’t been a dog-lover, but I’d converted him. I knew he’d want to meet her. He nearly cried. “Oh hello, my new daughter,” he said. One girl in the office actually did cry. The puppy got passed around from person to person and fell asleep in their arms. I got three offers (they were more like demands, to be honest) to babysit her.

Zandy Hartig

* * *

My six year-old wanted to name her Gidget; we named her Susie. As he was brushing his teeth, my nine year-old, who plays things close to the vest, said, “Mom, I’m really happy you got me a puppy.” I teared up because this is a kid who, even if he’s had the best day in the world, would likely answer a question about his day with, “It was fine.”

He is so tender and affectionate with Susie. She allows him to express himself in a way that would normally make a shy boy uncomfortable. He talks to her with nonsense love sentences like I do: “Oh, Susie, you’re a good girl, aren’t you? Let’s talk about your paws and your ears and your tail. They are very nice and very silly.”

Even though he’d pretend to die if he drank out of the same cup as his little brother, he picks up Susie’s poop without protest. Amazing. I only wish he would be just as sweet to the six year-old, but puppies, of course, outrank younger siblings.

When I told friends and acquaintances I’d decided to adopt a puppy as an antidote to Trump, I was surprised to find I wasn’t alone — four different families at my sons’ school did, too. Sherry, one of my mom friends, told me, “The reason we wanted to get a dog was twofold: one of our dogs died and I liked the idea of growth and progress during a time when things seem grim and sad. It’s optimistic. It brings you joy. It’s a wonderful distraction. Literally picking up dog shit is a distraction from politics.”

Sherry knew ten different people who bought or adopted puppies. She calls them “Resistance Pups,” which should be another category of service dog.

Michaela Watkins, the star of Hulu’s Casual, told me that after Trump won the election, she too tumbled into a depression. She and her husband had a seventeen year-old cat and had resisted getting a dog because they didn’t want “to destroy her golden years by moving a predator into the house.” However, after the election, Michaela was so depressed she decided to stop looking at her phone, stop reading think-pieces on how to survive the Trump Apocalypse, and instead adopt a dog.

“We needed someone who would depend on us for dear life,” she said. “Cats are low-maintenance. Dogs require your full attention.”

They went to a shelter where they found Jeff, a beautiful terrier-retriever mix with maybe some pitbull thrown in. The staff at the shelter told her that adoptions had been up three hundred percent since the election.

“I felt an immediate change in my brain chemistry,” Michaela said. “Jeff was repairing some of my neural pathways instead of me spiraling into the hopelessness.” Walking Jeff and maintaining a set schedule to take care of the new dog gave Michaela and her husband the structure they also needed when they felt emotionally unmoored. Jeff forced them to go outside and get some fresh air. They both became healthier.

“Dogs hold a giant mirror up to us. Loving and being loved is everything,” she told me. Taking care of Jeff surprisingly was a form of self-care. She rescued Jeff and Jeff rescued her. As we ended our chat, Michaela added, “Jeff just farted.”

* * *

You don’t have to be a new dog owner to experience the salubrious effect of canines. Amy Rice — a filmmaker who made By the People: The Election of Barack Obama — told me, “Right after the Inauguration, it was so depressing spending time on social media. But when you adopted Susie, all of a sudden there was this adorable puppy who would randomly pop up in my ‘world is ending’ Twitter feed, and seeing her always put a smile on my face.”

I’ve heard this many times over. I have many seemingly tough, sarcastic, hardened cynics who transform into melting ice cream when I post my dog-related content to social media. I’ve had a journalist friend say she and her boyfriend, who’s also a journalist, scour my feed looking for my puppy tweets. I’ve gained followers on Instagram since adopting Susie, and one even made me a gorgeous drawing of her. Many people have told me, “No offense, you seem very nice but I started following you because of your puppy.” I get it. It’s okay. I’m not nearly as pretty or soft.

After 9/11, I was at the Javits Center applying for FEMA relief because the New York restaurant where I worked had been just six blocks away from the World Trade Center. Obviously, there were people there who were much worse of than I. Many were sitting in uncomfortable folding chairs staring into space as if comatose. Who knows what they experienced. They seemed traumatized. I realized my problems were minor.

All of a sudden, volunteers leading magnificent dogs with special harnesses — mostly Labradors and Golden Retrievers — approached us. “Would you like to pet the dogs?” someone kindly asked. It was as if a movie had switched from black and white to color. The formerly shell-shocked, ghostly people in the room with me came to life. They petted the dogs, talked to them, smiled at them, and the dogs smiled back. Goldens and Labs have great smiles. It was simple, instinctual, and beautiful; a temporary but powerful antidote to the incomprehensible chaos and horror these people had probably experienced a week earlier. It reminded me that as soon as humans domesticated canines, our lives changed for the better. We wouldn’t have survived without their assistance and unconditional devotion. It was impossible to witness these therapy dogs’ service and not be moved.

* * *

I’ve had a hard time assimilating to Los Angeles since moving to the West Coast. I find people to be remote and aloof, perhaps because traveling everywhere in cars and in immense traffic isolates people and prevents face-to-face interaction. However, ever since adopting Susie, a new world has opened up to me. I’ve found a whole new community of human dog parents.

She is much cuter and sweeter than I am and people want to meet her, so they actually engage with me. I now know most of the other dogs in my neighborhood. I don’t remember their owners’ names but I do remember theirs. Los Angeles has, to me, become exponentially friendlier. Human beings could learn a lot from dogs. The openness and trust they show to everyone is how we should act toward each other.

Susie is helping me more than I have helped her. I feel like she adopted me. She is so pure and sweet, smart and good — and gorgeous. I sit with her and I feel every bone in my body relax. She forces me to smile and laugh, no matter how bad my day has been. Sometimes I want to say, “Why do you like me so much? Honestly, I’m not that great!” But she doesn’t seem to notice my failings. The love is unconditional. I can’t think of another creature about whom one could say that. Dogs are natural antidepressants with no side effects, except pee and poop and the occasional fart. Totally manageable.

I went back to Spot Animal Rescue with my six year-old to buy more food for Susie. Some idiot had returned her sister because the puppy had been “too much work.” She looked like Susie — same size and markings, white socks included — but much fluffier, with mottled brown fur and a brown nose. My son said his older brother could have Susie “and I can have her sister!”

After thinking for three days about how absurd it would be to have two — the time, the expense, the inconvenience, the ruined rugs and furniture — I decided to adopt Belinda Carlisle. Belle-Linda is pretty times two, first in French and then in Spanish.

All things considered, we’re all doing just fine, Donald Trump be damned.

zandy hartig

Zandy Hartig is an actress who has appeared in Childrens Hospital, Wanderlust, Mad Men and other projects.