Jennifer Chen

Jennifer Chen is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles with her TV writer husband, blind Pug, yellow Labrador, and tripod cat. You can find her on Twitter at @jchenwriter

Culture: Readers Write
Island of Misfit Toys
What my blind Pug and overweight Labrador taught me about how to adapt and move on

Buddy was so obese that when he sat down, rolls of fat surrounded him. I found Buddy through a Labrador Retriever rescue group. My husband Brendan and I wanted to adopt an older dog who was comfortable with cats. A few weeks after submitting our application, we met Buddy. His foster mom said he was sweet, five years old, and good with cats and children.

When we met him, he nudged us with his black nose to pet his head. His foster parents told us that Buddy was free fed and left outside a lot. “But he’s such a good dog,” his foster mom said. We were in love. When we leashed him up, his foster mother teared up. “If anything goes wrong, we’ll take him back no problem.” His foster dad couldn’t watch us leave, opting to hang out in the kitchen instead.

During his first week with us, we took him to the vet and learned he was a whopping 118 pounds. The vet warned us that he needed to lose weight or diabetes and arthritis were in his future. When we took him out for walks, Buddy refused to move and sat down in the driveway. We tried to play with him. I tossed him a stuffed frog toy. It hit him in the face. He had no idea how to play. We came home one day and found Buddy had torn his bed to shreds. Cotton filling covered our floors.

To help him lose weight, we restricted his diet to a cup and a half of kibble twice a day, but Buddy was hungry all the time. He snatched at any food he’d find on walks, once devouring stale hot dog buns that were left on a front lawn. Slowly, Brendan and I got Buddy to do a 10-minute walk, then gradually 15 minutes.

He was also diagnosed with hypothyroidism, which made weight gain easy for him. With regular exercise and the proper medication, it took about a year and a half, but the weight came off. He slimmed down to 85 pounds, his ideal weight.

During his weight loss journey, my plump puppy often got unkind remarks from strangers. One person asked me if I fed him McDonald’s French fries. “No,” I said angrily. “He’s losing weight.” Another person told me that he looked old. Though I was annoyed when people told me how fat he was or how he looked old, Buddy still wagged his tail and greeted these rude people happily. Buddy wasn’t bothered by the insulting comments. Every person was an opportunity to be pet. Instead of snapping at people, I smiled politely when people judged him.

The change in Buddy was tremendous. He went from a lethargic dog who didn’t know how to play to a pup who loved chasing his yellow stick in the park. When we took him to the beach, he dove into the ocean to swim. I photoshopped a before-and-after photo of Buddy to show off like a proud parent. He looked younger, happier, and slimmer. My friend Darren joked that if they had a dog version of The Biggest Loser, Buddy would be the star.

After we moved to the Bay Area in 2010 for Brendan’s work, I persuaded Brendan to adopt a Pug from a local rescue group. I loved Pugs’ big dog personality in a little dog body. We found Bessie, a nine-year-old blind Pug who had been abandoned at a vet’s office. She had several litters before she was dumped.

I had no idea what was in store for me.

First, Buddy wasn’t too pleased about sharing his two favorite people with another dog. If Brendan was petting Bessie, Buddy would push his way to Brendan. I read countless articles online about how to help a blind dog—make lots of noise on walks, don’t move the furniture, and help them with stairs—but on our first walk together, Bessie bumped into me many times. The world became different. I had to be her seeing-eye human, looking out for curbs or street signs she could stumble in to.

She bumped into a lot of things—walls, furniture, people’s legs, and Buddy’s wagging tail. Brendan called her our furry Roomba. She liked to sleep in Buddy’s bed, much to his dismay, even though she had two of her own. True to Pug personalities, she was difficult and stubborn. She hated going on walks. But at night, she cuddled against my chest, snoring loudly as I pet her soft black ears. I fell in love with her hard.

We moved back to Los Angeles in 2013 and rented a house with a doggie door. Bessie, try as she might, had trouble using it. Undeterred, she kept trying every day. Instead of picking her up, I gave her encouragement. “You can do it, Bess!” I cheered as she’d attempt to hop through the door. Then, one day she made it all by herself. Her tenacious behavior taught me that if you want something, you can’t give up on your first try. Sometimes it takes a hundred attempts—a particularly helpful lesson when I was first learning to stand-up paddleboard. Even though I was nervous about balancing on a surfboard in a river and paddling forward, my companions reassured me that it was so easy. “No one ever falls,” they said. Except for me. I fell once, got up unsteadily, then promptly plunged back into the water. Clutching the board to my chest, I wanted to give up and sit on the sidelines, but like Bessie, I tried again. And this time I didn’t fall.

My friend Alina joked that I was the owner of the misfit toys. Much like the broken toys that no girl or boy would want in the classic Rudolph Christmas movie, my motley crew of a cat and two dogs were fixer uppers of the pet world. I struggled to be a good pet parent. Sometimes I got impatient with Bessie or angry when Buddy devoured a week’s worth of kibble when we weren’t home. But what I loved most about adopting these misfits was their ability to adapt. They could go through blindness, obesity, and being abandoned by previous owners—and still give unconditional love. I’m not perfect, but neither are my pets and I adore them for their imperfections.