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How My Dog Auggie Made Me a Better Man—and Neighbor

July 9, 2021


I wonder what kind of man I would be these days without my puppy Auggie.

My wife, two children, mother-in-law, two cats, and I moved just as the global virus crisis began in March 2020. The very day we rumbled out of Tennessee and made our way on I-40 across the Mississippi River (hello giant pyramid!) over to I-30 in Little Rock and down to our new digs in Collin County, Texas, the word “pandemic” was first officially used to describe our recent time of trial. The next day, I met one of my neighbors in the alley behind us and we shook hands as per usual, chuckling to each other that “they say we’re not supposed to do this right now.” Little did we know.

My family had so enjoyed our neighbors during the three years we lived in Tennessee, and when it was time to relocate to the Lone Star State—and to one of the biggest metro areas in America—we were determined not to get lost in the isolated suburban sprawl. We bought a home in an established community just north of Dallas that was built in the seventies with modest brick ranch houses lining easily walkable streets laid out on a grid (not that we can walk to anything, but that’s no matter here). We were all set up for neighborliness; but that promising first handshake proved to be a tease. I saw the same neighbor again outside over the next few months, but he hurried back into the house, pretending not to notice me (or so I thought). The couple on the other side started getting large grocery deliveries, and we never once saw them set foot outdoors. Almost everyone kept to themselves.

Just one set of neighbors threw caution to the wind as we did, and we spoke often in each other’s yards as the lockdowns began and ended. We laughed but also lamented together about the couple that jogged in the plain air with masks on, as well as the pale teenage gamers on the other side of us who were not even bothering to sign in for their online coursework. Of the remaining neighbors we saw out doing yard work or driving by, we exchanged waves at best, but an alarming number of people seemed to avoid eye contact and ignore the presence of others entirely.

Maybe I was just being paranoid, but I felt a little put out. Here we were, brand new in town after leaving a wonderful community in another state, and nobody was up for getting to know us.

By Easter 2021, things were beginning to feel a little easier here in Texas. There were a few more smiling faces out and about in our neighborhood each day, and without asking or caring about the details of anyone’s healthcare decisions, our family started to have a few more real human interactions with people on our street.

Then we got our Great Pyrenees puppy, Auggie, a gentle giant named after St. Augustine of Hippo.

With each morning and evening walk with Auggie, I quickly began to get some much-needed context about my neighbors’ lives. Head nods and waves became stop-and-chats and even deep conversations. I felt increasingly ashamed of myself for playing the unfortunate newcomer victim in a time of mandated unfriendliness.

For example, for months, I found it so curious that a house down the street had a big sign, visible from about fifty feet away, telling delivery men and women to leave packages a good distance from the front door. That seemed a bit much.

Now I kind of get it. The kindly man behind the sign is a proud Baylor University alumnus, veteran, and Christian who now sits out in his lawn chair with a hose every afternoon in the heat. He tells me he is determined to get sod to grow in a spot of his lawn that has always been barren. He and his wife have a lot of health problems, and they lost a daughter to an illness some years ago. Whatever he has been through over the last year, he conveys a sense of freedom now. I am really happy for him. I know all of this only because of Auggie.

Then there’s a lady five or six houses down from us. I was sure I would have nothing in common with her—an assumption that made me even more frustrated about our new surroundings. Most mornings, I saw her drive by in an orange Subaru, often with a severe looking Rottweiler in the backseat. Auggie helped expose these false intuitions. The first time I passed the woman’s house with Auggie at the end of a leash, she came right out, her face all lit up, excited to introduce herself to us by name. She wanted to let Auggie meet her dog, who turned out to be a total sweetheart and is named after a great Swedish opera star to boot. My neighbor and I now chit-chat about music, languages, and local history all the time. And she, an experienced dog owner, tells me all kinds of useful things about caring for a puppy. I had everything about this lady wrong. I imagined her to be the bad neighbor—but it was me.

Finally, there is the reclusive young couple on one side of us—the ones whose pallets of Ozarka spring water, Kroger orders, and even Chipotle bags from DoorDash just sat and sat on their porch until the coast was clear. Eventually, things changed with this pair too. After one cordial conversation, the imagined next-door nemeses who I thought were worried I would kill them with the plague turned out to be nothing of the sort. Whatever they needed to do is none of my business, and it’s certainly no slight to me. They rent their home but have hoped to buy their own, and they have been agonizing about the skyrocketing prices in our area that are making their dream of homeownership impossible right now. I have been able to show them some of my own scars from real estate battles. It’s a blessing to commiserate about anything and everything.

Having Auggie these few months has made me a busier but better man. His presence forces me to live in reality in a way I have not experienced since my children were babies. A puppy needs things that I simply must stop and provide. But he also gives to others in ways that reset the whole selfish narrative each of us inhabits to one degree or another—and me more than most people. For a while, I thought Auggie had made the people around me better neighbors. But now I realize, I am the one who needed to change, and I have.

If you need a change in the aftermath of our recent unpleasantness, I could recommend all kinds of things; but I would start with Confession, where I was relieved to let go of all my toxic assumptions about mostly very decent people.

But I would also suggest a dog—the bigger, the better.