When Doug was a freshman in college, one of his roommates brought home a puppy, then quickly lost interest.  Doug found himself in a human/canine partnership with an amazing mongrel.  Raised in a household  of male college students in the 70s, Yama was given free rein to explore his inner wolf, and he was probably smarter than several of his roommates.

His ability to reunite lost hikers and navigate any terrain he’d been through once, often showing up at the home of friends miles away, was legendary. Yama was Doug’s best man when we married, and none of our friends questioned this decision.

At 15, disabled by arthritis, Yama made his last trip to the vet.  It hurt so much that we vowed never to get another dog.

That vow lasted till our younger daughter came along.  Her first sentence was, “I want a dog.”  She was adamant from then on till when she was 7, we finally let a little Golden Retriever into our lives, and he melded our family into a very tight pack.

If we lost our sense of humor–he retrieved it.  If we lost our sense of responsibilility–he retrieved it.  If we buried our need to get out into the woods for a long walk – he retrieved that too.  How many wonderful walks have dog owners been prodded to take because “the dog needs his exercise.”

Tombo came from a woman with three Goldens.  Her avocation was training her girls for obedience and agility competition and bringing home every possible award.  You could not have one of her puppies without agreeing to attend her Saturday puppy training classes, and she was fiercely determined to turn us into responsible owners of responsible dogs.

It made living with an 80-pound member of another species who had roughly but not always perfectly aligned goals and values so much easier.  He qualified for a Therapy Dog Tag, and brought a lot of joy to elderly nursing home patients.

Tombo would never jump up on people, get on furniture  or  take food from a table, not even a coffee table.  He would sit and stay till released.  He would trot at our side till we reached that wide open space where we could say, “Tombo, free!” and he would take off like a rocket, powered by the joy of being alive and recharge our batteries just watching him.

During his 12 years, I began to ponder what his impact was on the environment.  It was not small.  Nor was his impact on our budget.  The American Pet Product Association  estimates that the pet industry did $45.4 billion of business in 2009.  Between the many 40-pound bags of dog food, vet bills for annual tests and inoculations, plus the occasional mishap and mysterious illness, along with several overnights a year at the kennel — I’m sure it added up to more than $1,000 a year

I was forming a list in the back of my mind.

  • Dog food and supplies
  • The mountain of poop, and the plastic bags used to collect it on in-town walks
  • The electricity for extra vacuuming
  • The need to strategize every trip to park in a shady spot
  • How much wildlife did we not see because they saw Tombo first?
  • The toll he took on the native plantings in our back yard in town, which he literally could not help tearing up when he tried to meet his exercise needs back there.

We tried to make pet ownership as green as possible.

We did not overfeed Tombo to keep the dog food and poop issue as low as possible.  And that in turn kept the vet bills down because Tombo was all muscle and didn’t develop hip problems from extra weight.

We dug a Doggie Digester into the back yard to return his waste to the good earth (with mixed success).

Tombo was vital until he started getting seizures.  We took him to the vet after the first one, and learned that at his age and breed, we could expect him to have more seizures with increasing frequency and intensity.   Within a few months, we had to accept that Tombo’s life was no longer a joy to him.  Our daughters came home to accompany him to the vet one last time.

With help getting out of the car, he was able to walk into the vet’s office, and he walked in wagging his tail, as he always did.  He loved the vet.

He loved everyone.

This spring, after the pond thawed, we tossed his ashes into the water.  Nothing gave Tombo more joy than obeying his hard-wired directive to retrieve something from water.  (His presence in that tiny pond had a huge impact, but his compulsion to leap into the pond was hard to deny.)  His final entrance into his pond was the only one that didn’t fill me with ambivalence.  We tossed his ashes from all his favorite entry points, and with the last handful, we both called out,

“Tombo, free!”

Will we get another dog?  We think not.

Our awareness of our carbon footprint has expanded since we brought home that fluffy pup.  It seems very hard to justify unless we truly have need of a working dog on the farm.

Yama and Tombo were both great teachers, but I don’t think we can afford the tuition (economically or environmentally) to take another class.

How do you feel about pets and their place in a sustainable world?  We humans have bred dogs to almost every possible size and shape, but can we make them green?

5 replies

  1. It’s a cold calculation that only calculates the value of a dog in £ or $ and carbon footprints. What value can you put on your dog as a therapy dog? How much did that save in terms of doctors bills? I don’t think that gives us carte blanche to have dogs in unsuitable environments but a dog can bring many benefits, many of which you mention.

    I don’t have a dog and maybe never will as my husband is not a dog lover and there are too many untrained dogs around, but a well-trained dog he does appreciate and working dogs are invaluable and greener than yet more machines ie those that detect medical problems in their owners or help around the home.

    Dogs that roam are not green, they cause accidents and make places feel unsafe but well-trained dogs enable a more well balanced community and maybe save in other ways if we let them.

    • Hi Joanna,
      Yes, it is hard to put a dollar value on a companion. Sometimes I thought of Tombo almost as my furry, quiet son. Working alone at home as I do, his presence was a constant comfort. And the joy that he spread when he visited my mom’s nursing home had to be seen to be believed.
      I watched people who had been slumped in their chairs with vacant stares put their hands on his head and begin to talk in animated and loving tones about a dog from their childhood while Tombo sat still as a statue and stared into their eyes.
      I have written a book about teens and physical disabilities (^DB/CATALOG.db&eqSKUdata=0810853000 )
      and I understand how dogs can help in many cases.

      I have considered becoming a home where service dogs spend their first year, getting general training and acclimation to the kind of experiences they will be dealing with as adults. I know from the way we taught Tombo to be well behaved and well integrated into his pack that we could do it.


    • Hi Suzi!
      Thanks for you comment. I missed that show on dogs, and your link will make easy for me to correct that ommision.
      It’s so fascinating.
      The two animals that humans commonly choose for pets have such different natures. And yet both canine and feline can live comfortably and form bonds with us apes.

  2. Thanks for this very touching article, Denise. I have to admit to getting a little teary eyed at the last “Tombo, free!”. Of course, I do fondly remember Yama, as does Michele. He was “THE dog” back then. :o) As you know, I’ve always had cats (since I’ve never had the space for a dog) and I understand how much the “pet” becomes a member of the family which makes it very difficult to say “Goodbye”.

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