Sitting on the back porch of our two-story home in Pittsburgh, looking out at a quiet street and shaded yard, I told my close friend the happy news that my husband Brad and I signed a lease on a 450-square-foot apartment in Manhattan. Her face lit up with excitement, but then clouded over. “How do you think Turk will adjust?” she asked, knowing from her own experience living in the city that a move of this magnitude might be a big disruption for my nine-year-old Boxer.
Turk, who weighs in at 80 lbs., has been with my husband and me through four permanent moves and countless other road trips, vacations, and adventures. He’s always been very adaptable and easy-going, so I had never strongly considered whether moving this time would be difficult for him. “I’m sure he’ll do fine!” was my quick response.
Living in Pittsburgh was easy for Turk—our home was sunny and spacious, our street quiet, he had room to run on soft green grass, and we didn’t encounter anything unexpected on our daily walks to the park. However, I realized soon after moving that New York City was going to be a very, very different story.
Turk’s struggle began even before we loaded the moving van. Because of our serious downsize in space, we needed to sell most of the possessions in our home. Turk stood watching, ever curious, as a constant stream of strangers came empty-handed and left with our porch chairs, his dog crate, the kitchen appliances, and nearly everything else. As the house emptied, he became more and more nervous, pacing through the empty rooms and hiding behind the few remaining pieces of furniture when people entered the house. Apprehension troubled his face when moving day arrived and we loaded him in the car amidst the boxes. As we took off towards our new city, his palpable anxiety foreshadowed the trials to come.
In preparing to move, I had worried that the bustling sidewalks and loud street noises would confuse and alarm Turk. Through the eyes of a dog, standing about three feet tall, the world at eye-level is a constant parade of boots and heels, suit pants and tennis shoes, strollers, bikes, and the occasional human face, bending down to say hello. To my surprise, though, each day as we walked out of our apartment door onto the busy street, he lifted his head towards the crowds and strutted down the sidewalk with confidence, gladly taking in the attention of anyone who would stop to give him love. But Turk’s limited perspective in this new place caused him anxiety in other, unexpected ways. Some of these issues were serious and some funny, but each of them caused Brad and I to stop and carefully consider how we should respond and what we could do to help him adjust.
Confronting New Difficulties
At our home in Pittsburgh, Turk ate like a horse and pooped like one too. But here in NYC, well, he wasn’t going. When we took him outside and told him to “go potty,” he simply looked back at us with a blank stare. Walking the blocks around our apartment and in nearby parks, I realized that the open, green space where Turk was used to going simply didn’t exist. The trees on the surrounding blocks are neatly barricaded by small gates with instructions to Curb Your Dog, and the grass in every park is very clearly labeled NO DOGS ALLOWED. After a few days, Turk had emptied his dog food bowl five times, but had yet to empty his bowels at all. Brad and I nervously wondered, “When does not pooping become an emergency?”
Amidst the poop confusion, Turk also grappled with some social bewilderment. While most people on busy streets simply walk by, leaving Turk to carry on his way, there is one group of people who sit at dog-level—the homeless. This interesting placement of person was new to Turk, and he naturally assumed that these people had strategically placed themselves on his level just to greet him! If I didn’t pay attention, I would find Turk lunging towards every person he encountered sitting on the sidewalk, scaring some and delighting others. After all, an 80-pound boxer sniffing your face or climbing into your lap is quite a surprise.
The third and most serious adjustment that we faced was the small apartment. Turk was nervous and depressed whenever we were home. Not only is this space much darker than our old house, but it was initially unfamiliar and cluttered with boxes. In Pittsburgh, Turk slept in the blocks of sun streaming through our many windows, but this apartment is in the back of the building and there is little natural light. Here, Turk doesn’t have room to chase balls around the house like he used to, and every time we tried to leave him alone, we could hear his cries and barks from the hall as he suffered newly acquired separation anxiety. It was truly heartbreaking to watch his personality change from a goofy, fun-loving boy to one of apprehension and nervousness.
With each of the trials that Turk encountered, we did our best to understand his needs and to give him time to adjust. On day three of the poop confusion, I panicked enough to relinquish my coveted parking spot and loaded Turk in the car to go find dog-friendly grass in the only place I could think of—Brooklyn. Sure enough, the second his paws moved off the pavement, other things began to move! Not only did Turk start pooping again, but in the days following, he lost all sense of propriety and pooped absolutely any time the mood struck. He pooped in crowds of people, at the front steps of apartments, and the most inconvenient place—in the middle of cross-walks as traffic waited. We figured that, after days of holding it, he decided he wouldn’t wait another second.
Becoming street wise took some work too. However, when I did pay attention I realized that for the most part, people enjoyed the company, so I began working with Turk to say hello politely. Not only did Turk make new friends, I did too.
We scheduled long walks every morning to get him out of the apartment and help his mood as the day began. And, since he suffered from anxiety when left alone, I initially cancelled or moved my daytime appointments and stayed home with him or took him with me to run errands so he would have time to get used to the neighborhood and apartment. With time, we began leaving him alone for very short stints with a treat-filled toy to keep him occupied and would stand in the hallway listening for his cries. Over time, we were able to slowly extend our time away as he relaxed into his new normal. It certainly wasn’t convenient to plan work and outings around Turk’s needs, but we recognized the importance of giving him time to settle in.
A New Normal
Three months after moving to the city, Turk is much happier. He has a new routine that includes daily walks around the neighborhood, dinners with us on restaurant patios, cab rides to Central Park, and so much more human and dog interaction than he has ever had before. In some ways, I think he’s even happier in Manhattan because we bring him with us so many places. I can’t say whether dogs remember where they’ve come from and miss it… but I know now that they are more adaptable than we think. I have also learned that patience and compassion goes a long way towards helping them adjust.
An Change for Everyone
Brad and I shared many laughs about Turk’s poop-strike and his fascination with the homeless, but the reality is that his behavioral changes were an indication of a larger adjustment that was admittedly hard for all of us. Sure, as humans, we knew where to use the bathroom and how to interact with strangers, but we too mourned the loss of our home and yard and had to learn new strategies for finding rest and comfort in this new place. Turk’s adjustment paralleled our own in many ways. And although his fears and hesitations are different, they are just as real.
As humans, it’s easy for us to validate our own difficulties while seeing our dog’s struggles as unreasonable, but compassion should remind us that animals are approaching life from a different perspective. We made the choice to move, and we had all the information we needed to understand our new life in this new place, but even still, we struggled.
When I was tempted to become frustrated with how Turk’s adjustment caused me to change my schedule, cancel appointments, or simply walk the block a few extra times waiting for him to feel comfortable enough to poop, it was really helpful to remember how much this creature means to us, and how making this move without him would have been far more lonely, boring, and meaningless.
Milla Chappell of Real Happy Dogs is a documentary dog photographer based in the East Village. As a personal project, Milla works with local rescue groups.