Writers and Their Pets: Gina Balibrera

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Two dogs, one black one white, smiling up at the camera.

The ‘Writers and Their Pets’ series began with my own desire to celebrate my dog Sally, and since then I have also invited other writers to share with the rest of us the details of their lives with beloved pets. Today, please enjoy this essay by Nancy Welch.

You can also submit your own essay to the series. Read our guidelines here.

Ladette Randolph, Editor-in-Chief


During the polar vortex, I took a pair of hounds under my charge while their owners were out of the country. A rough break-up, a mysterious illness, and the frozen earth had stalled the progress of my novel–though these weren’t good enough excuses for not writing, and I knew it. I moved into the house where the dogs’ owners lived, called it a two-week residency. Each morning I was tired, raw-brained, relentlessly afraid, and on the other side of the bedroom door, the dogs rustled with the knowledge that I was awake. They whined and scratched their paws beneath the door, and in the dark I dressed with urgency. The dogs needed me. And what did I need?  An exoskeleton. Walking across ice with these hot-flanked animals, their leashes wound around my mittens, I felt tough. Or: tough as seen from a distance, arrayed by an impermeable force field.

Rhonda and Mantis were their names. Mantis, papillon-eared and fine-boned, was all hesitant peeing atop snowbanks and guileless love-eyes and polite nuzzles. Rhonda, pit bull mutt, was box-faced and brassy, unrepentantly hungry, quick to bound, a broad’s broad. Rhonda kept it real. Rhonda did not suffer fools. In the leather jacket and big black boots and red lipstick I had taken to wearing that winter, I wanted to be Rhonda. But my soft broken heart made me Mantis.

Living with a pair of dogs draws an inevitable comparison to writing: there’s the necessity of adhering to a strict schedule of duties, and failing that, a commotion of hunger, restlessness, griping, and guilt. And of course, there’s the work animals enact upon the boundaries of the self and psyche. Speaking to another sad novelist friend about his beautiful small dog a winter ago: “At least she gets you out of bed, and then out of the house.” The rewards of finishing my novel might be as discreet as the rewards of taking Rhonda and Mantis on an especially vigorous early walk over icy sidewalks–we were spent, but our muscles felt warm and righted. At the strange desk in the doghouse, after the morning routine of walking and feeding Mantis and Rhonda, I quietly resumed my work.