Verena von Pfetten is the co-founder of Gossamer, a New York City-based cannabis lifestyle brand and publication, the former executive digital editor of Lucky magazine (RIP), and a journalist who has written for New York Times, Vogue, InStyle, Condé Nast Traveler, Modern Farmer, and more. She lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with her senior French Bulldog rescue Harry—they are both CBD devotees.
Did you grow up with pets?
Yes, I grew up with dogs. I wouldn’t describe myself as a dork necessarily, but I was painfully shy as a child. I spent a good chunk of my early years walking around carrying a book of dog breeds, memorizing every attribute and quoting them to people. My father was very much an outdoorsman, so he’d always had dogs. There’s a big gap between me and my older sisters—I’m the youngest by 10 and 14 years. My sisters grew up with a cat. My oldest sister also had a horse; she was big into riding. But I kept asking for a dog when I was little. Finally, one Christmas when I was six or seven, my dad was like, “Okay, we’re getting you a dog. We’re going to go pick up your puppy.”
He was a 13-month-old German Shorthaired Pointer—a fully-trained gun dog that I named Cocoa. He was the best dog, but it was just so perfect that I thought I was getting this roly-poly little puppy and my dad got us a dog.
I had him until well through college. I named him Cocoa because he was chocolate brown but a couple years later, my mom wrote it down somewhere and spelled it C-O-C-O. I said, “No, it’s C-O-C-O-A,” and my mom replied, “No, he’s named after Coco Chanel. It’s Coco.”
When did you start getting dogs as an adult? Was Harry your first?
He’s my third. I’m very much a dog person. I got a dog named Wilbur my senior year of college. I went Columbia in the city and my best friend Jenny, who I’d known since we were 13, was also at Columbia with me. She and I were roommates our senior year and so we got a dog, Wilbur, with the intention of a year later getting a second dog, and then one would be hers and one would be mine.
It was totally a harebrained scheme and I wouldn’t necessarily suggest other 20 or 21 year olds living in a college dorm do this. But it very much worked out for us and I think we were both really dedicated to the idea.
Wilbur was a little mix—now in hindsight, I’m pretty sure we got him from a puppy mill, which like, really?
“I think that New York City dogs in almost every instance are better taken care of than anywhere else.”
You were young. You didn’t know.
Except I did know. I knew about puppy mills—this was 2004. I thought I had done my research, but it’s one of those things where I knew all the right things to do and then it came down to it and I still did the wrong thing.
The second dog we got was Dumbo and he was a French Bulldog and we got him a year after Wilbur. Again, I thought we were doing the right thing. I wouldn’t say he was a puppy mill dog, but probably from a pretty irresponsible breeder deep in Brooklyn, in Sheepshead Bay.
Wilbur was Jenny’s and Dumbo was mine. Then, in 2009, I started looking at French Bulldogs to adopt from the French Bulldog Rescue Network. I put in an application once a month.
Finally, in October of 2010, one application came back to me and that was Harry. He is a puppy mill rescue. He was found in Oklahoma outside in a kennel at a backyard breeder, like a puppy mill. He was in a kennel with a dead French Bulldog.
It was like 113 degrees.
Yeah. He had mange and heartworm and everything—he was just a gnarly-looking dog. But I flew to Oklahoma and I picked him up. They thought he was four years old. But my vet said he was probably closer to six. It’s really hard to gauge rescue dogs like that. His teeth were worn down from chewing on the grates of his kennel, and his paws were really cracked and appeared much older than those of a well-taken care of dog—and that’s usually how they determine the ages of animals.
I had Dumbo and Harry together for a long time. They were very close.
What was it like to bring Harry home?
When I was applying, I was looking for dogs that were being marked as really low-key, really chill, friendly with kids, cats, and other dogs. That is how they had described Harry. He was from Oklahoma and living in a foster home there. When I got the email saying that my application had been accepted, I got on the phone with the foster mom and she told me she had originally earmarked Harry for a local Oklahoma family. My apartment address at the time was on Park Avenue—not the fancy part of Park Avenue, the Murray Hill part. Like 30th and Park. But she thought, “Oh my God, I have the chance to send this Oklahoma puppy mill dog to the big city to live on Park Avenue, from rags to riches.”
I flew to Oklahoma to pick him up, because the French Bulldog Rescue Network (rightly!) won’t ship dogs, and had arranged a four-hour layover at Oklahoma City. I came out of the airport to meet him. We spent a couple hours sitting outside on a bench and he was just so chill and happy. And then I flew him back to New York with me through Atlanta. It was, like, a seven hour trip with this dog that I had just met—he had no idea who I was. But he was just a potato with ears. He’s truly the most easy-going, self-contained little creature.
It was like a total love fest when Dumbo and Harry met. They both got in the same bed and curled up.
It was really mind blowing. The two of them were very close and I think in the seven years I had them both together, they had only one fight. Dumbo went a little mad one day and it was over a bone. It was exactly what you could expect dogs to fight over. They were a really good match.
What attracted you to French Bulldogs in the first place?
I’m so conflicted because I think they’re such great dogs and I fell in love with them the same reason I think everyone else does. But at this point, I am vehemently against purchasing a dog. I will never knock anyone for what they need to do, but there’s no world in which it makes sense to me. French Bulldogs are so sweet—and so expensive. They don’t reproduce naturally; it has to be [through] artificial insemination. They deliver by c-section because they’ve been bred so that the heads are too big for natural delivery.
So you’re already paying an astronomical amount for something out of the gate, and that’s not to mention the irresponsibility of breeders who jump on the popularity, and start to offer them in special colors or patterns. And then they’re incredibly prone to health problems. When Dumbo was four, he hopped off the bed and ruptured the first three discs in his spinal cord and was paralyzed. I had to rush him to the Animal Medical Center in Yonkers where he eventually had, no joke, a $7,000 spinal cord surgery. I actually couldn’t afford it at the time—my boyfriend paid for it. They said, “We can do the surgery or we’ll likely have to put him down.” I was 25. I didn’t have a credit card with that limit. I didn’t have a bank account with that amount of money in it. I had no access to that kind of money.
But that’s not something people realize when you get one of those dogs. If you’re ready for it, then go to town—but you’ve gotta be ready to spend the money.
Thank you so much for sharing this responsible and honest advice.
Getting a second dog that was a rescue was like atonement.
One of the things that people say a lot about New York City is like, “I can’t believe anyone in New York City owns a dog.” And the argument I usually make back is I think that New York City dogs in almost every instance are better taken care of than anywhere else.
Elsewhere, a dog just goes in and out of the backyard, that’s it. In the city, you have a commitment to exercise the dog. People are willing to pay for a dog walker. People neglect dogs everywhere—no matter where they’re from. But if you’re someone who’s taking care of a dog, I can guarantee you that the quality of life for a dog in New York City is higher than in many other instances elsewhere.
“I sometimes joke that he’s my Large Adult Son.”
I agree. I grew up in the California suburbs and some of the dogs don’t get socialized very well because they don’t meet other dogs. Tell us about a day in the life with you and Harry.
When I first got Harry, I was a digital editor at a media start-up. I was working nonstop. While I could work a little bit at home, I was working from 7:30am to 8pm every day.
I still work a lot and long hours, but it’s a different style. It was much more intense back then—I was writing 15 blog posts a day. This was early days of digital media and, you know, people talk now about having to write like five posts a day, I was genuinely writing between 12 and 15.
I’m also in my mid-thirties now, I have an apartment that I love, I have a neighborhood that is very dog friendly and quiet. In Red Hook, there’s an amazing park called Valentino Pier.
Harry is very old—he’s somewhere between 13 and 15. We’re pretty sure it’s closer to 15 but either way, the average lifespan of a French Bulldog is about nine to 12. 12 is wildly old. He is well past his expiration date, so to speak. He’s mostly blind, mostly deaf, and pretty arthritic. In some ways, he’s very low maintenance. I try to walk him, but a long walk for Harry is more like a long stand outside. When it’s sunny, he really loves standing outside. Sometimes I will stand outside with him for 30 or 45 minutes, but it’s not a long walk. It’s a stand.
Then, sometimes he toddles over a few feet, and then he sits and blinks in the sun for 20 minutes, and then he gets up and moves to a new spot.
I have a dog walker who comes between once and twice a day, depending on the day. Harry moves very, very slowly and you need someone who’s going to be patient and not yank him because he’s not moving. He can’t be walked with other dogs—not because he’s not friendly, but because it’s not fair to the other dogs.
Do you give Harry any CBD? What do you recommend for dogs?
In pets, you typically want to look for CBD isolate or broad spectrum, which means all the cannabinoids except for THC. I recommend isolate because there is no THC, and two, because it’s basically flavorless. I’ve heard that regular, full-spectrum CBD—which is what I would always recommend for humans—overpowers everything else for dogs for days. They can’t taste their regular food. They can’t taste treats. It’s actually quite aggressive on them.
I have been giving Harry a tincture called Whole Pet Drops made by Mary’s Nutritionals. My friend Beryl owns a CBD shop called Poplar—she sent them to me. I originally looked at the dosing on their bottle and I think it’s really, really high. So I give Harry my own made-up dose, which is about 2.5-5 milligrams of CBD as best as I can measure it, which maybe sounds like a lot, but he’s in a lot of pain. I think it’s helpful.
I give him this once a day. It’s so hard for me to tell what works and what doesn’t with him because he’s so low affect already. There’s not going to be a huge change of personality or anything, but you know, I know it’s not hurting him. So I continue to do it on the off chance that maybe I don’t see it, but it is helping him.
The other thing with CBD is, I do think it helps dogs with sleep, in the same way that it helps people. I think dogs that are in pain don’t get as much sleep. It’s hard for them to get comfortable in their bed.
What do you feed Harry?
The wet food is EN Gastroenteric Naturals™, which is the prescription diet plan wet food that the vet gives you if your dog has an upset stomach. And then Fromm Gold Small Breed Adult Dry Dog Food. I think they’re quite good. I feel like, with these dog group brands, it’s so hard to tell. They sound like they’re being transparent? And appear to be family run? It’s sort of like grocery shopping, you know? Like when you buy the eggs that are organic, free-range, and cage-free, and sold in a beautifully hand-illustrated carton. I always think that that means it’s from a little single family farm upstate, but it’s probably really run by a giant industrial food conglomerate.
What are some of your favorite dog brands?
I feel like there’s so much room in the pet space for someone to create products that address specific and geriatric dog needs. Pets are living longer these days because people have adjusted their stance on what it means to take care of a dog. It’s very different from 50 years ago, when a dog got old, you just put it down. It’s gotten to the point with Harry where I realized he needed a raised bowl. His back legs are really weak and it’s quite hard for him to balance himself and eat his food straight from the ground in a bowl. But the problem with raised dog bowls on the market is that they are just raised and then flat, if that makes sense, and that hurts his neck and back. And if you Google raised “tilted food bowl,” there’s a million for cats and none for dogs. So, I’m about to buy a cat bowl for my dog.
Do you consider yourself a dog mom then?
I sometimes joke that he’s my Large Adult Son. I’m definitely not someone who describes him as my baby or my child—but we’re really, really close. I mean, when Dumbo passed away, which was two years ago now, I was absolutely gutted. And it took me little bit to put my finger on why it was so uniquely devastating. I’m certainly not making the case that it is harder to lose a dog or a pet than a person. But it’s a different type of loss, in that your relationship with your pet is so singular. It is one on one. You can live with a partner, or have a family, but our pets are with us in spaces and moments that no other humans see. And when you lose a person, there are, in most instances, other people who also knew them—who also had a relationship with them. There’s a shared understanding of the loss. With a pet, it’s yours and yours alone.
They’re these little creatures that are tied to you and you are tied to them. That’s how I think about my relationship with Harry. He doesn’t go with me everywhere. I obviously have a dog walker during the day. I travel a fair amount and I make sure he’s in good hands and I leave him. But at the end of the day, he and I have a one-on-one relationship that I don’t have with anyone else and that no one else has with him. He’s my Harry.
Photography by Tayler Smith