A couple’s devotion expands to include a rescue pup
By Renee DiNino
This couple questions everything – including life, love, politics, and pets. Amid all the questioning, there is one answer that seems consistently clear: all paths lead them to each other. I found myself absolutely fascinated by these two. They have such a different approach to everything, yet I am certain they’ve found the secret to living life with pure harmony and love.
Ben De Bari, 26, and Jason Cheung, 28, met at the University of Connecticut as undergraduate students. De Bari is a full-time graduate student at UConn and a PhD candidate in experimental psychology. He expects to complete his doctorate within the year. Cheung, a data analyst, works for the nonprofit Connecticut Data Collaborative, making data accessible for all, and helps other nonprofits assess their programs and needs through data analysis. Oh, and he’s also a grad student, pursuing his Master of Science degree in data analytics from Georgia Tech.
You might be wondering, where do intellectuals meet? Rock climbing, of course. In 2013, while at UConn, De Bari was studying cognitive science and Cheung was studying actuarial science. Cheung says he was, “never into sports or fitness,” but at some point, friends suggested rock climbing and off they went!
“The best part of the culture of climbers is that there are very interactive people. All good vibes. We met, started chatting, and very organically our relationship grew!” Cheung recalls.
De Bari says they “fancied themselves hard-core rock climbers and went up to four times a week.”
Soon, they arranged their first date. Since both were undergrads at UConn, neither had a car, and who had time to go anywhere, with all of their studies? They borrowed a friend’s car, headed to the Willimantic Food Co-op where they loaded up on bread, wine, and cheese. Then off they went to Horsebarn Hill on the UConn Storrs campus, sat on a blanket with all their snacks, and formed a bond. “It was beautiful,” says Cheung.
He was a year ahead of De Bari, and they dated through all of their undergrad studies. When Cheung started a job in Boston, he would drive every weekend to spend time with De Bari. They survived a short break, a test, to be sure they were indeed meant for one another. Not a traditional break-up, but more of a study. While apart, their bond only grew stronger.
For Cheung, their time apart led to a defining moment. “I knew Ben was the right person after we had been apart for three or four months … when we got back together, everything made sense.”
For De Bari, it was “the realization a good relationship would require work and Jason was worth it.”
They had talked about getting a dog for six years. De Bari had always grown up with dogs but there was a roadblock: the lease where they were previously staying didn’t allow pets. They didn’t give up. On a whim, they asked their landlord how strict that no-pet policy was, and to their surprise and sheer delight, he answered, “Oh, for you guys? You can totally get a dog!”
Having talked about getting a dog on a weekly basis, and feeling excited at the prospect of adopting, they went on a search.
Cheung’s first experience with dogs was at De Bari’s parents’ house where he met the family dogs – Sam, a black Lab/Shepherd mix, and Jenna, a Springer Spaniel. Cheung knew in that moment that he and De Bari would definitely become pet parents.
As it happened, Dog Star Rescue in Bloomfield and other groups were holding adoption events. Cheung had seen a photo of Buck, a 3-year-old mixed breed, but thought he was adopted, so they went to look at other dogs at various adoption events, armed with questions, research and hope.
Cheung initially had his eye on another dog, but then fate stepped in. Somehow, they stumbled upon Buck and his foster and Dog Star Rescue volunteer Eric Michaud. They spoke to Michaud at great length about Buck, spent some time with him, and even had all of their roommates at the time meet the pup, to be sure this would be a good fit.
“I remember the day they met Buck like it was yesterday,” Michaud recalls. “They came to an event in East Hartford. I saw them come in with a notepad with questions. We spent over half an hour going over the list. When we were done, I told them, ‘Never mind your list. Buck is a rescue pup; things may be different once you get him.’ They said they were going to grab some food, and check out another pup in a different rescue. I recommended that they get an Italian combo at the restaurant across the way and adopt Buck. They left half of their grinders and came back in a rush to let me know they were adopting Buck – and the grinders were great!”
The adoption was far more emotional than they anticipated. Buck had been in foster for four months and no one could figure out why the poor pup wasn’t getting noticed. Cheung and De Bari explain in unison, “He was waiting for us and we were waiting for him.”
There wasn’t much information on his history, but De Bari and Cheung do know that Buck was a stray from Georgia before he was rescued. Despite the time he spent with Michaud in a loving foster home, Buck exhibited some behaviors that made the couple think he must have endured heartbreaking experiences as a stray. He had to learn to trust and was in independent survivor mode at first. He would guard his food and treats.
When he saw things like a flyswatter or even a curtain rod, he would retreat and shut down. Even now, when he meets someone new, there has to be an introduction and he has to feel safe.
De Bari thought, “Since I grew up with dogs, I thought I knew how to take care of a dog. I didn’t.”
Cheung soon signed them up for training classes and they learned how to bond with the newest member of their family.
The three musketeers are now all at place of commitment and trust that is a powerful force in their lives. De Bari learned that having a dog is more of a relationship, “not like you see on TV, not Lassie.” And while he and Cheung perhaps expected the perfect live-in companion, they learned he was perfect in his own way and through their commitment as one loving unit, they are all learning about love and trust, securing a bond like no other.
I asked the couple to sum up their relationship.
“I learn so much from Jason. I learn how to grow, and he makes me want to be a better person. We constantly want to grow and leave the world a better place. Making an impact on the community we live in is so important,” says De Bari.
“Two things,” says Cheung. “One, Ben is always striving to be better. He’s always working on getting better at what he loves with his music, and after a decade of playing guitar, he fills the house with jazz. Two, I feel like we are a nontraditional and spontaneous couple, we’re both weird and we embrace each other’s weirdness! I can be myself around Ben, no judgement.”
Being an interracial gay couple with a big rescue dog, they feel they have no preconceived notions of what their relationship is supposed to look or feel like. It just is, and it’s beautiful.
I was able to get an exclusive quote from Buck, whose trust I earned over Zoom: “This is how my life is supposed to be – safe with two loving dads, lots of attention, love, laps to snuggle on, and lots of chicken to eat. I am finally home.”
Cheung and De Bari would truly like to thank Dog Star Rescue for letting them adopt Buck “and for the continued friendship and support of Buck’s foster, Eric. We really appreciate how easy Eric made it to adopt our first dog, never letting us down or leaving us to fend for ourselves when we had questions.”