Theo now knows there’s a void in our lives. He doesn’t have a sibling – or even a pet. But after hosting a friend’s well-trained dog, Julia, for a week, my smitten Theo doesn’t want to give her back.

Sometimes we feel like one of the few Maine families without a dog or a cat. I’ve noticed that families who live close to the land, especially, have dogs that get them out walking trails every day. On the farms we revere around us in Brunswick, dogs are beloved family members who also serve an essential function: at Crystal Spring Farm, the border collies Nell and puppy Wynn routinely round up “ornery ewes” and run the sheep flock toward new grazing pasture.

At Milkweed Farm, we’ve fallen for the snow-white Great Pyrenees guard dog puppies they breed but stopped short of buying one, knowing they would morph into 100-plus-pound playful polar bears almost overnight.

We’ve never owned a dog, and neither I nor my husband, Dan, grew up with one. But we frequently dog-sit for friends to experience what we’re missing. In Oregon, where Theo was born, we regularly watched a docile but chiseled pit bull, a gentle, formerly abused giant who lived up to his guru-like name “Baba.” I was nervous to have him around our newborn because of the breed’s reputation for viciousness. Then Baba’s owner, Sang Montage, Googled black-and-white infant portraits proving the forgotten history that, until recent decades, pit bulls were called “America’s nanny dog” for affectionately watching over children.

Given his love of Baba, we were surprised when Theo developed a paralyzing fear of all dogs after his second birthday, once we had settled in Maine. He always recoiled, crying and clinging to my legs. My gut told me exposure therapy would eventually cure Theo. Finally, my mothering instincts were right.

At first, Theo fretted when we took in Julia for a week last winter. A brindled former Mexican street dog, she’s the faithful companion of Dan’s colleague, Bowdoin College sociologist Marcos Lopez, who compensated us with large, fragrant Meyer lemons from his parents’ yard in Salida, California. Lopez and his partner, UC-Santa Cruz sociology Ph.D. student Luz Cordoba, found Julia, then a stray, about six years ago while doing fieldwork in a San Quintín farmworker settlement in Baja California.

Truthfully, we would almost pay them to watch Julia. Within the week, Theo and I felt wedded to this lovable mutt. I loved how she got me out to run in the snow on the pristine Brunswick Town Commons trails. We eagerly volunteered to watch Julia for two subsequent stints, including the week of Hanukkah, before we left Maine to visit our families in Virginia over Christmas.

“Julia, you’re a nice dog!” my Theo repeated, trying to mount her like a horse and grabbing at her face and tail, which she tolerated like a compliant older sibling, never snapping. “What’s a leash, Mommy?” “OK, Julia, here’s your ball!” “Watch me, Julia!” “Where’s Julia the dog? We need to take her outside to pee!” were just a few of the questions and commands Theo made that week.

She served as healing therapy dog for both of us. Our only complaints were the fur she shed sleeping in both our beds, the winter grime she inadvertently tracked in and the water that splashed over the rim of her bowl, water I’d sweetened with blood that pooled in a fresh package of Crystal Spring Farm grass-fed steak. I know Theo will suffer Julia withdrawal when we return from vacation.

As with motherhood, feeding Julia was the dog duty that came to me most naturally. Lopez left us with a freezer full of Pyrex containers of homemade dog food. Dan almost dug into the container that was defrosting in the fridge – it looked like leftovers, more than fit for human consumption.

Cordoba had made up the big batch combining Mainely Poultry’s ground chicken bone-meat blend from the farmers market with vegetables and rice. Julia devoured the stuff.

Mainely Poultry’s John Barnstein says marketing bones and meat as dog food has been a “major” boon to their Warren business. He first learned of the raw dog food fad from the late owner of a Thomaston kennel about a decade ago. Now, Mainely Poultry grinds whatever parts – chicken backs, necks and breast bones and ribcages – are left over from processing the birds for human consumption into its popular dog food.

“This is product that we used to compost,” Barnstein said. “It’s kind of like turning waste into profit.”

Belfast holistic veterinarian Lee Herzig brought the grain-free raw dog food diet more prevalent in the West Coast with him when he relocated to Maine from Washington state. (He now works at Full Circle Holistic Veterinary Clinic.) He collaborated with Mainely Poultry to develop a vitamin- and protein-rich blend of ground chicken and bone, chicken liver, apples, raw eggs and vegetables such as green beans and carrots.

“It just makes sense. Dogs, just like foxes, coyotes and wolves, were not meant to eat grains,” Herzig said. “Raw meat was what their digestive tract was set up for.”

After a naturopathic vet in California suspected a commercial dry blend was causing Julia’s itchy skin and red, gunky eyes, Cordoba tried her hand at making dog food. Cordoba says the food she previously fed Julia was also “making her fat”; under the new regime, Julia is quite lean.

I hope we haven’t wrecked her diet. Theo and I couldn’t resist feeding her bits of local hamburger and Gulf of Maine hake off our plates. I rewarded her with the fish the frantic, rueful afternoon I lost Julia for an hour on the Bowdoin athletic field trails. When a friend unleashed her puppy, I impulsively released Julia, too. Then I remembered Lopez’s warning that his otherwise obedient dog doesn’t respond when in hot pursuit of the many squirrels on this tract of land.

Fortunately, Brunswick animal control, Bowdoin security officers, housekeeping staff and Good Samaritan students were right on the scene to chase her down. I would never forgive myself – nor Lopez and Cordoba me – if something happened to their beloved dog on our watch. I never again unleashed her when out walking and hugged both Julia and Theo a little tighter that evening, trying to stay focused on gratitude for narrowly averting disaster the week before Christmas.

Maybe we aren’t dog people after all. For a moment, the responsibility of having one felt as weighty as parenthood.

LUZ CORDOBA’S HOMEMADE DOG FOOD

Cordoba says that though her part pit bull Julia got a lot of exercise, commercial dog food was making her fat. Now that she is eating this recipe – developed with input from vets and websites and through trial and error – the 7-year-old dog is a svelte 55 pounds and is running around like a pup. Julie gets 4 cups of the food a day, divided between breakfast and dinner.

You can vary the recipe – say, substituting spinach for the green beans or using wild venison, chicken or rabbit for the meat – but the mixture should be 60 to 70 percent meat, Cordoba says, since the diet of dogs in the wild was primarily protein. Dogs also need more calcium than humans, hence the ground bone; as an alternative, add toasted (to remove risk of salmonella) ground egg shells to the dog’s bowl; toast egg shells in a toaster oven for 10 minutes.

½ medium to small pumpkin or winter squash

1 to 1½ large sweet potatoes

2 carrots

½ pound green beans

Fresh parsley

2 pounds Mainely Poultry ground chicken bone-meat

¼ pound chicken livers or hearts

1 pound ground beef

1 cup rice, brown or white

Chop (and seed) the vegetables (unpeeled for higher fiber content) and the parsley. Set the green beans and parsley aside, then put the other vegetables in a large pot with the meats, rice and enough water to cover. Cook the mixture until the root vegetables and rice are soft, about 30 minutes. Add the green beans and parsley (for good digestion), and cook the mixture a couple minutes more, until the beans have turned bright green.

Do not feed the hot mixture to your dog, Cordoba cautions. Let it cool off.

The dog food freezes well for fast dog dinners. Defrost and gently reheat with almost equal amounts water; serve warm but not hot.

Laura McCandlish is a Brunswick-based food writer and radio producer. Follow her on Twitter at baltimoregon and read her blog at baltimoregon.com.