Emily Yoffe Published By: Bloomsbury
|“Dogs Are Who I Am”
How getting a dog had to be preferable to my family’s whining about not having one.
From What the Dog Did: Tales from a Formerly
Reluctant Dog Owner
When my daughter was born, I still had the pair of cats I’d gotten as kittens when I was 25. But Shlomo died of cancer at age 16. She had always slept by my head, her purr lulling me like some electronic sleep aid sold in catalogues. My other cat, Sabra, lasted another five years. In her final months she was curled in a ball on a chair in the den. Since she had gold and black stripes, it was like having a coonskin cap for a pet that recoiled if you touched it. Wanting my daughter to have lively companions, I found a newspaper ad for a pair of kitten brothers rescued from — what else? — the home of an old lady with 75 cats. Of course they were fluffy and blond, the better to decorate my black pants for the next twenty years. My daughter named them Goldie and Biscuit. I thought I had our pet situation set.
Shortly after the kittens’ arrival, my pre-literate daughter managed to write her first sentence: “I love dogs.” Then she came home from kindergarten with a chart of everyone’s favorite pet — hers was dog. When I mentioned she had cats, not a dog, she said, “They asked for my favorite, not what I have.”
She cut out dog pictures and taped them all over her room. Her most frequently borrowed library book was an enormous American Kennel Club guide to dog breeds. Instead of bedtime stories, she wanted to look through the book, deciding what kind of dog she’d get when she was old enough to leave home. “When I’m in college I’m going to have my own dog and you can’t do anything about it,” she said. I began to dread visiting friends who had dogs. My daughter would get down on the floor and commune with them, paws and arms wrapped around each other. When I had to disentangle her, days of mourning over her dogless state ensued.
I sometimes wonder about Sasha’s fate, and mine, if we hadn’t gone to brunch at my friend Jane’s a week after the arrival of their yellow Labrador puppy, Dugan. My six-year-old daughter spent the whole morning clinging to its mushy body and stroking its floppy ears. When we left she collapsed. “I don’t have anything I want! I don’t have a brother. I don’t have a sister. I don’t have a dog. Dogs are who I am. Dogs are my life.”
My husband was so moved by her self-understanding that he started in on me. “She is crying out to us about what she needs,” he said.
“I am crying out to you about what I don’t need,” I said. “Who will walk the dog? Me! Who will take the dog to the vet? Me! Who will make dog-sitting arrangements on the rare occasion I leave my home-office like some defiant Taliban wife? Me!”
“Listen to your daughter. She wants something to love. She doesn’t even have siblings.”
My husband knew exactly how old I was when he married me. The fact that all I had left in my fallopian tubes was the equivalent of the Chinese delicacy Thousand-Year-Old Eggs was an unfair argument for getting a dog.
So how did I become a dog owner? My husband and daughter finally ground me down in one of those emotional assaults that are usually characterized as “family life.”
I agreed to research an appropriate breed for our family (“Who will do all the work of finding a dog? Me!”). What is it with breeds? When you have cats occasionally you get asked, “What kind of cat do you have?” I always answer “Indoors.” Sure, I know there’s a difference between a Siamese and a Maine coon, but most cats are generic. Go to the zoo and look at the cat house — lions, tigers, caracals, jaguarundi — they’re all variations on the same template. But dogs! Across the street from me is a family that owns a great Dane and another that owns a miniature dachshund. The great Dane would look normal only if being walked by Sasquatch; the miniature dachshund you could lay in front of your computer keyboard and use as a wrist rest. Yet these two creatures are both dogs — they could even mate and produce something you don’t want to think about.
What is it with breeders? Each breed is supposed to match a “standard” which makes me think that the dog breeding world is made up of people who were laughed at in high school for having hairy moles or buck teeth, and are now getting even by setting ridiculous rules for dogs’ appearance. Who cares that the ridge on a Rhodesian ridgeback’s back has an extra whorl? Or that an affenpinscher’s expression is insufficiently monkey-like? Why are there no standards for the handlers who run dogs around the show ring? Lush acrylic toupees, and pendulous, flapping breasts don’t get them disqualified.
When you look at some of the work breeders do, it makes you think these people should have been forced to get another hobby, like sniffing airplane glue, that only affects their DNA, not another creatures’. Who thought it would be a good idea to require bulldogs to have such huge skulls that giving birth to these King Kong-headed puppies will kill the mother unless delivered by caesarian section? Or take the Chinese crested — this is a hairless dog with puffs of fur ringing the feet that makes it look as if it’s wearing a marabou-feathered peignoir. You get the feeling dogs like this are bred just to prove it could be done.
As I surveyed the information about various breeds it occurred to me that the dirty secret of dog lovers is that they enjoy the fact that every breed is impossible. How else to explain site after site, created by the breed’s fanciers no less, that described them variously as, “excitable,” “hard to train,” “massive shedder,” “needing constant attention,” “not good with children,” “strong destructive impulse.” My family rejected my findings that in the 12 or so millennia since dogs were domesticated none have been developed that met our needs.
Finally, I settled on the perfect breed for us — the Boston terrier. It’s small, odorless, agreeable, short-coated, devoted, easy to train and its nickname is “The American Gentleman.” Since I’m from Boston, the little black and white dog struck a nostalgic chord with me. I even came up with a name: Bosco, after the chocolate syrup I poured into milk as a child. Looking at Boston terrier sites I saw that breeders had done it no favors. Since the early 20th century, they had been producing dogs with increasingly short muzzles and bug eyes. I was hoping we could find a less extreme throwback.
When I told my sister that to stop the nightly harassment I was considering getting a Boston terrier, she said, “It’s in your genes!”
“I don’t have bug eyes,” I replied.
“No, I mean Pup,” she said, referring to our late grandfather, “He would be so proud.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Come on. Aren’t you interested in Boston terriers because of Pup?”
“What are you talking about?”
“You didn’t know? Pup bred Boston terriers when he was a young man. I have a picture of him with one.”
I’d never seen the photo. I come from an unsentimental family where most memorabilia is stuffed in drawers. I was genetically programmed to have a Boston terrier! Not only that, my grandfather, who was born in Boston in 1898, might have had a hand in forming Boston terriers. I was starting to feel dog fate calling me.
I emailed a few Boston terrier sites to my husband at work. He quickly called. “They all look like Marty Feldman,” he complained, referring to the late film comedian with wild walleyes.
“I thought you liked Marty Feldman,” I said.
“I did. But I never wanted to take him for walks.”
“I’ll walk Marty.”
That afternoon I showed my daughter the websites. “Look, this is the kind of dog we might get,” I said, expecting a hug.
“If that dog was in my room when I went to bed I would never sleep for the rest of my life,” she said.
I explained that if I was going to cave in and get a dog, then this was the breed we were going to get. My daughter burst into tears. “They scare me. Their eyes scare me!”
That night, when she ran to my husband crying about the mutant I was about to inflict on the family, my husband said, “We’re doing this for her. You can’t get a dog that terrifies her.” Good bye, Bosco.
I gave up on breeds altogether. I didn’t want to support the breeding industry anyway. If we were going to get a dog, we’d do a good deed and save some mutt from the pound. I started looking at the websites of local rescue organizations. I discovered most of the people in this worthy business are dogists. They despise humans because humans neglect and abandon dogs. They believe all dogs are superior to all Homo sapiens, except those Homo sapiens who share their view of canine superiority. Want proof? Here is part of a posting I found for a miniature pinscher named Adam. “Adam was ‘rescued’ from a back yard breeder that continued to breed until ‘she’ (the breeder) died THANKFULLY.”
It became clear the descriptions of the dogs had to be read with an eye for euphemism. For example, “Understands housetraining.” I understand marathon training; that doesn’t mean I can run a marathon. “Best with families with no young children.” That means surgeons were able to successfully reattach little Timmy’s arm.
Other personal ads take a challenging tone, implying that you are a superficial jerk for rejecting this dog. “Humbert has three legs. You don’t think that’s enough legs? Well, look down and tell me how many legs you have.” “Daisy Mae is a wonderful 11 year-old girl who’s still going strong. Her only sign of age is that she needs to be fed liquid formula through a turkey baster. She would be a great addition to a family where at least one person is home most of the day to give her the attention she deserves.”
We entered the next phase, visiting animal shelters to look at actual dogs. Going to an animal shelter with a six-year-old is an excellent exercise if you like driving home from an animal shelter with a six-year-old sobbing, “Why couldn’t we get Punkin?” Talk about guilt. The shelters let you take out of its cell any dog that catches your eye. You and the dog go to a special visitation room where you decide either you’ll put in an application and save its life, or it’s not for you and you’d like to sentence it to almost certain death. I felt cruel when I ruled out any dog that immediately urinated on me, or had more scabs than fur.
Then we encountered our first beagle, a sweet, tiny creature named Rosie who had been found wandering. The volunteer brought her out and we each held the little dog while she looked at us pleadingly. My daughter and Rosie went running together. I asked the volunteer about the problems I’d read about beagles on the various I-Live-for-Beagles websites: hard to housebreak, difficult to train, prone to run away, incessant baying. “I have a beagle, and none of that’s true,” she said. My daughter bent down to pet Rosie and said, “Don’t worry girl, you don’t have to stay here.” Rosie licked her face, and my daughter laughed. At that moment it didn’t matter that we had just replaced the dining room rug. We put in a request for Rosie, but warned my daughter as we drove away that Rosie’s owner might come and take her back. He did, the next day. To stanch the tears, we promised my daughter we would find a dog just as adorable. Losing Rosie was so painful that my daughter would only refer to her as “Osie.” “If I say Rosie, I start to cry,” she explained.
Konrad Lorenz won a Nobel Prize for discovering imprinting — that some newborn animals will assume their parents are the first creatures they see. He convinced a flock of geese that he was their mother. Now we were imprinted. We weren’t looking for a dog, we were looking for a beagle. Our shelter volunteer had told us if we didn’t get Rosie we should go to the website of a local organization called Beagle Rescue Education and Welfare, or BREW.
Each day after school my daughter and I scoured the BREW website. I took notes on possible candidates, analyzing each adjective, judging the aesthetics of each coat. Six weeks after we met, my husband and I were engaged. It has worked out great, but I’m not sure I invested as much time judging his markings as I was our potential beagle’s.
The BREW site was refreshingly honest. BREW emphasized that you cannot get a beagle if you want a dog you can take off its leash. Not being a dog person yet, I didn’t understand the implications of this information. Since then it has become like one of those quirks you find charming in your beloved when you’re dating — “Oh it’s so cute that you always get lost!” that becomes a grinding annoyance in a marriage. In its entry on beagles, “The International Encyclopedia of Dogs” states: “It is essential that the breed is trained to come when called, as this can avert disaster should a potential ‘hunting’ situation arise.” Excellent advice, and as useful as a childrearing book declaring: “It is crucial to instruct your offspring to become as rich as Bill Gates, as this can avert disaster should a potential financial obligation arise.” Sasha has made it clear that however much love and food we pour into her, if the front door is ajar for a millisecond, she will take off down the street without a farewell glance, on the scent trail of a decomposing possum, or a sewer line break.
BREW listed a number of warnings about beagle ownership. If you want a dog that is easy to train, lives to obey, a snap to housebreak, that doesn’t mess up the house, enjoys jogging with you or playing Frisbee, then, they advised, don’t get a beagle. Getting a beagle after this was like reading about a car model in Consumer Reports: “If you want an automobile that will start reliably, requires little maintenance, runs in all kinds of weather, and has a good safety record, then this is not for you,” and then running to the dealer to put down a deposit on an Osie.
Still, beagles are so adorable, and have such an ancient history. It’s not known where the name, beagle, came from. “The International Encyclopedia of Dogs” says that in Old English, the word “begle” means “little.” The National Beagle Club also offers that in Old French “be’geule” means “gape throat” — a reference to baying of hounds in hot pursuit. In the guidebook “Beagles” by Lucia Parent, she writes that it’s possible the forerunners of the breed came to England with William the Conquerer. They became favorites of the British royal family. Hunters in the first Queen Elizabeth’s court kept the tiny beagles of the day — the now mythological “pocket beagle” — in the pocket of their hunting clothes.
However, in matters of dogs, as in so much else, the royal family is no role model. I noticed in news reports that Princess Anne’s bull terriers run rather amok. First, the bull terrier, Dotty, bit two children, resulting in Anne, according to Reuters, being the first British royal to be convicted of a criminal offense in 350 years — indicating it’s legally safer for royals to decapitate their spouses than keep bull terriers. Then when Anne was visiting her mother, the Queen, another one of Anne’s bull terriers, Florence, so brutally attacked one of the Queen’s beloved corgis that the corgi had to be put down. I wonder if Dr. Phil would make a house call to Buckingham Palace to straighten out this psychological mess. Then Florence, while supposedly relaxing at the Sandringham estate, went on a rampage and bit a maid on the leg. Clearly, the royal family should have stuck with beagles.
That was our plan, so off we went to BREW’s adoption fair, nervous about passing their screening process and being found worthy of a previously rejected dog. The event was held at a mega pet store, and near the entrance BREW volunteers held leashes as more than a dozen beagles bayed, circled, and cowered. I came with a pile of dog photos and bios I had printed out from the BREW website. I felt like Donald Trump asking for private interviews with candidates for Miss Universe.
The director of BREW, the warm, efficient Laura Charles, looked over the papers and made a series of snap judgments. Sissy was too wild; Carter was too phlegmatic; Ariel was already taken; Petunia had heartworm. She suggested I simply look at the dogs milling about, wearing yellow BREW bandanas, indicating they were available.
Being surrounded by a roomful of abandoned creatures made me think that given the right circumstances I’d adopt a warthog. That is, as long as it didn’t smell like the first cute beagle I approached whose aroma was reminiscent of a tuna sandwich left too long in the sun.
Then we saw Conchita. It’s a classic Hollywood story: the last minute reprieve from death row. The organization had found Conchita just hours before her scheduled euthanasia at a West Virginia pound. Nothing was known of her life except that it had started about 18 months before. Her coat was dull and full of dandruff and her skeleton poked from underneath it. She seemed beyond terror. Her enormous chocolate eyes were set in a fixed, resigned gaze that seemed to say, “I know something even worse is coming.”
Her wretchedness moved us, and Laura suggested we take her for a walk and see if we bonded. We took Conchita to a grassy median strip in the mall parking lot. She followed us with neither resistance nor enthusiasm. We sat down and stroked her without engendering a response. Since we knew nothing about dogs, we were encouraged that she wasn’t wild or noisy. She was pathetic. We agreed we had to have her.
When we took her back to the store a BREW volunteer came up to me and said a family had just come in who had seen Conchita on the website and were very interested in her. They were veteran beagle adopters and so would have first dibs. Afraid of a Rosie replay, my husband took my daughter and Conchita and sneaked to the back of the store, hiding among the ferret products. I pretended I had lost track of my family and began wandering aimlessly. Finally the woman insisted we cough up Conchita. I got my husband and daughter off the ferret bed and told them we had to take our chances. As we handed over Conchita my daughter said, “Every time I find a dog I want somebody takes it,” and her eyes filled with tears.
Minutes later the volunteer ran up to us. “They didn’t like her! They didn’t like her!” she said of the experienced beagle family’s reaction to Conchita. We took this as great news.
During the fair we picked up a lot of rescue beagle lore. We were told most abandoned beagles are failed hunting dogs. This was a bit of propaganda that only added to their appeal — “Oh, she’d rather sit in your lap than track possums.” They never mentioned the possibility that maybe a failed house pet turned up now and then.
We filled out an application and paid the adoption fee. We couldn’t take Conchita with us — BREW first had to send a caseworker to our home to make sure we weren’t running a vivisection factory in our basement. “Oh, one thing you should know,” said Laura. “Your dog is going to be completely unhousebroken.”
“Sure, that’s fine. It’s wonderful, actually,” I said, still mindful that we hadn’t been approved for dog ownership. I was not in a position to comment that I thought the point of getting a grown dog was that somebody else had taken care of this dirty work. A week later we passed inspection and went to the kennel where Conchita had been boarding to pick her up. She was Sasha now, renamed by my daughter in honor of a schoolmate.
Sasha had just been bathed, and her shiny, fluffy fur made her seem even sadder — like a homeless waif dressed up in a ballgown. She was impassive on the ride home and terrified when she got in the house. It was likely she had never been in a house before, given her bafflement when she first confronted our staircase. She was so confused and scared. She roamed aimlessly around the house, occasionally coming up to one of us to give us what I called her sideways eye — turning her head, and peeking at us using peripheral vision.
Her arrival brought back memories of when my husband and I brought our newborn daughter home from the hospital. We were thrilled to be a family. We had prepared ourselves by reading the books, talking to friends, and taking the bringing-home-a-newborn class at the hospital. Now here we were, with a baby and no idea what to do. We figured we couldn’t go wrong just attending to the basics: eating and elimination. That seemed the right approach to Sasha, too. After all, even if people hadn’t been taking care of dogs for as long as they’d been taking care of babies, it had been going on for about 12,000 years. How hard could it be?