Culture: Stories & Lit
Lab with a wise old soul helps family navigate loss.
There was little discussion of who would keep Tag, my brother’s young black Labrador Retriever, after John’s death. Tag was a living connection to John, and though a grief greater than my own was unfathomable, I knew my mother needed him most. She had lost her broad-shouldered, broad-grinned son. She needed Tag, if only to curl up with when death’s demons haunted. Tag and my mother mourned together. During their first year, a solid rap on the door would send Tag into the fullbody wagging frenzy he reserved for his master’s return. In the seconds before rationality reigned, Mom, too, hoped my brother was about to bound into the house. She had hung John’s Carhartt jacket and ratty baseball cap on a hook above his cowboy boots in her mudroom. It deluded her into thinking that he would be coming back from Colorado for Christmas vacation, with another semester of veterinary school under his belt, on the days when denial was her only method of survival.
John and I had often booked the same flight from Denver to Chicago to descend on Mom in unison for the holidays. On this winter morning I sat alone, squeezed between strangers. I dreaded Christmas without John.Uncovering the ornament he had made in first grade or his knit stocking, stretched out from our tradition of flooding each other with gag gifts, promised to reignite anguish that would feel new and raw all over again. At least I had Tag to look forward to. I couldn’t wait to see that dog.
I was approaching our prearranged meeting place outside O’Hare when I saw them—the unmistakable combination of my stylish mother behind the wheel and a slobbering, yet regal, Tag, straining out the back-seat window.My mom and I greeted each other cautiously, not out of animosity, but restraint. We instinctively knew that if we held each other’s gaze, the sorrow of another holiday without John would overwhelm our weak levee.
“I’ll sit in back with Tag,” I said in a desperate attempt to throw sandbags between our grief.“How’s my boy?” I asked into his eyes while ruffling his ears and scratching him under the collar, where he liked it best. As we pulled away from the airport, Tag straddled my lap to resume his position at the window.Breathing his freshly shampooed scent, I rested my head on his side and hid my burning eyes from Mom’s glances in the rearview mirror.
Despite the lapses between visits to my mother’s house, Tag and I were inseparable when we were under the same roof. He slept at the foot of my bed, trotted down the stairs after my slippered feet, waited as I fixed my coffee, and even crowded into the bathroom as I showered and blew my hair dry.What made this unusual was that Tag was generally aloof. While my mom adored her dog, she complained that he wasn’t cuddly, that he’d always give her his rump to scratch instead of his muzzle. I couldn’t help remembering that John was the same way.As the only male in our household for many years, John would often put the brakes on touchy-feely stuff. He told my mom he would give her backrubs— he on the couch, she sitting in front of him on the floor—only if she refrained from pleasurable noises. An “ooh, that feels good,” and his hands were in the air.“I’m outta here,” he would say and be off the couch, heading to the kitchen to pour himself a Coke. My practical self attributed Tag’s uncharacteristic affection to my resemblance to John. Like me, John had been fair-skinned with honey-colored hair; perhaps we even had a smell or pheromone in common. But my spiritual self believed it was more than that—that part of John’s soul was with Tag, and when Tag and I were together, John and I were too in some way.
In fact, until this trip home for the holidays, I had sometimes wondered if I should have inherited Tag. Tag’s adjustment would have been less jarring if he had stayed with me in Colorado and had an owner who was closer to John’s age and lifestyle.Yet, I knew my motivations were primarily selfish, and now I was witnessing how beautifully Mom and Tag were piecing their lives together. Mom had resumed her work as a photographer, and Tag now chased waterbirds along the shores of Lake Michigan rather than the chickens John kept on his property near the Rocky Mountains. Tag now heeled alongside Mom, though to her right side, the way my left-handed brother had purposely trained him so that he’d be away from the rifle on their occasional hunting trips. Tag’s stellar behavior evoked a pride in Mom, not only in Tag but also in her son’s fine ability with animals. Mom glimpsed John through Tag the way one sees a deceased loved one in a child who bears her likeness. As Mom and I sipped coffee in front of the Christmas tree on my first morning home, she invited me to witness a petassisted therapy program that she and Tag had become involved with over the last year. She was introduced to the program by a stranger who had remarked how well-trained Tag was.
“Yes, he is wonderful, but that credit really goes to my son,” Mom had explained. During the brief conversation that followed, the man said he volunteered with a group that helped others through the use of dogs. Then and there, Mom had resolved to sign up.
The next day, however, she’d questioned whether she had the emotional strength to work with people who had disabilities.We were grateful John’s departure from this world had been quick and peaceful. His girlfriend had smiled between sobs as she recounted that she and my brother had been goofing off on the mountain just moments before John, an expert skier, inexplicably collided with a tree, rupturing his aorta. John had, at least, not suffered—unlike those whom my mother would train Tag to assist. Despite her hesitations, Mom summoned the courage to contact the organization. “Chenny Troupe,” a cheerful woman answered. Chenny, Mom later learned, was the name of the pioneer dog of the program.
“My name is Mary Ann Alexander, and I have my son’s dog. Well, he’s my dog now,” she began.
The compassionate voice interrupted. “I know about your son,Mary Ann.My husband works with John’s father. I was at the funeral.My name is Carole Hunt.” This was an almost eerie coincidence in a city the size of Chicago. My mother’s resolve to train Tag in pet-assisted therapy was restored. Tag was hers for a reason. Maybe this was it.
When Mom received the Chenny Troupe brochure in the mail a few days later, she settled on the rug beside Tag to read it. The literature emphasized that, more than providing companionship, these therapy dogs helped with the rehabilitation of patients. The dogs needed to be not only well-trained but also gentle enough to work with children and energetic enough to engage a person with a disability. They must be patient and unbothered by wheelchairs, walkers, back braces or helmets as well as the awkward movements and vocalizations of some of the patients. Few dogs pass the rigorous obedience screening on the first try. The test date was only two weeks away. “You’ll do it, Tag,”Mom said, as she slid onto her side to lock eyes with her best friend. In a rare but increasingly frequent show of affection, Tag covered her face with kisses.
When the time came,Tag obeyed every instruction with an attentiveness that would have made John proud. Tag and my mother were invited into the program. Now, sitting in Mom’s kitchen a year later, I saw no trace of the initial butterflies she’d had, as she saddled Tag with his official work vest in preparation for tonight’s session. I, however, was nervous, even in my limited role as an observer. Then I remembered Mom commenting that Tag’s omniscient look had allayed her fears.When I saw the pure intention in his eyes, I felt my internal compass needle, haywire for over a year, regain its bearings.
Tag looked handsome, even cocky, as he leaped into the back seat to be driven to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). From the front seat I turned to tell him, “You know John wants you to do this, don’t you, smart boy?” Mom’s eyes smiled—the sandbags between us long gone—as we pulled onto Lakeshore Drive. The RIC elevator door opened to a large recreation room milling with patients, therapy dogs and their owners.Mom’s preeminence in the program showed as she was swallowed by the group to answer last-minute questions before the therapy began. Eventually, all the dogs and volunteers, paired with their patients, were spread throughout the room. In one corner, a young man negotiated trading his walker for a leash, while a teenage girl pressed her dormant vocal cords into service to command a dog to sit.
For Mom and Tag, this was the last night of a six-week partnership with a seven-year-old girl named Samantha. In an automobile accident on Christmas Eve, Samantha had lost her little sister and been partially paralyzed on her right side. She was in a wheelchair and had lost much of her speech. An older sister and both parents, who had survived the wreck with minor injuries, were there to cheer Samantha on.
Sam had fallen in love with Tag the first night they worked together. Initially, Sam would pet Tag only with her left hand, until my mother, remembering her training, urged Sam to pet him with her right hand. As Sam fought to communicate with her right side, Tag nudged her hand with his wet nose. Tag’s touch made Sam giggle, evoking a gasp from her mother, who hadn’t heard her laugh since before the accident. Slowly, Sam’s hand obeyed her brain’s signal. She extended her clenched fist enough to knock on Tag’s shoulder. It was a tremendous achievement. Every Tuesday night for six weeks, Tag helped Samantha overcome her paralysis. Sam learned to uncurl her fist to accept a tennis ball and then to throw it to Tag, who retrieved it and begged for more.
Their favorite game involved Sam balancing a dog biscuit on Tag’s nose while he waited for the command to nod his head and catch the biscuit. Now, Sam’s actions with Tag were almost fluid, and she said his name clearly.
Samantha’s mother, Julie, told us that every time they got into the car, the little girl would ask,“Tag?”—hoping they were on their way to the RIC. I listened as my mother shared with Julie her story of losing her son.My mother hadn’t wanted to burden Julie with our loss. Tonight, though, as Julie presented my mother with a bouquet of flowers for all she had done, it seemed appropriate.Upon hearing about John, Julie commented, “Your son was going to be a veterinarian so he could heal animals, but now his animal heals people.”
With Christmas behind me, I boarded my flight back to Denver. As I buckled my seat belt, I noticed Tag’s straight black hairs covering my beige corduroy pants, and smiled. Brushing the hairs from my lap, I thought how Tag was with me in more ways than just his shedding coat. Tag had taught me,my mother and even Samantha’s mom Julie that there is hope after tragedy.
In the days after John’s death, I had fearfully asked Mom,“Will we ever be okay again?” She responded that she did not know how we ever could be. Yet, we are okay—due in large part to a huge-hearted black Lab with a wise old soul.
Dog's Life: Lifestyle
Even in hard times, pets and people provide for one another
When my husband Greg and I decided to have a child, we figured we would make things work by sharing the responsibilities. What we did not anticipate was Greg shattering his leg in a serious motorcycle accident when our son was five weeks old. Suddenly, I was taking care of an infant, six animals and my husband in a hospital bed while I was still recovering from major abdominal surgery (C-section). With no family nearby to help, all of the responsibilities landed on me.
I was determined to tend to everyone’s needs before my own, but I was stretched thin. On top of the stress of being a brand new mom, I worried about how my animals would adjust to less attention and time. Our four-legged “babies” include two wonderful mutts and four great cats. Clyde, our Malamute/Retriever mix, had been hit by a car and left in the overnight drop box in an overcrowded shelter with a broken hip. Star, our Rottweiler mix, was found stranded near a freeway and rescued by the same organization that saved Clyde. Our four cat companions were all adopted from rescues and shelters, too. After all they had been through before joining our family, and the joy they had brought to our lives since then, I did not want to do them the disservice of putting their needs on the back burner.
Luckily, all of the pets accepted our son wholeheartedly. We took small steps to properly introduce everyone, and the animals and baby received a lot of praise. We made sure to pay attention to the animals’ body language, and gave them breaks when things got too overwhelming.
The one responsibility Greg could handle from his hospital bed was holding the baby while I took the dogs for their walk around the neighborhood. I felt that it was very important to keep their walks consistent. Even if I was tired and had had a difficult day, the walk is what they looked forward to most.
Every day, I made an effort with each of the animals. Even though I was strapped for time with having to care for everyone, as well as commute, work, cook, feed, clean and change the ever-producing dirty diaper machine, my animals were also my family members, and I needed to set aside some time, even if it was a small amount compared to what I had given them in the past. In response, my animals showed me they were thankful to be a part of my family. Star even tried to happily lick my son’s hands and feet at every opportunity (a loving gesture, I am sure, but one that did not exactly thrill me given her frequent investigations of the litter box).
Throughout this ordeal, my animals watched me cry and go through a range of emotions: sadness, exhaustion and frustration. Yet they still loved me unconditionally. They never once asked for more than I could give them. I will always be grateful to my pets because they taught me so many lessons in life: genuine love, patience, understanding and how to be nurturing to all members of my family.
I have worked in the animal welfare field for over 10 years, and have seen thousands of animals surrendered because their owners’ life circumstances changed. I understand how difficult it can be to give your pets the same level of care when your life has been turned upside down, and I sympathize with anyone who is forced to make that choice.
My husband and I were hoping our circumstance would be temporary, but at the time of his accident we were not sure if the doctors were going to be able to save his leg. However, after six surgeries and multiple physical therapy appointments, things were starting to look up for Greg and our family. We were thrilled at the news that he would be able to keep his leg and possibly walk again without crutches or a cane. I was incredibly thankful and relieved, as well as hopeful deep down that he would be able to help out more as he continued to heal.
There is still a long road ahead, with more surgeries to come. However, what I learned from my initial experience is how forgiving and supportive animals can be during difficult times. My pets stuck by me through my crisis, and their non-judgmental love gave me strength. I know it will continue as we face other hardships along the way.
I hope my story inspires other families in tough situations to do the best they can for their animals. If you can make even small adjustments, you may be able to keep your pets in your home and out of the shelter where they may not get a second chance.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I never had a dog. I grew up in a cat household, with a mother who disliked dogs for their digging and mess and noise. I can’t blame her, as we were five kids who had lizards, hamsters, parakeets, fish, and always, two or three cats.
But I wanted a dog so badly! I wanted a red Cocker Spaniel like Rusty, the fictional dog featured in novels I read again and again. I dreamed of a brave dog like Rusty, who swam into choppy ocean waves to rescue a boy, who sensed that a train was about to crash, who bounded into fields to find a lost girl. His coat was shiny and his eyes alert, and he was a hero.
At 12, I brought home a stray while my parents were on vacation, knowing our elderly babysitter wouldn’t notice. She didn’t. My mother did, on her return, and so the dog went to live at my friend’s house three streets away. I visited, but it wasn’t the same.
When I married my childhood sweetheart, I knew he didn’t want a dog, as he’d been raised with a black Cockapoo who hated everyone under twenty, and demonstrated it by biting them. We bought a house on a busy four-lane avenue, a former farmhouse with a big yard, and we had three kids.
Our first daughter was not a dog lover, as she'd been nipped on the hand by a boisterous Old English Sheepdog when she was two, and shortly afterward nipped on the face by an ill-tempered Sheltie down the block. Gaila likes rabbits. Our second daughter was not a dog lover, because she is obsessed with insects and wants to be an entomologist. Delphine collects bugs.
But our third daughter, Rosette, said Dog before she said Daddy. She is a kindred spirit, as they say. Our neighbor, who babysat her twice a week when I went to work, got a yellow Labrador puppy named Chelsea days after Rosette was born, and they slept together on the bed, Rosette with her fist curled around Chelsea’s felt-soft ear and her thumb in her mouth.
Her father and I divorced when she was only one, and Rosette began asking for a dog as soon as she could form sentences. When she was two, we took a trip to New York, just me and Rosette, and she met every dog in Gramercy Park, where we staying. By the second day she was calling them by name, those city dogs out on their walks, and we had to eat in restaurants with sidewalk tables so we could visit her canine friends, who truly seemed to recognize the smell of her chubby crumb-laden hand.
I tried to prepare: I bought books about puppies and their care, about puppies walking through meadows and cavorting with other baby animals. Rosette had other ideas: “Yellow Labrador, Irish Setter, Border Collie, Basset Hound, Beagle.” She got a dog breed book and we had to study their physical characteristics and temperaments. She was three then. In Prescott, Arizona, she identified King Charles Spaniels after an owner explained how rare the breed was, and she has remembered them since.
Having a child who loved dogs with this kind of passion was fascinating, but also intimidating. I knew we couldn’t get a puppy, as people had warned that work and school would take us away for too long. Having cried for hours over lost or stray dogs on our avenue, Rosette wanted to adopt someone from the Humane Society. So in November of that year, we walked the gauntlet of cages and barking, and wary or pleading eyes.
Rosette went immediately to the shaggy black Spaniel named Teddy, who looked so depressed he barely ambled out to the chain link. The big test was whether a dog could handle us as a family, so I’d brought all my girls and two of their small friends, along with one of our caged rabbits. The shelter assistant brought Teddy to us in the meeting area. He walked over to Rosette, licked her face, and sat beside her. He looked at the other girls as if to say, “Yeah, I see you.” He looked at the rabbit as if to say, “Yeah, you’re in a cage.”
Teddy had been found in a neighboring city, with a slight limp and bruised hip that indicated someone had been kicking him. He’d already been adopted once, but returned by the childless couple who’d kept him in an apartment for up to ten hours as a time, because he urinated inside.
He peed once inside our house, the first day, but never again. He waited patiently for Rosette to let him outside, where she fed him, picked up his poop, and brushed him. Solemnly, she repeated to me, “I made a promise and I am keeping it.”
Teddy is a classic shelter dog, in that he will never have had enough to eat. That first week, he ate a cake, plastic wrap and all, that had been left on the coffee table, and gobbled up a dropped Advil and a Flintstones multivitamin when I cleaned out my backpack. We stayed with him for hours, worried, while he waited for us to drop something else.
He wasn’t a Cocker Spaniel, Rosette assured me, paging through one of her dog breed books until she found him. Teddy had shorter, ragged ears, a taller build, a longer nose. He was a Field Spaniel, Rosette said.
I studied him those first months, wondering about his bravery and nobility. Would he have the chance to save someone, like Rusty, my heroic red Cocker? When I lifted Rosette into the air and twirled her, he ran over and put a paw on her leg to make me put her down. If I tickled her, he wedged his head between us, never growling, but looking sternly at me, as if to say I should know better. Soon, when older sisters or friends were playing rough, Rosette would call, “Teddy!” and with applications of his stinky breath and head butts, he would make them leave her alone. Once, as an experiment, I tackled Gaila, who is my size, and tickled her. Teddy just watched, slightly bored.
Teddy’s job was to save Rosette’s spirit. She has dog love threading through her veins from some ancestor, dog love wound tightly around her heart like the branching arteries displayed in her encyclopedia. Unlike her sisters, she never really had a father who lived in our house. Teddy was hers alone. She slept in his dog bed, and he slept on her small fold-out couch in the living room. He walked her to preschool with me every day, and her class, The Cute Kittens, mobbed him. He never barked or growled or even moved away. In his second week with us, Teddy sat in the middle of a circle of them, 13 three-year-olds, and Rosette talked about him. Then he ate 13 dog biscuits, to please everyone, and didn’t throw up. He submitted to inspections and hard head pats and screaming. His eyes never left Rosette. I realized the extent of Teddy's nobility, and I was willing to accept his neediness.
Because now, four years later, he is a needy dog. He has no other dog friends, though we’ve tried repeatedly. Not even Chelsea, who he attacks along with her sister Hannah, another yellow Lab. Teddy will never accept another canine, even on the sidewalk for casual conversation, and he’s injured himself repeatedly because his version of bravery makes him guard our fenced yard with blind ferocity. He has been bitten on the nose, while barking through the fence, by neighbors' dogs, and hurt his leg chasing Chows and even Pit Bulls. Nearly every house in our neighborhood has at least two dogs, but Teddy will not even wag at them. Two dogs in my brother’s tough pack, which runs in a nearby orange grove, like to visit us: We tried to acclimate Teddy to Soot and Charcoal on the front porch, which was fine until Rosette came banging out of the screen door to see them. Teddy promptly tried to take a chunk out of Soot’s back leg.
Last summer, he destroyed a rear anterior cruciate ligament, chasing down passing dogs like an aging football player. I spent a thousand dollars on your good leg, I told him, when we took him for surgery. Two days in the animal hospital, along with anesthesia, left him altered, so anxious that he has never been the same since. His new ligament works fine, but he won’t let me leave a room, blocking the doorway or the back of my chair with his body, in case he’s abandoned again. His marked resemblance to Richard Nixon on an unhappy day has deepened. Teddy stares at me in the morning, jowly and melancholic because it’s hot, or cold, or windy, or because I was asleep.
He hates it when we leave, and can't be left alone for even five minutes without trying to dig out or jump the fence. What with school and sports and errands, by the time we are done for the day he is beside himself. And that’s just when I usually have six or seven girls here for homework or basketball: Teddy sits under the basket, or sits on their papers, or tries to lie on my feet while I am at the stove, not a happy camper myself by that point in the afternoon.
I wanted a brave independent dog who would keep out the marauding cats trying to kill the rabbits, who would bark at strange men, rather than inspecting them for Del Taco burritos and hot sauce. I realize we are not drowning in the ocean or lost in a field, but some Rusty-like nobility of demeanor would help, rather than the baleful and incredulous eyes that say to me, “You’re trying to get to the cupboard for macaroni and cheese again, and I find that incredibly irritating when I am trying to get comfortable on your instep.” When we tell him to go lie down, Teddy moves five inches, and his look combines glare and guilt in a way that's so presidential that I have to laugh.
A neighbor takes care of him when we go to work or on vacation, since Teddy is terminally anxious now. This summer Rosette turned seven, and on an East Coast trip she brought her dog breed book to identify new friends. She learned the intricacies of Sheltie breeding, studying the double merle; she walked a Jack Russell Terrier, and worried about the breathing of a black Lab with a lung tumor. But the only time she cried was when she missed Teddy. Not her father, or grandparents, or friends. Only her dog.
I have watched her, all these years. No one else feeds or walks Teddy, or picks up his poop, unless Rosette is sick. She doesn’t always remember her homework, and plays no sports, preferring to amble around with her dog. I have had to learn patience from both of them, since Rosette is known as my Velcro child for her clinginess, and Teddy is called “the neediest dog on the planet” by our bemused neighbors, with their rough independent German Shepherds and Rottweilers. But I realize, looking around at my house with its pack of girls, all female animals with hierarchies and assigned spaces and conflicting personalities, that Teddy picked the right place.
He stares at me now, while I write, daring me to move a muscle, draped across the doorway. I am not ashamed to admit that I am used to chaos and company, and when my kids are gone, I need someone else in the house. It helps that I’m accustomed to company that regards me censoriously if I am not doing something useful, like laundry, dishes, walking, dropping crumbs or retrieving dog biscuits. This is the home of needy short animals, and Teddy fits in perfectly, bravely licking up stray puddles of toxic-blue Otter Pops, surviving the inexpert eye-pokes associated with brushing by school friends who have never had a dog, and lying with one eye open under the mulberry tree where Rosette reads, waiting for her to come down so he can rescue her with his patience and devotion.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Doing Double Duty as a Therapy Dog
The day I brought my puppy home to Manhattan, a giant article appeared in The New York Times reducing him to a fashion accessory. Headline news: Boston Terriers, dogs for the hipper-than-thou. But I didn’t get my little guy to lift my social status. I got him to lift my father’s spirits—and add quality to the time he had left.
A note to my husband Geoff and me lay on the nightstand in our spare bedroom, where my father slept on chemo days.
Of course he cared.
He wanted a grandchild, but he didn’t have nine months, and he knew it. The postscript on the note revealed another truth of my father’s heart: Second to grandchildren, puppies are the greatest gift.
My husband lobbied for a Husky. Taxis don’t belong in the mountains, I told him, and sled dogs don’t belong in the city.
“Then a German Shepherd,” he said. “German Shepherds will take a bullet for you.”
Clearly, we had different priorities in the dog department. He was thinking work dog. He was thinking guard dog. I was thinking lap dog.
In the end, we agreed on a breed by marital compromise.
The fairest approach was to go with my father’s preference. He kept a weathered photograph of a Boxer in his wallet, the pet of his Brooklyn boyhood who fetched lost baseballs from under the stoop and ate the broccoli his mother thought he’d finished.
“Boxers fart,” Geoff said.
At least we were talking about something other than cancer.
The dog talk let us be ourselves again.
We settled on Boston Terriers because they resembled Boxers—barrel-chested stance, erect ears and short shiny coat. And apropos of my father’s nature, Boston Terriers epitomized the all-American spirit of the people. That’s what the dog book said.
Picking out a puppy is like house hunting or wedding-dress shopping. You know in your gut when you’ve found the right one. The rescues at The Queens Animal Shelter didn’t warm up to us. At the kennel in New Jersey, the litter had worms. Then a listing on the Internet caught my eye. The breeder lived upstate, near Buffalo. I convinced Geoff to make the trek.
“I called the woman. Her name is Glenda. She has the bitch. Her daughter has the sire. Guess what her daughter’s name is? Jo-lene. Nine hundred people live in their town. Glenda’s husband Harry fixes machine parts.”
Geoff didn’t see why any of this mattered.
“These are the kind of people who have a boat on the lawn,” I said, “the kind of people who know from dogs.”
We met Glenda Hartman at the dirt road that led to her house. A fallen tree blocked the drive path, so we parked and followed Glenda on foot, up the hill. “That’s my son, sawing the branch,” she told us, and a brawny boy of about 19 tipped his baseball cap in our direction.
“You and Harry have how many children?” I asked, trying to get her to like me.
“Six kids and 16 Boston Terriers,” she said. “Harry will tell you about the pups. He’s out back taking the tarp off the boat.”
I winked at Geoff.
Harry washed down the boat and a six-pack of Michelob. One pup bolted out the screen door to greet Geoff and me. “Only fair I knock $100 off his asking price,” Harry said.
We couldn’t imagine why.
Harry Hartman explained as only Harry Hartman could: “One of his little gonads didn’t come down yet.”
Geoff named our puppy “Iverson,” after Allen Iverson, the point guard on the Philadelphia 76ers, because he’s black with one white sleeve like the basketball player in his signature armband.
“Iverson’s a champion,” I say, when he poops on the newspaper.
Geoff beams. “We don’t call him Iverson for nothing.” The NBA’s Iverson was an MVP.
When I’m working from home, the puppy jockeys for space on my desk chair. His wide-set eyes and the white blaze between them give him a quizzical expression. How can you be sad, he seems to wonder, looking up at me. Then he plunks his chin on my knee and lets out a sigh.
If I try to crawl back into bed, he woos me with impish charm. He runs around the living room with the handle of my hairbrush in his mouth. For the love of liver treats, he learns “roll over.” Since my father’s diagnosis, I’ve been trying to make everything okay and thanks to my Boston Terrier, sometimes it is.
My father recently spent an entire month in the hospital. He’d exhausted all treatment options. He couldn’t walk, was fed through a tube, spoke in a whisper. I arrived early one morning to visit him, the two of us alone in the stark room.
“Get me out of here,” he said.
I readied the wheelchair for a trip to the recreation pavilion.
“That’s where we’ll tell the nurses we’re going,” my father schemed and pulled out his intravenous lines. “Wheel me out the side door. Hail us a cab to your apartment.”
An untenable plan, I told him. He’d been prone to falls. His painkillers might wear off. The hospital could refuse to treat him over a stunt like this. “No way, Dad. I love you,” I said, “but there’s too much at stake.”
My father, a meatpacker, a Marine, macho personified, wept into his handkerchief. “I’ve been dreaming for weeks,” he gasped, “of playing with the puppy on a big bed.”
I did what a compassionate daughter ought to do. I helped him into his shoes.
“Do you know who this is?” my father said when I put Iverson in his arms. “This is my grand-dog.” He scratched the black diamond on Iverson’s belly. He bundled Iverson in a blanket and watched him tunnel out. Iverson licked his cheeks wet with kisses. The puppy didn’t see a sick man. He saw a smiling face. And I saw a Boston Terrier keeping my father from fading away.
My dog is no trendy trapping of urban swank. He’s way too cool for that.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But which one does she really prefer?
It’s become an early-Sunday-morning ritual. I stumble out of bed, throw on a ratty robe and wait for my apartment buzzer to go off.
It’s Bill, Becky’s other dad, come to take her for a seven-mile hike up into the wilderness trails of the Pacific Palisades and Malibu. Becky is my two-year-old black Lab. Bill, a steel-grey, captain-ofindustry type, is the capable, commanding and alpha dad who gives Becky the exercise and discipline she desperately craves, while I am the lazy, good-fornothing beta dad she’s forced to live with all the rest of the time.
If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes two daddies to raise this dog.
My old dog, Sam, died earlier this year; Sam was a once-ferocious mutt who had calmed down over the years, so much so that I could read the paper while taking him for a slow mosey around the block. Becky, recently acquired from a down-onhis- luck screenwriter, is a fancy-shmancy dog, an AKC-registered hound with more papers than a Mayflower descendant. She’s sleek and black and beautiful, like a well-oiled seal, and at 61 pounds, too strong and energetic for me to handle without a Halti, a choke collar, a bridle and a stun gun. (Just kidding about the stun gun.) Laurie,my wife,who’s also in better shape than I am (let’s face it,Dom DeLuise is in better shape than I am) is a mere slip of a thing, and prefers a genteel game of tennis to being dragged by a dog who’s pulling with the power of a tow truck in pursuit of every squirrel, bird, butterfly and blowing candy wrapper that crosses her path.
Which may be why Bill has volunteered to perform this unusual form of community service. Becky leaps up, yipping, at the first sight of his Ford Explorer, her paws scrabbling at the side door, her tongue hanging out, her neck straining at the Louis Vuitton collar and leash.(My wife’s idea,may I add.) Bill gets out to let her in, and I cannot help but admire his taut abdomen, his well-muscled calves, his take-charge attitude; even though he’s a few years older than I am, Bill hasn’t let himself go. I, on the other hand, never really had a hold on myself in the first place.
While Becky and Bill are off hiking and running and romping in the hills, and Laurie’s tearing up a tennis court somewhere, I go back to bed (on a well-timed pick-up day, the blankets are still warm), then set another alarm to get up and throw together a sad excuse for a brunch. Some coffee, some grapefruit juice, some pricey (but good) muffins from the new City Bakery in the Brentwood Country Mart. It’s the least I can do. Laurie tries to get home from her tennis match around the same time as Bill—often accompanied by his equally fit counterpart,Mimi —returns with Becky.
But sometimes they’re all a bit late, and that’s when I have too much time on my hands—time to think about how this all looks. My dog needs another man to give her what she requires, and everybody knows it. She needs the strong, sure hand I do not know how to provide. When we first got Becky, we briefly hired an expensive trainer, a big woman with short-cropped red hair and baseball cap,who observed my dog-walking technique. For a block or two, I did my best to control Becky’s wild and powerful lungings while at the same time trying to reason with her, to explain to her why she needed to stop pulling, or spit out the snail she’d just crunched between her perfect white incisors. “You’re a man of words,” the trainer finally said, fixing me with her gimlet eye. “Yes, I guess I am,” I said, modestly. “I’m a writer.” “Dogs don’t understand many words,” she said, taking the taut leash from my hands and effortlessly removing the squashed snail from Becky’s slavering jaws, all with a magical gesture of some kind and a simple “Leave it.” The dog looked up at me as though thinking, Is that all you wanted? Why didn’t you say so?
Why indeed? Because, as this dog has brought home to me, I lack the dominant gene. I cannot impose my will on anything: I can barely retrieve a soda from a vending machine. Do Becky and Bill, I wonder, laugh about that as they march over hill and dale? What do they say about me and my slothful habits? Does Becky implore Bill, her other dad, to—I can hardly contemplate this—adopt her, to give her the active, fun-filled life that I,with my sedentary habits and submissive nature, can never do?
Do they talk about my bald spot?
When the buzzer goes off again, and Becky bounds into the house, racing for her water bowl, everyone is all smiles.Bill says something nice like, “Oh, Becky’s home again, and wants to see her daddy.” And Mimi exclaims over the muffins.My wife, in her tennis duds, crows about her latest victory, and I try to turn the topic to a book review or an inflammatory editorial—whatever I’ve managed to read in the 15 minutes I’ve been up since the last alarm went off. But nobody’s fooled, not even Becky. We’re all wondering how long we have to keep up this charade, how long we have to go on pretending that Becky needs two daddies at all. I offer everyone more juice, and try to hold the pitcher—still pretty full and heavy—steady as I pour. But everyone, I fear, can see the tremor in my hand. Becky, in particular, doesn’t miss a thing.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A screen treatment
Another guest arrives at the door and rings the bell. Everyone runs over to the door, evidently excited beyond belief, and stands or jumps around, jostling each other while staring at the door and yelling, “WHO’S THERE?!?! WHO’S THERE!?!?!”
The guest on the other side of the door yells back, “WHO’S THERE?!?!? WHO’S THERE!?!?”
Somehow, the new arrival enters and the party resumes as before.
The camera follows several of the guests around, including:
A muscular male dressed all in black who carries a Frisbee everywhere, clutched tightly to his chest. If anyone touches the Frisbee, he whirls abruptly around and stalks off, glaring over his shoulder.
Another man, dressed in plaid, rather jolly, who has a drooling problem. Every so often he shakes his head and drool flies onto adjacent guests, who don’t even notice.
A depressed-looking woman who spends the entire evening methodically ripping a large, stuffed chair to shreds.
A small group huddled together in a corner. They are all talking loudly and at the same time about completely unrelated subjects.
A huge guy, with jeans jacket and tattoo, who goes up to various people, drapes his arm over their shoulders and gives them a giant squeeze. Whoever it is immediately hands their hors d’oeuvre to the guy, who eats it.
A very small old lady with frizzy hair who leaps out from behind the furniture at passersby and speaks sharply to them. Even the huge guy is daunted.
The party Lothario who sidles up to anyone, male or female, and tries to smooch, but often misses the other person’s face. Nobody seems to mind.
Various bits of action occur:
A guest, looking out the window, suddenly gets very excited and yells, “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!” Everyone rushes to the window and joins in, yelling “A CAT!!! A CAT!!! A CAT!!!”
Two people—one big, one little—grab an appetizer at the same time. They stand stock still, each holding on to it and staring out the corner of their eyes at each other. Suddenly, the big one whirls around and tries to walk off with it. The little person, however, doesn’t let go and is flung around in the first one’s wake.
In the kitchen, several guests have knocked over the garbage and are going through it.
In the backyard, several people with little spades are digging holes.
A fight breaks out in the living room between two guests, but it’s over in three seconds and the opponents hug each other joyfully.
Several guests can be seen hiding bits of food around the living room. They carefully scan for a likely spot, put the food down, then pick it up again and start looking for a better place.
One guest, with his hands full of food, simply holds onto it and snarls at anyone who approaches him. He keeps trying to add more food to his pile, spilling as much as he acquires.
Dinner is served:
Then all the guests eat as fast as they possibly can. Every so often, one guest simply grabs something off the plate of the person next to him/her. Sometimes that person grabs it back.
When everyone’s finished, they jump up and change places to inspect each other’s plates.
After dinner, everyone takes a nap. They are sprawled around the room, some in little groups huddled together, some on their backs on couches with their feet up on the arms and their hands flung over the back, some curled up awkwardly in overstuffed chairs with their chins propped up on the arms. Occasionally, we see limbs twitching and hear little contented noises.
Tug of war.
How many tennis balls can you hold?
A relay race in the back yard where the baton is never passed off. Each member of the team simply grabs hold when his or her turn arrives and everyone runs together.
Tug of war.
Singing together around the piano, but everyone sings a different song.
Grab the tail off the donkey.
Musical chairs, where shoving is allowed and you can sit on more than one chair. The big guy in the jeans jacket always wins.
Outside, on the sidewalk, a passerby is knocked down by a group of departing guests.
Everyone looks very happy, and the good-byes are loud and enthusiastic.
Culture: Stories & Lit
I can't throw. As a child, I was spared the humiliation of never being picked for either team in baseball by my friend Debbie, a prodigy with ball and bat who always chose me. She was a sort of one-person Red Sox Dream Team. Because of Debbie and in spite of me, our team always won, which is to say that hers did. Because I love dogs, I have never inflicted myself on a Golden Retriever or a Lab.
For the last 20 years, I have lived with Alaskan Malamutes. One of the mysteries of dogdom unexplained by science is why the fetch gene is extremely rare in a breed that evolved in the snowball-perfect environment of the Arctic. But rare it is. The typical Malamute has a powerful desire to fly after and seize moving objects but requires that the poor things be edible— squirrels, chipmunks, rabbits, moles and mice.What’s more, Malamutes don’t share. If we bipeds want rodent delicacies for dinner, we’re expected to hunt them down ourselves.As to playing fetch, the Malamute attitude is that if you wanted those balls, you shouldn’t have thrown them away.
Or so I always believed. Then along came my Django, who is named for a legendary jazz guitarist but who should properly have been called Lou, Babe or Mickey. The dog is a fetch fanatic. When the rare gene manifests itself in Django’s breed, its effect is typically suppressed by competing genes that prevent Malamutes from engaging in such servile activities as picking up after members of a useful but lesser species.My late Kobuk would return a ball to me five or six times before he’d reach the disappointing realization that it was not going to spring to life and turn itself into a snack.My Rowdy never once retrieved anything but her obedience dumbbell,which she correctly viewed as currency exchangeable for beef and liver. She regarded Django’s insatiable appetite for fetch as stupid and treasonous; in her disdainful eyes, he was a brainless traitor to a proud and predatory breed.Rowdy’s scorn bothered Django not at all.Malamutes don’t give a damn about the opinions of others, including the heretofore universal opinion that I can’t throw.
So we play ball, Django and I. As I toss the ball, I follow the advice of athletically gifted friends: Just as Debbie used to advise, I keep my eyes on the spot where I’d like to have the ball land.Meanwhile, all on its own, the ball leaps out of my grasp and comes to rest elsewhere. On some occasions, it mysteriously drops to the grass at my feet before I’ve had the chance to launch it into the air.When the mood strikes it, it travels great distances and lodges itself in the depths of hedges. Once in a while, it perversely decides to roll under the gate and out of our yard.
True pitching, as I understand it, occurs when a human being sends a tiny little round object soaring through space in such a fashion that it miraculously arrives at a predetermined place. In my experience, true pitching is thus an aberration, perhaps, or a freakish coincidence, the kind of bizarre phenomenon that happens once in a trillion times and then only by accident. It has never happened to me.
Does Django care? He does not.Never once, even while digging through forsythia roots after his ball or while watching it fall like a dead thing at my feet, has he ever accused me of being unable to throw. On the contrary, he enjoys the delusion that I am Debbie. In his view, the Red Sox lost gold when they lost me. If you ask Django what he thinks of my pitching, he’ll tell you that by comparison with me, Curt Schilling throws like a girl. And that’s why I write about dogs.
On-call for roundup work
My mother was born 1916 to immigrant parents; her mother was from Hungary and her father was German. She grew up in New Brunswick, N.J. Fido—who was, I think, a Border Collie mix—was their pet, but he was also a working dog, and he took his job quite seriously.
My German grandfather was a butcher, and in those days (the 1920s), worked right next to the stockyard. Sometimes things would get a little crazy at the stockyard—a fence would break and a lamb would get loose, or maybe a pig would run off.
My mother recalls that her father would often call home and ask to speak to Fido. My grandfather would tell my mother to put the earpiece to Fido’s ear and hold it there. Fido—who could understand German, Hungarian and English—would listen intently. After he had heard enough, he would run to the front door; my mother would open it for him and off he’d go.
The stockyard was a couple of miles from their home, and if a neighbor saw Fido running down the street, he would be offered a ride to work. Needless to say, Fido was on a mission and usually would not accept a ride. It took him about 10 minutes to get the stockyard under control, rounding up strays and ordering unruly animals back in their pens. He was definitely at his best working, and happy to be of help.
The list goes out the window when the perfect dog comes in the door
I used to stop at Point Isabel, a sprawling off-leash dog park after work for my minimum daily requirement of canine affection. On occasion, a dog owner would ask why I didn’t have a dog. “It’s complicated,” I’d say, remembering the dogs I’d had in my life. Job, child, husband, aging parents, a weedy garden, house in need of constant repair—the dog wound up being just another burdensome responsibility.
But now I was older and wiser, minus one husband, and my daughter would be leaving home soon. Passing all those pooches at the dog park was briefly pleasurable, but not satisfying. Their devotion was reserved for their own special human companions. And that is what I longed for—something I was missing from family and friends, something humans just couldn’t provide.
So how to find the right dog for me? A good dog, a mellow dog, a dog who was good with cats (I have two), smart but not devious, a midsize dog, possibly a Lab mix, not a puppy. My list of druthers was long. Knowing about breeds and certain tendencies helps, but in the end the question remains: How do you pick the right dog?
My daughter had wanted a dog for years, and when we went to the Oakland (Calif.) SPCA together on that cool Sunday afternoon, we thought we were looking for a dog for her. The Oakland SPCA is not a kill shelter. It’s clean and well-lighted, and the attendants are very loving and tender with the animals. Still, looking at all the barking dogs shivering in their cages upset and unnerved me. Whatever I thought I was looking for escaped me, and all I wanted to do was to get out of there. That’s probably how the animals felt, too.
Finally, we came to the very last cage, which held a smallish honey-colored Chihuahua/Basenji/Jack Russell mix, about a year old, whom they had named Precious. Melina was instantly drawn to the little dog, and we went out to the yard with her and one of the attendants. Once Melina picked her up, she immediately began licking her face. This desperate, needy pup was cute as a button, but plainly not the right dog for me. Melina, however, insisted, saying, “Mom, we have to get her out of here.”
Though I wasn’t sure at that moment that Precious was the one, I decided to go with Melina’s plea. “We’ll have to change her name” was all I said. And so we dubbed her Honey and brought her home. It didn’t take long to find that not only was she housebroken, but she also knew the commands sit, stay, down and come.
She was also great in the car, cuddled pint-size under the covers and played well with other dogs. And though Melina had chosen her, it was crystal clear that Honey was my dog and I was her person. This perky mutt, who matched not a single one of my requirements—not mellow, not a Lab mix, terrible with cats—became, much to my surprise, my love bug.
Honey has easily adapted to our work and school schedules, and the cats have figured out how to deal with her. I wake up early to take her to the dog park, and race home after work to be greeted by more unconditional love than has ever licked, jumped, nibbled and danced at me in my entire life. She leaps like a deer, talks to me when she wants something, makes me laugh, feeds my soul.
The best-laid plans and all that jazz went out the window. Thanks to my daughter and perhaps even a little divine intervention, the right dog for me burst into my life when I least expected it. When I was a young girl, I believed in soul mates; now I believe in soul dogs. And now I get to say, “Hi, Honey, I’m home!” every night.
Culture: Stories & Lit
But two hounds get it said
The tree is decorated, the stockings are hung, the Yule fire burns low and, according to an old tradition, at midnight on Christmas Eve … the animals speak.
COMET (Beagle, about age four): You think that’s Alex Trebek’s real hair?
C: Alex Trebek. You think that’s a hairpiece?
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