Culture: Stories & Lit
The chaser in the rye
Dogs have always played an important role in my life. My earliest memory is of me astride our small German Shepherd/Husky mix, dog-back riding. No saddle horse was ever as well-trained as that dog. As I grew, dog riding became impossible, so I focused on more traditional canine pursuits: sit, heel, lie down, stay. Training our dogs became an obsession with me, and no methodology was too bizarre if it achieved the desired result.
I recall, for instance, the time I decided to teach our longcoated German Shepherd, Caitie, to speak on command. My family watched dubiously. I stood before her, firmly commanded “Speak!” and then myself “woofed.” At my first “bark,” Caitie cocked her head to the side. I repeated the procedure. The third time I said, “Speak,” Caitie leaned forward with an eager “woof.” I rewarded her with a treat from my coat and an effusive hug. From that time on, Caitie “spoke” on command. The fact that she also began barking at other times — when she wanted to come in, or go out, or for no real reason in particular — rendered our success somewhat less meritorious.
The next time I resumed my dog-training pursuits, the goal was nothing as frivolous as entertainment. This training would benefit our livelihood. My family owns a farm that produces winter rye as one of the crops. When all other crops succumb to snow and freezing temperatures, the rye endures. The tender roots hold the precious topsoil in place through winter’s cycles of freezing and thawing, preventing erosion. Then in the spring, the limp green shoots grow tall and stiff. It is at this time that we mow it and bale it into square straw bales that we sell for decoration, mulch or construction. It is a valuable crop … if it weren’t for the geese.
Each winter, thousands of Canada geese migrate to warmer climes, and each winter they tarry at our farm. And eat our rye. Some years their voracious feeding has completely decimated our crop. My great-grandfather used to combat Canada geese by firing a twelve-gauge shotgun in the air. When that no longer scattered the flocks, we tried a loud bird cannon. The resounding booms scared the geese for a while … but only until they grew accustomed to the regularity of the noise. Then it was back to grazing as usual.
About this time, my affection for training dogs came to my aid. My current dog was a tri-colored Sheltie named Bailey. By breeding, Bailey was a herding dog. By practice, he was a couch potato. Bailey’s former owners lived in the suburbs of Chicago, so his natural skills of bunching and directing sheep were, well, underdeveloped, to say the least. I, however, was undeterred. Bailey was a purebred, pedigreed herding dog; with a little schooling, breeding would tell. So I began a training regimen designed to take my dog from laid-back house pet to aggressive goose-chaser.
In any program of this sort, the first goal is to create pleasurable associations with the desired outcome. In other words, the dog has to think he does his job because he likes it, not because he’s ordered to. I determined to connect “geese” with “fun.” Training began the first time a flock of geese flew overhead honking loudly. Stopping in my tracks, I pointed to the sky and said breathlessly, “Geese, Bailey! Geese!” Bailey, of course, had no idea what “geese” meant, but being highly intuitive he knew it was exciting. He lifted his little black ears, circled me at a run and barked frantically. Within a very short time, any mention of “geese” elicited this exuberant response. Step one accomplished.
The next step was to transfer his enthusiasm from the word “geese” to the act of chasing geese. This proved slightly more difficult. One day I took Bailey to a field full of geese. I waved my right arm in the direction of the fowl: “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” My dog yapped and circled and jumped and cavorted … but he never once headed toward the desired objects. Utter failure.
I recalled my experience with Caitie. Perhaps a demonstration was required. Since the geese still sat there placidly eating, I commenced immediately. “Get the geese, Bailey! Get the geese!” I called, running toward the geese while waving my arm in their direction. Bailey loved this new game. He ran alongside me, periodically circling and barking. When the geese finally took flight, I got the impression it was more out of sympathy than fear.
I do confess that the incident undermined my confidence, but not for long. After all, it was only the first attempt. Next time would be better.
It wasn’t. Nor was the third or the fourth or the fifth. I couldn’t understand it. My dog was smart. At the slightest movement of my hand, he would sit, lie down, stay (more or less), come or go upstairs. He had a working vocabulary on a par with most college students. What was the hang-up with Get the geese?
I understood Get the geese. Sometimes I found myself stopping mid-sentence when I heard geese approaching: “Geese, Bailey, geese!” I got to the point where I would pull my car over to the side of the road when I saw geese eating, let the dog out of the car and run at them pell-mell yelling, “Get the geese, Bailey!” Walking back to the car after one such episode I had to ask myself, Just who’s training whom here? I almost quit trying. The only thing that kept me going was my brother’s smug look after each abortive attempt and his condescending, “That dog will never learn to chase geese.”
Perhaps Bailey sensed my despair. Perhaps the months of rigorous repetition did their work. Perhaps he knew what I wanted all along and just wanted to see how long he could keep me running around rye fields like a woman possessed. I don’t know. All I do know is that one day as Bailey and I walked my horses to pasture, we skirted a rye field being ravaged by geese. Saying anything was useless: My hands were busy with three 1,700-pound horses. I wasn’t chasing geese this trip.
That’s when it happened. My dog suddenly took off across the field, his tiny body barely skimming the dirt. Silently he hurtled toward the geese. Within yards of them, his telltale bark exploded. So did the geese. Black-and-white Vs scattered into the air, squawking indignantly. Bailey turned and trotted in my direction. Two impertinent ganders settled back to the ground. Bailey turned and barreled toward them again. This time they took off for good.
I stood at the side of the field, my jaw brushing the tops of my boots. Bailey stopped at my feet, his tongue lolling and his tail wagging. I stretched my arms as far as the lead ropes would allow and ruffled his perky ears. I couldn’t believe it: I had finally trained a goose-dog.
Culture: Stories & Lit
The brief lives of dogs leave deep tracks.
I woke up in my warm bed, my hand automatically stretching to feel Vesper’s warm, silvery fur. I knew of course that she was not there. On an ordinary morning, I might actually have snuck out of bed, cautiously hoping that neither she nor my husband would wake and that I could brew coffee or even read an article or two in the paper without attending to their needs. Today my cozy kitchen was chillingly empty.
Most often during the past dozen years, Vesper had gotten up before me, her long body stretched against the wainscoting of the hall, waiting for her belly rub, her food, her walk. We shared the early hours of the day. I would pull on some clothes, and we would head out and make our way to the Brooklyn Promenade. We’d look at the harbor, Manhattan’s skyscrapers, the small boats, the Staten Island Ferry, Lady Liberty and the new park growing at our feet. Vesper would bare her teeth and growl at dogs who came over to “say hello,” and I would wearily explain to their owners that she was “scared” and “private,” not unfriendly. Even though she was 13, she was so slim and beautiful that people regularly mistook her for a puppy.
Vesper and I usually had more quiet time before my household, now consisting only of my husband, woke up. He was as crazy about her as I was.
Since our daughter was a toddler, some 50 years earlier, I never witnessed him being as openly affectionate to anyone as he was toward the dog. I confess that I was jealous. Sometimes Vesper responded to his entreaties; most often, she only accepted—demanded, really —caresses when she was in a mood. She always had a mind of her own.
Both my husband and I had grown up with dogs. Thereafter, our lives were too full and complicated to include canines. It was David, our grown son, who, for one of my birthdays, gave me Sasha, a wirehaired Dachshund puppy. It was an ideal gift for a writer living in an empty nest. Sasha and the books I created made me feel that I was still a fertile young woman. The dog was perfect company. In the apartment, he followed me from room to room, just as my children had done when they were small. In the morning after I straightened the house, we repaired to my study. Sasha curled up under my desk where my bare feet could touch his fur whenever I needed reassurance. I thought that he slept deeply, but once, when I cried while writing an emotion-laden passage, he rose in distress, ambled over and vigorously licked my bare legs.
Life is hard. David had been infected with the HIV virus at the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. He was fortunate in that the deadly virus went about its work without undermining his ability to enjoy life. I will be forever grateful that David let me be his care-partner and allowed me to try to pack the love of a lifetime into whatever time he had left. My husband and my daughter surrounded me with love, but their heartache was as great as mine. It was comforting that upon my return from spending time with David in San Francisco, Sasha let me know in no uncertain terms how much he had missed me and how relieved he was that I was back. David died in 1993, and taking the dog out three times a day, feeding, bathing and caressing him helped me regain my composure.
Four years later, when Sasha died, it was as if I had to relive all of the agony of my son’s death.
We thought that we were all done with dogs, but the next April we heard of an 18-month-old female wirehaired Dachshund who needed a home because she refused to learn to hunt. I liked that dog’s attitude and we went to see her.
“Try her for a week,” the breeder said.
“You can return her, no questions asked.”
Well, that was that. Vesper had never been on a leash or peed on asphalt, but she weathered the transition to city life. She was very different from Sasha— more even-tempered, less aggressive, less slavishly devoted to me. At first I considered her a poor substitute for Sasha, but gradually I fell in love with her determination, her quiet nature and the affection she showered on me and mine.
Soon after we got Vesper, we moved to our summer residence in Maine. The bark-less city dog fiercely defended our one wooded acre from neighboring pets, chipmunks and even the occasional ducklings approaching us by the lake. Vesper never trespassed on neighboring property, patrolling our land so precisely that I was asked whether we had an electric fence.
One day my husband and I took her up Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park. We huffed and puffed for a good hour, but she scrambled ahead. When we reached the peak, our threesome met three fierce-looking dogs. Vesper barked; the other dogs called her bluff. An instant later, my dog had vanished. We all searched for her, but she was nowhere. Thirty minutes later, I abandoned the peak, believing that I had lost her for good. I met an upward-bound party. “Nice day,” they said. “Yes, but I lost my pup,” I answered tearfully. “Well, we saw a dog hot-footing it down the hill.” When we got down, there she was, f lat as a pancake, hiding under our car! She was always so good at managing her problems.
Vesper stayed with us for 11 years. Then she started vomiting. The vet gave her antibiotics. She got better, then she got worse and the animal who had eaten voraciously all her life was not even tempted by a spoonful of peanut butter. She got weaker and weaker, but maintained her clean habits, peeing and pooping on the street, trying as the vet said “to please.” She wagged her tail when my children or grandchildren came. Five days after she got really sick, we decided, together with our vet, to end it.
I am by now familiar with grief, but I was surprised by the intensity with which I responded to her loss. It was all so familiar. I held her while she received her fatal life-robbing injection. I had the vet put her in a box. I searched for a canine crematory, then was shocked by the unctuous prose and the prices. Unlike my son, whose apartment I had to empty in San Francisco, Vesper did not have many possessions, but there were leashes, food, drugs, feeding bowls and the many toys we had bought her over the years. I packed the latter in three bags to give to the fellow dogs in the house. The owners will probably throw them out—I would—but the idle gesture helped me.
I know that I will feel better— we humans have an amazing ability to recover from loss—but how I wish that I did not have to go through so much pain.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Living on the east side of Milwaukee, a narrow strip of land between the green corridor of the Milwaukee River on the west and the bluffs overlooking Lake Michigan on the east, I’d heard many stories of coyotes prowling the neighborhood. Two children reported seeing a “wolf” in the park; a Schnauzer, cornered in his own backyard, was rescued by his owner heroically banging on a pot. The only coyote I’d ever seen, though, was a frightened, mange-ravaged creature skulking through a neighbor’s yard and away down the alley, not a symbol of the healthy persistence of wilderness in the city.
In truth, the wilderness that persists in this area is hardly a picture of health by any measure. When my dogs and I take our morning walks, I try to enjoy each moment the way they do, which is to say thoughtlessly: I breathe deep, in awe of the reds and golds of a sunrise made more vivid by particulate pollution; I shiver at the chilly shake of dew from competing monocultures of alien plants around my feet; I try to read my home turf through enthusiastic eyes (or maybe, noses) that relish the presence of every tiny life, whether or not it has any legitimate claim on being here.
My younger dog, Boo, is an appropriate observer of this environment precisely because she is such a misfit herself. She is certainly not the dog most people would choose for an urban family pet. When, five years ago, a friend found her wandering along a dirt track in the Smoky Mountains, she was malnourished, missing her left eye, pregnant with 11 pups, prematurely graying, and so used to fending for herself beyond the human world that she had to be taught to climb stairs. (Later, when she was X-rayed for a shoulder injury, we learned that she also has a chest full of birdshot.) We’ve always called her a Lab mix, but over time her uniquely expressive voice and amazing acuity as a squirrel hunter have convinced me that her pedigree, such as it is, probably runs more to Mountain Cur. When people ask her breed, my husband answers, “She’s a loud black dog.”
Despite her feral roots, Boo had so little difficulty bonding with our family that a leash has seldom been a feature of her life. But last spring, she suddenly began running off every morning on our walks along the lakefront. A half-mile down the beach from where we started, she’d abruptly turn, go crashing up the bluff face and vanish in brush. I’d call and call, terrified that this time she might not pause, with a glance over her shoulder as if to say, Just a minute, OK? I’ll be with you as soon as I’m done over here … What if this time, she mounted the top of the bluff, crossed the upscale lawns, raced out into the stream of traffic winding downtown for another day at the office? Every morning for a week, I found myself abandoned, wandering along the beach calling her name until tears came; eventually I’d hear her bark and she’d burst back downhill to me, frowzy and unapologetic.
Finally, it occurred to me to track Boo on her wild ascents. The first few tries were futile: struggling uphill, I did my best to follow, but always she’d dissolve before my eyes into brambles and silence. After five or 10 minutes of clawing through the underbrush, I’d skid back down to the beach with burrs in my hair and sleeves, only to find Boo rolling in the sand.
One morning, approaching the spot where Boo kept running off, I clipped a leash to her collar. When she pulled toward the bluff, I tagged after, clambering over the snags and deadfalls she scrambled through, the leash impeding her progress as I unclipped and reattached it several times. She moved with purpose, tolerating the hindrance of my presence. Halfway up the bluff, she turned and half-slid into a steep gully hidden from both above and below. A jutting pile of broken concrete slabs thrown down there years earlier formed something like a cave mouth on the opposite side, and Boo was pulling me directly toward it.
I started to scold her in frustration, but my breath caught in my throat. There, across the gully, four fat coyote pups peered out at us from their den, pricked ears and black button noses alert to our presence. And there, at my feet, sat Boo, her tongue flicking in and out, tail wagging, whimpering under her breath as if comforting babies she’d mothered long ago.
Culture: Stories & Lit
“How are the kids?”
1. Ask about the name.
2. Yes, he’s adopted.
3. Race is an acceptable topic.
4. Flatter him, flatter me.
5. Ask about his poo.
6. Eyes in the back of our heads.
7. Discuss major minor rights.
8. Forget about birthday parties.
9. Compare routines.
10. Are we having kids?
Culture: Stories & Lit
I think I’m the only writer in Los Angeles without a script to show around at dinner parties and AA meetings. But success in “the industry” has finally come to me. After living here for over a decade, I finally made my way into Hollywood’s inner circle. All thanks to my Beagle, who was just killed.
After being discovered on the street and cast as a female dog named Ruthy, my dog Jerry demonstrated his remarkable acting chops on the set of an upcoming film. No, he didn’t pull anyone from a well, or save someone from a burning house. But he did stand up—right on cue—while wearing yellow doggie pajamas. And, I might add, the director was most pleased with my coaching.
Which brings us to our second day of shooting. It was a night that would culminate with Ruthy’s (Jerry’s) death scene, and he was ready for action. On the drive out to the miniature golf facility, where the scene was to be shot, Jerry rehearsed playing dead in the back seat, though he sometimes broke character with a loud snore.
We arrive at midnight and he perks right up when the scent of toaster waffles from the set’s buffet table wafts into the car. We both head through the medieval castle arcade to find the crew. At first, we’re told that the director is ready for us, but then there is one of many delays on the set. So we head off to the putting greens, where Jerry burns off some of his nervousness by chasing a squirrel through the windmill and down past the candy house before ultimately losing the pursuit after it scampers into the clown’s head.
To kill some more time, Jerry and I rehearse. I had read the script beforehand, so I knew that Ruthy was to be hit by a car. We spend some time going over what I had taught him already. Jerry was to roll onto his side and simply put his head down for this trick. Even though he refused to stop breathing, he would lie still for a few seconds, looking like a miniature beached whale, before popping up to see if there were still some Rice Krispies treats left at the buffet.
Then we were called to the set. The night air was thick with movie magic. There was to be an establishing shot, in which one of the actors would hide in a wooden barrel with Ruthy. At some point, Jerry is supposed to pop his head out of the barrel and look cute. We hadn’t known about this scene beforehand, and I admit I was a bit worried. Sure, Jerry has proven that he’s got great range—what with the standing up on cue and all—but coming into a scene like this so unprepared would unsettle any performer.
The actor, who was wearing a pith helmet, climbed into the barrel and then I carefully lowered Jerry inside. Confused, he looked up at me, his floppy ears pinned anxiously against his head. In his six long years of life, clearly this was his first time squatting inside a barrel with a total stranger wearing a funny hat.
But when the director yelled “action,” Jerry’s inner thespian took over. The actor spoke a few lines of dialogue, which was my cue. Standing off-stage, I then called to Jerry, who popped his head up out of the barrel and stared right into the camera with a bleary-eyed expression normally found on pet-store puppies.
It was golden. The audience was going to eat it up, I thought. It was so perfect that they only asked for six more takes before, I supposed, we would be moving on to the death scene.
But then something curious and a bit sad happened. I was told that Ruthy’s demise would not take place as planned. It had been decided that there would be a shot of a car crashing into the barrel, followed by a close-up of Ruthy’s red leash lying amongst the wreckage. Her death was to be implied rather than shown for a greater emotional payoff.
No on-camera death? This was to be Jerry’s career-making scene—the very onset of his 15 minutes of fame (which, in dog years, equals an hour and 45 minutes, by the way). I wanted to call Jerry’s manager or his agent, but he had neither. I wanted to scream, “But this is when you’re supposed to kill Jerry!”
But it was futile. So we just grabbed some cookies and left. As we reached our car, I heard a screech of tires and a sudden crash. “Well, I guess you’re dead,” I whispered. Jerry just smiled—he does that.
During the drive back home through the blossoming Los Angeles morning, Jerry continued to dazzle me with his “death” pose in the back seat. It was brilliant, until he broke wind. But even without that fatal scene, my dog now has a résumé and I think he might be eligible for his SAG card.
The movie is due to be released in 2005. It’s called Think Tank. If Jerry’s scenes don’t end up on the cutting-room floor, then I highly recommend this movie. So please go and see it. And if Steven Spielberg is reading this, have your people call Jerry’s people (that’s me).
Dog's Life: Work of Dogs
Guiding Miss Ellie
It was a few years into my post-corporate, stay-at-home freelance life that I had the brainstorm. Feeling lonely and useless, I had been driving my husband, Andy, nuts. My life felt small. And the smaller it felt, the more impossible I became. Disgusted by my self-loathing, and sick of taking it out on the one guy I loved, I realized that it was time to pull myself together and focus my energy on doing something positive and worthwhile.
I decided that the perfect solution would be to raise a guide dog puppy. Andy couldn’t object. Though our loyalty to our now deceased old mutt, Lucy, had made it difficult for him to commit to another dog, this would be different, I pointed out. It was only temporary — just a one-year stint. It would be fun. And think of the good we’d be doing!
“Go for it,” he said without hesitation, much to my surprise. I made the call the very next day.
I was excited. So what if I was a basket case at the Guide Dog Foundation’s orientation meeting, the thought of giving up a pup I hadn’t even met driving me to tears? I would be fine. I’d be doing good!
During those first few sleep-deprived weeks, I’d slap on Cathy’s little yellow “Future Guide Dog” vest and head out into the world, looking for some acknowledgment. This was no mere pet, that vest would scream. This was a dog with a purpose. She had a goal. We both had a goal!
There were plenty of times when I’d be rewarded with a “Good for you!” or a “Thank you for doing that,” from a total stranger. But more often than not, I’d be faced with the same reaction — one that made me feel like a low-life, or a criminal. Instead of being lauded for my selflessness, I found myself being lambasted for my heartlessness.
“You mean you’ll have to give her up? How can you do that? I know I couldn’t,” people would snort. My own sister questioned the whole setup. “It’s like giving up your adopted daughter!” she claimed, as she covered the phone’s mouthpiece to reprimand her adopted daughter.
At first I’d nod in agreement, eager for approval. “I know,” I’d say. “I don’t know how I’m going to handle it.” Sometimes I’d even point to the puppies’ 50 percent failure rate as a twisted sign of hope. But it didn’t take long for that to wear off. “Don’t say that to me,” I began to snap when people would ask the question. “I really don’t want to think about it.” And if I really wanted to end the conversation I’d add, “Besides, think of all the good she’ll be doing.”
The truth was, the thought of giving her up was starting to loom over our relationship with Cathy like a wobbly construction crane over a busy Manhattan street. In the privacy of our own home, Andy and I would often compare notes about how we felt about her. “She’s so bossy,” I’d say, stroking her velvety black ears. “And did you ever notice how clumsy she is?” sounding an awful lot like the me of the early stages in our relationship. “He’s too blond,” I’d try to convince myself, a wary child of five divorces. “And he wears white socks!”
“Stop being so critical of her,” he’d say. “She’s just a puppy! And speaking of puppies, have you seen my socks anywhere?”
One day, as I watched him endlessly lobbing a contraband Squeaky Monkey to a tirelessly leaping Cathy, I barked out a warning. “Be careful,” I cautioned. “I think you’re falling in love.”
He continued to toss. “You know?” he said. “I really do enjoy her. But I just don’t feel like I’m anything special to her.” “You mean you don’t think she’s special?” I asked, assuming he was referring to her rather generic Lab-like personality. “No,” he corrected me. “I mean I’m not anything special to her. I just don’t feel like we’ve bonded.”
I did wonder, and not for the first time, if this notion of feeling special might have been the missing link for Andy in his past relationships, specifically his first two marriages. But then again, I suspected that this might simply be his own way of keeping his heart a safe distance away from disaster. I wasn’t sure. Nevertheless, that night Cathy and I went out to sit on the front stoop, waiting to greet Andy when he came home. “There he is,” I whispered in her ear, as soon as I recognized his lopsided gait a half a block away. “It’s your pal!” I repeated, as her tail became a blur of motion. “Go get him!” I urged, letting go of the leash as he reached the bottom of the stairs. “Hi, honey. I’m so happy you’re home. Did you have a good day?” I asked, brushing his cheek with my lips as I took the grocery bags from his hand.
As the months passed, we both struggled with our growing affection for Cathy and with the increasing frequency of the dreaded question about giving her up. One day, as I caught up with the two of them after a run in the park, I heard Andy responding to a couple dressed in matching “I Love NY” sweatshirts. “You know,” he said, as he bent down to pat Cathy’s head, “we’re just enjoying every day with her.”
At first I had to laugh, recalling his reaction as she jumped on the bed at 5:15 that very morning. Barking. Loudly. But later I thought about how much truth there was in what he said. We were enjoying every day. And the longer she had been with us, the more in the moment we had become. There was no more judgment — she could do no wrong. And if she did? What was the big deal? It was only temporary, right? (Though I do offer apologies in advance to the blind person who may someday find themselves being dragged on their belly in pursuit of a squirrel. We did our best — honest.)
I tried out Andy’s line the next day at the dog run. “We’re just enjoying every day with her,” I claimed to the curious huddle of dog people. “And besides,” I added with a flourish of my own, “aren’t all relationships temporary?” Heads nodded, and voices mumbled, “True, true.”
And, of course, it was true. Didn’t my friend Judy’s husband literally get hit by a bus two summers ago? And what about my other friend, Amy, whose husband walked out on her, with no warning, after 24 years, leaving her sitting at the kitchen table, stunned, over her morning cup of coffee? Then there was Beth, who had married a guy who, 15 years later, decided he wanted to be a girl.
I took the lessons learned from Cathy to heart. But while I focused my efforts on a more mindful marriage, my little canine polygamist remained loyal to no one. Or everyone. It didn’t matter if you were a mail carrier, a garbage collector, a veterinarian or a homeless drunk resting on our sidewalk. All you’d have to do is smile at her, or utter the words “cute” or “puppy,” and she’d burst into her own little St. Vitus dance. It became clear that she’d just as soon go home with the super next door as with me. I couldn’t help but think of my niece as a toddler, when she first came over from Romania — constantly wrapping her arms around strangers’ knees in the mall. “Attachment disorder,” my sister had explained. “It’s a common bonding issue with adopted kids.”
In Cathy, however, I was reluctant to label it as a disorder. She was just a happy dog. As a hard-core pessimist, I admired her ability to remain ever hopeful that a forbidden chicken leg might fall off the counter, or that the neighbor’s cat might suddenly admit that he actually liked her. Whereas I couldn’t speak before my morning coffee (which Andy, in self-defense, faithfully brought to me in bed), Cathy always woke up happy.
After she had been with us for about six months, I noticed Andy singing in the shower, a spectacle I hadn’t been subjected to in a really long time. And that stupid trick he used to do before bed, where he’d kick his underpants up into the air and catch them on his head? It was back. Despite her alleged failing at making him feel special, it was clear that Cathy was making him happy, just by being happy. The next morning I watched, through one open eye, as she wiggled her butt and licked his ears. I struggled to sit up and speak. “Good morning,” I croaked, forcing a smile. Andy eyed me warily. “You okay?” he asked.
Cathy is gone now, in training. True to her nature, the day we brought her in she yanked mercilessly on the leash, eager to join her pals in the kennel, and never looked back. It was a tearful parting, for some of us. “Stay happy,” I sobbed, as I bent down to kiss her nose. Andy’s tears didn’t start until we got to the parking lot, just as they had after the first time we dropped his daughter off at college. The difference was, we knew the daughter would be back.
But honestly? Cathy could be back too. Exuberant extroverts don’t exactly make the best guide dogs. I have my doubts. In the meantime, I keep her picture smack in the middle of our living room, the way some people do with inspirational icons like John F. Kennedy or Jesus. I’ll never forget those deep brown eyes or those chubby jowls, but I know there will be days when I just may need a gentle reminder of a different sort.
And in the meantime, there’s Tiffany. A five month-old counter-surfing, toilet paper-pulling, knee-nipping, garbage-stealing future guide dog. But that’s a whole other story.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Size matters — or does it?
“I’ve always had big ones,” Marian said.
“But that’s over.”
The volunteer glanced up from her clipboard. “Why?”
“You don’t seem —”
Marian broke in. “Last one was a Rottweiler.” She clenched her teeth to head off tears. “He needed lifting, toward the end. You need to be strong for that. Young. By the time the new one needs that, I’ll be pushing 80.”
The volunteer nodded.
“And don’t tell me to get an older one, or even a middleaged one, so that its time will come before I get decrepit, because I’ve done that before, and won’t do it again now, at my age, and go through the whole death thing again in just a few years. Don’t try to steer me. I know what I want.”
Marian could hear herself, and could hear what the volunteer was thinking about her — Whoa, what a witch — but she just set her jaw in a harder square.
“Give me something small. Fifteen pounds max. No more than two years old. I don’t care if it sheds. Or if it’s not perfectly behaved. I know how to train.”
Another silent communiqué via the volunteer’s arched eyebrow: I bet you do.
Years ago Marian had been turned down by this same shelter, because she didn’t lie on the adoption application as most people undoubtedly did. She had admitted that her fence was only four feet tall instead of the required six.
Rules were rules. That was understandable. But the dog she had selected, the one she had visited for six hours over three consecutive days, might not have understood why she left him behind.
This time, if they were going to turn her down, she wanted to know up-front.
“I’m sorry, but right now we don’t have any dogs of that size.”
Ha, just as she’d expected. A polite way to say Get out.
Marian shook her head. “I find that hard to believe.”
“The smaller ones go quickly, in general. Many people think they’re easier to care for, so — ”
“I don’t think they’re easier to care for,” said Marian. “I know they are. It’s common sense.”
While Marian foraged for sarcasm in the reply, the girl went on. “We’ll give you a list of small-dog rescue groups. You might even find a purebred through the breed-specialty rescues.”
“I don’t care about purebred. I’ve told you what I want.”
“Yes,” the volunteer said. “You have. I’ll walk you to the front desk so they can help you.”
Help, thought Marian, was nothing but a word at this place.
Ordinarily she would have walked out and not bothered with any more of these people’s double-talk. But while Karl was ill, she had developed a bladder infection. The doctor said because of the stress, but what did he know? It had more to do with neglecting to drink enough water, she was sure. In any case, even after a week of antibiotics she still had to visit the restroom constantly.
“It won’t be so bad,” someone murmured as Marian walked in. “It’ll work out fine.” Sobbing followed. Then the sound of panting. Marian stepped back and checked the sign on the door. It was indeed the ladies’ room. A whine escaped one of the stalls.
“Shh,” said the voice. “It’ll be fine, baby. Everything will be OK.” Whoever it was blew her nose. Marian bent down and saw, under the stall door, two feet and four paws. Large paws. She entered a stall. While she sat there, the feet and the large paws walked by and left.
Karl’s paws had been the biggest most people had ever seen. It was one of the things she enjoyed about him — his size and the ability of that to fool everybody into thinking he was dangerous. Rottweilers could be dangerous, of course. So could Chihuahuas. She had always felt that she herself would have been more dangerous than Karl, had the need ever arisen. He trusted people.
Once, she had come home from work and found him snoozing in a patch of sun on the patio, at the feet of a tall, white-haired man who stood very still. It took her several minutes to recognize the man as Joel, her second husband, someone she hadn’t seen in over a decade and Karl had never met.
Technically, Karl could have ripped her ex limb from limb — with some justification, since Joel had come to ask for money. Joel had recognized this, but too late, after he’d trespassed into her backyard without having noticed the Rottweiler in it. Luckily for him, aggression wasn’t that dog’s forte.
Karl had other skills. He sat quietly while she strapped on his safety harness in the car. He excavated tunnels three feet deep in pursuit of gophers, but never in the lawn or among her beloved camellias. When in the mood, he fetched the newspaper from just inside the front gate, which, despite frequent complaints, was as far as the delivery boy’s arm could throw. And every evening Karl curled his giant frame into a tidy ball to nap on the ottoman, leaving just enough room for Marian’s feet, keeping them warm while she read in the chair.
Marian smiled. Then her eyes stung. She yanked a length of toilet paper off the roll and swabbed at them.
While washing her hands, she saw that her eyeliner had run, leaving streaks down each cheek. It took forever to clean them off with the shelter’s cheap paper towels. Couldn’t they spring for stronger ones? You’d think they would, given that probably all animal shelter restrooms doubled as crying rooms.
She came out just wanting to go home. As she reached the front door of the shelter, she heard a whine, and looked back.
A large dog was there, at the counter. He sat next to a girl of no more than 18 or 19. Same feet, same paws from the restroom.
“Breed?” asked the woman behind the counter.
The girl said, “Irish Wolfhound mix, I think.”
“Reason for surrender?”
For a long moment the girl didn’t answer.
“Sorry, but I need to write something here.”
The girl nodded. “Money.”
“Financial hardship,” the counter clerk edited. “Age?”
“He’s eight, maybe. I’m not sure. When I found him, the vet said he was probably six, and that was a couple of … a couple of years — ” Her voice broke.
“Let’s go into an office,” the clerk said softly, and stepped around the counter to touch the girl’s arm, “where it’s more — ”
“No. I can’t stay. I just… He won’t be…” The girl shut her eyes, then looked straight at the clerk. “You won’t put him down, right?”
“As long as Buzz is adoptable, we’ll keep looking to find him a home.” The girl nodded. She looked at the dog. “I have to go now, Buzz. I have to go.” She knelt. The dog melted into her arms, a spot he must have filled a thousand times before. His colossal shaggy head rested on her shoulder. His mouth opened in a panting grin. Marian noticed how white his teeth looked, not bad for an eight-year-old.
The girl stood up and fished something from her shoulder bag. “His toothbrush. His teeth were bad when I found him. As long as I keep them clean — brush every night — he does great.”
She set the toothbrush on the counter, then walked out.
The clerk, the dog and Marian watched her go. Then the clerk stroked Buzz’s head, took up the leash and led him away.
Marian saw a donation jar half full of coins on the counter. “Small Change,” said the sappy pink handmade sign over it, “comes from Big Hearts.”
Her heart wasn’t feeling big. It had been attacked, she felt, by all of this — the girl, the dog, this whole place. She had to get out.
In her laundry room, Marian folded a basket of towels, then the last of the blankets from Karl’s bed. He’d gone through two changes of them almost every day for those last months. Carrying him outside umpteen times a day, with the towel wrapped around his belly, hadn’t always prevented accidents. Her back still ached.
If that volunteer couldn’t understand that older people had to be careful about what kind of dog they got, she was an idiot. Or maybe people these days didn’t nurse old dogs. They just dumped them, like that girl and her big Wolfhound cross.
Suddenly, without the slightest warning, Marian’s throat caught. She couldn’t breathe. Her chest felt ready to burst. What were the symptoms of a heart attack? She tried to remember. A few weeks ago, while Karl was ill, she called the doctor about a fainting spell. Stress, he said, and asked her how much sleep she was getting. That was his answer for everything — stress.
But she didn’t have the pains in the arms or jaw or any of the other things the doctor had listed, just the awful fullness in the chest. With nothing more than that for warning, she exploded into tears. She stood there over the dryer, unable to stop.
Was this about Karl? There had been a good deal of crying about him already.
No. Now it wasn’t about him. She felt shock, along with a sharp stab of guilt. Disloyalty. It wasn’t about Karl at all. This was about that dog. The one at the shelter. The first impulsive thing Marian had ever done was marry Brian, lead singer in a band called The Needles, at age 18, and that had turned out so poorly that it had also been her last impulsive move. She sat in her car, waiting for a break in the rain, wondering if something was happening to her. Maybe she really had had a small stroke while caring for Karl, or a heart attack that morning in the laundry room with the shortness of breath and the crying. At her age she was not too young for dementia, either.
Otherwise, why would she be here, back at the shelter?
Inside, she wore her sunglasses and kept the hood of her jacket up, in case she ran into the volunteer from yesterday. The chaos in the kennels made her head spin. Bark after bark banged against her ears. Dogs flung themselves at the bars, yelling all manner of things at her: Let me out! When are my people coming back? Do you have any food? And at each other: If not for these bars I’d kill you! Do you want to play? Hey, are you in heat?
Maybe she should get a cat.
It seemed somewhat storybook, when she thought about it later, that the one she had come for would be at the very end of the kennels. That she almost turned around and left just before she got to that last run. That he would be silent. That he would be in a corner, despondent, and wouldn’t look at her when she whispered his name.
She squatted. Pain shot through one of her knees, so she hauled herself back up, grabbing onto the bars. When she looked up again he was there in front of her.
No wag. No grin. Just a tentatively sniffing nose — cautious interest. And he was bigger than she remembered. Maybe it wasn’t the same dog.
But he had the same outsized head and amber eyes. Same well-groomed, shaggy gray coat, same stub of a tail. And his name printed on the run’s card.
The day after she’d adopted Karl, from a neighbor who was moving, she’d gotten her handyman to add two feet of mesh to the top of her fence, figuring there must be good reasons why the shelter demanded that height. Now she could honestly answer the adoption questionnaire with that fact, plus the fact that she had no children under the age of five, or of any age, and that her dogs always lived indoors. But maybe, since she’d last seen that application over a decade ago, they’d added more questions.
She bent over, ignoring the ache in her back, and said the dog’s name again. His plate-sized ears perked up.
The light color of his eyes made his gaze eerie, but she liked that. It would scare people.
He sat, which caused his head to lift, making him look even taller.
He kept that intense yellow gaze on her.
“On the thin side, but that’s healthier for you larger fellows, isn’t it?”
The head a little beyond proportion, but from the neck down, what magnificent lines. A broad chest tapering to a narrow, athletic waist and muscular hips. He wore his age well.
“Are you a good boy?” she asked.
That, finally, brought a small wag of the stub.
“Well, I’m glad to hear it.”
Suddenly Buzz jumped up, making Marian take a startled stumble backward. He planted his mammoth paws on the bars, almost above her head, and let out the smallest, silliest, most frustrated yip.
Marian laughed. “All right then. Should I go see what can be done about getting you out of here?”
In line at the counter, Marian felt a sense of unreality, as if she were someone else there waiting to adopt that dog. Exactly the kind of dog she had not wanted. Things seemed disjointed — the man in front of her scribbling a grocery list, the yowling of a cat in a carrier atop a desk — all like a TV show you were only half-watching while you balanced your checkbook.
She imagined herself walking with Buzz. A cold, foggy morning. The kind when she hated to exercise, being uncomfortable about the things she couldn’t see, but feeling safe with Buzz. As she had with Karl.
Herself and Buzz on the ferry to Montauk, where she and Karl spent a month every summer in a little cabin. Now that she’d retired from the phone company, they could go for the whole summer.
A volunteer — a different one than yesterday’s — gave her the interview, and in a matter of minutes, she sat in a small outdoor enclosure.
Although the rain had stopped, the ground remained soaked. Buzz seemed careful about getting his paws wet. A good sign. The girl must have kept him indoors. He nosed around, made his mark on a fence post, then came to her.
“Hello again,” she said.
He sat. She held out her palm. He sniffed, then laid his cheek on it, and slid it up to his ears.
“Oh, so you like your ears rubbed?” Marian obliged.
She noticed then how white his muzzle was, and his prominent spine, and the slight milky glaze over his eyes.
There were his eight years, after all. Maybe more.
At Montauk, he could swim, if he wanted to, though Karl never did. It was good exercise for older dogs, she had read.
Buzz’s head whipped up. Marian followed his gaze. Behind her, just outside the fence, stood a girl. His girl.
In less than a second, he was pawing at the gate. The girl opened it, and Buzz flew to her, nearly knocking her flat.
A volunteer hurried over. “You OK?”
Buzz had sat the girl on the ground to wash her face. “I’m here,” she said, laughing and crying simultaneously, “to get my dog.”
Married to Brian, Marian had lost a fair amount of hearing. This came from attending all his concerts in a futile effort to prevent him from picking up groupies. Later, married to Joel, the losses had been less permanent — her savings, her credit, the jewelry he’d pawned. Over the years, she had recovered those and more.
Most losses, in fact, could be recovered. Even the hearing she had somewhat restored by developing the ability to read minds. Not telepathy, just observation. Expressions. Gestures. The smallest things could say a lot.
While the girl and the shelter manager spoke, Marian sat outside the office, listening to their faces. The manager felt the girl was lying about having found a job overnight. And about how she could afford to pay the fee that the shelter would require, out of her savings. The girl in fact was lying. She needed the dog. With Buzz, she would find a way to make it. It had been a panicky mistake to give him up.
In the confusion earlier, someone had handed Buzz’s leash to Marian. Beside her now, he quivered. He panted in short, anxious bursts. Everything in him attuned to the girl, waiting. The manager studied the girl, too. Then she looked at Marian.
Some losses, you couldn’t recover. Not love. Too delicate. Prone to all manner of injury.
Not deaths. Those were permanent. There would never be another Karl. And he, Marian decided, would be her last big dog.
At the front door of the shelter, Marian watched Buzz’s mincing steps through the rain and the parking lot puddles. He wouldn’t have wanted to swim at Montauk.
He leaped into the girl’s battered sedan. The girl dried him with a towel, then used it on herself, and got in beside him.
The rain kept up. Dogs came and went — volunteers exercising them, filling the lobby with the smell of damp fur. None of them small. But some not very big. One put a warm muzzle in her palm and wet paws on her knee.
After the girl drove away, Marian found a chair. She opened her purse.
To fit her check into the jar under that sappy sign, she had to fold it up. The slot wasn’t big enough, having been made only for small change.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A call for improving our etiquette with older dogs.
Like everyone else in a society loudly lamenting a decline in civility, I recognize there are new breaches of etiquette every minute. On any typical day, cell phones alone account for the rudeness factor going off the charts.
But I believe there is one type of impolite behavior among adult humans that goes pretty much unchecked. I’ve been guilty of it myself and slinked away feeling really stupid. It just isn’t something that makes it into the etiquette books and it apparently isn’t even worth Miss Manners’ fleeting consideration.
I am referring to the blunt, utterly uncensored and often just plain mean things people say to us about our dogs (by “us” I mean dog people). My close friend Pam has a 12-yearold German Shepherd who is visibly aging. So are the rest of us, human and canine, but to what person would you ever be so crude as to say the following: “Is that your mother? Wow, she looks awful. She can hardly move!” Yet this is the unsolicited blubbering my friend endures from strangers, all day long, about her old dog. I empathize because I’ve been through this three times, beginning with our family Beagle, Sam, who lived to be nearly 17, mostly out of spite.
“How old is he?” People would ask this unrelentingly about my now-departed Irish Setter, Amos. I didn’t mind telling them that he was 12 or 13. “Wow. They don’t live much longer than that, do they?” How tacky is this?
But it gets worse. When my big, hairy mutt, Louie (we called him our “Bavarian crotch-smeller”) was old and frail, someone once asked me, “Have you thought about putting him down?” First of all, that’s kind of like asking a woman in her 40s (this also happened to me), “Have you ever thought about having children?” “Gee, there’s an idea! Why didn’t I think of that?” When your dog is old and sick, the end is pretty much all you can think about. Your heart is breaking and you’re preparing yourself to come to that decision in a way that spares your dog unnecessary suffering while giving yourself time to feel as peaceful as possible about letting him go.
People assume they can say anything they like about a stranger’s dog. While they’d (I hope) refrain from saying, “Excuse me, but it looks like your husband is losing his hair,” when Louie was suffering from Cushing’s disease, strangers constantly took it upon themselves to point out his hair loss. “Do you know your dog is losing his hair?” And what can you do except mumble, um, yes, this is my dog, he’s part of my family, I’m nearly always with him, I bathe him, I brush him, he sleeps with us, and throughout most, if not all, of these activities, I am looking at him! And it’s always too late when you think of how you could’ve said, “Do you know you have a wart on your chin?”
Pam is at the point where she dreads walking her dog in public because she knows passersby will make insensitive comments she can’t bear to hear. Out in the world she is thoughtful and tender enough not to remind everyone she encounters that they are mortal. Like the rest of us, she can tell when a person’s on his or her last legs, but she keeps herself from saying, “Gee, you sure are slowing down” or asking the person’s daughter, “So how long do people in your family tend to live?” When approaching people like my friend, it helps to remind oneself that she knows her dog is old. She knows it every waking second of every day.
The last years and months we share with our geriatric dogs are among the most bittersweet times in dog lovers’ lives. We know, from the moment we choose these guys as puppies or meet their limpid stares at the animal shelter, that our hearts will be torn apart some day. What makes it so much worse is that the older they get, the sweeter they get, and when they reach absolute critical sweetness—you simply cannot love them any more than you already do—they grow completely exhausted and die. So a person patiently coaxing an old dog on his increasingly shrinking route is someone who could benefit from a little compassionate restraint. Like a simple hello for the owner, or a tender pat on the head for the doggie emeritus.
Culture: Stories & Lit
A Definitive Essay
~ 1 ~
When I was a kid, I loved a song by Pete Seeger, the title of which I can’t recall, but it had this refrain: “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.” I played that record until the needle on my phonograph wore down to a nub. The song was a call-and-response for the human body — Seeger would sing, “You put your right foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do”; “You put your left foot out,” etc. Oh, that song was irresistible! Nowadays, although I’m in my mid-50s and my step-kids are grown, I still sing it. And all I can say is that my dog loves me for it. She gets me, my Labrador girl. She dances right along.
~ 2 ~
Her name is “Nira,” my Labrador. She’s a guide dog from Guiding Eyes for the Blind in New York. She’s a light yellow Lab with honey-colored ears, and she tilts her head from side to side when I sing. She loves the Pete Seeger song, but she’s OK with almost anything. I could sing “The Song of the Volga Boatmen” and she’d think it was a good development. This isn’t because she’s naïve or smitten. Her good cheer is a function of the canine genome. Dogs are happy in the morning. They are happy in ways that your spouse and your children are not.
~ 3 ~
“Why,” you ask, “are dogs happy in the morning?” You, good reader, are smart, and you’d like some empirical evidence. You’d like it if I wrote something like this: “Studies at the Uppsala Institute for Canine Human Acculturation have shown that dogs have a diurnal endorphin release co-determined by a gene, a doggy gene that pre-dates human agriculture.” (I like this. It makes good sense.) But the truth is that dogs are predators, and all predators wake up happy After all, it’s a whole new day of hunting and eating! Oh yes! Oh yes!
~ 4 ~
Back in the age of Aristotle, dogs saw that those humans who got up early and were disposed to singing were the people who had “leftovers.” Aristotle would throw on his stained toga and do a skippy dance because he had cold moussaka in the Agora. There was also calamari under the caryatids. O, look for the singing men in the whirling bed sheets, doggies!
~ 5 ~
I am telling the truth. Nowadays if you write nonfiction and tell the truth, readers are liable to think you’re pulling their legs. Nonetheless, dogs love us when we sing at sunrise. They know that cold pizza is in the offing. And since we’re on the subject of nonfiction, let me add that this is the point in the essay where a writer is most likely to lose his or her readers. Many think this dicey moment occurs at the beginning, but really it comes right now. This is because the reader thinks she’s got the point and that’s it. But in the name of all dogs, I challenge you to read on!
~ 6 ~
Dogs are not shallow. Dogs are way too sensitive to be short- sighted and small-minded. So yes, they love our cold spanakopita, but they also love our vocalizations. How do I know this? Because I’ve submitted the matter to the scientific method. Now admittedly, my test is too small to warrant a press conference. In fact, I’ve only tested the matter with my own dog and a neighbor’s Poodle. (I’m still seeking funds for a larger study from the National Science Foundation.)
~ 7 ~
Now, the Poodle next door (a big Poodle, an American Standard, I think) has never received any leftovers from my hands. Nor has she received any evening leftovers, just to be exact. Picture me in the wet grass, pre-dawn, the houses still dark, picture me dancing and singing to the fluffy, white Poodle I’ll call “Willow”— picture me singing, “All around the kitchen, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do.”
~ 8 ~
Yes! Willow loves the song! She bounces! She whirls like a cyclone. She barks in joyous harmonization! Cock-adoodle- doodle baby! It’s almost sunrise! It’s time to savor the yips and yaps of the mystical appearance of all living things! Yes, it’s dark out here. If my neighbors saw me (or if my wife saw me for that matter), well, they’d probably call the cops. I dance like an unseemly, arthritic clown. You put your left foot out, cock-a-doodle-doodle-do. But look! I’ve proven that dogs love us for our songs, not for a promise of pizza. And because we’re simpatico —happy to be awake on this rare, blue planet — we are wondrous, holy fools together.
~ 9 ~
So it’s the ecstasy of living, and of singing about it, that dogs love. You see, dogs love us for the right reason.
~ 10 ~
You can’t get a cat to dance without a string, no matter what you say.
Culture: Stories & Lit
Or, how I became a certified dog person
Four years ago, I was in the dairy section of a supermarket when my cell phone rang. My then-23-year-old daughter was on the other end. “Which would make you angrier,” she asked. “If I told you I was in jail or if I told you I bought a puppy?”
“How long would you be in jail for?” I said. “Dad, she’s the cutest puppy in the world,” Kate said.
I stood and stared at the different brands of cottage cheese on display and knew the plans my wife and I had made in anticipation of having a life of our own again, needing to care for no one other than each other, had just vanished. We were not those parents who dreaded the empty nest. Quite the opposite. We embraced it.
Don’t get me wrong, we loved our two kids, doted on them, gave them the best home and education we could. But now, we were ready to move on. Their lives as adults were about to begin and ours were ready to re-emerge after more than two decades of parent/teacher conferences; flighty babysitters; play dates; teenage tantrums; countless drives to an endless array of birthday, bar and bat mitzvah celebrations; weeks devoted to college tours and applications; flights to and from cities we would never have visited had our kids not been in school there; meals with parents we would have never met and probably will never see again.
All of that now sat in our rearview mirror. We were free to travel, sell the house and move back to the city, eat in restaurants we had read about, go to the theater and to concerts, get hockey season tickets or just sit on our favorite chairs, reading or viewing a rented movie. It was there waiting for us.
A week later, Willow came to visit. She was then a four-month-old miniature Australian Shepherd with an awkward body but the cutest eyes and warmest disposition. Kate was working as a production assistant in the film business and had landed a job on a Bruce Willis movie that required her to work 18- hour days for the next three months. There was no way for her to take care of a puppy.
Soon, I was walking Willow several times a day, learning to house-train a dog, something I’d never had a desire to learn. I played ball with her in the back yard and was amazed at how she easily adapted to the game of running and fetching, never tiring, just loving the idea of playing, always very eager to please. As much as Willow and I bonded, she had grown completely attached to my wife, Susan. Willow followed her everywhere she went in the house and ran to the nearest window whenever she ventured out to head for work or run a few errands. And Susan, an even more reluctant dog owner than I was, never seemed happier than when Willow was by her side, sitting next to her while she worked at her computer, or curling up on her lap. Within weeks, the two were inseparable.
Two days after the movie wrapped, Kate came by to tell us the great news. No, she wasn’t taking Willow back. She had been accepted in the Teach for America program and would be gone for two years.
Willow was now our family dog.
By this time, our house had sold and the Manhattan apartment was ready for us to move into, and we found ourselves with a very active dog in need of more exercise than an Olympic athlete living in the city. What to do? The solution was found in Biscuits & Bath, a seven-day-aweek full-service dog gym. We signed Willow up and reserved weekends for trips to our home in Bridgehampton, where I quickly discovered she was a natural swimmer and would spend hours in the pool doing laps or chasing a tennis ball. “Well,” I said to Susan one night, Willow curled up between us, “this will work. She’s good company. The cat doesn’t seem to know she’s here, and we have a lot of Kate’s friends willing to housesit if we want to go anywhere.”
Besides, I had really grown to like being with Willow. There was a serenity about her that brought with it a relaxing comfort. I appreciated the rare feeling of unconditional love, of how Willow cared for us, wanted to be with us as much as we wanted to be with her. I felt better knowing she was around. She was a good friend to have, even if I did need to ice my arm on some nights after a long day of ball tossing in the yard. The call from my son, then in his senior year at Vanderbilt, came a few days before the end of fall semester about two years later. “I got a puppy,” he said.
“What’s his name?” was all I could manage to ask.
“Not sure,” Nick said.
“How about Gus?”
When my son was a boy and went through the gamut of lizards, gerbils and other caged rodents kids seem to acquire, Nick named each of them Gus in one form or another—Gus, Gus/Gus, Gus, Jr., Gus the Third. Why break the pattern now? It also seemed the perfect name for an Olde English Bulldog.
Nick finished college, landed a job within a month of graduation, and we were once again confronted with one of our kids having to work long hours and a puppy in need of care. So, Gus packed his bags and moved into our apartment, along with me, my wife, Willow and Casper, the oldest living cat in America.
Gus is the exact opposite of Willow, John Belushi to her Audrey Hepburn. Where she is gentle, he is rough. Where she is refined and shy, he is hyper and eager for action. He is big, strong and stubborn and pouts if he doesn’t get his way. In less than three days, he knew he had me and I knew my life would never be the same.
We signed Gus up for Biscuits & Bath and he took to the playtime like a pro, never tiring, eager to run and rumble with the other dogs. The crew at B&B grew to love him almost as much as we did and forgave him any indiscretion. Gus was a charmer, born to please, never giving the slightest indication he had done anything wrong.
In Bridgehampton, I put up a fence along part of the yard, allowing both dogs freedom to run at will: Willow chasing tennis balls, Gus barking and chugging the length of the fence trying to scare away the deer and the rabbits surrounding the property.
I can’t say it’s been easy. Gus suffers from skin allergies and gets a medicine bath once a week and injections to keep the problem under control. Willow has a sensitive stomach. Even with pet insurance, it’s a hefty freight.
My wife and I have not traveled much since we got the dogs, certainly not as often as we had planned. We leave dinner parties early because we need to get home to the dynamic duo. Our living room furniture will never be the same and we make sure not to invite non-dog lovers over for a meal.
When we drive to and from Bridge - hampton, Gus takes the front seat, next to me. Willow rides in the back, snuggled next to my wife. The sight of that always brings a smile to my face. Gus loves to look out the window, eyes taking in the action, on the watch, reminding me of an active street cop on the job. Where Willow is indifferent to the outside world, content to keep her inner circle close to her side, Gus wants to know what he can about anyone who ventures near, earning the visitor either a low growl or an invitation to pet his head. He looks fierce but is gentle as an infant. Willow is the one with the temper, losing patience with anyone who comes between her and the pack she feels her duty to protect. Gus is always up for a party. Willow prefers quiet nights at home.
And they are crazy about one another. I feel as close to Gus as I do to any person in my life. I trust him as much as he trusts me, which is to say completely. He is a good friend and great company. He has changed my life and I am convinced it’s for the better.
I have become what I never thought I would, what an old friend (his wife bred Neapolitan Bull Mastiffs) used to call with affection “those people.” I am a dog person, certified. I would rather spend a night in front of the TV, Gus asleep on one corner of the couch, Willow no more than six inches from my wife on the other end, the two inseparable, both at ease, relaxed and happy. The outside world nothing more than an annoying distraction.
This is my family now—Susan, Gus, Willow and Casper. They are my world, my friends, the ones I turn to for comfort, reassurance and love. Four years ago, I could never have imagined my life with a dog, any dog.
Now, I can’t think of a day without Gus and Willow in my company. They have my loyalty and respect and I have theirs and, living in uncertain times in an uncertain world, we give each other much needed comfort and reassurance.
They have won my heart.
And my life without them would be a sad and empty one.
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