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Culture: Stories & Lit
Pogo Eats Strangers
The taming of a pugnacious pup.
Illustration by Heather Horton

“Pogo eats strangers,” or so I was told, and when I first met him, he exploded. Barking, growling, snarling, lots of teeth, lunging—all the tricks that make scary people go away. To all that, he added a four-foot, straight-up-in-the-air jump, which explained why he was named Pogo. He looked like a small red Chow: lots of russet hair, thick muscular body, curled tail, short, Jack Russell legs (which makes the jumping all the more impressive). He had bitten potential adopters, so he wasn’t bluffing. It was obvious why he couldn’t be adopted.

I had been flown from my home in Iowa to his shelter in New Jersey by Best Friends Animal Society as part of their “Training Partners”program. This innovative program matches trainers experienced in dealing with aggressive dogs with the unadoptable dogs from their incredible Hurricane Katrina rescue, as well as with other dogs who need help with training and behavior.

The busy shelter staff left me alone with him, so I pulled up a bucket outside his run; sat down; turned sideways; and tried to keep my body loose and a slight smile on my face, and to avoid eye contact. Then I began gently pitching small pieces of canned chicken breast toward his feet. Pretty heady stuff for a guy living on dry food and sleeping on cement. I had his attention—it’s hard to continue to be rude to someone who’s slipping you the equivalent of $50 bills through the fence!

When the staff came in to clean his section of the runs, I walked around, talked with them and then strolled back over and gave Pogo a treat.He was reacting less and less to my approach.

Everyone was leery of letting him out to greet me because previously, that’s when he had attacked strangers. I thought he’d be okay, and was prepared to throw a big chunk of chicken if he rushed me. He rushed me all right, but it was for the chicken.

I made no effort to touch him, and that, as much as the treats, kept me safe. Had I leaned over him and tried to pat him on the head (like any adopter would do), he would have nailed me. He reminded me of a tough little street kid ready to take offense at the slightest thing. Since we both passed that first allimportant test, they brought him to me on a 20-foot lead, and we went exploring the grounds. A misty rain was falling, and after 30 minutes of aerobics, I sat down on a dry spot underneath the branches of a thick pine.Pogo came back to me occasionally, got a quick treat and was off to the end of the tether again to soak up more smells. On one of these drive-by greetings, I reached out and stroked him from shoulder to tail, avoiding his head. He went to the end of the lead and then oh-so-casually turned and came right back by so I could do it again. My heart gave a flip. I was a stranger no more.

That was the beginning of my “rehabbing Pogo” story. It’s been a year since New Jersey and more than two and a half years since Katrina; Pogo’s made incredible progress—he’s not ready for prime time yet, but he’s a whole different dog. Smart, trainable, a truly individual personality and—who knew—very affectionate. The boy loves a lovin’. Still, he reacts like a crazy man if surprised by a stranger.

I’m sure Pogo spent his early life on a chain. He can unwrap a lead from around his legs with the dexterity of a pro. He didn’t know about stairs and couldn’t believe I wanted him to come in the house. That took lots of coaxing. His heartworm test was positive and he wasn’t neutered. I’m thinkin’ he didn’t have it easy in the Big Easy.

He still doesn’t in some ways. He doesn’t like my dogs, and they only tolerate him. I’m a painter when not training dogs and he spends most of his time in the studio alone. That’s his choice—the door’s open. He spends a lot of time in there playing with an old blanket, tossing it around. I think bedding is what he had to play with in the year and a half he spent in shelters.

When the other four dogs are out in the back yard, he keeps his distance. When I first brought him home, they tried to play with him, but I don’t think he knew how, and now that window’s closed. Emma, the boss, gave him a classic play bow that first day, but he just stood there. Emma loves to play, and she cut him a disgusted look, walked off and has never tried again. I hate it that he doesn’t have that “pack” feeling. He does have it when we go for runs, though.We go to a 64-acre, no-leads-required place, and we’re the only ones who ever use it. I call it “Disneyland,” because it’s like taking five kids to a magic kingdom. That’s one of the things I love about dogs: Their excitement for life is contagious. I’m in awe of that common stretch of pasture land and timber because they are.

When Pogo’s out there, he’s on the team. He sniffs and pees where the others do, and they bow to his expertise, rushing over to check out whatever he’s found to sniff and pee on. There, he’s comfortable with them; he’s got their backs and they have his. I love it so much that I take them as often as I can.

It’s going to be a long road. The idea was that I’d rehab him and then adopt him out, then go back and get another one. I liked that idea.Maybe if I were a better,more efficient trainer, he’d be further along than he is. I have trained him. He can sit, stay, come, walk on a leash with the best of them. I’m just not very efficient at broken hearts and damaged spirits.We’re now doing desensitization and counter-conditioning.Among other things, we go to the ballpark and hang out around strange guys—his main trigger. He’s getting used to men at a distance, and I slip him a bit of hot dog or chicken when someone comes near. It’s working, it really is, but it’s slow…downright glacial, in fact.

And anyway, I won’t be adopting him out. My mother, a Depression baby and product of hard times herself, has fallen for him big time.No matter what he does, she has at least three excuses for it. Keeps reminding me of what a hard life he’s had. They’re both a little ornery and they bonded from the beginning, so it’s two against one. He’s not going anywhere—and I’m sure he won’t be eating anyone.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Watered Down
…but not out in LA
Black Lab

While walking my dog Ilia one morning, I run into our lovely neighbors Bea and Barry and their cadre of five (!) dogs. “Let’s go down to the river!” Bea suggests. Sounds good, I say, and off we go. 

Upon arriving, Barry notices a guy tossing stuff into the river and walks down the steep embankment to the water’s edge to inquire as to why said stuff is being tossed. The guy pretends not to speak English and walks away. Barry, Good Samaritan that he is, manages to fish out the tossed bag. Which appears to contain a fully roasted turkey.

Really.

He dispatches the unfortunate bird into a nearby waste receptacle.

So, since we’re now near the water’s edge, I enthusiastically (yet stupidly) suggest that we continue our constitutional along the bucolic, cement-encrusted bank.We let the dogs off-lead and Ilia explodes into a glorious burst of speed. What a pleasure to watch him run! Ears a-flappin’, tail aspinnin’. What a sight. Really, really beautiful…until he launches himself (as though wearing a cape) headlong into what we charitably—and delusionally—call the LA “River.”

I call him out and he races obediently toward me full tilt, stops six inches in front of my unshaven knees, careens to starboard and flings himself back into the brackish mire. He then begins to swim downriver, where it is too deep for him to get out.After much frantic calling and waving on my part, he manages to get back to his original port of departure and extract himself. Shaking vigorously and giving everybody a full bacterial misting, he then sprints down the embankment and flings himself back into the drink. I finally manage to coax him out and leash him, whereupon he once again transfers the river’s slimy contents by showering our entire party.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I think that any body of water that has the initials “LA” preceding its name is probably a notch or two below being a paragon of pristine aqueous virtue. My slightly germophobic brain goes into overdrive imagining the disease-causing microorganisms sodden Ilia is now covered with. Before long the list of ailments includes (but is not limited to) beri beri, typhoid, diphtheria, dropsy, Ebola and, quite possibly, rickets.

But, here is what you must know about this dog: he is not a typical pet. This sleek black Lab/Golden Retriever cross is my son’s service dog, bred and trained to serve nobly alongside a wheelchair. For the first 18 months of his life, he was raised by dedicated, loving volunteers who doted on, trained and subsidized him. Then, they made the heartwrenching trip to the main campus to turn him in and say good-bye forever. Highly skilled trainers took over from there, spending the next six months teaching him advanced commands like picking up dropped objects and opening doors so that when he was matched with his human companion, he would give the gift of independence to his disabled partner. Then, they gave us this dog. Free.

Lofty, no?

Appropriately, this organization maintains ownership of the dog while he is in service so they can closely monitor his care and health. So…how do I call their facility and tell them I’ve allowed their precious gift to become infected with West Nile Virus?

Panicked, I take my charge home and immediately deposit him into the tub, then spend an hour scrubbing him down to the molecular level…desperate to punish anything with a flagellum out of existence. Furious but clean, he searches my hardwood-floored house for a corner of carpet to rub on. Finding none, he finally settles for curling into an impossibly tight ball on the couch, where he remains for several hours, deeply offended that I cut short his aquatic spree.

I am happy to report that he is now warm, dry and delightfully Ebola-free.

I sent the good people at Canine Companions for Independence this tale in the hope that they would be entertained and allow us to keep the dog.

They did.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Dog Is My Co-Dependent
Reflections on the role of dogs in modern life

How does one own a dog without becoming a dog person? The answer, I suspect, depends upon whether or not you have a dog and the degree to which you’re inclined to buy into the idea that pet ownership, like child rearing, isn’t what it used to be. Of course, most things aren’t what they used to be, but when it comes to the relationship between helpless creatures and responsible adults, many of us aren’t in Kansas anymore. In my case, I mean this literally. When I got my dog, a Collie/St. Bernard mix named Rex, I lived on a farm in the central plains. He slept in the barn, flanked by a horse on one side and a pig on the other. On frigid mornings I’d come in with his food and often find him curled up with the cat. He was just eight weeks old when I got him, a squiggly fluff ball of black and brown fur, and he knew nothing of the inside world for several months.

 

I remember the winter day when I first brought him indoors. Negotiating the strange new surface of the polished floors, he actually slipped and fell down several times as though he were on another planet. I remember the combination of alarm and delight he seemed to take at spotting his image in a full-length mirror on a closet door. He lurched back, startled, then looked behind the door in search of the strange dog lurking there. He soon grew restless, so I led him back outside and watched as he trotted back to his familiar environs, a 10-acre pasture where he convened with horses and pheasants with such obvious pleasure that even my fear that he’d be hit by a passing truck was not enough to make me do anything but let him run free.

 

Now, seven years on, I live with Rex in Los Angeles. His world is a 900-square-foot house and a small fenced yard he can access through a dog door. He has a microchip implant in case he gets lost, an assortment of stuffed toys so he won’t get bored, and eats prescription low-calorie dog food because he’s gotten fat. Every day, I put on his leash and take him to a wilderness area where he can run free for 45 minutes and socialize with other dogs who have microchips and follow prescription diets. Whereas I used to give him baths in the river, he now goes to a groomer who hoses him off in a giant sink and then sets a fan by a cage to dry him. Whereas he used to spend his nights in a nest of hay, lulled to sleep by the secret world of the barn, he now sleeps with me in my bed, sometimes with his head on the pillow next to me.

I am not so far gone that I don’t recognize that Rex’s life, albeit safer than his life on the farm and better than the lives of the vast majority of animals in the world, took a turn for the worse when he stopped being a dog and became a pet. At the same time, I would be a liar if I didn’t admit that having a pet brings a level happiness to my life that I wasn’t able to experience by merely having a dog. Having an animal, like having a child, is the kind of pursuit to which you can ascribe the world “selfless” only up to a point. There are the obvious hassles—feeding and sheltering and the handling of excrement—but once you put aside the logistics, you are looking at a relationship that is almost entirely wrapped up in the need for unconditional love.

When I lived on the farm (and I lived there with a man who’d no sooner let a dog in the house than invite a mountain goat over for drinks), the love I felt for Rex was intense, unqualified and respectful. Here in Los Angeles, where it’s not unheard of to take your dog to dinner parties, that love is intense, unqualified and more akin to the kind of affection traditionally reserved for romantic partners. Since leaving the barn, Rex’s responsibilities have increased dramatically. No longer simply my dog, he is my friend, my confidant, and my greatest solace. Though he no longer has to keep himself warm at night, he’s been charged with the far weightier task of keeping me warm.

Rex is not the only dog in the neighborhood carrying this kind of burden. When we go walking in the park—and our proximity to these 600 acres of trails is the primary reason I depleted my savings to buy a house here—we encounter many others like us. The dogs are overwhelmingly mixed breeds that, unlike Rex, have been rescued off the streets or from shelters. The owners are overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly single. Like me, they have purchased homes in this neighborhood not only for the disheveled charms of the overgrown vegetation and absurdly steep and narrow streets but because this is an indisputably “dog-friendly” place. Flyers advertising dog walkers, pet sitters, subsidized spaying and neutering, and lost and found animals are perpetually pinned to telephone polls. An organized alliance of concerned pet owners (though they prefer the term “human guardian”) maintains a lively online message board, gathers food and bedding donations for local shelters, and runs a “pet photos with Santa” booth every year at the neighborhood holiday crafts fair.

I call this group the Dog Squad. I suppose I’m one of them, though the extent to which I want to be swings on a sort of pendulum between my visceral love for animals and the remaining vestiges of my ability to be rational about the way the world works. It bears mentioning that in addition to being mostly female and mostly single, the members of the Dog Squad are overwhelmingly Caucasian and middle to upper-middle class. That is to say, we’ve bought or rented homes in this neighborhood mostly in the last decade, which is roughly how long it’s been since the neighborhood began to shake off its reputation for having some of the worst gang violence in the city. We are the ones paying upwards of $500,000 for small bungalows because we know more of us are coming and despite the shifts in the market, the values are only going up. We are the ones with the hybrid cars and the Democratic-candidate signs in our yards, the ones on whom no one will ever file a noise complaint, the ones who place a simple wreath on the door at Christmastime rather than an entire team of high-wattage reindeer in our yard. We are the ones who don’t care how crappy the public schools are because we either don’t have school-age kids or, if we do, make a second career out of finding private or magnet schools that offer German classes and diving teams.

This is a fairly standard portrait of gentrification, of course. You’ll find it from Brooklyn, New York, to Oakland, California, and minus a few regional specifics, it all looks pretty much the same. This neighborhood, for its part, has always straddled the line between the bohemian mythology of its radical leftist roots and the majority rule of the Spanish-speaking immigrant population that has dominated it since the 1960s. On balance, tensions around here don’t run as high as you’d think. The white people, even the recent gentrifiers (among whose ranks I have no choice but to count myself) define themselves in distinct opposition to the kinds of white people who live in L.A.’s pricier areas. Our combination of earnestness (we have a pottery studio and a weekly antiwar rally) and tough, urban-pioneer posturing (we have green-haired hipsters smoking outside the coffee shop) gives us a liberal, egalitarian sheen you tend not to see in quieter, more manicured communities.

But my status as both a white person and a dog owner (I’ll continue to say “owner,” if only to convince myself I haven’t joined the cult entirely) has made me complicit in a pernicious kind of bigotry. More than once I have found myself entangled in a “rescue operation” involving a dog whose guardians have been deemed unsuitable by the Dog Squad. Depending on which Squad member you ask, “unsuitability” can run the gamut from having a debris-strewn yard to not registering adequate concern when the dog is found to be wandering the neighborhood. Depending on how politically correct that Squad member is, the underpinnings of these issues will either be chalked up to vague assertions like “people are so irresponsible” or the thornier—and more honest—recognition that what we’re dealing with has less to do with animals than with a treacherous gulf between two cultures.

Though most Squadders won’t say it out loud, the majority of the pet owners who are deemed unfit are economically disadvantaged, Latino immigrants from countries where dogs run loose as a matter of course. Though most Squadders would sooner trade their Priuses for Hummers than admit to racism, there is little denying that their work load (or do I mean “our” work load?) would be significantly lighter if not for the fact that even though we live in the United States, a good portion of our neighbors are still playing by the rules of Central America. This begs the question of whether, when we rescue a dog, we’re really saving an animal or merely attempting to save our culture while disregarding someone else’s.

My best guess is that it’s a little of both. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that all or even half of the Latinos in this neighborhood are letting their dogs roam the streets. In fact, most are as responsible and loving (if not as self-congratulatory about it) as the Dog Squadders themselves. And to their credit, the Squadders go to great lengths to solve these problems without running roughshod over the humans who have ostensibly caused them. They will offer to walk neighbors’ dogs themselves, procure vouchers for free spaying and neutering, and assist in finding good homes for pets whose owners need to surrender them. They maintain relations with the Department of Animal Control, work with the dogs of homeless people, and build fences and dog runs for neighbors who can’t afford them.

But I cannot ignore the fact that every time I’ve joined forces with the Dog Squad to help an animal in need, I’ve found myself feeling less like a Good Samaritan than a crazy white lady who needs to get a life. I’ve provided foster care for dogs who needed homes, taken my neighbors’ dog to the vet for neutering, and jumped out of my car more times than I can count to scoop a wayward dog away from oncoming traffic. But when I look out my window, past the fence that confines my dog and into the valley of quiet streets below my house, I can’t help but see a free-running dog as a thing of fragile beauty. And every time I’ve assisted in the “re-homing” of one of these animals to a place that will offer a fence and stuffed toys and, I hope, a little love to go along with the amenities, I wonder if I’m doing the right thing. I wonder if I’m making life better for this dog or simply preserving the value of my real estate.

To be honest about the conditions of any dog’s life requires being honest about the conditions of our own dogs’ lives. And as most urban dog owners know, this sort of assessment is little more than a series of small lies we tell ourselves so that we may continue to function as human beings in the modern world. I can tell myself that Rex’s quality of life is somewhere in the 90th percentile—he’s developed a taste for sushi, he accompanies me to the redwoods, he is the recipient of no end of tummy scratching and gooey declarations of love—but the truth is that any measure of his happiness can only be calibrated in relation to my own. I can tell myself that our happiness is symbiotic, that I take pleasure from his apparent pleasure so it all works out in the end, but that would be an insult to his truest essence, which is not that of a love object or even a pet but, simply, a dog.

How does one love a dog and respect it at the same time? The answer, I suspect, is that we cannot. As humans, we are genetically programmed to give love in a singularly human way. We can, of course, choose to extend that love to animals, but to presume that that affection translates into anything resembling the way we experience love is to cross the line between keeping our pets safe from harm and keeping our hearts safe from loneliness. There is a reason I fell (and continue to fall) so easily in step with the blurred logic of the Dog Squadders: Like me, they are women who live alone; who’ve make their own way in the world; and who, by choice or circumstance, have channeled their inherent nurturing instincts not on children or even men, but on dogs. As it has with me, the hard work of this kind of independence has made them blind to the privilege that bequeathed it.

There is no doubt in my mind that dogs should not be allowed to run loose in city streets. But I say that knowing that my own dog’s life changed for the worse the minute I brought him inside the farmhouse on that chilly afternoon seven years ago. Though it would be more than a year before I’d leave the farm, I knew then that his days as a free-range dog were numbered. I knew I’d eventually do not what was best for him but what was best for me, and that all the bed-sharing and doggie playdates and expensive groomers in the world would never give him half as good a life as he’d had when, like the dogs I now see fit to “rescue,” he lived in perpetual danger of getting run over on the road. I knew then, as I know now, that when he looked in the mirror on that first day indoors, he was seeing not himself or even another dog, but the reflection of insatiable human need. We call that love, but there is no love that doesn’t come at the cost of some degree of freedom. To love our dogs is to hope they love us back enough that it was worth their sacrifice.

This essay originally appeared in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, an anthology assembled by the editors of Bark and published by Crown (2007).

 

 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Rex in the City XXIV: Board Approved
A little herbal help for Rex’s party nerves

It’s always stressful to throw your first adult party, and it can be even more stressful if you have a really hyper, poorly trained (or rather, imperfectly trained) dog. It was the year 2000 and Ted and I had just moved to a 350-square-foot apartment in Brooklyn. This was a big step up for us, given that our previous apartment was only 300 square feet. You might be shocked at that number, but we were overjoyed to have a bedroom door that could actually close (or slam, as the case may be) because there were no bureaus or beds blocking the way. It was indeed cause to celebrate.

So we decided to throw a housewarming party. Now, long-time readers of this column may recall that, when we first adopted Rex, three years prior to this party, he came to us fear-aggressive, anxious and mistrustful of humans, one of whom had abused him cruelly. With lots of loving care and training, we managed to “cure” him of his aggressions, but there is one thing you can’t cure an English Setter of, and that is being an English Setter, which means exuberant and energetic— and in a 350sf apartment, “energetic” can translate into “hyper.” Plus, only one-third of our guests would qualify as “dog people”—the rest of them liked to wear black and keep their clothing fur-free.

My first thought was to send Rex off to doggie day-care for the morning. (Because we were now officially adults, we decided to throw a brunch rather than a big smoky keg party with Jell-O shots and bags of chips.)

But Ted, having been sent off to boarding school as a pre-teen, said this could cause undue psychological damage.

“How’s he going to know we didn’t invite him to our party?” I said.

“Dogs always know. Plus, he’ll smell the remnants of 80 people … and quiche.”

So the dog was invited.

Then something—an article in the New York Times, perhaps?—gave me an idea: Sedate the dog. Now, before you throw this magazine down in disgust and call me irresponsible, hear me out: people do this in New York, you see, when they need to bring their dogs before potential co-op boards for “review.” A co-op board, whose job it is to make sure that you are socially acceptable and financially secure, can reject you for any number of reasons—maybe your daughter’s tongue piercing would be more appropriate at a co-op in Tribeca than one on the Upper East Side, or maybe you are a world-famous entertainer who happened to have published nude photographs of yourself a few years back. And I’d heard more and more stories of people getting rejected because the boards didn’t approve of their dogs.

Then and now, dogs often get a bad rap in New York. Every week, it seems, the local papers publish articles on this-or-that bad dog doing such-and-such, and as a result, co-op boards have become more and more strict about what kinds of dogs they allow into their hallowed towers, or if they allow them at all. Board members worry that dogs will bark all day; pee in the elevators; jump on strangers; or, in the spring, when the rain is at its worst, shake themselves off right next to a famous socialite and ruin her $4,000 Fendi baguette handbag.

Whatever. We all know there is no such thing as a “bad dog.” Just a poorly trained or improperly treated one. But New Yorkers have learned to take extra precautions in their “dog interviews” with the co-op board. Elite groomers are paid hundreds of dollars to triple-bathe the dogs, administer hot-oil conditioners, spend an hour on the blow-outs and then spritz the dogs with special aromatherapy oils, like bergamot or lavender, which are said to lull board members into a state of complacence and well-being.

Or people will spend $1,500 for five one-hour sessions with a dog trainer who specializes in the dog interview. In these sessions, the dog learns to sit, hold a down-stay and shake hands with the president of the co-op board, all while counting out his/her guardian’s income with thumps of his/her tail (say, one thump for every hundred thousand).

Then there was the couple in Tribeca who had a rather nasty and very vocal Jack Russell Terrier who didn’t like shoes, and because most people in the lobbies of luxury co-ops wear shoes, he was constantly nipping peoples’ ankles. They knew they could not bring him to the interview because all the board members would be wearing shoes. And so, at the last minute, they traded their dog for an imposter, a look-a-like JRT from a different litter. This imposter licked the president’s face, shook her hand, then went into a down-stay and literally smiled and thumped her tail at each board member who spoke. They were unanimously approved.

What I found most shocking were the stories I heard about people sedating their dogs with Valium. I guess, if you can’t afford the $300-an-hour training fee, Valium is available for a few dollars (or nothing, if you steal them from someone else’s medicine cabinet at their first housewarming party). But still. I was horrified. I was horrified and yet a little seed had been planted in my head.

And I know it sounds awful and irresponsible to even consider sedating a dog for a party, but I was an idiot back then, and lazy, and had not yet discovered clicker-training, which works so well I probably could have clicker-trained Rex into donning a tuxedo and mixing drinks.

“You can’t give him drugs,” Ted said. “What kind of mother are you? He’s fine the way he is.”

“I know he’s fine. He’s perfect. This will make him more perfect.”

“But this isn’t a co-op interview,” Ted added. “It’s a party for our friends.”

“It’s just that not all of our friends love dogs the way we do. Besides, I’m not giving him Valium. I’ve giving him herbs.”

A friend had recommended Rescue Remedy, which she said was the vodka martini of the dog world. It wouldn’t sedate him, she said; it would just “chill him out.” They use it for dogs in shock, she said, and for those who are terrified of thunder.

Now, I’m a fan of chillin’, so I used myself as the test subject before dosing up the dog. Just a few drops in a glass of water, or straight onto the tongue, and lo, I didn’t feel drugged or sedated, just oddly blasé and unhurried. I felt I had discovered the New Age “Mother’s Little Helper.” In fact, I liked it so much I decided to give myself a triple dose for the party. (Things like hosting parties stress me out, and Martha Stewart’s magazine is to blame, because her level of perfection is one that I can never seem to meet.)

“Want some?” I said to Ted, half an hour before our guests were to arrive. I held out the little glass vial which was, I realized, the same size as a syringe. Ted shook his head. “Bad mother,” he said, in the same teasing voice he used when he said “Bad dog.” I placed four drops of the Mother’s Little Helper on top of Rex’s head.

We served what adults are supposed to serve at housewarming parties: white wine, tiny quiches, fancy sparkling waters and a gruyère fondue. And we also served up an uncannily well-behaved dog. He’d been to the groomer and smelled like lavender oil, and his fur was silky and oh-so-white. People kept commenting on how beautiful he was, and how sweet and calm. There was a $16-per-pound wedge of Spanish goat cheese on the low coffee table that he didn’t even bother to sniff, let alone scarf up. And he didn’t climb up onto the windowsill and bark at passersby on the sidewalk. He did not once try to jump on the furniture because it was more effort than he could expend. Mostly, he wanted to lie on the floor and receive his well-deserved belly-scratches. “I wish I had a dog like that,” one of Ted’s friends said, and I wanted to tell her that this wasn’t a dog like that, but I was feeling just so blissfully blasé.

Throughout the party, I’d notice Rex resting his head on the knee of my editor, or sleeping at the feet of Ted’s boss, and was pleased to see that he hadn’t slobbered on her shoes. In fact, he hadn’t slobbered on anyone, or jumped, or barked. And for the first time, I knew what it was like to have a mellow dog—to have the sort of dog a co-op board would approve.

“Didn’t people, in the olden days, used to give their children brandy to help them sleep?” I said to Ted after the party.

“Yes,” Ted said. “In their milk.”

“I am a bad mother,” I said.

“Let’s go for a walk,” Ted said. We took Rex to Prospect Park as a reward. The “remedy” had worn off at that point, and he was back to his hyper, happy, hunting-dog self. We let him off-leash and watched as he chased after squirrels, manically followed scent trails, crashed through bushes and leapt over rocks, and actually bit the base of an oak tree, seemingly determined to bring it down because there was a squirrel’s nest up there. “He certainly doesn’t seem to have a hangover,” Ted said. “Maybe I’ll try this herb myself.”

“Oh, you should,” I said, perhaps a little too quickly (because what wife doesn’t want to sedate her husband once in a while?).

Ted just raised an eyebrow and called for the dog. He came bounding back to us, covered with burrs and mud and panting with bliss. So much for the $70 trip to the groomer and the aromatherapy oil. He seemed positively delighted with himself and his condition. And we were delighted, too. “Perfect dogs probably get really boring,” I said to Ted.

“Perfect people, too.”

Years later, one of our guests became the president of our co-op board when our building went co-op. Rex didn’t have to go to the dog interview—he had already passed.

 

Culture: Stories & Lit
Studying the Dog
A friendly pack is scaling ivory towers on campuses worldwide

Spinoza defines far and near like this: far he said, is the constellation of the dog in the night sky, and near is the animal who barks—the distance between abstraction and reality, the ideal, elevated theoretical realm and our earthly, immediate lives. So it is surprising to find that, at colleges and universities—bastions of abstract thought—scholars are closing the gap on what dogness means, both the far kind and the near. Not one but several dogs are barking at the foot of the ivory tower, and a friendly pack is scrambling up the stairs.

As the subject of human-animal interaction is now deemed worthy of serious scholarship, efforts to understand dogs in depth are emerging on college campuses around the world. It wasn’t that long ago that when one thought of dogs and research, shudder-inducing visions of laboratory animals with implanted electrodes came to mind. While some of that still exists, increasingly, scholars are focusing on the ethical treatment of animals, and taking a hard look at university practices along the way.

Changing the Canon
The interest in dogs as thinking beings has been on the rise since the 1970s when Peter Singer, the Ira W. De Camp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, published Animal Liberation (1975), exploring a range of human-dog interactions, including dog fighting, and their resulting ethical dilemmas. The book has since become the bible of the animal rights movement. Singer expanded on his original position in Animal Rights and Human Obligations (1989), even taking on such illicit subjects as canine-human sex and the Kinsey studies (Heavy Petting, Nerve 2001). Soon after, Cary E. Wolfe edited Zoontologies: The Question of the Animal (2003), with essays by intellectual heavyweights such as Jacques Derrida and Alphonso Lingis that fostered critical discussion. Wolfe, a professor of English at Rice University, also wrote his own treatise that year: Animal Rites: American Culture, the Discourse of Species, and the Posthumanist Theory (2003), while Giorgio Agamben pursued his theoretical exploration of “human being” through our interaction with animals in books like The Open: Man and Animal (2003).

 

Another player in this fundamental shift was Marjorie Garber, the director of the Center for Literary and Cultural Studies at Harvard, who published her book Dog Love a decade ago. Exploring the portrayal of dogs in film and literature, and the roles they play in American culture, her work signaled a trend in literature courses and seminars, and at national conferences in many humanities fields. Animals and dogs—as ideas and in reality—were suddenly ripe for exploration.

From Trend to Mainstream
In the fall of 2005, Teresa Mangum, a noted English professor and activist at the University of Iowa, co-hosted a semester-long seminar titled “Articulating the Animal.” She and Jane Desmond invited several of the researchers doing the most interesting work in various departments to collaborate on a weekly exchange of ideas about animal life at UI’s Obermann Center for Advanced Studies. In their individual classes, these researchers used their work to foster a fresh dialogue with students about animals and humans and how they interact. Among Mangum’s colleagues was a bench scientist who used animals in his psychology lab; a theater director interested in equestrian theory; a museum director with a penchant for paintings of cows; the head of the Rhetoric Department, who was fascinated with bonobo language; and Desmond herself, an American Studies professor interested in the way animals extend human bodily capabilities.

Mangum, whose background is in 19th-century literature and who has a personal affinity for dogs, had found herself shifting in recent years to the ideas that concern us daily, and how those ideas show up in literature, providing a resonance and also a resource for rethinking common human problems. She began with Victorian literature on aging, and gradually became interested in the ways pets fit into human lives and begin to define us in new ways. Her article, “Dog Years, Human Fears” (Representing Animals 2002) considers the interplay of human anxieties about aging and the rise of middle-class pet culture. And in the course she taught as part of the Articulating the Animal project, she asked her students to analyze the stories humans tell about animals, both in literature and at the local animal shelter.

Mangum was interested in getting her students out of the classroom and into new “narrative zones,” and placed many of her students as volunteers with the Iowa City Animal Care and Adoption Center under the direction of Misha Goodman. A county shelter first featured in Bark (“Being in Dog Time,” Fall 2005), it is a model among shelters around the country, having successfully reinvented itself as a humane, low-kill facility with an excellent reputation for both animal treatment and placement. The students got to know the staff and other volunteers, and spent time observing and actively working with the animals, relating what they learned to the rigorous course reading Mangum required. For their final project, they were asked to creatively interpret all that they had learned using a variety of media—film, video, visual works and essays. The hope was that these projects would also benefit the shelter itself, either as a way to educate more people about the mission of the organization or to orient volunteers to new ways of understanding their canine companions.

Donna Haraway, a noted theorist in the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, also shifted her focus, from cyber-studies to dog culture. As the owner of a small pack of Australian Shepherds, Haraway found herself drawn to the issues of “breeding,” and how technology is poised to sort out canine genetics and cloning. At bottom, Haraway is interested in the affection we have for a particular look or kind of dog, and how it comes about:

…what might possibly be meant by love in a way that disrupts various romanticisms, troubles certain kinds of certainties about the relationship that we have with this other complex species, dogs, and perhaps leads us into a place I’ve tried to get throughout most of my work: that is, elsewhere.
In The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness

In her most recent book, When Species Meet, Haraway continues to explore the philosophical underpinnings of our animal-human encounters—the ways that curiosity, respect and affection come to define how we treat one another. Haraway’s work echoes the exploration of canine human affection done by Garber, and has popularized the notion of a “companion species manifesto” to redefine dog and human interactions. The immediacy of exchange with the dogs in the lives of their professorial companions—their literal nearness—appears to inspire far-fetched and ground-breaking ideas.

For Teresa Mangum, the questions raised about dogs and animals began in series of discussions at a conference of 19th-century scholars whose research interests were mostly related to literature. In the late 1980s, these academics had witnessed the “sudden explosion of cultural studies … that challenged assumptions about how we see animals.” Harriet Ritvo, a professor of British history at MIT, published a seminal book, The Animal Estate: The English and Other Creatures in the Victorian Age in 1987, which represented the culmination of those early discussions. Twenty years later, Deborah Denenholz Morse, professor at William and Mary College, edited the book Victorian Animal Dreams: Representations of Animals in Nineteenth-Century Literature (2007) with Martin A. Danahay of Brock University; included are many who were involved in those early dialogues: Mangum; Cannon Schmitt at the University of Toronto; Susan David Bernstein at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; and Nigel Rothfels, a history professor and director of the Edison Initiative at UW–Milwaukee.

Rothfels, whose historical interests are in zoos, circuses and elephants, spearheaded efforts to create a wider dialogue about animals among historians and professors of literature. He is currently working with Mangum to create a North American/UK critical animal studies biannual conference. “Nigel is a lynchpin in the ‘critical animal studies’ movement” Mangum says. “It was a crystallizing moment at a conference in Milwaukee he organized a few years ago, where we realized we all were seriously exploring similar ideas and were anxious for a forum in which to share them.” In the last two years, Rothfels has been at the University of Texas at Austin, which hosted a conference on “Animal Humanities” in April 2006, and at a 2007 York University conference, “Envisioning Animals.” Rothfel’s own book, Representing Animals (2002), included essays by Mangum and other key members of the original 19th-century literary group and is now a curriculum standard in many animal studies classes.

Around the same time, across the pond in the UK, Erica Fudge, a lecturer in English Literary Studies at Middlesex University, London, was creating her own curriculum in literature and animal studies. In the last few years, she has published a remarkable succession of scholarly books: Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern English Culture (2002); Renaissance Beasts: Of Animals, Humans, and Other Wonderful Creatures (2004); and Brutal Reasoning: Animals, Rationality, and Humanity in Early Modern England (2006). The topics showing up at conferences and in the number of new course offerings around the world made Fudge aware of how many other scholars were interested in similar subjects of animals in literature and science. As a member of H-Animal, a special section of the scholarly web zone H-Net (Humanities Network, h-net.org), she has been instrumental in fostering greater communication among colleagues around the world.

Companion Animals in Our Social World
As Teresa Mangum found in her own research on Victorian dog owners and the stories emerging from the animal shelter, the relationships we share with our pets are a fertile field for study. “Companion animal” studies have grown in many departments and have led to widely accepted programs, including allowing dogs in nursing homes and hospitals, and—most notably—pairing prisoners with therapy animals to their mutual benefit. At Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, graduate researcher Jordan Schaan is exploring how pet lovers’ relationships with their dogs resemble those between humans, specifically, parent and child. She is focusing on the ways the homespun “pack” travels, and where societal limits prevent us from taking our dogs along—particularly to restaurants. “For my thesis, I wanted to look at the extent to which dogs have the companionship role in a human’s life, and whether pet owners are psychologically and socially disadvantaged by their pets being excluded from public venues,” she told the Monash Newsline.

While this may seem like a trivial pursuit, particularly to those who do not have pets, it may also be a study that eventually changes policies. Just a few years ago, many dogs now classified as “therapy pets” were excluded from on-board airline travel and most public places. In the United States and in universities abroad, the ways that dogs are being defined and their rights as individual creatures are under review. While it requires motivated citizens to affect local, national and global policy, it often takes university studies to support their goals. As Teresa Mangum found in her own animal seminar, the time is now particularly ripe to “examine how disciplinary definitions, associations, assumptions, distinctions, uses, fears, and fantasies about animals produce elaborate systems of meaning.”

Similarly, Haraway’s work has been influential in the Tokyo-based Companion Animal Information and Research Center begun by Dr. Yoichi Shoda, professor emeritus at the University of Tokyo. Shoda’s group is interested in how pets are allowed in, and interact with, the human social world. The shift in thinking from “pet owner and pet” to co-equal “companions” has been key to adjusting animal protection and management laws to allow dogs and cats in collective housing in Japan. Shoda is also exploring the conflict between the humans over their conduct or that of their pet; this was a focus at the 11th Annual International Conference on Human-Animal Interaction, which convened this fall in Tokyo.

At Colorado State University, Jerry Vaske and Maureen Donnelly, professors in CSU’s Department of Human Dimensions of Natural Resources, are also looking at how dog interaction in shared open spaces is dependent on owner interaction. Negative traits in dogs—which, roughly translated, is “what bugs other humans about our dogs”—came down to owners not picking up after their dogs, dogs chasing wildlife, dogs jumping on and pawing visitors, and dogs flushing birds. The researchers then tailored a program, known as the Voice and Sight Tag Program, for the City of Boulder Open Space and Mountain Parks (OSMP) department. Willing dog owners participated by watching a video about voice- and sight-control commands, essential training for dogs in off-leash areas. Vaske and Donnelly’s research is part of widespread owner education about the sort of “social manners” necessary for shared turf; some public dog parks also now offer courses and certificates in “canine citizenship.”

A variety of researchers are pursuing the value of pets and animals in our lives. Dr. Gail F. Melson, professor emereta of psychology at Purdue University, studies pets in child development and is the author of Why the Wild Things Are: Animals in the Lives of Children (2001). Dr. Andrea Beetz, an independent researcher from Germany, has researched the way empathy develops into attachment and the “emotional intelligence” within human–animal interactions. Richang Zheng, in the Department of Social Psychology at Beijing Normal University, is likewise doing research on companion animals in the context of the psychological health of the elderly, while in Australia, at the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research, Dr. Bruce Headey, in a case study in China, is looking at how pets improve the health of their human companions.

Dog Thought/Dog Language
The complexities of our relationships, the dependence that develops between dog and owner, have never before been so fully explored in serious scholarly ways as in the work being done on how dogs and humans are able to comprehend one another.

Budapest’s Eötvös University has a world-renowned program in which dog behavior is researched using methodology that is more anthropological than zoological in its approach. In this discipline, which has been dubbed ethology—the study of animal behavior—researchers treat their dogs as thinking individuals, and visit them on the dogs’ preferred turf—either at home with their human companions or out in nature. At the Eötvös campus lab, as Colin Woodard reports in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Research and Books (April 2005), “Canines have the run of the place, greeting visitors in the hall, checking up on faculty members in their offices, or cavorting with one another in classrooms overlooking the Danube River, six floors below.” Researchers led by Dr. Vilmos Csányi and Dr. Adam Miklosi have made significant breakthroughs in how dogs are perceived and in the subtleties of communication between dogs and their owners. Some of the Eötvös research focuses on the nonverbal ways we communicate right and wrong, and gesture approval and disapproval—how a slight movement of our eye or hand may give a dog clues in problem-solving.

The ways in which dogs have been “domesticated” have been also been rethought and reexamined at Eötvös through experiments raising dogs and wolves in equal controlled environments. Similar research is also being done at Harvard by Dr. Brian Hare, whose work with the “singing” dogs of New Guinea provides “direct evidence that that dogs’ lengthy contact with humans has served as a selection factor, leading to distinct evolutionary changes.” (Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences, News and Notices)

Dr. Friederike Range and Dr. Ludwig Huber of the University of Vienna and Dr. Zsófia Viranyi of Eötvös University are focusing on the similarities between humans and dogs in the ways they copy one another’s actions, particularly when their respective physiques are so patently different. “Selective imitation” is a phrase that may seem foreign to us now, but then, so did “natural selection” a century and a half ago. As reported in Current Biology (May 15, 2007), these scientists have found that dogs not only imitate actions they see, but also, like human babies, “adjust the extent to which they imitate to the circumstances of the action.” They employ a basic reasoning in choosing which of our actions to mimic (not “ape”), with reference to the separate and somewhat abstract goal of the action.

Game Theory
Dogs’ capacity to do a variety of tasks requiring surprising levels of cognitive ability and associative reasoning has also attracted the notice those working in related fields. For example, Bruce Blumberg, an adjunct professor at Harvard, recently offered a psychology course called “The Cognitive Dog: Savant or Slacker?” and 87 students signed up. Blumberg’s research began in an unusual way. As senior scientist at Blue Fang Games (his “day job”), he was interested in building a cyber creature that would have the common sense and learning ability of dogs; to do this, he decided to study dogs’ learning style. Blumberg, whose PhD is in media arts and sciences, has also offered the course at the MIT Media Lab, with similar enthusiastic enrollment and response.

Barbara Smuts, a world-renowned behavioral ecologist at the University of Michigan, was a keynote speaker at that seminal conference in Milwaukee a few years ago. Smuts began her research on primate societies, but in recent years, has devoted most of her attention to dog interaction and socialization. Her particular interest is in how dogs play, their signals and rules invented on the spot. With the assistance of her fellow researchers, she has developed an “ethogram,” or written description of each body movement and vocalization dogs use to initiate play with one another. In this complex version of game theory, the way the rules are drawn and how they change are based on complexities of canine dominance. Smuts has also found parallels between dogs and primates, which she explored in “Gestural Communication in Olive Baboons and Domestic Dogs,” published earlier this year in The Cognitive Animal (MIT Press).

Thus, the dialogue about dogs going on in academic circles is making its way into the mainstream in all sorts of ways, from courses attended and books written to extensive discussions, policy changes, traveling exhibitions and international conferences. We are abandoning old cultural prejudices and coming to a new understanding of dogs on their own terms, drawing on abstract literary stars in the sky and the waggy ones barking nearby. It is a welcome blend of theory and reality.

More to come! See Part Two, “Literary Dogs,” in the January/February 2008 issue.

Seeing Is Believing
Pets in America: Exploring the Connection Between People and Their Pets
November 19, 2007—January 21, 2008
Winterthur Museum and Gardens
Winterthur, Del.

June 16, 2008—August 18, 2008
Museum of Florida History
Tallahassee, Fla.

The Animals Among Us
Online photo exhibits and portable exhibition for loan to museums and exhibition spaces from University of Iowa

© 2007 D.L. Pughe

Culture: Stories & Lit
Return to dog
Second child means second chance for dog love.
Dog Illustration

NO ONE WOULD DREAM of asking a woman walking her dog: So, when are you going to have another one? There isn’t the presumption that a singleton dog is lonely, or will grow up with some terrible maladjustment, perhaps diagnosable,without another dog in the family.

I never felt committed to the demographic destiny of two-point-something children. One was not merely enough; one was extraordinary. Pushing my son around in his stroller, I chaperoned his love affair with every dog in the West Village. I learned that the desire to have long woofing and nibbling sessions animates all of us. He was wild about dogs, and I was wild about him.My life was good.

But now I do have a second child—a second boy— and I’ll admit that this replication is different in a profound way, far beyond having to double the Cheerios purchases or finding myself squished between a duet of car seats when we drive on a family vacation. True,with two children, we’ve cut the adult-child ratio in half and more than doubled the worry. But having another child also means a return to dog.

Even before my second son hit 12 months, he could make the sound of every animal. The horses, cows, frogs and, of course, the dogs…woof! In our home, the humans and the animals speak one language. There is one word for all joys and all desires, one affirmative to all questions. Are you hungry? Woof! Are you ready to get dressed? Woof! Shall we go outside? Woof! Woof packed with nuance and intonation.Woof packed with possibility.

And here we are, out for a walk, my second son and I.He’s got the super-power doggy radar of a one-year-old on, now scanning a 180-degree horizon of streetscape. The alert goes off: Ah woo woo woo woof! I look around, slowly, an adult reacting in turtle-time, and I see that yes, indeed, there is a dog down the block on the other side of the street, not barking, not racing, not straining against his leash, unlike my barking toddler who is about to burst out of his stroller straps.

Don’t you get it, Mom?

I shouldn’t be surprised. I’d been around the block on dog-watch before with my first son.Yet I am surprised to find myself behind the wheels of the stroller again, surprised to find myself the mother of a second boy hard-wired to love dogs.

I’ve realized that dogs don’t need training (or re-training) as much as I do; I’m the one who has trouble learning.Why have another baby? To remember dog.To see that dog can be new again even though you think you already know her. I had to have a second child so that the daily dog walk could be part of my life again.My second baby gives his heart away to every dog that comes along, in every shape and color; he loves them for being alive, for their very dogginess. He loves them unconditionally, before he’s even met them. Before he knows anything about their personality or their achievements, before he knows if they love children or are scared of hats, he loves them. Every encounter with dog is a chance for love at first sight.

My second son my second teacher my second dog-lover my second mommywhisperer: Smile, mom, don’t worry.We’re here together. Look, here comes a dog.

I used to think I could make the decision to have a dog when I was ready: when my family was ready, when we were older but not too old, out of diapers but not into college applications.When things would be going well between me and my husband and we could divvy up dog chores without a fight.When we’d live in a big enough space.When everything was ready, then the dog would be part of the picture.

And I waited. I waited so long to get the dog my older son wanted that suddenly— at least it seemed sudden—he no longer loved dogs. It happened sometime toward the end of his preschool years, or perhaps during kindergarten, while I was pregnant for the second time. My son grew afraid of dogs. If a dog approached us on the street, instead of dragging me up to greet the dog, he ran behind me so the dog wouldn’t see him—or so he wouldn’t see the dog, I’m not sure which.When did he begin to fear the thing he once loved most in all the world? When did he realize his great love might bite him? I wondered if he had been bitten, if I’d missed some traumatic event that had left him fearful. But I don’t think so; he outgrew trains and fire trucks and dogs (he still loves dinosaurs and big mammals, but he doesn’t run into too many of these on the street).

I didn’t miss the trains, or the fire trucks, but dogs…Looking for dogs had made going anywhere fun.You could see them on the way to the doctor for shots or on the way home from a funeral. I’d looked forward to meeting up with dogs even when I wasn’t with my son; just imagining how he’d respond had made me happy. And then it was all over—the whole dog show. No more woofing, no more waving, no more doggy radar. I still noticed dogs on the street, but I looked at them nostalgically, as if I’d lost my dog.

What I’d lost was my first baby, the baby who had a passion for dogs. I mourned his innocence and my own as a parent (and wondered if this was a little taste of what life would be like in his teen years, when I’d long for his boyhood). I missed dogs. I missed his joy. I missed seeing them kiss, dog plus baby, and getting a few slurpy licks myself. I had to shift into a different role: protecting him from dogs. Every time I saw a dog coming I had to assess whether it was old enough or reserved enough to pass us by without incident, or if it was too kid-friendly or too puppyish and might jump toward my son, reinforcing his fear. I caught a glimmer ofmy son’s uneasiness:He feared the unruliness of dogs, their unpredictability. And I had my own lesson in unpredictability, in the way time changes everything.

ONE DAY IN EARLY SPRING, I WAS OUT walking with my boys. The baby was in the stroller, and the big boy was helping me push. I wasn’t surprised to hear the dog alert go off—but it was from my older son! It was my big boy who saw the dog first, who shouted, “Look, there’s a dog!”with total delight, his fear forgotten. My big boy was seeing through the baby’s eyes, experiencing the baby’s doggy joy.

At that moment, there were three of us about to burst, two little hearts and one big one—the baby wanting his wet kiss; the big boy wanting to see the baby get all excited and happy; and me, big old mama dog, marveling at my brood, savoring the older one’s pleasure in the little one. While the big boy demonstrated how to pet the dog without pulling its hair, I gave a silent prayer of thanks.

I leaned down to stroke the dog myself, and I felt the electricity running through me: my big boy’s early dog love, his lost love, his renewed love, plus the baby’s new love, plus my own redoubled. We added up to so much more than three people loving a dog.

WHEN WE WERE A FAMILY OF THREE, I thought I knew myself, and my husband, and my son. I knew our family. I knew who we were as parents and who he was as a boy. I knew who I was (mom) and, when I gave birth again, who I’d become (mom2boys). But then comes a new baby who waves his tiny magic fist around and, presto, we are new, some other family. My husband isn’t who I thought he was, nor am I.My son is someone else, too. We are all angry, and tired, and cranky; sometimes serially, sometimes all of us at the same moment.Who is this man snapping at me, and why did I marry him? Who is that woman with my voice, snapping back? I can’t remember. And who is this older son of mine, who used to love dogs and used to love me, and now is so furious he kicks me, screams at me, throws tantrums the way he never did before? Baby toys that my big boy hasn’t looked at in years are suddenly hot property; they belong only to him and cannot possibly be touched by the baby. The baby nurses and the big boy wishes he could too, hates the little one for getting to nurse, hates himself for wanting something he’s been told he’s too old for…I am trying to embrace these people I don’t recognize, including myself, and it’s hard.

One morning, I’m out with the boys, and we’re counting dogs we pass on the way. This has become our new ritual, now that my big guy is happy to be out on the dog-watch with his baby bro. He thinks that Dog Number 8 is a Poodle. I don’t think so, I suspect it’s a Terrier, but I’m so happy he’s talking about dogs that I go along with the Poodle theory.

“I’ve heard that Poodles are really smart,” I say. “I’ve heard that they’re good animals to live with. Hey—would you like to have a dog?” I ask as nonchalantly as I can.

“No,”he answers.“I want a cat,not a dog.”

“We can’t have a cat,”I tell him,“because they make me sneeze.”

“I know,”he says.“That’s why I don’t like you.We can’t have a cat because of you.”

I don’t know how to repair my relationship with my first son. Can he ever forgive me? Can we ever begin to approximate the closeness, the seamlessness, we had before? Can I forgive myself? And will he ever completely outgrow his lingering fear of dogs?

The other day, a generous woman out walking her dog gave me the clue to navigating the street with one boy who loves dogs and one who fears them. If the dog’s tail is up and wagging, she’s happy to see you. If her tail is down, you don’t want to pet her or get close because she’s afraid and might bark or bite.

So here’s my hope: It will come to pass that we will all want a dog at the same time.That there will be a sign—tail up, tail down—telling me the moment is right, after my older son outgrows his fear and before my little one outgrows his passion. That I will be able to read my children and follow my heart.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Daisy and Pumpkin
Giving new meaning to the term “assisted living.”
Pumpkin and Daisy Dogs Illustration

My sister left me a phone message : “I think Mom has had a stroke.” It was shorthand for us, a message my sister and I have exchanged many times, whenever our mother was particularly difficult or unreasonable.“Having a stroke” meant our mother was irrational, belligerent, mean, needy or any of the other possibilities that crop up regularly between women who care too much for each other. If I called my sister back every time our mother “had a stroke,” I would have to wear a phone headset and my sister would need to invest in a toll-free number.

Several hours later, I got a more frantic message from my sister. “Didn’t you get my message? I’m in the emergency room with Mom. I think she’s had a stroke.” And then she added, because she must have figured out why I hadn’t called her back: “A real stroke.” So began a journey that was to teach me about a lot of clichés; among them, the limits of love and the importance of not losing heart. And this is where Mom’s dogs,Daisy and Pumpkin, come in, for in many ways,we were in the same bind:We were three gals who had lost our mommy, and we didn’t know what we were going to do next.

To say that Daisy and Pumpkin are Mom’s dogs is like saying that there’s a lot of water in the Pacific Ocean. It’s essentially true, but it doesn’t begin to describe the degree or the depth of the situation. My mother has always had dogs and has always been devoted to them, but since my father’s death12years ago, and my aunt’s death a few years later, Daisy and Pumpkin have become her family, her tribe and her friend base. “My fur people,”Mom calls them. It fell to me, in the midst of dealing with Mom’s medical crisis, her frantic friends and her unraveling life, to figure out what to do with Daisy and Pumpkin.

Of course, I had promised my mother —five years ago and nearly every week since then—that if anything ever happened to her I would take care of her dogs.And so I began to call her friends, relatives and acquaintances. Everyone wanted to help.“What can we do?” they asked.“What we really need,”I told them, “is for someone to take care of the dogs.” “Well,” they’d say,“what else can we do?” Several people offered to help by taking the dogs to the vet to be “put down.” Even the local no-kill shelter said,“Bring them in and we’ll euthanize them.” I learned quickly that being alone, elderly and female is perilous, whether one is canine or human. Every day I would return from the hospital and tell the dogs not to worry, that I would think of something. And every day, as it became clear that Mom would not be able to return home, I said it with less conviction.

I admit that Daisy and Pumpkin were a hard sell. Here is the ad I would have had to run in order to find a new home for them: “Wanted. Home for two 14- year-old, deaf, possibly blind, obese, flearidden, mangy, matted, incontinent dogs. Have never heard the word ‘No.’Will eat only Beef ’n’Cheese Snausages and Booda Smacklepuffs Chicken Quesadilla Dog Treats, and then only if you hand-feed them one by one. Both bark incessantly, so you’ll never have trouble with burglars (or your friends, ever again) entering your house. No need to walk them; they just pee on the carpet when nature calls. Comfy sofa a must.” But finding a new home for them wasn’t an option, because even though Mom could hardly speak, she mustered enough strength to tell me she would die if anything happened to her dogs. Every day in the hospital, it was the same story: How are the dogs? Who’s taking care of the dogs? When can I see the dogs? It was her mantra, one of the few ways we had to measure that she hadn’t lost her mind entirely. If she stops asking for the dogs, I decided, we’ll declare her gone.

Daisy and Pumpkin had each been through adoption fairs, foster homes and humane societies before my mother took them in. Mom had spotted Daisy at an adoption fair and had fallen madly in love. She had made my father sit on Daisy’s crate while she went to fill out the forms, so afraid was she that someone else would snap Daisy up.Daisy had been with Mom through my father’s illness and death and has been her companion during all the years since. Pumpkin had been my Aunt Barbara’s dog, and Mom had ended up with her after Barbara’s early death from brain cancer, when there was no one else who could take her. This was at least the third time that no one had wanted Pumpkin.

Except for me. I wanted Pumpkin. And Daisy. After two weeks of caring for them in my mother’s house, I wanted both of them. I wanted their incessant barking, their fatness, their blindness, their weird eating habits reinforced by years of my mother’s singular parenting style.We were, I figured, sisters under the skin, or fur. I wanted everything about them. I wanted them to come and sleep on my sofa. I wanted them to shed bales of fur in my house. I wanted them to bark until my eardrums frayed. I loved them both with a fierceness that astounded me, and I was not about to have them “put down” or sent to a “nice home in the country.” Taking care of them was perhaps the only thing I could do for my mother, and I was determined not to fail.

I live on the other side of the country from my mother, and my rescue illusions bumped up against reality when the vet told me that there was little chance Daisy and Pumpkin would survive a plane trip or a long car ride. My mother moved into assisted living, and Daisy and Pumpkin moved temporarily to Camp Bow Wow, where they played outside with other dogs and slept in “cots” in their “cabins” at night. Since returning home to Seattle, I’ve watched them on the CamperCam as they trot around with their new pack and get their ears scratched by the staff. Daisy and Pumpkin look happy. Pumpkin has lost weight and they both play avidly with the other dogs. Camp Bow Wow is about a mile from my mother’s assisted living apartment, and friends take the dogs to visit her a few times each week.

From the beginning, I considered Camp Bow Wow to be a stopgap, a place where Daisy and Pumpkin could be cared for until I could figure out how to get them to Seattle.We could afford to keep them there for a month or two at the most, and after that I was out of ideas.

And this is the part of the story where human generosity and the importance of not losing heart come in, for just as I was reaching a point of despair about not being able to keep my promise to my mother, I learned that it is not just I who unexpectedly fell in love with my mother’s dogs. Tony Caruso and Kim Martin, “rangers” at Camp Bow Wow, called to tell me that they wanted to foster Daisy and Pumpkin for us, that the dogs could stay at Camp Bow Wow for the rest of their lives, as a favor to us and as a way to help my mother get better. Daisy and Pumpkin won them over with their determination to make the best of a bad situation. Tony and Kim were touched by my mother’s devotion to her dogs and by our dedication to not giving up on them. They are in a position to help and they would like to do so. Would we possibly consider their offer?

It is not perfect for Daisy and Pumpkin to live the rest of their lives at Camp Bow Wow. There are no antique sofas to sleep on, no mailmen to attack, no junk food. They will see my mother only sporadically and, like my mother, will never return “home.”But it is as perfect a solution as we are likely to find. All three of these elderly ladies, down on their luck and in failing health, have gone into assisted living. The dogs won’t ever again live with my mother, but they will live with people who saw their plight and were able to love them because of it.

In one of the darkest times of my life, when I was faced with both losing my mother and breaking my promise to her, Daisy and Pumpkin showed me what true compassion, generosity and love look like. They helped me take care of my mother and keep my promise. Near the end of their lives and with the help of Camp Bow Wow and Tony and Kim, Daisy and Pumpkin rescued me.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Dante
Memory as an antidote for loss.
Dante - Catherine Ryan Hyde

Kennel man says, “Ever had a dog before?”
“When I was a kid we had a Cocker Spaniel.”
“This ain’t no Cocker Spaniel.”
The dog is in a run by himself. He doesn’t have to share with other dogs. Because he won’t. “What kind of dog is he?”
“I dunno. No kind of dog. Every kind of dog. Got some hound, maybe. Maybe not.”

He’s yellow. Very short hair, not shiny or lustrous. Strong looking. Ellen keeps thinking that. Not pretty, in fact, he gives her the creeps. He hasn’t looked at her yet.

Kennel man says, “You gotta take him?”
“No. I don’t have to.”
“You gotta take him otherwise you don’t get some big inheritance?”
“No. He is the inheritance. Just him.”
“Lucky you. Don’t take him.”
“Why not?” She gets down on her knees in front of his chain-link gate. The dog makes a greater effort to avoid her eyes.
“I just don’t trust that dog.”
“Did he bite you?”
“No.”
“Did he try?”
“No. But I can see him thinking about it. He’s too smart.”
“Too smart for who?”
“Look at his gate.Why do you think it’s padlocked? He learned how to put his paw through and work the latch. So we put a clothespin on it. So he learns how to bite the clothespin so it opens. God did not intend dogs to be that smart.”
God did not intend dogs, period, she thinks. They were our creation. But she doesn’t care to argue theology. “Why is he so skinny? Don’t you feed him?”
“Yeah, we feed him, but he don’t eat.”
“What’s his name again?”
“Danty, I think. Something like that. It’s on his card.”
“Why don’t you go get his card?” As soon as she’s alone with the dog, he turns his head and looks into her eyes. It’s a chilling moment. His eyes are yellow. She feels reduced by his stare. He averts his gaze again, because the kennel man is back.
Ellen reads the card.
“Dante,” she says. The dog’s head whips around. His lip curls back to expose monumental fangs. He wags his whole body, grovels across cold concrete on his belly to the gate.
“Why is he snarling at me?”
“I dunno, but he’s wagging his tail. Maybe he’s smiling. Some dogs do that when they feel cowed. You can tell he knows you. I’m glad he likes somebody.”

She has never met this dog before.

Against her better judgment, she puts the back of her hand to the chain link; he covers it with his wide tongue, thankfully.

“Open the gate,” she says.

He drops the key onto the aisle floor beside her. “You open it.”He clears the area before she can.

Dante leans out. Kisses her face excessively. It’s not pure friendliness, there’s something straining and desperate and apologetic about it.

She reaches in for his dish of untouched kibble, sits in the aisle, on the cold concrete, Dante lying heavy on her legs, and he eats kibbles one at a time out of her hand.

There’s something to be said for alcoholism, though I admit I’ve reached this conclusion vicariously. Carrie used to be one, and she told me all about it. She says she still is, but that’s beyond me. Alcoholics drink. Carrie doesn’t.

After 30 white-knuckle days of not calling Grant, nobody gave me a nice little medallion to wear on my keychain. At the vast watermark of a year, no cake. Nobody sang. At Grant’s memorial, even though I didn’t know those people, I was sharply aware of their potential failure to appreciate that accomplishment. It wasn’t as easy as it sounds.

We were on a hill, this bunch of strangers and me, looking out over Mariner’s Cove. A string quartet played, because Grant loved classical music. Of course he did. I never knew that about him until that moment. I remember being glad I’d never played Elvis Costello when he was over. Somehow I thought I’d left Grant just in time to avoid that moment where I realize I didn’t know him. That’s kind of a joke though, because I remember why I finally broke it off. You’re with a man for almost two years, you should know where he lives, and you should have met his dog. Even I can see that’s not natural.

You get angry, thinking about what you don’t know.

There was one familiar face there, but I tried to avoid it. His name is Wilson Greene. He introduced me to Grant, he hasn’t quite gotten over the fact that something came of that introduction, I haven’t quite forgiven him for starting the rolling snowball of events.When I saw him coming, I tried to duck.

Meanwhile I was thinking, this is all wrong. Crashing surf and strains of classical music. In my family, we had organ music and a lot of screaming and crying. This is way too genteel. My thoughts become disjointed in stress situations.

Wilson put his hand on my arm.
“We have to talk, Ellen.”
“Funny, we never did before.”
“About the will. I’m the executor, you know.”
“You? Not his wife?” Please don’t tell me which one she is.
“Maybe because of this odd situation…”
“Are you saying Grant left me money? I am not going to sit in on a reading of the will and watch the look on his wife’s face. I’m sorry. Tell them I died.” A slight exaggeration. Please don’t tell me which one she is.
“It’s not money.” Real property, a car, a personal effect of some sort. A problem, either way. Then it hit me. I knew it was true, because it matched the look on Wilson’s face. “Oh, God. The dog.”
“You knew about it.”
“What does his wife think about that?”
“She hates the dog.”

That doesn’t entirely answer the question. Please don’t tell me which one she is. “What’s the dog’s name?”
“You never met his dog?”
“Where exactly is this dog right now?”
“In a private kennel. See, technically he’s in probate. I think they said his name was Dandy. Something like that.”

Dandy? Grant’s dog? I think not. “So, listen,Wilson.” I put an arm around his shoulder, turned him back to face the stately congregation. “Tell me.Which one is his wife?”

They cross the fence line together. She unclips the leash. Since leaving Grant, she’s moved to a rural locale. Life here is not as simple as she had hoped. For the first time, they see cattle. Glimpses of them lumbering between scrawny pine and scrub oak. Foraging. Dante gathers like a crossbow. Launches. In the second of gathering, she notices his build. His chest. Rangy but muscular. Such a powerful machine. It frightens her, even though he’s on her side. A loaded gun in her hand would be on her side, but its potential would frighten her.

She screams his name.

This is private grazing land, they shouldn’t, technically, be here. But she can’t take the dog around other animals, and he needs to run. And Dwight said she could. Dwight, he stays in the caretaker’s cabin.He’s a close friend, Dwight. Very close. He said she could, if the dog doesn’t run cattle.

“If he runs cattle, keep him home or I’ll have to shoot him.”
“If he runs cattle I’ll keep him home.”

As she crashes through the brush, screaming his name, he comes crawling back. Her voice is like an earthquake to him. Slithering through pine needles and poison oak on his belly, showing his teeth. She’s still not comfortable with that, though it’s clearly passive. Grovels at her feet, licking her shoes. She never yelled at him before, and now she wonders if he’ll ever get over it.

They walk on to Dwight’s cabin, Dante bounding ahead. A short parade of cattle wander across the road. Dante freezes, stares at the dirt close-range until they survey him and move on.

They arrive at Dwight’s cabin, Dwight meets them out front.

Dante puts his head down, growls low in his throat. She has yet to find someone Dante likes, but he likes Dwight less than most. Already.
“Well,” she says. “He doesn’t run cattle, that’s for sure.”
“Good watchdog.”
“I’ll say.” She has begun to fear that, in Dante’s presence, nothing bad, or good, will ever happen to her.

Dwight approaches carefully, one hand extended. Goes down on one knee. Speaking low. Offers the back of his hand. Dante’s lip peels back, very differently. He snarls, leaps forward to attack the air, biting down less than an inch from Dwight’s hand. More show of teeth, and a long, rolling growl. Dwight pulls back in slow motion. White-faced.

Dante sits at Ellen’s heel, leaning.

Dwight throws her a chain. A big, heavy chain, the sort you’d use to haul a car out of the mud. She chains Dante to a tree and joins Dwight on the porch. As she walks into his arms, the yelping splits the air like a scream. They watch the dog hit the end of his chain and flip over onto his back, repeatedly, mouth foaming with the sweat of his exertion.

Dwight says, “I do believe that dog is crazy.” “I better go get him.”
“Hell, no. You want him to run you?”
“I guess not.”

She follows him inside, where he undresses her, and pins her to his bed, like so many times before. His pants are halfway off, hobbling him around the knees, when something slams against his door. From the sound, something about the size of a tractor.
“Shit,” Dwight says, stands up and trips over his pants.

They can hear him chewing at the door. Tearing at the door. Dwight kicks a leg out of his pants and runs to the window, his urgency mirroring her own. If Dante wants in, she figures he’ll get in. Dwight pulls back the curtain, and the shadow, the shape, crashes against the glass, shatters it, but bounces off again. Dwight locks himself in the bathroom before the next, successful leap. Dante hits the bathroom door once, as if for effect, then stands with his head down, growling, intimidating it.

“Dante!” He jumps onto the bed beside her, slapping his tail. Kisses her face. She checks him for damage. Blood, some, on his face, and one leg. Nothing deep or dangerous looking. “Oh, Dante. You broke your collar.”

Dante rests his head between his front paws in shame.
“Ellen? What are you doing?”
“Getting dressed.”Having said so, she gets started on that.
“Ellen? I really think the best thing for everybody would be if you let me shoot that dog.”
“Everybody but him, you mean.”
“You figure on keeping him?”
Dante’s eerie yellow eyes come up to meet hers. He must have heard everything. “He’s a good watchdog.”
“Yeah, well, either he goes or I do.” She pulls on her sweater, Dante curls around her legs all the way out the door.
“It’s been real,” she says.

Dwight sends her a bill for the damage; she pays it without comment.

I dwell on the past. Always have.

Lying in bed with Grant. After. My mind a perfect blank, because that’s how it always was.My body and head hollow, humming, like a tuning fork almost ready to go still. But not quite.

My eyes closed.

It was always better than great with Grant, but mostly with my eyes closed, because none of his greatness was visible. So I wondered, sometimes, if I was imagining, manufacturing the good parts. I never held tangible proof of their existence.

When I first told Carrie she said, “Ooh. Tell me all about him. Is he young, is he handsome, is he hung?”

Even one out of three might have redeemed me, but as it was, I didn’t answer.

“So, the sex is, like, great, right?”
“Phenomenal.”
“That’s something.”
Anyway, we were lying there, his mouth against my ear, a good moment for tender words, if that had ever been Grant’s style. “If anything happens to me, Ellen, I want you to take my dog.”

Don’t talk, Grant. Just enjoy the moment. It’s gone so long, in between.

“Nothing will happen to you. Don’t be silly.”
“If it does.”
“Everybody outlives their dog. That’s why I don’t get one.”
“Doctor thinks I’m ripe for an MI. Cholesterol, blood pressure. Family history. For starters. I’m not a kid, Ellen.”
“Can we talk about something else? After you tell me what an MI is?”
“Myocardial Infarction.”
“Like a heart attack.”
“Exactly like one.”
“Then why don’t you just say heart attack?”

By this time he was putting on his clothes. He’d stayed longer than usual.
“Just promise me.”
“Wouldn’t your wife want the dog?”
“No. She wouldn’t. Promise me?”

I wanted to, because I always wanted to be what he wanted. Helpful. Intelligent. Loyal. I felt like a Girl Scout in his presence. I firmly believe Grant died owing me a handful of merit badges I worked hard for and will never see.

“I’ve never even met your dog, Grant.”
“Well, you’ll have to, then.”
“Bring him with you when you come next week.”
“Okay, I will.”

But he didn’t.

We went to bed, it was phenomenal, as always, even though I knew what I would say when it was over. I knew if he didn’t bring the dog, that was the last straw.

I didn’t call to change my mind. I guess I thought if I could hold out long enough, it would be that great with somebody else.

The need for him cycled like a recurrent fever, hid around corners waiting to trip me. Swept me offshore like a rip current. The missing him. It sang to me, an opiate drug reminding me how warm and familiar it had always felt, could always feel again. How easy it would be to fall back into. But I didn’t call. Thinking the Universe would reward my resolve.

It’s never been that good with anybody else. And God knows I’ve tried. At least it was over before I promised to take the damned dog I’d never met. It irked me that I’d forgotten to ask the dog’s name. There’s always one thing you can’t let go of, and it’s usually something peripheral and fairly unimportant. I guess it’s easier that way.

Carrie says, “Maybe you should change his name. It might make him sound friendlier.”

Ellen says, “I don’t think the issue is how he sounds.” She sits on the floor by the window with her arm around the dog. They both hold still because Carrie is sketching them for a portrait. Dante seems to understand the art of posing. Dante seems to understand everything. Ellen is beginning to think the kennel man was right.Maybe there’s only just so smart a dog should be. “What do you think I should call him?”

Carrie seems to consider this, and when she decides, Ellen knows by her smile. “Grant’s Revenge.”
“Right. Friendly. I don’t want to change his name.”
“Do you think that’s why he had you take him?” “What do you mean?” She knows what Carrie means. She’s considered it herself, at some length.
“How long since you’ve been with a man?”
“Five or six months.”
“For real, Ellen.” It’s a little game they play.
“Okay, seven months, 13 days. Not counting that one time.With that one guy.Who didn’t deserve to be counted.”

At first it seemed rational to think she’d leave the dog at home and go to his place, whoever he was. But she has not succeeded in leaving the dog alone. He’ll get out, and follow. Through a window if necessary. So she takes him places with her, or she gets Carrie to baby-sit.

Since leaving the city, she works at home, on the Internet. Thank God.

Potentially she could leave the dog with Carrie and go to his place, but Carrie has a life, too, and Ellen hasn’t found a him who doesn’t consider that a burdensome limitation.

“So, do you think that’s why Grant did it?”
“No. I think it was because nobody else would have kept the dog.”

She realizes that if she were to die, she’d have to obligate someone to Dante, too.

“So, in other words, Grant’s dead, and you’re still being the one person he can always count on.”
“Don’t artists usually like silence when they work?”
“You should think about getting rid of him.”

Dante breaks the pose. Slinks, and pushes his head onto Ellen’s lap.

“Who, Grant or the dog? I wish you would be careful what you say around him.”
“He doesn’t speak English.”
“He knows what people are thinking. Look at him.”
“Now I have to be careful what I think around him?”
“I can’t get rid of him. He doesn’t like anybody else. Except you.”
“Well, don’t look at me.” She folds up her sketchpad, ending the session without comment. Maybe she’ll work from a photograph. That was the original plan. Before Dante proved himself a poser. “So, he’d have to be put to sleep or something. I know. That’s hard. But…”
“Can we talk about something else? You’re really freaking him out.” Dante has crawled over her lap and is trying to hide between Ellen and the window, but she’s not big enough to provide the cover he needs.“Maybe I’ll have to try women.”
“He doesn’t like women either.”
“No, that’s true. Just you.”
“Definitely don’t look at me.” She swings her coat on, stands by the door.
“Don’t worry. He doesn’t like you as much as he used to.”
"Is this about the dog, Ellen? Or is this about Grant?”
She has to think. She doesn’t like questions that make her think. She likes Carrie for hardly ever asking them. “Because he loves me. And because I loved Grant.”
Carrie’s eyebrows react. “I thought that was mostly sex.”
“Yeah. Me too.” Until she tried to replace it.
“I’ll call you,” Carrie says as the door swings shut.

When her footsteps are gone, Dante sits up. She puts her arms around him. Feels a slight tremble in his muscles as she holds him. “We both miss him. Huh, Dante?” She gets up quickly to make a cup of tea. Unable to identify what that will solve. How tea will be an antidote for loss.

Dante whines, long and low, and when she’s left the room, looses a long, modulated, unnerving howl which raises goosebumps on her skin. And leaves her thinking that she can never find just the right words.

Lately I’ve been troubled by vivid limited memories of Grant, and they make me worry about love. I don’t like so many questions being raised at a time in my life when I feel I should have some answers.

One thing I know for sure about love. It’s a bitch of a thing to identify in retrospect. Concerning a dead man. But I guess, dead or married it’s all the same to me at the bottom line. Only, dead is safer.

In one memory, I come up on him sitting in a chair, putting his socks on, and I kiss the very top of his forehead. Where I’m sure he had hair in his youth, but not much at the time. See, something else to fault him for, but it doesn’t work. I remember his chest, easing down on me, I think this must be a sexier thought if the guy had a flatter, tighter stomach. Less hair on his chest and more on his head. But, Dwight was young, handsome and hung and I don’t think about him much anymore.

It’s not that I like older, balder, smaller, soft-muscled men better, because the world is full of them if that was the only problem. It’s something about the exact sum of Grant, like a DNA strand, and any substitution seems to ruin the equation.

See, I worry that I might have just described love.

I met a guy who didn’t seem to feel my strange dog was an undue hardship. In fact, I think he respected that about me. So I told him at great length how I happened to come by Dante. When I was sure he would never call me again, my relief felt so tangible that I had to admit I did it on purpose.

Carrie says, “I changed my mind. I don’t think you should get rid of the dog. I think this might be good for you.”
Ellen says, “What do you mean?” She knows what Carrie means. She has considered this, too, at some length.
“How old is that dog?”
“He’s supposed to be about seven. Maybe eight by now.”
“So, he’ll live to be about 10, right?”
“Or 12. Or 14.”
“Anyway, the town just voted you least likely to get robbed or raped. That’s something.”
“Yeah, that’s something. I’m certified uneventful.”

Ellen moves to a different house in an even more remote location. She hopes Dante lives to be 15, at least. More time to think.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Dog of the Day
Day care diva earns her title.
Three Dogs Art

My dog Maeby has always gotten good grades.

Every evening when I pull into the driveway at the doggy day care center that she attends,Maeby, a fluffy Aussie/Lab mix, is waiting for me, along with her daily report card.
 

Although it is fanciful thinking that one day the center might provide classes in “The Mailman Is Only in It for the Pension and Not Your Territory, Therefore the Barking Looks a Little Silly,” “A Fart Is a Fart and Not an Invisible Stench Rocket, So Stop Looking for It” or “Picking Up Your Own Poop,”my dog consistently got good marks in areas of interest such as playing nicely with others and making new friends, and was apparently well-heeled in the saucy arts, since it was reported that the flirty miss had a new boyfriend every week. While I wasn’t exactly proud that my little Lady was shaking it up for the Tramps on the playground, I was delighted when she was promoted to the position of “greeter” at the center, which is a dog who is assigned to play with a new dog in the doggy day care pack to get them adjusted and make their transition easier. She was even asked to participate in a marketing video for the day care center in which, according to her report card,“Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.”

I mean, really. That one is still up on our refrigerator.

So, honestly, I was a little surprised when day after day, week after week, I would pick Maeby up from day care, get her report card and glance at the chalkboard of honor that stands at the entrance to the center, only to see that the Dog of the Day—the highest honor of distinction that any dog could receive—was proclaimed to be Blackjack.

Last week it had been Mossimo.

The week before it had been Sammie.

The week before that, Ziggy.

The previous week, it went to Hercules Wu, whose parents had once taken our leash because theirs looked similar and then returned it a week later with HERCULES WU written across the back side of it in black permanent marker, along with Hercules Wu’s phone number.

You know, I thought to myself as I drove home with Maeby fast asleep in the back of the car, I don’t know what’s going on here, but something’s got to give. Look at her, so busy greeting and teasing all the boys on the playground that she falls asleep the minute she gets in the car! My dog is a hardworking hussy, pouring her heart out, giving her all, and what does she get in return? A nice report card. A scratch on the ears. That’s not enough, I said to myself; that is not enough for my dog.

“I hate to break it to you,”my husband said that night at dinner after I had voiced my Dog of the Day concerns.“But I highly doubt Maeby is upset about not being The Chosen One. She is far more concerned at the moment with licking the floor where you dropped a hot dog yesterday.”

“That’s not the point,” I argued. “Do you not remember that Maeby was the one who stole the show with her playtime skills? Because if you’ve forgotten, I can show it to you.”

My husband sighed.“She doesn’t know how to spell ‘Maeby,’ ” he offered. “Just point to the sign the next time you’re there and tell her she is the Dog of the Day.”

I was stunned. “If that’s how you prefer to handle a crisis—with deceit and trickery—then I don’t even want you in this house when I finally have to tell her she’s adopted,” I stuttered.

“Did you ever think,” he finally said, “that maybe those dogs got the distinction because they earned it? That maybe they just gave a little bit extra?” I gasped, not knowing what to say, but my mind began to race.Was it possible that the other dogs got better grades than Maeby? Could it be it true that other dogs contributed more, were harder working? How could that be? Maeby was a greeter, showing new dogs the way, making them feel at ease, helping them with the introduction to the group. That was real dogitarian work.What could the other dogs possibly be doing that could outshine that? Was Sammie brokering peace accords between Indian and Pakistani dogs? Was Mossimo peacefully fighting for the rights of dogs not to be forced into wearing hats and sweaters if they chose not to? Was Blackjack removing land mines, making the playground safe for everyone else? Had Ziggy finally talked Mr.Winkle into retiring? And what was Hercules Wu doing, besides stealing leashes? Was Hercules Wu a greeter? I really doubted it. Was Hercules Wu asked to be in the video? Probably not. Did Hercules Wu steal the show with his playtime skills and his appropriated leash?

Not very likely.

So I decided to do the only thing I really could do, and that was ask. I wanted to know what the Dog of the Day criteria were, what the mitigating factors might be, and then tackle the problem from that angle. But when I went to pick Maeby up after her next day at the center, I was not at all prepared for what I saw.

It was an empty chalkboard.

No one had been proclaimed Dog of the Day yet. This was my—and Maeby’s—chance. I stood still for a moment, listening. I heard nothing, not the rustling of collars, or leashes, or barking.Everyone, it seemed, was outside on the playground.

Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.

Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.

I took a step forward toward the front desk.

Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.

Where they keep the chalk.

I took another step. And another. And another,my steps becoming quicker as I neared the desk. And the chalk. And my dog’s redemption.

And I saw it, a pink, slim tube of chalk, right there next to the computer keyboard. I was a step or two away from reaching over and grabbing it, because it was lying right there in the open, when I stopped.

Maeby stole the show with her playtime skills.

It was true. But how would Maeby feel if she knew that I stole the title of Dog of the Day and gave it to her,with her name written all over the back of it in pink chalk? I didn’t take another step.

Instead, I waited there for Mandie, the center’s owner, to bring Maeby out with Hercules Wu’s leash, and then told her that Maeby would be coming in an extra day that week because I had finally made an appointment to have my terminally ill 19-year old cat, Barnaby, cross over into the Kitty Light. It would be better if she spent that day shaking her milkshake on the playground at the likes of Ziggy and Blackjack, I told Mandie, than to be at our house when something sad was going to happen.

And I was right—the day we sent Barnaby to a hereafter stocked with an all-you-can-eat buffet of Fancy Feast and Pounce was awfully sad, beginning with the moment we brought Maeby over to his cat bed to say good-bye to him. She nudged him gently, licked his head, sat and waited for Hercules Wu’s leash, and was off to day care.

When I went to pick her up later that day, I couldn’t wait to see her. Although Barnaby’s passing couldn’t have gone any smoother due to our sympathetic and patient vet, it was as emotional as any experience of letting a friend of 19 years go could be. My eyes were red and puffy when I arrived, and as I walked into the lobby, Maeby bounded in through the side door.

“What a good girl!” I said as I scratched behind her ears and she jumped and hopped around with excitement.“I’m so happy to see you!”

“That’s not all you should see,”Mandie said, and I looked up to see her pointing away from us.

I looked in that direction, and that’s when I saw it. The chalkboard, on which Maeby’s name was written in pink, swirly letters.

“You’re Dog of the Day?” I asked as she jumped and I jumped a little too, as I petted her head and she panted with excitement. “That’s wonderful! Look at that! Maeby is Dog of the Day!”

Mandie handed over the leash and we were just about to walk out the door when I realized I still had a question and was dying for the answer.

“So,” I said before I pushed the door all the way open. “How do you know who’s Dog of the Day? In what way do you judge who deserves it?”

Mandie laughed.“It’s not who ‘deserves’ it,” she explained as she smiled. “It’s who needs it the most.” “Oh,” I said as I smiled back. “I think that’s a great way. That’s really nice. Thank you.”

“Don’t forget her report card,”Mandie said as she pulled it from her pocket. “Maeby has two new boyfriends on the playground, you know.”

 

 

“Dog of the Day” © 2007 by Laurie Notaro, included in Howl: A Collection of the Best Contemporary Dog Wit, October 2007 from Crown Publishers. Used with permission.

Culture: Stories & Lit
Summer Magic

Ah, Summertime! Nothing like it for this teacher. No students to teach, papers to grade or meetings to attend. My family’s at Six Flags, and since I get motion sickness, I wrote myself a note, excusing me from it. The handwriting was pretty good, so it worked. I’m not thinking of vacuuming the rug or emptying the dishwasher or starting that last load of whites. Nope. Just don’t feel like it.

I decided to reread The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Don’t laugh. I’m on a great chapter, “Huck and the Judge— Superstition.” Judge Thatcher beats Huckleberry for cutting school. Now there’s an idea, Mr. Twain.

Jim had a hair-ball as big as your fist, which had been took out of the fourth stomach of an ox, and he used to do magic with it. He said there was a spirit inside of it, and it knowed everything.

This room does need a good once-over. Three Golden Retrievers leave hair everywhere. Jessie stretches out behind my chair,Max on the rug and Angie on the sofa with her head hanging off the end.

On the hardwood floor, a rolling ball of golden fur hypnotizes me. Around and around it goes, clockwise like the ceiling fan, on some invisible track. It glides through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back, around the floor, through the piano legs and under the sofa again. I place my novel next to my coffee, get up, and grab the rolling fur.Max raises an eyebrow; I raise mine and smile back.

I sit down and put the hair ball in the empty candy dish on the table so I’ll remember to throw it away later. I open my book. Jessie lets out a sleepy sigh.

Another hair ball encircles the floor, brazenly challenging my reading time. I look inside the candy dish (still full). I really should vacuum and get rid of these distractions. Well, maybe just finish chapter four.

Jim got out his hair-ball, and said something over it, and then he held it up and dropped it on the floor. Jim got down on his knees and put his ear against it and listened.

I get up, take the first hair ball and set it free on the floor.Max looks to Jessie for answers, but she’s not helping. In a few seconds, the hair ball begins its orbit again, falling back into the exact track as before: through the piano legs, under the sofa, out the back. Angie watches it, too. The second hair ball fuses with the first, forming one ball the size of my fist.

Here’s what I do—now, don’t laugh. I sit on the floor in the middle of the orbit. And I wait. Jessie tilts her head and questions my behavior with a half-wag. My eyes narrow, fixed on the hair ball: around and through andunder aroundand through aroundunder—until I start to feel dizzy. Too much coffee? Maybe, but it’s something more. The next time it tumbles around, I throw my whole body on it, not feeling the hair ball under me, but knowing it’s trapped.What to do?

Warm, moist air licks the back of my neck. I turn. Three dogs stand above me and bow, staring down, lips drooping away from their teeth, gums exposed. We all pause till I see drool and close my eyes. Angie shakes her head, tags jingling, breaking the spell.

I take the hair ball to the chair for a better look. It consists mostly of long, golden strands of fur, winding on itself; in the center, a red thread knotted in places. Trapped inside, there’s some human hair, I think. Yep, but I won’t tell you what kind. Suddenly, Max starts to bark, then Jessie starts, her fur raised, and even Angie howls. Their racket rings through the empty house.

I take in the room in a kind of panic. Scan windows and doors. You know, robbers and all. But there aren’t robbers. Maybe a sudden storm? Mailman? Earthquake? In Dallas? No. Nothing. And then, just as suddenly, the dogs stop barking and lie down.

So I walk around, turn on some more lights—don’t ask me why. I just do. I sit in the chair, pick up my book, but can’t read. Not now. I look around.

I see dog nose prints on French doors, Legos on the rug, a pile of clothes in a basket, dust on the family photos and another hair ball on the floor. But I try to read.

So the hair-ball talked to Jim, and Jim told it to me. He says: You gwyne to have considable trouble in yo’ life, en considable joy. Sometimes you gwyne to git hurt, en sometimes you gwyne to get sick; but every time you’s gwyne to git well agin.

But you is all right.

They’ll be home soon, hungry and tired, ready to tell me all about Six Flags. Let me get that vacuum. Chapter five can wait. It is, after all, summertime.

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