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The Dog Who Came Gift-Wrapped
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When Precious Add to Cart Agnes clobbered into me that first morning, she was already wearing a name tag that said “Rio.” Her slightly asymmetrical white facial markings gave an adorably wonky quality to her full-on stare. When she lay down, she crossed her gigantor front paws, and she was so meltingly cute there was no way I was going to send her back. Remember? I’m a Dog Person! And she was a dog! How could this not work out?

Let me just say it: I have never seen diarrhea emerge so copiously or violently as from My Internet Canine. I’ve lived through “puppy stomach” before, but this was … Biblical. When I emailed Haven about one day’s misadventures, she inquired, “What are you doing—reading her the Mass in Latin BACKWARDS? Are her intestines on the OUTSIDE?” Hundreds of dollars, several prescriptions and a couple of dietary shifts later, the dog (now named “DiarrhRio”) appeared to be slightly more settled, with only the occasional outburst. Usually in the middle of the night by the side of the bed, a guarantee I’d step in it.

Then there was the steep learning curve for absolutely everything. Housebreaking, obedience, even meal time—her inability to grasp these concepts after serious repetition was stunning. I grew up with Toby, a mutt of average dog intelligence, then I had Ripley who was extremely sharp. Not only was Rio proving to be no Ripley, she was no Toby, who was one of those neutered females who humped a lot.

One day I walked into the office and my co-worker Sara innocently asked, “How’s Rio?”

“Aside from the fact that she’s shit on every surface in my home and she’s retarded and I didn’t want her in the first place? Great!” I snapped. Sara is used to me after many years, but even she recoiled from my harshness and what she probably knew was not entirely true.

There has been a dog at my side for over three-quarters of my life. I can point to those relationships with pride in the love and care I provided. So what was the problem? Was it simply that I wasn’t over the last one yet? Had I really become that much more of a crusty bastard in those fleeting dog-free days?

I barely had time to contemplate it before the specter of a costly medical emergency loomed large. Suddenly Rio was limping quite badly, the cause of which x-rays revealed to be elbow dysplasia in both front legs. (One of the genetic Berner specialties, right up there with the brain cancer that kills a number of them before they reach five.) She was a good candidate for arthroscopic surgery, so after much (albeit rapid) thought, I tossed my 90-pound “treat” under the knife. When I picked her up from the animal hospital, she was shaved and rickety and in obvious pain though she was wearing two morphine patches, and she still tried to run to greet me, clearing a table of magazines with her tail/weapon.

My heart shattered. This was the loving animal on the receiving end of my feigned indifference? The brave, sweet creature I was calling Fat Girl and comparing unfavorably to a previous dog? She looked up at me with such love that even I hated me.

As I nursed her back to health, she showed extraordinary resilience and strength and tenderness. Many times I contemplated how much more of a trooper she was than, say, I would be if a doctor were to shave bone fragments off my joints and send me right out onto the street. Our very slow walks were nostalgically similar to the very slow walks from Ripley’s later years, a near-human-sized head pressed into my leg as we shuffled along. The day after a blizzard, Rio simply stepped to the curb, shakily climbed up a snowbank and lay in it, gigantor front paws crossed, waiting for people to admire her on her throne.

Did I say I didn’t love her? That was a lie. She’s barely two and already we’ve been through so much together. She’s big and beautiful and goofy and, despite the glaring fact that I didn’t ask for her, mine.

Pets make great gifts but I don’t recommend buying one as a surprise. Heartfelt as it may be, it’s an enormous responsibility for the recipient. Yet in some weird way, I understand why Chris made this ballsy move. So next weekend I’m going to visit him in his new home in Massachusetts, and I’m giving him a fabulous housewarming gift: a baby.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 40: Jan/Feb 2007
Christopher Schelling is a publishing-industry veteran who lives in New York City. His is also a sporadic member of the LA-based eccentric pop-rock band, Ripley.

Photograph by Christopher Lynch

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