The Dog Who Came Gift-Wrapped

An unexpected gift takes its recipient on a wild emotional ride
By Christopher Schelling, November 2008, Updated February 2015

I wish I loved my dog, but I don’t. I know that makes me sound like an asshole, which I am. But it’s baffling. I’m one of those embarrassing Dog People prone to falling on the sidewalk and allowing strangers’ pets to lick my tonsils. I’ve always had a dog. So what’s the deal? Perhaps it begins with a tiny truth: this one showed up in my apartment as a surprise gift, a barking turd machine tied with a bow, and I’m not certain I’ll ever recover.

Three years ago, my beloved Samoyed, Ripley, was put down at the age of 15. My friend Chris’s sympathy call that night included the line, “I’m getting you another one immediately.” Drunk as I was, I managed to curb his loose-cannon instinct and talk him out of it. Mere weeks later, his birthday gift to me was a dog collar with a tag that read, “I’ll pay for whatever dog you put this collar around.” How sweet, I thought. Actually, I thought, That dangling preposition sounds so awkward, but how sweet that he fit all the words on this tiny bone-shaped tag.

I knew I’d get another dog eventually, but I needed a breather. I’d had Ripley since I was 25, and in her last couple of years, she had numerous health problems, including diabetes, so I was dipping a stick in her pee every morning to test her ketones and giving her two insulin injections a day—serious tasks on top of the everyday care of a geriatric dog. As much as I adored Ripley, I felt a liberating absence of the sadness and tension that surrounded her final months, the dog-hair cloak of melancholy finally cast aside. If nothing else, it was much less stressful riding my apartment building’s elevator without a large and incontinent companion. I was free. The only urine issues I had were my own.

A carefree year-and-a-half later, Chris and I were having lunch, and the topic of My Next Dog arose.


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“Are you ready yet?” he asked. “It’s still my treat.” Which conjured a mental image of Milk Bones, not a live creature. I said I’d been thinking about it, that I’d been ogling some neighborhood Bernese Mountain Dogs and their short-haired versions, the Greater Swiss Mountain Dog; the Appenzeller; and another one with a name so foreign even the Swiss can’t pronounce it. And that maybe I’d start thinking about a rescue, or possibly investigating other breeds, but certainly not until I got back from an upcoming vacation in Rio. Little did I know that Chris’s Insane-o-Meter was hitting red something fierce.

The day I returned from my trip—a 13-hour overnight flight that got me home at 6 in the morning—I opened my apartment door and saw a savagely chewed-up plastic two-liter bottle on the floor. Before the idea registered, reality hit. Literally. A beautiful, clumsy, nine-week-old Bernese Mountain Dog came flying around the corner and mowed right into me.

Hello, next decade-and-change.

Apparently it was my only-slightly-less-crazy friend Zeke who had emailed Chris 90 seconds after my plane took off for Brazil and really put the plan into motion. This being the 21st century and both of them being webheads, Zeke sent Chris a link to a family in Arkansas whose teenage daughter was raising college tuition money by selling their Berner’s litter. Online. Like an all-mammal eBay. Pictures were pondered and my life was altered with one click. The dog, at this point named “Add to Cart,” was flown in and Zeke picked her up at the airport.

Others were in on the plot. My friend Haven in Durham bravely volunteered to take the dog (which she named “Precious Agnes”) if I flipped out and refused the gift. PA’s North Carolina life would be wonderful for many reasons, one of them being Haven’s genetic predisposition to hoarding, so one more dog (she already had three) would actually fulfill a palpable need. Rob in Chicago was more practical. “I’m not so sure this is a good idea,” he warned. “I know he’s a dog person, but I can just see that look on his face.” (Rob has known me longest.) Chris uncharacteristically attempted to frame it in a sunnier way: “This is a rescue. We’re rescuing a 16-year-old girl from Arkansas.”

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.

Article first appeared in The Bark, Issue 40: Jan/Feb 2007

Photograph by Christopher Lynch

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.