When did the mammals get confused? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see there are some very marked differences? You can’t leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you’re cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in the park, wait by the door for you to return, and, as far as I can tell, know absolutely nothing of unconditional love.
Being a childless woman of child-bearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador Retriever and says, “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog. Now, there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a buddy. But give a dog to a woman without children and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor do I, when calling her, say, “Come to Mama.”
“You were always my most normal friend,” my friend Elizabeth told me, “until you got this dog.”
While I think I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose in particular comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity). The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog. She must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a Rat Terrier, a Fox Terrier and a Corgi with legs. At present, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our International Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like “Where is the Podengo?” and “Has the Podengo been outside yet?” to give her a sense of heritage. In truth, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.
I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us.
When a dog devotes so much of herself to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity for your dog. So my boyfriend and I hired a personal trainer for Rose. We had dreams of obedience, of sit and stay and come, maybe a few simple tricks. She didn’t really seem big enough to drag the paper inside. I was nervous about finding the right trainer and called my friend Erica for moral support, but she was too busy going on interviews to get her four-year-old son into a top Manhattan preschool to be too sympathetic. The trainer we went with was the very embodiment of dog authority figures. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation in which Rose jumped on his shoulder and licked the top of his head, he laid out the beginnings of his plan.
Number one: The dog doesn’t get on the furniture.