My father recently sent me an email about the steadfastness of dogs. It read: “Want to know who truly loves you? Lock your husband and your dog in the trunk of your car for two hours. When you open the trunk, see who greets you with tail-wagging kisses.”
I love dogs. Always have. I grew up with two Shetland Sheepdogs, a Samoyed, three Bouvier des Flanders, and a German Shepherd—not all at the same time, but it can safely be said that I’m a dog person. Either that or I grew up in a kennel.
Even so, I wasn’t sure as an adult that I was ready to be a dog owner: the time commitment, the house-breaking (as in, truly breaking!), the care and feeding of a four-legged creature. I decided to have four children first, kinda as a trial run. Turns out four kids isn’t so tough.
I remember to feed them—usually. I give the kids fresh water every day. The potty-training took some time, but now they’re great about whining at the door when they need to go outside to do their business. All in all I was gaining some confidence that if I could raise four kids, I might just be ready to go to the next level and get a dog.
Guys at work were pretty helpful with dog breed suggestions. Jon told me to get a Labrador as they were great with little kids. John also recommended a Labrador because they were gentle and good-natured. (Yes, all of my friends are named John/Jon. I’m hoping this will simplify my life when senility sets in. And judging from this wide, scientific sample, all Jons/Johns like Labradors.)
As luck would have it, I was standing at a receptionist’s desk one morning and glimpsed a photo of some Labrador/Rhodesian Ridgeback pups on her desk. They were adorable puppies, as opposed to those non-adorable puppies whom I’ve never met. Sure they had ginormously big paws, but that’s what made them so cute. They were 7 weeks old and looking for homes…though not in the real estate sense.
I did the levelheaded thing and told my children that we were “just going to look” at some puppies. Then we were just going to cuddle the cute little guy who snuggled up on our lap…all the way home. Spontaneity requires afterthoughts, so we detoured to Petco on the way back to buy a few items for our new puppy: a water bowl, a food bowl, dog food, a leash, a collar, a dog crate, a puppy gate, piddle pads, chew toys, bones, and 15,000 other “critical-only” items needed for our new pet.
If I had taken the money we spent that evening and invested it in Petco stock, I’d have a controlling share of the corporation today. But really, who can put a price tag on puppy love? Well, yes, my father can give you a running total of the financial damage wrought by my dog to date, but deep, deep down, he secretly loves my dog.
We considered several names for our puppy: “Semiahmoo” based on a recent visit to the seaside resort; “Chewy-barka” because he chews and barks and we’re avid Star Wars nerds; and the first runner-up name suggested by my friend, Kari, was “B.I.” ‘cuz my last name is N-G-O, so Bingo was his name-O. In the end, we settled on Whistler.
Bob, a contractor who’s been to my house several times to repair puppy damage, calls Whistler his retirement account. It started with Whistler chewing on the corners of my wall—and chewing through the dry wall to the studs. I consulted the Jon/Johns at work about this. Oh yeah, Jon told me, suddenly remembering a few of the downsides to Labrador-ownership. Apparently Jon put metal plates on the corners of his walls for oh, say two or three years, until his dog outgrew the chewing phase.
Whistler is largely indiscriminate about his diet: Legos, Christmas ornaments, leather car interiors, underwear, Barbie dolls, American Girl dolls—he eats ‘em all. Soon, almost every doll around the house was an amputee. We have Sierra Leone Barbie, and Samantha, the American girl who needs an orthopaedic surgeon to re-attach her limbs.
Whistler has a special fondness for unattended cups of Starbucks coffee; also an intestinal intolerance for Target’s plastic bags. We learned this the hard way when he ate a bag and then tried to expel it at the dog park the next day. He squatted. Part of the bag made the journey out. Then, with the job half-done, the dog gave up and got back to the business of meeting new canine friends.
The dog-park dogs did the usual canine handshake of sniffing each other’s behinds, only Whistler had half a Target bag there to greet everyone. He was nonplussed. I was mortified. Especially when other dog owners started noticing the white bag hanging out of “that dog” and wondering who the owner was…
I’ve attempted to be a responsible dog owner, so I signed us up for Positive Approach dog-training classes and discovered that I was being very obedient to Whistler’s whims and fancies. (I’m thinking that Negative Approach classes might be the thing to explore.) Nowadays, I do my best to establish myself as the authority—the alpha dog in the family pack—but sometimes my instincts are off.
One time, the phone rang and Whistler, true to his breed, “retrieved” it for me. I was delighted. Wrong response. From then on, Whistler eagerly sought out phones—house phones, cell phones—to carry to me for my praise. Unfortunately, he has iron jaws, so the very act of carrying the phone to me has damaged endless handsets. I couldn’t believe how flimsy the plastic was, so I tested a phone by placing it in my own mouth and biting as hard as I could. That was the moment that my daughter Megan walked in, looked at me oddly, and wanted to know why I was carrying the phone around in my mouth…
When you get past the moments that Whistler’s gone swimming in the pond of a golf course, learned to open the refrigerator to help himself to luncheon meats and cheese, or ingested the fill material of my wrist weights causing the vet to insist that intestinal x-rays showed his stomach was full of buckshot, he’s actually a pretty wonderful pet.
Whistler loves his kids. He devotedly sits with Katie when she’s on a timeout. The dog gamely demonstrates the dangers of riding without a seatbelt in the car by body-slamming into the dashboard when I hit the brakes—a visual lesson for the children. He plays hide and seek with his kids. And he climbs onto the girls’ beds every evening to listen to nighttime stories.
In the aftermath of my divorce, Whistler was the one who kept me company when the kids were at their father’s place, moping almost more than I did when the kids walked out the door.
Whistler and I covered miles of trails and roads as I tried to clear my head on long walks and jogs. And when some friends from high school died in a plane crash a few months ago, that darn dog somehow had the sense to once again curl up at my side through a long, teary evening.
At the beginning of a conference call one afternoon, my work colleagues somehow started in on a litany of the things Whistler destroyed on visits to my home: car keys, shoes, purses. It was embarrassing to listen to the damage report. But when one of them suggested I get rid of the dog and find another, more suitable one, I found myself rising to his defense: You don’t just get rid of your pet because he’s difficult or destructive. It’s tough love. You work with the dog. You establish boundaries. You make accommodations. You stick with it and figure it out.
“Do you think that maybe you’re projecting your feelings about your marriage onto your dog?” my colleague asked.
“Of course I am,” I told her. “But come what may, Whistler and I are planning to take a cruise together for our 20th anniversary.”
And that’s the thing of it. Some dogs are perfect. Well-behaved and obedient. Naturally loyal and loving. Whistler is some of that. He’s also something of a work in progress. But that’s life, be it with pets or partners; friends or family or anyone worth loving. All relationships can be messy at times yet perhaps our pets have the unique ability to teach us the most about unconditional love.