The Dog(s) and I
In the classic sense, I have never considered myself a “dog person,” in that extreme way that some people are “dog” people, or “cat” people, or “horse” people, where they go to horse or dog shows, are obsessively dedicated to their animals, and know everything about the breeds. On the other hand, I’m definitely not a cat person, because I’m severely allergic to cats. When I was a child, about five or six years old, I used to visit the next-door neighbor’s cats, and my eyes would swell until they almost closed, as tears streamed down my cheeks, my nose ran, and I couldn’t breathe. If I stayed long enough, I had an asthma attack, and then I would go home wheezing and coughing and barely able to see, and my mother would say, “You went to visit the neighbor’s cat again, didn’t you?” Immediate look of innocence from me between wheezes: “Me? The cat? No . . . why?”
I finally stopped visiting the neighbor’s cat, and my allergy has prevented me from really getting to know cats, so all the delightful things cat lovers say about them are unknown to me. And probably my most noteworthy cat encounter was at the home of Elizabeth Taylor. She contacted me years ago, to discuss writing a screen treatment for her. I was incredibly impressed and even more so when she invited me to her home. Nothing would have kept me from the opportunity to visit her. I was dying to meet the legend and see where she lived. I showed up for the meeting, and she was very nice. I was in awe of her, and we talked about some ideas, and as we did, a cat sauntered into the room, and I thought, “Oh no, this is not going to be good.” Imagined or real, my eyes and nose began to itch instantly, and I said nothing and went on talking to her, just as another cat walked in. And within a few minutes, there were four or five cats wandering around the room. I started choking and knew I would have an asthma attack any minute.
I then made one of those major life decisions: was I going to admit to my frailties and run out the door, or stick it out so as not to lose this opportunity with an icon whom I had wanted to meet for years? I decided that even if I died in her living room, I didn’t care. I stuck it out for as long as I could, eyes running, sneezing, and choking. I figured the meeting would end when she called 911, and I died of an asthma attack in her living room. By the time the meeting reached its conclusion, I could hardly breathe. The project went nowhere, but I got to spend an hour with a Hollywood legend. That was my last serious cat encounter. Since then, when I’m invited to someone’s home, I ask if they have a cat. It makes me sound hopelessly neurotic but spares them the annoyance of having to call 911 half an hour after I get there. So cats just aren’t part of the landscape for me.
Actually, I’m more of a “kid person,” as witnessed by the fact that I have nine children. I can never resist a child, especially my own.
But dogs have been part of my life ever since I was a child. Some have been better than others and more memorable. Until recently, I never had a dog with a real nose. We had pugs when I was a child. My first dog was a fawn pug named James, and I adored him. Unfortunately, he died the same year my mother left, when I was six, which must have traumatized me, in both cases, because although I had other dogs after that, I never got seriously attached to another dog for many years, until I was an adult, even though there were always dogs in my life. And in a sense, I suppose I am a dog person because I like them. There are statues of dogs by assorted contemporary artists, in a multitude of colors, all over my Paris apartment.
My father continued to have pugs long after my favorite one died (of heat stroke, which was very sad). And after that dogs were not an important feature in my life for a while.
And then, as an adult, I decided to get a rescue dog, an adorable three-month-old basset hound puppy named Elmer (he came with the name). He was a “harlequin,” so he was black and white, and he was one of the funniest dogs I ever had, and had a personality to go with the sad, droopy eyes. As a puppy, he would trot along and step on his ears with his big paws, which made him bonk his nose into the floor, and he would sit down and bark at me with an accusing look, as though I had tripped him, which I swear I didn’t.
I had Elmer in my struggling days as a young writer, and my budget was pretty tight then. And Elmer’s favorite trick was that he learned to operate the pedal that opened my refrigerator. I would come home from work (as an advertising copywriter) to find Elmer sprawled out in the kitchen, exhausted after eating everything in the fridge. I finally had to put a gate on the kitchen, or he would have eaten me out of house and home, but I loved him. Bassets are basically hunting dogs, so the minute you open a door, they take off like a shot. He ran away dozens of times, and I would find him halfway across town. Another not-so-charming trait is that they “bay,” which is an agonizingly piercing howl, if you leave them alone for more than five seconds, which your neighbors will want to kill you for. I finally had to take him to work with me, because I couldn’t leave him alone at home.
Despite his voracious appetite and the howling, I loved Elmer, and he was a very sweet dog. He slept on my bed, had no idea he was supposed to be a watchdog, and could have happily slept through a war. I don’t think he knew he was a dog . . . until . . . a female basset came into his life, and everything changed. Peaceful, lazy, sleepy Elmer (who once ate an entire Gouda cheese, red wax and all, and had a stomachache for three days) suddenly woke up when he discovered the female sex!
My vet had a female basset he wanted to give up, and I agreed to try her for a weekend and see how they got along. I thought it might be nice for Elmer to have a friend. She was perfect for the entire weekend, impeccably behaved, and easy to have around. On Monday morning I called and agreed to adopt her. And by Monday night, her real personality emerged. Her name was Maude. She howled even louder than Elmer, was nervous and cranky, and a week later bit the neighbor’s child. And her clever previous owner refused to take her back (he didn’t think it would be good for her to be “rejected” for a second time . . . ugh . . . so I was stuck with her). She had to wear a muzzle, and overnight she turned Elmer into a dog, instead of the happy, easygoing guy he’d been before. Maude also had “issues,” she had imaginary pregnancies several times a year. She would adopt one of my shoes as her “puppy,” and try to bite me when I attempted to reclaim the shoe, which occasionally created a wardrobe crisis for me if she took over a shoe I needed for work or a date.
I kept the dogs as a pair for several years, but it was never a wonderful arrangement once Maude arrived. Together they were a powerful force, and once my daughter was old enough, she would walk them, while they pulled her down the street. She looked like Ben-Hur driving the chariot. Finally we all agreed that they needed a home in the country, and I found a family that was thrilled to have them. And I hate to say it, but I was relieved to see them go. They were a lot of work, and Elmer was never as sweet after Maude arrived. (Dogs sometimes act doggier when there is more than one of them.)
I was peacefully dogless then for a while and can’t say I missed having a dog. Elmer and Maude had worn me out and took a lot of managing, between howling, running away, and eating everything in the house.
But when I married a man who was a serious dog person, dogs reentered my life en masse. He had a very old black miniature dachshund whom he adored, who had the incredibly bad timing to die during the weekend we got married, so my brand-new husband spent the day after the wedding crying and mourning his dog. This was not the happy scenario I’d had in mind, so I spent the next three days running around to breeders to find him a new dog, and I was thrilled to find a black miniature dachshund puppy who looked like the one he’d lost. (Fortunately we weren’t planning to honeymoon for another month, so I had time to look for the dog.) She was a very sweet puppy, and I put her in a big blue Tiffany box that one of our wedding presents had come in and presented her to him that night. He was ecstatic and named her Sweet Pea. (Our nicknames for each other were Popeye and Olive, so she was our first “child.”)
And in the ensuing months, Sweet Pea taught me a lot about co-owning a dog. According to John, she was half his and half mine. What I didn’t know, when I made that deal, was that the front end was his and the back end was mine. She was very difficult to housebreak, and any “accidents” were my responsibility since the back end was mine. John had a rather creative way of draping paper towels over Sweet Pea’s “mistakes,” like flags, so I wouldn’t miss them when I got home and had to clean them up. Owning her back end was not what I’d anticipated. Her front end wasn’t so charming either, since she decided early on that she didn’t like me (maybe for putting her in the Tiffany box, although it was only for five minutes for the presentation and to surprise John), and she snapped at me whenever she could. And when she slept in bed with us every night, she would sidle over to my side of the bed, pee, and then go back to John and snuggle up on the dry side. Sweet Pea and I had a somewhat rocky relationship after that.
Also, to a true dog lover, a really passionate one, their dog can do no wrong. (My father was one of those too. He had a dog that bit people regularly, and he always blamed the victim, not the dog.) In John’s case, no matter what humor he was in, he was thrilled to see his dog. He would talk baby talk to her for hours and tell her how beautiful she was. Occasionally, confused, I would think he was talking to me, only to discover when I turned around that he was gazing into Sweet Pea’s eyes. Okay, she was cute. But their love fests used to get on my nerves, and I had no dog of my own at the time. (But I couldn’t imagine myself telling a dog how gorgeous he was, if I did. I mean after all, a dog is a dog . . . sometimes.) So Sweet Pea and I coexisted like two women in love with the same man, under one roof. And more often than I liked to admit, she won.
During and after Sweet Pea came a cavalcade of my children’s dogs. True dog lover that he was, John felt that each child should have their own dog . . . wow!!! That got to be a lot of dogs, because we had a lot of kids. My oldest daughter, Beatrix, had acquired a Norwich terrier by then, named Jack. He was very cute and had a weakness for candy and bubble gum. He particularly loved Easter and Halloween when he would eat all the jellybeans and trick-or-treat candy. Bazooka bubble gum remained his drug of choice. (No, he did not blow bubbles out the other end, but he would look like a basketball after his raids, and it took a while for him to get back to normal again.) My two stepsons had two toy fox terriers, Paddington and Tilly. My son Nick had a miniature Brussels griffon (looks like an Ewok) named Molly. And when Sam got old enough, she got a black miniature dachshund of her own named Mia, who was incredibly mischievous and fortunately liked me a lot better than Sweet Pea did. Her weakness was for anything chocolate, which can be lethal to dogs. She would find it anywhere (particularly in my purse) and then have to be rushed to the vet to have her stomach pumped. Victoria had her tiny black teacup Chihuahua, Chiquita, (whom Sam later adopted) that she carried everywhere. Vanessa had a very sweet miniature Yorkshire terrier, Lola, and later Gidget. And my youngest son, Maxx, had a miniature Boston bull, Annabelle, who was a truly great dog, and we all loved her. One word of warning about Boston bulls, though. They can jump to amazing heights and spring straight up off the ground. It took me months to figure out who was eating all the food we’d leave in bowls on the kitchen table. I finally saw one of her amazing Superman leaps and watched her clear the table with glee.
Fortunately, my youngest daughter, Zara, was so fed up with dogs, she didn’t want one, which was an enormous relief. We had a house full of dogs, each with its own personality, as well as the traits of the breed. The kids were very good with them, responsible for them, but let’s face it, that was a flock of dogs! And their father was teaching the children how important it was to love dogs, which was probably a valuable lesson, but it seemed like an army of dogs to me!
One thing that always fascinated me was that if one of the dogs made a “mistake” somewhere in the house, everyone always reported it to me—and I didn’t even have a dog. I would call in whatever kids were around, since the problem had obviously been caused by one of their dogs, and I expected them to clean it up. The kids would then arrive on the scene, examine the problem intently, and announce, “It wasn’t my dog.” Excuse me? Do the dogs sign it or what? How do you know it wasn’t your dog? Please! “Nope,” the owner of the dog would say with absolute certainty. “I can tell, it wasn’t my dog.” How can you tell? You cannot tell, and since I didn’t do it, one of their dogs did. We had some real battles over that, and no one ever confessed to their dog’s mistakes. So either I’d have a fit and tell them to clean it up anyway (less often), or I’d just give up and clean it up myself (more often. I told you, I’m a total sucker for kids, even more than dogs). I will never understand how they could look me in the eye and say it wasn’t their dog, but they did, regularly. The high (or low?) point of these disputes happened between my daughter Beatrix and son Todd, when each flatly refused to admit to their dog’s guilt, and for once, I wouldn’t back down. I told them to resolve the argument and clean it up! Their compromise solution was to get a disposable plastic knife and cut the “problem” in half. Each cleaned up half. Problem solved!From the eBook edition.
Excerpted from Pure Joy by Danielle Steel. Copyright © 2013 by Danielle Steel. Excerpted by permission of Delacorte Press, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.