1. entering the dog world
CommencementI loathe people who keep dogs. They are cowards
who haven't got the guts to bite people themselves.
I was not a dog person of any kind in the autumn of 2001, when my wife and I went for drinks at a down-at-the-heels but newly cool Brooklyn bar called O'Connor's. Time Out New York
had recently cited the place as having the best moose head in the city, a designation that said more about the sorry state of the outer-borough moose head situation than the dubious magnificence of O'Connor's threadbare Bullwinkle. The thing presided over a joint where black-clad, ear-cuffed groovies drank alongside pregentrification habitues. On this night, there were no hipsters in evidence, only a ragged row of regulars slumped on stools in the dim light, staring into their drinks. No camaraderie, no Jell-O shots, no bar food, no pickup action, not even a television: a perfect Dark Bar, just the place for the serious talk we'd gone there to have.
Except for the dogs. What were the damn dogs doing in a bar?
They weren't creating a fuss; the three of them lay on the worn linoleum, taciturn as their masters. I admit I didn't like it. This is Brooklyn, not France, where dogs are permitted in restaurants and intensive care units. Dogs had just never been one of my things, though getting one was exactly what we were there to discuss.
The reason was our son, approaching thirteen and showing all the signs of impending adolescence. I say this knowing that we have been spared the full teen catastrophe. He sported no Mohawk, no piercings or tattoos. He never wafted around the house smelling all herblike. As of this writing, he still doesn't. Believe me, I know how lucky we are.
But there's no denying that our son, like many twelve-year-old boys, found us lacking—in wisdom, in charm, in spirit, in just about anything any reasonable person might expect from parents. I'm not complaining, merely pointing out the psychic challenge our little family faced.
As an only child, our son is all too often the center of both attention and tension. It's an old story, but I hated being an actor in it anyway. Sometimes I'd look at him and his brow would be furrowed with an intensity of worry that stopped me in my tracks. What was bothering him, I wondered, and what could I do about it?
The answer to the first question was everything, of course, and the answer to the second was nothing. And boy, did we share his pain, or at least remember the feeling. My wife and I vowed to help. Pets, we knew, are a time-honored way of providing kids with ready-made love and commitment, soul mates and companions through the uncertainties and agonies of adolescence.
This assumption is one I took on faith, having little experience to go by. My wife shared her early years with assorted fauna, including a cat, a hamster, and Jimmy the Mouse, of whom she still speaks fondly. I grew up in a pet-free home, aside from a goldfish that died within a week and a little alligator we brought home from Miami Beach and soon flushed down the toilet, from whence it and its fellows would inspire generations of urban myths and Thomas Pynchon.
Pets, in the childhood view I carried unsullied into adulthood, were demanding, unpredictable, and unhygienic. This impression was not changed by the succession of half-dollar-size turtles we got for our son. The turtles inexorably grew big as dinner plates, requiring frequent and ever more repulsive tank cleanings. But at least the turtles didn't have to be walked. What could a dog do for our boy that the turtles didn't? I asked. My wife fixed me with a look that suggested she didn't believe my question was entirely sincere. "You can only relate to a turtle so far," she said.
Obviously, helping our son was a good reason to get a dog, but not compared to all the good reasons not to: the walks, the shedding, the poo, for starters. Before I could make my case, though, my wife was distracted by one of the bar dogs, a big brown mutt who'd gotten up to stretch and wandered over to our booth. My wife cooed, "Aren't you pretty?" and petted the creature. Pretty? I smiled gamely in the dog's general direction. Speaking of game, I noticed the dog had a faint odor. This was before I learned that all dogs have a faint odor. (Actually, you're lucky if it's faint. The strange thing is that after a while you get to like it.) My wife petted the dog and the dog leaned into her hand. I noticed a little raw area on the dog's side, almost on her belly. The owner said quietly, "She's got a hot spot. Lying on the floor keeps it cool."
"A hot spot?" I said, apparently a shade too inquisitively, because the man dismounted from his stool and sat down with us. A hot spot, he explained, is an area that a dog rubs and licks until there is an actual break in the skin. Not surprisingly, it is generally considered a sign of stress. "I work at a dot com and I usually bring her in to work with me so that she doesn't have to be home alone all day," the man said. "We've had to lay off a lot of people lately and it's become a pretty sad place. That's when she started this compulsive grooming. They blame themselves, you know. They blame themselves."
Our chat continued. He told us about several of his past dogs and how, though all had been wonderful, none matched this one's sheer compassion for la condition humaine
; all right, he didn't actually say anything in French, but he did make the dog sound like Gandhi incarnate. My wife asked questions solicitously. I nodded sympathetically, but the words of Victor Spinetti as the harried exec in A Hard Day's Night
thrummed in my mind: "I could've done wonders in vivisection."
Eventually, man and beast went off dolefully into the night and my wife and I resumed our discussion. I was convinced I could never take proper care of a dog, the way that guy did. That guy was obviously a committed dog owner, tender and devoted. Also crazy as a loon. Therefore, I reasoned keenly, only crazy people should have dogs. Not that I claim to be playing with a full bag of clubs myself, only that my particular pathology does not lead me to seek solace with the four-legged. Even though we were still technically discussing the issue, in my heart I believed that the whole dog issue was closed.
You would think experience would teach me not to make rash predictions. But if experience has taught me anything, it is that experience rarely teaches me anything.
So it was that on a spring evening six months later, I was part of a small group milling excitedly around in the dingy basement of a local Catholic school. The instructor checked her watch and nodded to an assistant, who hit the play button on a boom box, uncorking a tinny recording of "Pomp and Circumstance." My son held the leash firmly as certificates were handed out and flashes flashed. It was graduation day at obedience school. I chuckled, I beamed, and, as usual on such occasions, I regretted not having brought my camera.
The peculiar thing about this event was that I was prouder of the dog than of my son. I really shouldn't have been. My son had changed in many ways, all of them good: He'd become more patient and persistent and responsible. He regularly took the dog for his predinner pee walk and sometimes even the morning outing, which usually involves more serious business. He worked on training George every day and assumed the role of family dog whisperer, interpreting the creature's every twitch and snuffle with authority. These important steps on the path to adulthood were exactly what we'd hoped for.
The dog, on the other hand, hadn't changed much at all over the seven-week course that I wouldn't have signed up for at all if we'd managed to make any progress with any of the zillion (well, three) training manuals we tried. Sometimes he sat, sometimes he stayed, and sometimes he came. Sometimes these actions were connected to our commands; more often they were connected to the greasy nubbins of Hebrew National franks and Muenster cheese that I diced before each class. Most often, though, he did what he did for reasons that may be explicable to a terrier, but not to you or me.
The truth is, George was not graduating cum laude. Whether too independent or too dim to do what was asked, George barely managed a gentleman's C, and he was the oldest dog in the class, too. At a year and half or so, his age in dog years meant he should have been in graduate school, if not out in the workforce, instead of here in the basement, tugging on the leash and snapping at the nasty bichon frise. His failure to perform did not endear him to the trainer, who preferred to lavish her attentions on dogs who would produce quicker results, like the Entlebucher pup whose first-rate sitting and staying skills reinforced my loathing of all things Swiss, especially their rotten dogs. At the time, it annoyed me deeply that George was the only dog in the class she never once used to demonstrate a task. This was before I knew that when trainers want to show how easy it is to bend a dog to your will, they never
demonstrate on a terrier.
Whichever family member worked with George would finish the session with stinky pockets and frayed nerves. Then we'd all stroll home, bickering meanly. I would have quit had I not felt obligated to set a good example for my son after the third class, when my wife refused ever to go again.
So why was I welling with pride over a creature who'd done little more than tolerate his classes, classes that constituted some of the worst evenings of my life?
My inner dog person was stirring.
Don't get me wrong. I don't send dog greeting cards or hang dog calendars on the wall. There are really very few breed-specific tchotchkes in my home. Within the first few months, I'd bought a mug, a fridge magnet, a rubber stamp, an all-Norfolk calendar, and a nice brooch for my wife, whom I knew did protest too much when she told me to quit it with the doggie doodads. I don't believe that George's attachment to our family is really "unconditional love," one of the great cliches of the Dog World.
The other, of course, is that a dog is man's best friend, and I don't buy that one either, especially since learning that its first expression was in a closing argument by a Missouri lawyer named George Graham Vest. In 1869, Vest represented the owner of Old Drum, a hunting dog that made the mistake of wandering onto the property of a sheep farmer who was completely within his rights, if not a very nice person, in shooting the animal. Lawyer Vest laid it on with a trowel ("there, by his graveside will the noble dog be found . . ."), and his euphonious oratory carried the day, despite the fact that he did not have a legal leg to stand on.
I certainly don't consider George my best friend. That would be ridiculous. I do consider him my best-looking and most constant friend, though, and the only one who truly doesn't mind my tendency to repeat myself. I try to treat him with the respect he deserves. I almost never talk baby talk to him, at least not when we're out for walka-walkies (at home, different story). I do not, not
, stand over him chanting "Do the cute thing!" when he does one of his innumerable cute things, as some in my family are wont to do. When a fellow dog walker praised George's angulation, I had no idea what he meant. I do now, though, sort of. I know the differences between dappled, brindled, and marled coats, but not if I have to explain them in, you know, words. As of this writing, I belong to no kennel clubs and subscribe to only one dog magazine, the Whole Dog Journal
, a somber periodical with articles like "Reflections on Heartworm" and "Living with a Difficult Dog." I am, in short, not obsessed with the dog.
"Preoccupied" is more the word. Maybe tending toward "very preoccupied."
It helps that George is the cutest being I've ever seen, regardless of species. He is small, muscular, and peppy, and he has rough, tweedy fur—maybe it's hair, I always forget—of the precise rusty shade I have long dreamed of in a sport coat. He has a way of tilting his head when I say his name softly that I find ineffably endearing. But cuteness isn't everything. The world is full of cuteness that does little or nothing for me: pandas; ducklings; Meg Ryan.
George would probably have wormed his way into my heart, mind, and routine even if he weren't so damn cute, even now in the latish midrange of what has been a contentedly dogless, and mostly petless, life. The most casual survey of dog people and their significant others reveals that beauty isn't everything when dogs are concerned. Sometimes, it's absolutely nothing.
I fuss over George when he's sick and I fuss over him when he's well. I send him to a playgroup several days a week to give him intraspecies quality time. I will discuss the state of his bowels with anyone who cares to engage me on the subject. Just when my days of browsing endless rows of overpriced kids' toys are over, I am browsing endless rows of overpriced doggie toys. And often I buy them, particularly if they have a good squeak.
Like many neophyte dog owners, I've gone a little nutty. For example, one of my great pleasures in life has always been people watching. I've spent innumerable hours walking happily around the city, scoping the passing parade. Now when I walk down the street, my gaze rarely rises above knee level. I'm looking at dogs, not people. Who knew there were so many around? Familiarity has not bred contempt. It's bred affection, indulgence, and boundless curiosity.
For example, I wonder how George feels when we board him. He stays at a very nice kennel with a big outdoor area where the dogs can frolic, but I always spend the first few hours of separation feeling guilty and remorseful. I think of my friend's bulldog, Winston, who was kenneled for six months because of some job-related traveling my friend had to do. Ever since, if Winston sees my friend touch a piece of luggage, he climbs into it. George shows no such separation anxiety. He is plainly happy and relaxed when he goes off to the kennel and seems pretty much the same when he returns. I don't really know for sure that he's happy; I suppose he could be seething with resentment. It's the sort of thing I think about when I should be doing other things.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from Dog World by Alfred Gingold. Copyright © 2005 by Alfred Gingold. Excerpted by permission of Harmony, 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.