Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Old Dog Teaches Us New Tricks

After a lot of negotiation, debate, and discussion we have recently added a new member to our family. He is a 6 year old Weimaraner named Miko that we adopted from the Northern California Weimaraner Rescue.

Our negotiation went like this:
Boys: We want a dog!
Me: I’m thinking about it.
My husband: No.

Boys: We want a dog!
Me: Let’s do some research and learn about different breeds.
My husband: No.

Boys: We really want a dog!
Me: Yes I think we should start looking into it.
My husband: No. OK maybe.

Boys: When are we getting the dog?!?!
Me: When we find the right dog.
My husband: No. OK fine.

Miko is our first real family pet. My husband was concerned about who would take care of the dog, walk it, feed it, pick up it's poop, watch it if we went out of town. I had some of the same concerns but I’ve had a lot more experience with pets. I grew up with dogs (and cats, angora rabbits, pet rats, several parrots, fish, chickens, geese, a pig, a cow named Nancy, a horse named Blaze and a pony named Winter, goats and even llamas). My parents don’t have nearly as many animals anymore but my husband still calls my dad Doctor f**ing Dolittle. He means this in the nicest possible way, but you see he grew up pet-impaired. Or pet-challenged might be more politically correct. In any case, he did not grow up with a pet. His parents got a small fluffy dog named Tippy once he left home for college. It is not uncommon for parents to get a pet to replace the void left by children leaving home. My parents got two goats when I left for my freshman year of college.

My husband’s stories of Tippy are all about how he used to play catch with him. I don’t mean throwing a ball and Tippy bringing it back. I mean Tippy was the ball, thrown back and forth between friends, as a casual game of football to pass the time. This story horrified me, so long ago I decided that if we ever did get a dog, it would be one that was too big for my husband or anyone else in our house to play catch with. At 84 pounds, Miko qualifies as too big to throw around. In fact, the kids can waterski behind him.

Me at two months old with my babysitter Simba

My first pet growing up used to babysit me. She would sit in my crib and guard me while my parents went to a neighboring apartment for a drink or down the street for dinner. She was a cat named Simba Tai Pan and was apparently trained in First Aid. My parents also had a dog named Vaca, who probably babysat me when Simba was not available. Through the years, I don’t ever remember a time when my family didn’t have at least a few animals around. Often it was more than a few. There was the whippet that could jump straight up and no fence could contain. There was the Great Dane that knocked us down as toddlers any time we tried to run. That Great Dane also chewed up the entire boat trailer my dad built when he was left in the garage all day. There was the dashound named Heidi, then one named Pepper, the border collie named Foxy, the airedales named April and Shelly. There were various cats too, the most memorable being one that would let us dress it in dolls clothes and pull it around in the wagon, and the one that must have been weaned too young and liked to give us hickeys.

I also had a pet rat most of the time I was growing up. I got a new one in 6th grade when I was reading Gone With the Wind, and named it Scarlett. Once I decided I needed some variety and got a little ginger-colored mouse, which I named Pumpkin. I came up with a brilliant idea to breed Pumpkin with another mouse at the pet store so she could have babies. I have no idea why my parents ever agreed to this, but they did take me (and Pumpkin) to the pet store. Pumpkin and her new husband ran around the cage and sniffed at each other, but there was no action, at least that I could tell. I went home disappointed. Much to my surprise, about 20 days later, Pumpkin had about ten teeny tiny pink little babies. I was over the moon with excitement. I watched them nonstop for days as they grew fur and their little eyes eventually opened. I tried to figure out which were males and females. Someone at the pet store showed me how to tell the difference by grabbing the mouse by the tail and rubbing your finger along it’s underside. I gave some of the baby mice away to friends. But not soon enough. More and more babies kept arriving and at ten babies per litter, I was in mouse crisis mode. The pet store didn’t want them. I couldn’t persuade anyone else I knew to take one. Then I saw the look in my dad’s eyes and knew I had to take action quickly or they would all end up in a dumpster. With tears streaming down my face, I let them go in the field across the street, trying to convince myself that like tiny Stuart Littles, they would go on to bigger and better adventures.

Me at the age of seven in that famous field across the street with Heidi and Blue. No mice in sight.

Just about every spot in the large yard at my parents’ house marks a place where one pet or another is buried. For those too large to bury (pretty much anything bigger than a rat), my dad would unceremoniously take the dead animal for “a drive” in the car, searching for a dumpster. For all his bravado, he did not at all enjoy this job. He usually came home from that errand and had a glass of Gallo Hearty Burgundy.

When my husband and I first started dating, he was somewhat overwhelmed by all the animals, hence the Dr. Doolittle nickname. Early in our relationship he accidentally ran over one of my parents’ cats. Being allergic to cats and not at all fond of them, he didn’t seem to mind too much cleaning it up off the driveway with a shovel and going on the dumpster drive with my dad.

With all this experience around animals, you would think that getting a dog would be no big deal for me. However, we have been without a pet for a very long time. We did have a Vietnamese Potbellied Pig for a while before we had children. Her name was Harley. She was so very cute as a little piglet but when full grown was not so cute. She started nipping at me, and being pregnant with my first child, I realized she had to go. Not having a field across the street conducive to setting pigs free, I gave Harley to a woman who lived in the mountains and had just lost custody of her own pig through a nasty divorce. It seemed a perfect match.

Trendy is not always the way to go. Here is my husband with our baby potbellied pig in 1993. He was still under the newlywed influence at the time.

I was very realistic about the fact that although my children really wanted a puppy, it was not a good idea for us. And even though we adopted a well-trained adult dog, adding a dog to our family was a big deal, a big change for all of us. Watching a few episodes of the Dog Whisperer did not do enough to prepare us for adding a new member to our family. I was confident this change would be good, but I was unprepared for the emotion I felt in adopting Miko. The responsibility weighed heavily on me and in the first few days I really wondered if it was such a good decision. I was so worried that it wouldn’t work out and I didn’t want to become too attached to him just in case. As we all settled in and got used to each other, I let myself believe that yes, we finally had a dog. The boys absolutely adore him. He follows me everywhere I go, which has made me very conscious of how much I ramble pointlessly around my house. At first I was uncomfortable with the change in my routine and having him follow every move I made. Now, three weeks later I enjoy the companionship, the fact that he doesn’t talk back or give me attitude like my kids, his instant readiness to go on a walk or for a drive in the car.

It’s hard to write about dogs in unsentimental way. I think Billy Collins, one of my favorite poets, does a great job of capturing the essence of the dog without being smarmy.

by Billy Collins

The way the dog trots out the front door
every morning
without a hat or an umbrella,
without any money
or the keys to her doghouse
never fails to fill the saucer of my heart
with milky admiration.

Who provides a finer example
of a life without encumbrance—
Thoreau in his curtainless hut
with a single plate, a single spoon?
Gandhi with his staff and his holy diapers?

Off she goes into the material world
with nothing but her brown coat
and her modest blue collar,
following only her wet nose,
the twin portals of her steady breathing,
followed only by the plume of her tail.

If only she did not shove the cat aside
every morning
and eat all his food
what a model of self-containment she
would be,
what a paragon of earthly detachment.
If only she were not so eager
for a rub behind the ears,
so acrobatic in her welcomes,
if only I were not her god.

I don’t know, I kinda like being the god. Or goddess as the case may be.

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