Thursday, July 06, 2006

Gone to the Dogs

For most of my life, no one could have accused me of being a dog person. In fact, I loathed dogs, right down to their wagging tails. All their supposed virtues were wasted on me—I refused to pet even the most mild-mannered animals, I heard every bark as hostile, and I absolutely hated being jumped on, no matter how playfully. Dog hairs on furniture? Scooping poop? I thought dog owners were nuts.

My aversion began when I was six years old and my parents brought home a dachshund puppy. Our new dog arrived on Christmas morning, so we named him Blitzen, after one of Santa’s flying reindeer. Given his low-lying physique, though, our Blitzen could barely waddle, let alone leap into the air and take flight. Someone else might have found him cute, but I was horrified. This frankfurter on legs was not my idea of a dog.

To make matters worse, my parents didn’t have a clue about canine behavior. My mother took everything Blitzen did personally. If he soiled the carpet, he was getting back at her for not feeding him on time. If he barked incessantly, it was to annoy her. Nor did my parents grasp even the rudiments of dog training. If they had, things might have been different. As it was, during his sojourn in our house, Blitzen ruled.

This became frighteningly clear to me the first time I walked him. I was under strict instructions not to let him pick up anything from the street. Blitzen immediately latched onto the round paper cover of a Good Humor Dixie cup. I grabbed the cover’s edge and tried to pull it from his mouth, but the dog had a death grip on the flimsy piece of cardboard. He growled savagely and looked into my eyes with unalloyed hatred until I relinquished his prize.

Blitzen must have terrorized my parents during walks as well, because they began letting him out on his own. One day, he simply failed to return. My father searched for him and, finding no flattened remains, assured us that Blitzen would come back soon. To everyone’s secret relief, he never did.

A year later, we were driving past a nearby playground when I spotted a boy walking a portly dachshund—Blitzen. My parents were only too happy to let Blitzen remain with his new family. I couldn’t have agreed more. Of course, the primary beneficiary of this decision was Blitzen himself. An intelligent creature, he’d taken matters into his own paws and found a home with people who loved him and actually knew how to handle him.

My aversion to dogs was seriously reinforced some years later, when I was in college during the sixties. It was the Age of Aquarius and students allowed their pets the same total freedom they demanded for themselves. Roving packs of canines ran unfettered on the campus. Though the animals never showed the slightest interest in me, they presented an alarming picture, rising over the crest of the hill like a pack of wolves on the prowl, and heading straight for the main quadrangle where I often walked.

The dogs were even more poorly groomed than their long-haired owners. Worst among them was a once-elegant Afghan, whose hopelessly matted fur gave him a wild, maniacal appearance. I was terrified of the Afghan and his roving pack, but given the hang-loose demands of the era, I couldn’t let on. Still, I never crossed the quad without a heavy book bag for protection.

Naturally, I had no interest in getting a dog of my own. The first time I even considered the idea was years later, when my husband and I began to think about having a child. I wondered, was I ready for the responsibility? Perhaps I should practice on a dog. One trip to the pet store was all it took to convince me otherwise. No sooner did I pick up a long-haired dachshund puppy than I began wheezing and sneezing uncontrollably. Not only was I afraid of dogs—evidently, I was allergic to them, too. That’s it, I decided. A dog might be someone else’s best friend, but never mine.

Time and the birth of two children did little to change my mind. When my older son was an infant, I lived in fear of the Doberman down the street. A six-foot fence designed to restrain him didn’t do much to reassure me—every time I pushed my son’s stroller by it, I noticed with alarm that the dog’s frantic attempts to clear the hurdle were improving daily.

Just as success seemed imminent, the Doberman left town. For a while, I only had to contend with Ginger, the overweight beagle who lived next door and liked to relieve herself in our yard. As the years passed, though, more dogs moved into the neighborhood—first a border collie, then a Cairn terrier and a Pekinese. Eventually, almost every family had a dog. My two sons, now teenagers, begged for a puppy, but I resisted. Then friends who lived across the street got a miniature schnauzer. I was surprised. Hadn’t their younger daughter just left for college? Why get a dog now, with no children at home clamoring for one? Apparently, that was exactly the point. Faced with an empty nest, my friends filled the void with their puppy, Maxwell.

They doted on Maxwell, talked baby-talk to him, tied a bandanna around his neck. They took him everywhere. No food was too good for him. Clearly, they’d lost their senses. Or had they? Even I could see that an adorable little puppy might comfort me when my kids went off to college. And weren’t dogs known for their unswerving loyalty, their uncritical devotion? Compared to my kids, who were embarrassed by my every move, an animal that offered unconditional love had its appeal.

But how would my sons react if, after all their pleading, I finally got a dog only when they’d gone? They’d never forgive me. I realized the time to get a dog was now.

It had to be a hypoallergenic variety, of course—if there was such a thing. And it had to be small—I needed the advantage of size. After investigating numerous breeds, I opted for a toy poodle. Under fifteen inches tall, it wouldn’t be able to jump higher than my knees. And with hair instead of fur, it was less likely to provoke allergy attacks. Plus, poodles were regarded as smart and easy to train. As for my kids, they were willing to accept any breed, so long as it had four paws and a tail.

When we brought Cosmo home at eight weeks, he looked more like a furry mouse than a dog. I had prepared for his arrival by reading every book I could find about dog training, yet the first time he made a puddle on the kitchen floor, I panicked. What had possessed me to get a dog? I had visions of Blitzen, urinating regularly behind my mother’s favorite sofa, expressly to torture her. Cosmo must have sensed my misgivings, since he promptly got the message—within a week, he housebroke himself.

I had to admit he was cute, with his wagging little pom-pom of a tail. But when I tried to brush that tail, he growled at me. Again, I saw the specter of Blitzen, terrorizing the family. In desperation, I hired a trainer, who began initiating me into the mysteries of pack animals. Apparently, the solution was for me to become a dog! And not just any dog—the leader of Cosmo’s pack.

Somehow, I rose to the challenge. I learned to dominate Cosmo, mastering various commands—sit, stay, come. If he started chewing on my sock, I could tell him to drop it, and most of the time he actually did. During walks, Cosmo learned to heel—he quickly realized that if he didn’t obey, I could simply pick him up, all seven pounds of him, and carry him home.

The reward for my effort? I’ve become the object of Cosmo’s adoration. Even my husband and sons have to play second fiddle. Cosmo follows me everywhere, sleeps in my room, eats when I eat. It may be absurd, but I’m deeply flattered by his attention. We spend countless hours together—long walks, play sessions, cozy evenings on the couch. And I certainly spend more time and money on his grooming than I do on my own.

To think that an animal so small could overcome a lifetime of aversion. In fact, some might say that Cosmo’s got me pretty well trained. He’s certainly found his way into my heart. And no one is more surprised by my transformation to dog-lover than me.


Anonymous said...

Knowing Cosmo as I do he's worth the effort and actually he's not a dog at all. Bow wow, ruff ruff! (As per usual, very insightful)!

Anonymous said...

Another wonderful description. How about a picture of Cosmo?

Anonymous said...

I, too, was one of those mothers who fought against dogs--even though as a child, I longed for a dog so deeply that at four I made up an imaginary bright blue dog named Frizz. I guess I placed a guilt trip on my parents because soon after they bought me a little cocker spaniel, which I named Cubby because he looked just like a little bear cub.

My children won the pet war though, eventually we went through a long line of pets, from rabbits to racoons, and NOW? We have TWO German Jagdterriers who sleep in our bed with us. I love them; they love me; they are family, but sometimes I just sleep on the couch.

Anonymous said...

What a delightful tale--and I had no idea what a transformation owning Cosmo has been. Knowing your mutual devotion, I thought you were a life-long pal of dogs! Once again, you are full of surprises!

Anonymous said...

What fun to read a dog tale that turns from fear to love and humor throughout. Devotion is Cosmos whose loving owner has given her all.

Anonymous said...

As a confirmed dog lover, I can't understand not liking dogs in the first place, but am heartened to read that you are a confirmed convert. Welcome to the pack, Barbara! Cheryl