No question, this was my easiest pregnancy. There was no morning sickness. No heartburn. No weight gain. No elastic waist bands or built-in pouches to conceal my bulging belly. And talk about an easy labor. There were no contractions. No cries of “Get this thing outta me now!” No need for an epidural or a foam donut to sit my butt on as my incisions healed. All I had to do was pay the breeder an insane amount of money, and the bundle of joy landed right in my lap.
Two separate events conspired to bring a precocious yellow Labrador into my life. The first involved my brother’s decision to get a dog. I can’t overstate the hugeness of this move on his part. We grew up in a home of champion allergy-sufferers. Ours was a dander-free zone where the only pets allowed were feathered, scaly, water-bound or easily lost behind washing machines or under sofas, never to be seen again. There was the occasional parrot, the tiny turtle. Despite this iffy heritage, my brother, who never met a dog he liked, went ahead and adopted an older mixed breed, anyway. Penny was small and compact, sweet tempered and docile. Until left alone. Alone-time made her nervous. An empty house brought out her abandonment issues. She did naughty things, like gnaw through wooden gates, furniture, curtains and rugs.
Eventually, John and Penny reached an understanding. He hung in there through all the initial damage and house training and vet bills and it paid off. Penny was his reward after a long day at work. She amused and delighted him. She’s gone now. In her place: Lucky, an adorable mutt you can’t turn your back on for a second.
If my brave brother hadn’t taken the plunge first, I never would’ve found the courage to get a dog. My whole life doctors told me I was allergic to dogs and I took them at their word. In fact, I banked on it. I perfected the allergy excuse. I broke into wheezing fits by way of demonstration. It was the best fallback position a mother could want. I pulled it out every time my sons begged for a cute little puppy of their own. My brother’s entry into the land of doggy nirvana weakened my reserve, but only slightly. He still sneezed his head off every morning.
I wasn’t ready to make the leap into doghood. Not until another event altered my position. My sons were 14 and 10 when my in-laws had to put down Tara, a beautiful black lab. Shortly thereafter, the boys called a family meeting and demanded a dog. They left little room for negotiation. My husband and I looked at each other. We forgot about my allergies and all our other logical objections. For whatever reason, we were finally ready to take this on. “Let’s do it," we said.
The boys went crazy, jumping up and down, smacking each other around. They couldn’t believe we caved that easily. They expected a battle. They got the go-ahead, instead. I did throw in one small caveat, however. I made them acknowledge that I’d be the one doing doggy detail. They could promise to clean up poop and walk the dog, but given their track record for making beds, putting laundry away and taking out the trash, it wasn’t a safe bet. They wanted a puppy to love. The grunt work? That was my department, and to a limited extent, my husband’s. He’d get the early morning shift; I’d take the rest of the day. Of course, I was the logical candidate for the job. I knew zero about dogs. But then, I didn’t know that much about babies when I took on that job, either, and I’d managed to keep my sons alive. How much harder could it be to take care of a dog?
I was about to find out.
Raising our third son proved harder than any of us expected. The warnings and helpful advice from friends who stood by us, anticipating disaster, didn’t make it any easier. “Expect $3,000 in damage,” said someone I’m no longer talking to, mainly because her estimate came in low. Even my brother, my inspiration, didn’t know what to think. “I don’t do puppies. Puppies bite. Call me when he’s five.”
Only one friend, well-versed in puppy matters, gave us lifesaving advice. “Two words: Crate training.”
Dog people tend to disparage crate training, a concept based on centuries-old instincts in dogs, but I never would’ve survived without it. Dogs like to have a nice, secure nesting place, their own little den away from other distractions. Basically, the crate becomes their safe house, a haven for when they're stressed out. It’s not about punishment. It’s about serenity and well-being.
No wonder I liked to crawl in there sometimes, and hide from my children.
Within a month, Dusty was done crapping in the house.
House training turned out to be the least of our problems. It was the chewing and the biting; the overall destruction of clothing, pillows and carpet that got to us. And most of this happened under our watch. Most of it. As he got older, we let him wander around when we weren’t home. One time, we came back from a bar mitzvah and found he’d chewed through the carpeting on the stairs, straight to the wood.
Through trial and error, we learned to put the good pillows away, to close bedroom doors and doggy-proof to the best of our ability. We learned to train him with puppy treats and make him sit and heel and fetch balls. Still, there were certain behaviors – forget the private trainers, group sessions, instructional DVDs – that lingered; that, as a family, we never quite mastered. To this day, he remains the supreme Counter Surfer of the western world. Clever boy, he can steal a sandwich or a slice of pizza in seconds flat. He is the king of diversionary tactics. He can grab your napkin, and as you bend down to reclaim it, jump up, knock over a chair, and consume your entire plate of Chinese take-out. It happens so fast, you can’t stop it. You are powerless in his midst.
Are we proud of these behaviors? Well, no. Not at all. But they define our existence. The gifted way Dusty greets anyone who comes through the front door has become legendary. He leaps on visitors, paws them, circles and sniffs them, usually in the lower regions, trying to determine whether they’ve brought him treats. He assumes they came over just to play with him. When he discovers this isn’t the case, he snatches their belongings and runs through the house with their baseball cap or sunglasses or bikini bottom. And he doesn’t drop his grand prize until he’s shown a treat and commanded to, “Drop it right now!” When he drops the stolen item, he gets the treat. I have to admit, it’s a pretty good system.
One day, I’m hoping to convince him he’s no longer a puppy.
Through it all, I’ve crossed over to the other side. You know the one I’m talking about. You either belong to it or you don’t. It’s the rooting section occupied by giddy dog worshippers who love all things canine and don’t understand the misguided outsiders who just don’t get it. Those who’ve known me from my pre-dog days can’t believe what’s happened to me, and I’m going on 10 years now. When my friends hear me cooing over Dusty, they hang up. When my dad hears me singing to Dusty, he wonders where he went wrong.
Yes, I’ve become one of those lunatics who talks to her dog all day long. “Come here, baby, give Mommy a kissy, I love you, baby, that’s a good boy, who’s a snuggle bear?” He’s resting at my feet right now, all devoted and loyal, protecting me from who-knows-what. So what if we’ve replaced the carpeting, removed the carpeting, put in hardwood floors and Spanish tile on the stairs, and watched our lawn turn yellow, lost a valuable or a shoe or a pillow, and spent untold dollars on vet bills along the way? It’s all been worth it, truly, it has. And those allergies of mine? They still flare up now and then. Only seven days a week. But getting a dog was the smartest thing I could’ve done, the best medicine of all. For 10 years, he’s been a daily source of joy, laughter and love.
I’m a dog person now. Go figure.
Carol Starr Schneider is a writer living in California.