Should We Get a Dog? (Woof?)
We are basically cat people. We have a great cat named Maia (in her mind, she has us) and would like to get another, but a dog or ferret or chinchilla is possible. (I don’t quite get my fourteen-year-old’s interest in a chinchilla, to me a cute but expensive plush toy—which Maia may think, too.) I’m cautiously tempted by the dog idea. I’ve never owned a dog, but I spent enough time with them as a kid to realize it’s a different sort of relationship from a cat or hamster, etc. There must first be consensus on what we do, and I’m not quite sure what my opinion is. I am not sold on the extra responsibility, expense, and, well, poop. (I am increasingly convinced that all pets poop.)
There’s no problem with Maia (I note this because she contributes to the blog). I conditioned her as a kitten to be more more doglike than the average cat. For example, she comes when called by me, occasionally fetches, and likes more aggressive physical affection than most cats. If anything she likes me a bit too much and sometimes follows me around the house, biting me if I don’t perform. If at all, I think she’ll tolerate another pet if she can play with, sleep on, or, at worst, ignore it. (No offense to Maia, but I’d like an animal with more engaging entertainments than crippling the occasional mouse. Maia, that’s called “not taking care of your toys.”)
Of the dogs from my past, the most recent was Keesha, an adorable Keeshond puppy I took care of often while living with friends in L.A. and teaching flying. I was 18. She went to work with me a number of times and was popular there, though I got in trouble for a couple of slippery messes she dropped in the hangar. Keeshonden are cute balls of fur kind of like Samoyeds (if you groom them) and affectionate, but not the brightest lights in the kennel. The breed originated as “watchdogs and rat catchers on barges in Holland.” They are remarkably pretty despite beginning with this rather humble profession, but I doubt we’d be good about the grooming.
Now, Clyde was a terrier and beagle mix that belonged to my mother’s good friend in San Francisco. I adored that dog. He was smart and friendly, and when we moved to Los Angeles he actually came to visit when I was eleven. We ended up keeping him for a number of weeks, and he was popular with us to the point that his owner finally had to come down to pick him up. That was actually the year we lived on the grounds of residential mental hospital in Pasadena (yes, in time I’ll write about that remarkable year, which was not at all like Cuckoo’s Nest!). I think there was some administrative leniency towards me in allowing me to keep him, and I benefitted from the companionship (one has fewer sleepovers while living in a mental hospital). We eventually got a couple of very nice cats, but it’s not the same.
My earliest and most compelling dog memory is Bravo, a standard poodle we sort of inherited from the landlord along with an apartment where we lived our last year in San Francisco, on Webster Street near Union. I was in the second grade, and I adored that dog. When he ran, he looked hilarious, like a mad curly-haired seesaw. But a standard poodle is a lot of dog for such a thoroughly urban environment, and I bet Bravo was stir crazy. That may account for his falling into the cliché of trying to bite the mailman and being sent to “live in the country,” which I pray did not mean euthanasia. He was generally a sweet and adorable dog—you can see in the picture my affection for him—but my mom worried he might turn on me if I made the wrong move, as little kids often do.
There are two iconic Bravo stories that I share because they are funny and because they reveal something about my mom. It is telling that she would tell them often even though they were embarrassing; she loved to laugh. The first was the big Thanksgiving dinner she threw for our family, which would have been about ten people including her mother. She explained that the dinner was a big deal because the family figured this single mom and notoriously awful cook was probably poisoning me. And so she did the big turkey thing. Ducking into the kitchen to bring it out like the perfect hostess, she found Bravo with his legs up on the counter and teeth locked into the bird, growling and tugging his prize to the floor. Now, my mother was a practical, intelligent, and sometimes disingenuous woman, so she trimmed out the tooth marks and served the turkey. To the guests she explained with a giggle, “Oh, I got a little hungry.”
I’m not sure she ever told that story to them.
The other story was about when she drove me to school one morning, the dog coming along for the ride. She was not a morning person and often drove me over clutching her coffee and wearing a ratty housecoat or bathrobe and slippers. Big mistake. On the way home, Bravo spotted a little dog on the sidewalk whose existence offended him and vaulted over my mother on out the open window. She said he proceeded to pin the little dog down while barking ferociously. The owner on the other end of the leash and various bystanders screamed at my mother to do something. She said she simply froze. Bravo fortunately tired of chastising the little dog and walked out into the middle of the intersection. He reared up on his hind legs—a neat trick if you’ve not seen it—and just stood there, slowly turning around and surveying all the commotion. She finally got him into the car and scurried away with her tail between her legs. I doubt she ever drove through that neighborhood again.
I mention these stories partly because my childhood so heavily affects my interest in having a dog. But they also influence my desire to provide for the boys while providing a good home for a dog in need. I know that this is pretty much the last opportunity for them, at 11 and 14, to have a dog as kids. It’s fun, but also will affect who they become. It goes without saying that childhood is a formative period. Each of the small years is to the child uniquely long and transformative, and the memories form much deeper, seeding the foundations in concrete or sand for the life that comes after. For my kids, I strive and, as time runs out, rush to give them all that I can, including so much that I lacked. My desire to provide them what I didn’t have in my often chaotic youth won’t decide the refreshingly prosaic question of whether to get a dog, but it makes me take special notice.
Now, really, if I could just find a dog that doesn’t poop.