My parents had a medium sized mutt of a dog. She had a terrier face and short, silky black hair. By the time I came along, she was already going salt-n-pepper around her eyes and nose. An old girl used to adults, she wasn’t really the kind of dog a youngster could pal around with. While not especially interested in being mauled by a three year old, she definitely knew I was family. No one–not even my parents–could raise a hand to me without invoking a low, threatening growl. Possibly even some stern yaps of disapproval, if you really pushed your luck.
Once she passed away, there were no more dogs. Well, not really. There was a small, fluffy, innocent looking bit of fuzz who wanted nothing more than to be spoiled rotten, but we were a bit too busy for that. There was work and school all day. Then there was Lord-knows-what activity in which I might be participating. Though housebroken, the bit of fuzz knew just how to express his displeasure. My dad would take him for a walk, and I don’t mean a trip around the block. I mean walking for blocks on end. That dog either wouldn’t pee at all or would grace dad with a little spritz, and back in the house, he would promptly pee on the floor. This resulted in a string of frustrated epithets and “bad words” from dad, while my mother interjected, “Ronnie! Don’t curse!” I thought it was all too funny. Needless to say, this attempt at dog ownership didn’t last long. The fluff ball was re-homed to a little old lady who spoiled him rotten and could never understand our problem with him. He was perfectly well behaved for her.
Then there was one more attempt. My parents understood I really wanted a dog, missed their first one, and wanted so much to try and get another. The unfortunate thing was that this one was, if I recall, some sort of Corgi or Beagle mix. Possibly, it was part wolf. Every single time the fire sirens or police cars started in town, he was right there howling along. Every. Single. Time. Even and especially if it were, say, two in the morning. You can guess how long that lasted before this dog was also re-homed. By this, be clear that I do not mean to a shelter, but rather adopted by another (probably unsuspecting) family. After that it really was no more dogs. I was allergic to cats, and my father couldn’t stand them. So that was also a no go.
I resolved to get a pet on the glorious day when I was a real grown-up. By the time I had a home of my own, I realized that a dog was going to be difficult. I was. I was engaged in plenty of social activities beyond work, and I was not exactly a homebody. I settled on a ferret because he was social, curious, adorable but independent in a cat-like way, and would also use a litter box. (Well, sort of anyway.) One ferret soon became two, so that no one would be “lonely”.
All was well until my first child arrived. High-maintenance is an understatement. I soon became a beleaguered new mom who could barely manage one infant whose preferred status in life was glued to one hip or the other by means of the indispensable “Over the Shoulder Baby Holder”. A throwback to the slings of village life in days of old, it was the absolute only way to get anything at all done. Squeezing in a shower was a crapshoot. Taking care of myself? Optional. Taking care of two pets? Out of the question. Fortunately, I had a friend who was an aficionado and already owned one ferret. She was only too happy to take on the lively pair. The pet thing, I concluded reluctantly, was not likely to work out well for me.
I came to view goo-goo eyed, slobbery, kissy-faced pet owners as a few fries short of a Happy Meal. Babies had personalities. Children had personalities. Friends had personalities. Dogs and cats–even my ferrets–did not. One woof or meow was pretty much like the next so far as I could tell. I didn’t mind them. Often times when I visited patients as a home care nurse they were surprised and put at ease when their pets responded to me with affection. One old fellow in particular had an equally ancient chihuahua who hated just about everyone. He’d jump in my lap at some point during every visit. Except then there were the “Cat Ladies.” Three sisters who literally had millions of cats. If you want to be picky about word meanings, perhaps “literally” seems too strong of a word. Trust me on this. You did not see this house. It would be utterly impossible to overstate the extent of the feline population. Cats on the credenza. Cats on the bookshelves. Cats from kitchen to bedroom to basement. Indoor cats. Outdoor cats. Cats with (God help us) kittens. One cat can leave a lot of pungent cat smell around if the owner is not meticulous. No way could you care for that many at once. The stench did this time in an entirely literal way, literally make my eyes water.
Eventually years passed. Baby number two came along, and then, sadly, a divorce and a move to a new house. There, one neighbor had a docile Border Collie mix. Another had a Yorkie-Poo fluff-ball (an insipid name for an insipid breed, but yes, I confess, a revoltingly cute one.) And then there was Ellen, a scary looking cross-breed comprised of timber wolf, German Shepherd, Husky, and Chow. She was really a gentle giant who I came to adore. The sentiment was returned, which turned out to be a good thing. Her owner got pretty sick during the winter one year. Someone needed to take care of the dog, get her out for walks and so on. In the manner of a wolf, she was a definite pack animal and utterly devoted to her master. I offered to walk her. He was convinced she’d never go with me. I was smugly self-satisfied to count myself part of Ellen’s “pack” when she agreed without so much as a backward glance to “go with”.
For my part, I learned that there was a particular joy to getting out of the house and walking the dog. Winter can turn me into a bit of a hermit. I definitely do not care for the darkest and most frigid days of winter, despite the inherent beauty of snow. Walking briskly with Ellen taught me to appreciate the undisturbed quiet. It was so still that all I could hear was the crunch of snow beneath my boots and the sound of my own breath. Walking along the banks of the Delaware gave me pause as I observed how, from summer to winter, the river changed character. Noisy rapids in summer became surprisingly quiet when the coldest days and nights caused the rapids to film over with ice, so that they bubbled and gurgled in a very different voice from their summer crescendo.
My biggest mistake was introducing my children into Ellen’s pack. To say that they bonded doesn’t quite cover it. The hairy beast converted the children with all the religious zeal of a mullah calling for jihad. It actually felt a little like being under siege what with all the begging and pleading.
“Can we get a dog? Please?! Pretty please?! Ellen is so much fun. Please?”
I started quietly researching my options. I didn’t want a designer dog. I wanted a loveable mutt. With a few basic criteria. Housebroken: essential, given my parents’ less than successful efforts years earlier. Gentle but playful: I had children, after all, and they were guaranteed to rough up any four-legged creature that had the misfortune of crossing their path. Low pricetag: No $500+ foolishness for me on my already limited budget.
I got lucky. Someone referred me to a great rescue network. I was initially a bit put off by all their criteria. A lengthy interview about our family and what the expectations of a dog might be. Our needs. Our schedule. A meet and greet with all family members was non-negotiable. Referrals were a necessity. I get it now.
She’s not a perfect pet. But she’s the perfect pet for us. We are indisputably her people. Yes, she does have her own personality. She’s been rolled with, wrestled with, chased all over the house, has suffered having her teeth brushed and her ears pulled. My kids adore her and the feeling is returned in spades. As for me, she squiggles joyfully when I come home, tail wagging and a huge doggy grin on her face. She has snuggled devotedly to my side on days I’ve been ill, or on nights when I’ve wearily collapsed into tears. And oh, yes. I, too have devolved into one of those goo-goo eyed, slobbery, kissy-faced pet owners. Never say never!