Last summer I got a toothache, a gold crown, and a dog.
It’s not Dr. Rice’s fault, really, that her office is just a mile or so down Plymouth Road from the Huron Valley Humane Society. It’s not Dr. Rice’s fault that while my lovely gold crown was being crafted, my temporary crown fell out about five separate times, necessitating five different trips out to Domino’s Farms for reinstallation. And it’s not Dr. Rice’s fault that when leaving her office, I kept inexplicably turning west, toward the dogs, instead of east toward home.
I am not a dog person, though I have always wanted to be. I grew up in a one-bedroom walkup apartment in midtown Manhattan. Desperate for pets, I befriended a cockroach and installed him (or her?) in a small box until my mother intervened. I had a snail named Fletcher with rhinestones glued all over his shell and loved him passionately until he ate through a Cray-pas drawing titled “Me and Tulips” and proceeded to excrete my artwork in an abstract expressionist style with which I was neither familiar nor enamored. My mother finally relented and procured a cat named Venus who quickly became pregnant, gave birth (to John, Paul, George, Ringo and Blackie), “lost her mind” and “disappeared” (so the grownups said). I accepted it, sadly. These things happen.
I tried to make do with the dogs of friends and neighbors. There were Tessa and Timothy, two snorting pugs belonging to the friendly bachelor in the next building. Every day after school I would run down Second Avenue to an antique store where the owner let me walk Clyde, his Rhodesian Ridgeback. One of my father’s girlfriends—very mod in her boots and minicoat—had Barnaby, a Cairn Terrier who absorbed much of my affection. I petted and petted and petted them all.
Then came Fab. Again, Fab was not our dog, but he came closest. He belonged to my dad’s housemate, a morose former beatnik named Paul Z. Dad and Paul Z. shared an ancient La Boheme-style loft over a Chinese restaurant just off Times Square and every time my dad and I trudged up the sour-smelling stairs and put the key in the door, Fab, a large schnauzer, would be on the other side, spinning in a hurricane of dog-joy. Once inside, the rapture would continue for five minutes at least—licking, dancing, yelping, emoting—until I would yell, “Fab! Where’s your bone?” And Fab would take off on a hunt, grateful for some new direction, toenails sklattering on the old, wood floor. Sometimes, while my dad was in the kitchen making me a fried baloney sandwich, I would sit on the couch and stroke Fab’s soft ears, look into his shiny button eyes, and pretend he was mine.
But soon after, Dad got his own “pad”. Paul Z. moved out of the city and I never saw Fab again
That was all a long time ago.
What I am is a cat person. My first real act as an adult were to move to Ann Arbor, and to get cats, to spay them and care for them, to not let them “lose their minds” or “disappear”. And this was mostly successful. I like cats. They’re warm, soft and independent. You can read all kinds of nonexistent emotions and human conditions into their blank stares. Wisdom? Oh, absolutely. Pride? Certainly. Scorn? So they say, though I have never had a scornful cat. And contentment. Lots of contentment. They don’t eat much. They play when you want them to play and sleep when you want them to sleep. What’s not to like? Busy with two decades of raising children, my dog dreams slumbered silently.
But about a year ago, with one kid out the door and the other sidling inexorably toward the hallway, something strange began to happen. Late at night, as I sat writing at my computer, I would put my hand down by my side and … expect a warm head to be there. I could almost feel it: large and bony, silky-furred and strokeable. I’d pull my hand away and wonder, “Is this a dog I’m wanting? Of course not. I am not a dog person. I am a cat person.” And I’d go back to the business at hand. It happened over and over.
Then there was Gato. Born in 1979, our cat was beyond old, having achieved a degree of ancientness that led us to almost believe she would never die. Almost. Everyone in the household agreed that Gato deserved to live out her remaining days, years or decades in pampered peace. Maybe then we would get a dog. Our other, more junior cats would be able to adapt to such a change.
But one day last May, we took Gato to the vet, hoping for some rehydration and tips to get her eating and drinking again. We came home with Gato-in-a-box, and a very sad day it was. The vet said, compassionately, “The warranty on this cat has expired” so we did what we had to do. An afternoon could not have been more lovely as we dug a hole in the front yard, festooned her box with flowers and commemorative words written in Magic Marker, and buried her. For one week after, candles burned all night amid the daisies and zinnias. A vigil. It was appropriate.
Then came the toothache, the discovery of a cluster of eroding fillings, the temporary crown, the resurgence of phantom warm, bony dog-head in my hand and the first of many post-dentist trips to the Huron Valley Humane Society out on Cherry Hill Road.
I like to go to the Humane Society. I’ve gone there for years, even when I’m not in the market for an animal. When I tell people I’ve been out there, just for fun, they tend to say, “Oh, I hate it out there. It’s so depressing.” And it is that, room after room of frantic barking, sad, reproachful eyes, hopelessness, listlessness, scrappy intelligence peering out from under tufts of doomed, shaggy brown fur. But the other side of it is the inspiring resilience of the animals: the cats who purr and preen in their multi-tier cages, the pooches whose tails spring to thumping life the second you crouch down and lock eyes, the people, volunteers and workers alike, sprinting down the halls in their rubber boots, shoveling shit, washing towels, walking dogs, and doing other, unspeakable tasks behind closed doors, tasks performed only by the very brave and very compassionate. For an emotion-junkie like me, it’s a prime bit of real estate.
And, for all the sadness and drama, I like to look at the dogs, because they are beautiful and funny at the same time. Even the ugly ones—and there are many—are beautiful and funny at the same time. Kind of like Lucille Ball, always my personal standard of excellence. And so I wandered the halls, read the blue cards stuck to the cages. Someone at the Humane Society spends a lot of time on those cards:
Age: 1 year (?)
Breed: Beagle/Chow mix
Needs: Clip nails, brush, LOVE!!!!!
Boofus was found behind the Maple Road Kroger. He is sweet, sweet, sweet! Won’t you be his forever family?
Age: 3 years (?)
Needs: Clip nails, run, brush, LOVE!!!!!
What a sweet girl. Her family had allergies and also had to move away. Heidi needs a home with no small children. She is spayed and ready to go!
Age: 2 years (?)
Breed: Doberman mix
Needs: fenced in yard, LOVE!!!
Don’t let Dino’s gruff exterior fool you—this guy’s a big hunka couch-potato love. Knows basic commands, but could use additional obedience. A little work and you’ll have a gem 2 LOVE 4-ever! Take me home!!!!!
The blue cards are really big on superlatives, exclamation points, the word “sweet”—anything to soften the image of the scruffy, decidedly un-“Best of Show”, sometimes snarling inmates. One reads them carefully, hoping for nudges from fate, “signs” that will mean you should take one home, to be your forever friend. But the only way to know is to take one out for a walk.
My second, secret trip I met Jasmine, a mid-sized Rottweiler mix. She was way down at the end of the dog-hall, second-to-last cage on the left. Amid a hurricane of bad-mannered barking from practically everyone in the room, Jasmine merely sat on a towel, leaning jauntily to one side in the manner of Rotties, and grinned broadly at me. “Hello, Smiley,” I whispered, bending down. She pressed her nose through the bars and sniffed at my hand. I slowly wormed my hand through a gap in the door and stroked her soft, black head as her eyes closed in grateful rapture. What a cool dog. “Hey, Jasmine. Want to go for a walk?” I located a harried worker who found a leash and unlocked the cage. This caused the volume of shrieking to rise to unprecedented heights and Jasmine milked the moment for all it was worth, darting back and forth between the unchosen as we made our way to the door. Once the leash was in my hand, placid, smiling Jasmine took off like a possessed bumper car as I held on grimly. The worker was unimpressed with my skills and came to the rescue. She took the leash back and said, as nicely as she could, “Why don’t I get a volunteer walker to come help you?” Well, I had no problem with that, and soon Jasmine was trotting amiably alongside James, a mild-mannered dog lover who was endlessly patient with both of us. We talked about everything dog, this kind stranger and I: Jasmine, dog training, what it’s like to volunteer at the Humane Society, his own pound-vintage dogs, waiting at home. And as we talked, we watched Jasmine sniff, pant and sit sideways in the warm summer grass.
Back home, I began to confess my activities, and broach the subject of actually adopting… Jasmine? Someone? My husband was… not against the idea, but cautious. There were the expected discussions of “being tied-down,” “vacation hardship,” “expense,” “cat-hardship” etc. but he emerged open to the idea, maybe even a little excited.
Then there was this startling reversal of an almost archetypal conversation:
Mom: Honey, guess what? We’re thinking about getting a dog! A puppy, maybe? What do you think about that?
Teenaged Son: Mom. (sigh) I’ve told you before. How many times do I have to say it? If you want to get a dog, I’m not going to have anything to do with it. I’m not going to walk it, I’m not going to clean up after it. It’s going to be your responsibility.
I took this as a yes and the following Saturday, I returned to Cherry Hill Road, hoping to see Smiley/Jasmine again. Well, Smiley/Jasmine was there, but she was not smiling. Her jaunty side-sit seemed out of place with the look of utter guilt-inducing accusation that oozed from her eyes. It had been a week. I had not returned. Where had I been? What was I thinking? Of course, she may have just been sleepy. I petted her head and thought about adopting her. What did I know about this dog? She seemed happy enough, normal enough, though she had once cowered on a walk when I tried to toss her a stick. Had she been beaten? Let’s be realistic, I thought: was a once-beaten Rottweiler mutt the best choice for a first-time, wannabe dog owner? I pulled my hand from her head and walked back up the aisle. A man and his wife were just entering the room. They looked nice, with kind of a country vibe. “Be sure to check out Jasmine,” I said, “way down there on the left. She’s a great dog.” I left without adopting anyone at all.
The next day, I brought my husband out. This was, after all, going to be a family affair even if some people had an attitude about it. Jasmine wasn’t holding a grudge and grinned broadly as we stopped by to say hi. Somehow, I got sidetracked by some kittens I had no business looking at. When I finally found Al, he was in the puppy room, just off the lobby. “Look down there,” he said, pointing to a cage at far end.
Amid the room’s cacophony of shrill barks and yaps, a large black and brown pup sat, regal as a sphinx, looking right at us, not making a sound.
It’s funny, but I can’t remember much of this part, even though it was just a few months ago. I know we were suddenly crouched by the wire mesh, that she was licking our fingers. I know that—flash—we were outside walking her with the ugly orange leash and collar she’d been wearing when she was picked up stray somewhere in Ypsilanti two weeks before. I remember that she liked to bite that leash, and to prance proudly rather than walk, that she picked up every pinecone she could find. Our discussions were suddenly fervent and serious. Could we handle this? The blue card said that “Diamond” was a “Rottweiler/Lab mix.” Was this too much dog for a novice like me? We sat in the grass and watched her. At 4 ½ months, she definitely had attitude and sass. “This is a great dog,” said my husband. “What a great dog. Look at her, Whit.” Fear and adoration tumbled through my insides. Adoration won. We decided to call her Dinah.
The decision made, we stood in line at the main desk, preparing for the interviews, background checks, phone calls to our vet, home inspection, fingerprinting and whatnot that would surely ensue. The room was crowded with people and dogs. A triple-decker cat cage stood by the wall. Dinah sniffed at the cats, but displayed no particular interest. The woman who’d released the puppy to us 45 minutes earlier came out, took a look at us standing there with her, said, “Oh, good!” and bustled back to work. That made me feel good. And get this: just behind us in line, Jasmine was grinning up at the country-vibe couple. Jasmine was going home. That made me feel really good.
We received a very nice counseling session by a lovely woman with an English accent who took every one of my anxieties and released it to some pleasant Cotswold pasture. “You’ll be fine,” she said, soothingly. “Be sure to get a crate. Get her into some obedience classes as soon as possible. Give her lots of things to chew. Your cats? Your cats will be fine. Just give them time to adjust.”
“So, can we get her tomorrow?” I asked. “Will that give you enough time to call our vet and do all the paperwork?”
The lady looked confused. “Oh, you can take her now!”
“Now? But we don’t have anything! We don’t have a crate. We don’t…”
“Don’t worry,” she smiled. “There’s a Pet Supplies Plus on Plymouth Road.”
“But it’s Sunday…”
“Don’t worry. I think they’re open til six. We’ll call them for you to be sure.”
It was 5:30. A long pause.
“You have to take her now. Please. ” she said. “We need the space.”
Fifteen minutes later, we were lassooing our velvety, new charge down the bright, linoleum aisles of Pet Supplies Plus, a store I had never been in before. My eyes were as wide as Dinah’s. Imagine: all these products I’d never thought about before, much less purchased. And, oh, we purchased. A crate, leashes, toys, high-priced puppy kibble, balls, stuff to chew…
Dinah really seemed to like her new home. She wandered the rooms, her black toenails clacking on the hardwood floors, sniffing everything: the place where some coffee spilled a year ago, our exercise mat, the corner where we put our Christmas tree, the spot on the sofa where Gato used to sleep. It was pretty cute, but any rosy fantasies of cuddling up on the sofa with our new puppy were quickly laid to rest. Dinah was, in a word, mouthy. By this I mean that she bit—sometimes hard—any hand that came her way. It wasn’t mean, aggressive biting, but it was completely unacceptable. I found myself holding back tears. What had we done? Who, what, was this large and unruly creature scampering through our once peaceful living room, chasing our cats and mouthing my hands, nipping at my skirt and anything that moved. I did not love her yet. I wasn’t sure I liked her, but I could feel something deep within me making a profound adjustment, like an inner glacier, stirred to action.
That night, we put Dinah in her crate in the living room. She cried a bit, a pathetic bit of music, then curled up and went to sleep. I, however, stayed awake all night, listening for trouble. Would she bark at every passing car? Would she get tangled in her blankets and strangle? Would she pee or worse in her crate? And, more to the point, WHAT HAD WE DONE???
Then next morning, Dinah was up at a reasonable hour, crying softly for release. We scampered downstairs and inspected the bedding. Dry as a bone. We hustled her outside where she peed like a racehorse. And pooped.
Suddenly, I was encountering the other reason I’d kept my dog person persona under lock and key for so long. Owning a dog means becoming intimately involved with dog poop: anticipating it, watching it emerge, cleaning up after it. First off, let me say that I am totally, 100 percent behind Ann Arbor’s dog poop laws, perhaps to an extreme degree. My Old West Side neighborhood is filled with people who apparently disagree with them however, and this has translated into some testy feelings as I try and sprint across my extension to my car, dodging dogpies. It got so bad I started spying on the most frequent offenders. One woman I confronted said, “No problem, I’ll pick it up on the way back.”
Sure. I had my son and his friend follow her—unseen and at a distance—and they reported that she indeed pocketed some shit, but it was some other dog’s on someone else’s extension. Grrr. Then there was this enraging tidbit: one night I happened to go outside to bring our empty garbage cans back to the garage. There by the curb, poised like a toy ballerina on a music box, was a dogowner from down the street, his arm extended over our hapless garbage can, dangling his choice morsel over the abyss. He looked up and tried not to look guilty.
“Uh, do you mind if I put this in here?”
“Actually,” I said, “that probably won’t work for me. It’ll probably get mashed down into the bottom of the can and our hardworking sanitation workers might not appreciate it.”
I might not have said this quite so nicely. I mean, would he have asked me if I hadn’t caught him in the act? At any rate, our pantheon of morality harumphed off down the street actually muttering under his breath.
Point being, I’d had some issues with dog poop. Now I was on the other side of the fence, faced with years of stooping and disposing. I stashed blue New York Times delivery bags into every jacket pocket, and made a vow to do my best.
After a couple of days, Dinah seemed happy enough, but I was a mess. It was strange, but as I walked her up and down the summer streets, I felt like an imposter, as if I were walking someone else’s dog, a dog over whom I had only a tenuous control. She was big and crazy. She pulled on the leash. She picked up every piece of trash on the street and growled at me when I tried to take it away. She nipped at my ankles and hands as I tried to pet her, to love her. Otherwise, she hardly seemed to notice me. Where were the adoring looks into each other’s eyes? Where was this fabled will to please me? Why didn’t I feel anything? Weeping, I told my husband I’d give it another week, but that if I couldn’t handle it, would he help me find a good home for Dinah? He looked stricken but agreed. I prayed for guidance and it came in the form of dog trainer Sue Gehrke.
We called Sue at about 8 on a Monday night. Perhaps she heard the desperation in my voice, because within an hour, we were pulling into her driveway. She led us into a basement workroom, festooned with literally hundreds of dog obedience ribbons. Sue was kind but no-nonsense as she listened to our concerns. Number one on our list: mouthing and nipping. One spritz with a spray bottle and Dinah was suddenly thinking about mouthing in a whole new way. We learned about the value of food treats, about our tone of voice, about being consistent, and most of all about being THE BOSS OF THIS DOG. Within an hour, Dinah was sitting on command, lying down on command, coming on command. It was sobering. It was liberating. It was fascinating. When we left, Dinah was exhausted and I was filled with hope.
It was full summer when we found Dinah, and now all the leaves are off the trees. We’ve had her for three months now and it’s startling to realize that whoever had her first, those long-ago owners who never came to get her, had her for even longer than that. Sometimes I wonder if they miss her. About a thousand pieces of hot dog, two obedience courses and hundreds of walks and training sessions later, Dinah is a good dog. Of course, time has played its part. At eight months, she’s still a pup – a very big pup – but the months have turned her calm and sweet. We can see quite clearly now the dog she will grow to be. In the morning, she emerges from her crate, stretches one long leg, then the other, and saunters over to me sleepily for the morning jowl-massage. Then we take a walk.
One of the most transformative aspects of this whole business is being outside. I have spent more time outside in the past three months than at any time in my life. I calculate that I have walked about 80 miles in that time, mostly through my neighborhood. And I can’t believe how beautiful it all is: the changing of the leaves, the pitch of these old roofs against the sky, a pair of bright pink rocking chairs on someone’s porch in the early morning sun. Dinah leads me through it all every day, sometimes ahead of me, like an explorer, a navigator, sometimes by my side. When I call she comes quickly, so at home in her sleek, strong body, and sits before me. And at night, when I’m working at my desk, hers is the head in my hand.
I call her my Beauty Queen, which is not surprising since this all started with a gold crown.
And thank you, Dr. Rice.
Better days: Gentle Leader, dog park
Dog grow part
(Dog growing part)
Meanwhile, Dinah got bigger and bigger, in the manner of alien life forms on disabled spacecraft. (“Captain’s log, StarDate 3564.8: The dog continues to grow. Whether it is atmosphere on board, or our proximity to the radiation of Epsilon Five, she will soon be pressing against the bars of the brig, where she has been confined. She continues to consume everything in sight. All attempts at reason are futile, as she seems not to understand us at all. The situation seems hopeless. God help us all. Over and out.”