After I got over my dog phobia, when I was around 8 or 9, I swung to the opposite end of the spectrum and became obsessed with dogs–a passion that has clearly maintained itself up to the present. The interesting thing was that until Emma, my family did not have dogs. I have always thought this strange, especially since my father is as fond of dogs as I am. But I think my parents determined that having four young children was enough of a zoo without adding actual animals to the family unit. We had rabbits and fish and mice and parakeets, which I adored to varying degrees, but all I ever wanted was a dog of my own.
To ameliorate this driving need to be with dogs, I started a pet-sitting and dog-walking business in our large suburban neighborhood when I was 11 or 12. My fellow employees were my sisters and a few of our friends. Within a few months, we became the neighborhood’s go-to pet-sitters and raked in quite a lot of cash (to us, at least). We were very popular because we were available during the day, since we were homeschooled. What these people didn’t know, however, that up until this point, all of my purported knowledge about dogs had come from books. I read voraciously, as I still do, but I had never actually lived with a dog myself. My hands-on knowledge with dogs came, therefore, from the trial-and-error of the many years that followed of walking, chasing, feeding, cleaning up after and caring for our neighborhood’s dogs.
The Dogs of My Childhood
Most of these dogs still remain very vividly in my memory. I wish I had pictures of them to share with you. Our first love was Scoop, a giant, lumbering white lab who belonged to our neighbors across the street, Kim and Dave, who later became our closest family friends (and remain so to this day). Scoop was immense, much larger than any labrador I’ve seen, even to this day. I think Dave said that he weighed 120 pounds at his peak, and he was never overweight–he was just HUGE. (Dave had a fondness for polar bears, mainly because they reminded him of Scoop.) Like most huge dogs, Scoop was endlessly gentle and patient. We were tiny little girls, but we could walk him without difficulty on his heavy, black retractable leash.
We recently watched an old home video in which we were putting on some play in the backyard about Vesuvius for a school project. We were simulating the peaceful country life of Italian residents in our homemade film, and my sister was playing a farmer, plowing his field. Attached to the makeshift plow? Scoop, who made an excellent ox. Scoop played along with us and followed our quick and frantic directions. I forget how often he was just a willing and patient companion to our many childhood antics.
He adored the water. I remember walking Scoop with my dad on the neighborhood golf course. Dad had tied a huge, long rope to his collar, because he didn’t like using the retractable leash. We came over a hill and there was a pond resting at the bottom of the high hill. The second Scoop saw the pond, he took off. I don’t think I’d ever seen him move so fast. Dad lost his grip on the rope and Scoop dove into the murky water, swimming happily. Dad started to get anxious that he would get tangled up in the long rope and drown, but he was fine. After he’d had his swim, he climbed out, shook water all over us, and was ready to follow us home.
Dave, a writer, had an office in the top floor of their house with one window that looked out over the street. This was Scoop’s perch, and we often saw his huge, white head sticking out of the window, peacefully watching the neighborhood go by. In his old age, his hips began to go, as with most dogs of giant size. He lumbered around the house and his paws with the overly long nails clacked on Kim and Dave’s floors. Dave once accidentally backed over him in their SUV, while Scoop wasn’t paying attention in the valley of the driveway. He was beside himself with grief, but Scoop seemed unfazed by the incident, and the vet declared him only bruised. He began to go deaf and blind and finally, when he could no longer walk, Dave took him into the vet to be put down. The whole neighborhood grieved for him. We still talk about him in dreamy, mythical terms, the legendary and great Scoop, the immortal lab.
When we weren’t walking Scoop, we spent many of our days walking Niko, a young and slender black lab mix. Niko looked mostly lab, but he was skinny and had a deeper chest like a sighthound. We would take him out in the afternoons while his people were at work. Niko had tons of energy and hated being left alone. We liked him, but I particularly recall one afternoon when we wanted to kill him. His mom always left our cash for us on the table and she’d leave a few days’ worth of money at a time. On this particular afternoon, we walked in and saw confetti all over the table and kitchen floor. Niko had shredded our $20 bill, which was a great deal of money to us at that time. We were furious with him. We raged and shouted at him. He slunk away but then came bounding back to us, tail wagging, eager to go on his walk. It was hard to stay angry at him for too long. For whatever reason, we never told his people that he’d eaten our payment and we just went without it for the week.
There was Koosh, the neglected black cocker spaniel who lived all of his sad, lonely life outdoors. His fur was terribly matted and his bangs had grown over his eyes so that they were difficult to find. We were never asked to walk him, but we’d always greet him through the thin slats of the wooden fence, touch the tip of his nose with our fingertips. Our friends, who lived next door to him, swore that he was abused. We spent weeks planning a coup in which we would climb the fence, grab Koosh, and keep him forever, love him and nurse him back to health. We never followed through with this dognapping, but we thought about it every time we passed his fence and saw his sad, mournful eyes.
Then there were the terriers. These terriers solidified most of my poor opinion of terriers, because they were always the most difficult and unpleasant dogs we ever had to work with–though often for no fault of their own.
There was Baron, the aging Yorkshire terrier, who had a foul disposition and had never been fully housetrained. This made for unpleasant pet-sitting, because every day, he’d leave a pile of poop in the dining room and a puddle of urine in the kitchen. His owner’s wife had recently left him and the man was in no state to tend to his sorry little dog. We were called over to take him out frequently, but Baron hated every minute of our visits. He was always afraid of us and tried to bite us when we would try to take him out. We were all bitten several times by this dog, no matter how gently or quietly or calmly we tried to approach him. It was a good day if we were actually able to snap his leash on his collar without getting bitten. Taking the leash back off was another challenge entirely. I remember one day when we were asked to take him out and he had whipped himself into a frenzy. We found one of the fathers in the neighborhood, a huge, tall man, and asked him to come over and help us. Baron was definitely upset by his presence and so the man put on pot holders and picked up the snarling, snapping little dog and just dropped him in the front yard. To our shock, Baron did his business and then quickly slunk inside.
Our childhood friend got a tiny West Highland white terrier puppy and named her Bianca. Bianca was a pretty little nightmare, but looking back, I’m not sure how much of that was our fault. She was pampered by her family and taken to dog biscuit bakeries and given cooked chicken daily. All of these excesses were new to me. But she was never trained to any noticeable degree. You couldn’t open the front door without having someone restrain Bianca, because as soon as she saw the crack of light from the outside, she was gone. And I mean GONE. This little dog could run. We spent many harrowing afternoons chasing her down the busy parkway and tackling her as soon as she would stop to pee (which was the only way we could ever catch her). (Side note: I think Bianca may still be living at this point. She has got to be about 14 or 15 years old now.)
The only terrier I’ve ever loved was Boomer. Boomer was a small, super-high energy Jack Russell terrier who lived with a young family. When her parents started having babies of their own, Boomer’s needs were difficult to meet, and so I became Boomer’s running partner. I would come over in the late afternoon to pick Boomer up and she would jump from the floor to almost over my head when I picked up her leash. Even when she was old, nearly 12 or 13, she was still a bundle of nervous and excited energy. We went running together frequently, up until her family moved away. I still think of her fondly.
Then there were Emma‘s sisters. After we picked out Emma from her litter, another friend and her family went to visit the same breeder and came back announcing that they had bought two of the puppies: The runt, which they named Belle, and the biggest female, which they named Tess. All of us only learned later that female dogs often do not coexist very peacefully and that sisters can be especially prone to fighting. We would take Emma over to visit with her sisters, expecting much fun puppy wrestling, but instead, the wrestling turned into full-scale fights, in which ears would be clipped and blood would be drawn. Sibling rivalry at its finest. Shaken, we all determined that the girls should not be permitted to visit one another anymore. As time worn on, Tess and Belle began to fight each other and it got so bad that the family had to keep them permanently separated from one another. There were happy times with the sisters, though, too. Once, we found them all frolicking together in the backyard, each of them trying to grab the same item. As we got closer, we found that they were triumphantly toting around the body of a dead bird and they were competing with one another to see who got to carry the trophy. We were disgusted, but they were extremely pleased with themselves.
All of these dogs still live in mythic proportions in my mind, but as I look back over all of these memories, I am also reminded that no dog is without his or her faults. No dog is consistently perfect, but all of these dogs were perfect guides into the diverse and complex world of canine living.