For the record: I do not dislike dogs. I just don’t want to own one. Regarding my position on dogs, I am a bit like those who are childless by choice, who don’t mind spending time with other people’s kids, once in a while.
Over four years ago we got a dog to appease my then six-year-old pet-loving daughter. She pled, bargained—“I’ll walk him and feed him, and he can sleep in my bed”— and argued with us for over a year until we finally surrendered. My husband, who is allergic to most furry creatures, and I, probably caved in, against our better judgments, to alleviate our guilt for failing to provide our daughter with a human sibling. A hairy, four-legged one would make up for it, I hoped.
My own experience of full-time dog ownership was rather limited. When I was about eleven, a dog walked into our lives. In an urban version of “Can we keep him? He followed me home,” my father and two younger brothers encountered a mutt in the elevator of our apartment building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. How the dog entered the building, much less, found the elevator and rode up and down in it for some period of time, still remains a mystery. The doorman must have been on a break or looking straight ahead at eye level for humans entering and exiting the building, rather than at ground level for free-ranging puppies.
Upon returning from playing in the park on a Sunday afternoon, the males of my family discovered an adorable stray mutt puppy making herself at home while riding the elevator up to our apartment, as if she were a rent-paying denizen of the building. Needless to say, my brothers found the perfect opportunity to convince my father to adopt the dog. So they discussed the matter as they journeyed to nowhere, up and down in the elevator with the dog. After multiple trips from the lobby to our apartment on the eleventh floor, they finally persuaded my dog-loving and overly gullible father to bring the pup home. They also strategized about how they would plead their case to my mother, knowing that she, the more pragmatic parent and the one who would inevitably be burdened with most of the dog care, would not be easy to win over.
Holding the dog like a precious parcel, my youngest brother entered our apartment surrounded by my other brother and father, and in his adorable, ingenuous, eight-year old way, looking at my mother earnestly with his big brown eyes, declared, “Look what we found. Can we keep him?” A good deal of negotiating and rationalizing transpired with such sophistry as: “The dog needs a home. It would be a mitzvah,” said dad; “He’s so cute,” said little brother; “No one has claimed him. We asked the doorman and we rode the elevator to see,” explained middle brother; and “He needs us. Please, please, please,” concluded the younger brother.
Throughout this family drama, I stood there staring in disbelief as if I were watching an Absurdist play. I liked dogs well enough but had no strong desire to have one. And so, uncharacteristically, I remained a silent, neutral party. After much discussion, my mother eventually relented—-a concession she would regret for many months to come.
So the puppy, dubbed “Ginger” by my father, because of its auburn patches scattered throughout its mostly black coat, joined our family. As soon as possible, Ginger, was taken to the vet for further inspection and shots. My mother made clear that she was not having a diseased, filthy mutt living with us. So she, along with my brothers, took Ginger to a veterinarian in Washington Heights. Ordinarily we would have taken a bus or the subway, but because we were with an untrained, possibly feral dog, and this was not the era when people brought their pets with them on public transportation, my mother opted to drive our behemoth of a station wagon, a 1974 Oldsmobile ‘98, to the very upper West Side and find a sufficiently lengthy parking space, while my brothers and dog frolicked and yelped, unbuckled, on the back seat. On the way home from the vet, post shots and a clean bill of health, Ginger vomited all over my brothers and the rear seat of the car.
The vet informed us that our exceptionally cute Ginger was about six months old and possibly a German Shepherd/Cocker Spaniel mix. She looked a bit like a toy Bernese Mountain dog. We received no information about dog training or care other than to feed her every day. My parents just assumed that we’d figure out how to deal with the dog.
That never happened. The combination of inexperienced, clueless dog owners and a possibly psychotic puppy was not a formula for success. Based on the advice of dog-owning friends, while we were house training her, we confined Ginger mostly to the large kitchen area whose floor was an easily washable linoleum, and we placed newspapers in the corner as her temporary toilet. However, she rarely relieved herself on the newspapers, and instead shredded them to bits, mixing the confettied newspaper with her own excrement, which too had been liberally deposited on the bare floor.
Each time we left Ginger alone in the house, we were rewarded, upon our return with what seemed like a spiteful act of destruction, above and beyond her usual refusal to relieve herself on the newspaper or cooperate when walking her. One time she figured out how to open the cabinet beneath the kitchen sink where we kept cleaning supplies including a ten-pound box of powdered laundry detergent. Ginger, out of boredom, curiosity, maliciousness, or who knows what, upended the box onto the kitchen floor and used the soap-dusted terrain as a sort of giant litter box.
On other occasions, she amused herself by leaping up to grab the fronds of various house plants that were displayed on one of the kitchen counters. When she managed to clasp a large leaf in her mouth, she would swing it, along with its stem and the pot of soil it was attached to until it fell off the counter and crashed to the floor spewing shattered terra cotta, dirt, and leaves around the kitchen.
Even when she was in our company, Ginger could be mischievous and destructive. When my father was working at home, she often sat on a green vinyl chair in his study, looking content and keeping him company. Only after a few weeks did anyone, that is, my mother, realize that Ginger had methodically and efficiently eaten a large hold in the chair and ripped out and possibly consumed the stuffing. The chair was unsalvageable.
The final blow, for my mother, took place when we were all home finishing our Sabbath dinner. While we were eating dessert in the dining room, after an elaborate, multi-course Friday night meal, we noticed some suspicious noises coming from the kitchen. My mother ran inside to observe Ginger, with carcass in mouth, savagely consuming the remainder of a roast chicken, after having eaten half a challah and a bowl of ratatouille. She concluded her illicit feast by throwing up what was intended to be leftovers for the next day, all over the kitchen floor. My mother was in a rage. The dog had to go.
On Sunday morning my mother made phone calls and found a family who was willing to adopt Ginger. They took the dog off of our hands that same day. Ginger lasted merely a memorable and eventful four months with us.
Whereas my only experience of having a dog was short and not especially positive or easily forgettable, my husband grew up with dogs and remembered them fondly. However, his various Laboradors lived outside in their large backyard in an all-weather, luxury doghouse that he and his father built together. Those Labs were the ideal dogs: well-trained, low maintenance, and about as self-sufficient as dogs can be.
So when I found myself in suburbia with a child who passionately wanted a dog, I naively believed or fantasized that dog ownership would be nothing like having a pup in an apartment in New York City. Our future dog, like those of my husband and other friends who lived in the country and the suburbs, would have free range of the back yard. After some training, she could practically take care of herself. Our pet could stay outside for hours enjoying the lovely weather of Northern California and communing with nature. Our daughter could have an adorable furry playmate who would not disrupt my life or routines too much.
Because my husband is allergic to fur-bearing animals, we had to limit our options to non-shedding dogs with hair. We also ruled out large dogs, who could reach high counters, tables, and wreak more havoc than a smaller dog. After discussing the situation further with dog-owner friends who had allergies, we learned that Doodles of all varieties were a bit risky too, since they might possess too high a percent of their furred parent, rather than haired Poodle parent. So we homed in on lap dogs with hair.
At the time we were seriously researching dogs, friends of ours who loved animals but had allergies, acquired a Havanese. My husband did a sort of test run by visiting these friends and lounging on the sofa with the dog sitting on his lap for over an hour. Since no sneezing, wheezing, or breathing problems occurred, we settled on that breed. Our daughter was elated. My husband and I continued to delude ourselves that having a dog would be fun, easy, and enjoyable.
After further research and recommendations from a number of Havanese-owning friends, we ended up selecting a puppy from a breeder in Chico, California, a good four-hour drive from our house. The dog breeder ran her business in an idyllic farm, where the puppies could romp on the grass, surrounded by almond tree groves. Soon after we arrived at the farm, the owner presented us with an entire litter of three-month old Havanese puppies, which she placed on a large blanket. My daughter could play with them and have her pick of the litter. She selected Phoebe, a playful, adorable white and cream-colored pup with gray streaks on her ears. Visions danced in my head of Phoebe frolicking in the back yard with my daughter or sunning herself on the deck. Even though she was a lap dog, she was born on a farm, I explained away. Despite her size, this dog would be low maintenance, I protested to myself.
On the long car ride home, Phoebe vomited ten times. The last few wretches, were only dry heaves since her stomach was empty. But we hoped and rationalized. She’d never been in a car before; she was just a young puppy who had been separated from her siblings; she was nervous. Things would improve, we told ourselves. Some day she would enjoy pointing her nose out the window of the car on a family road trip. We would take her everywhere.
Phoebe continued to vomit in the car for well over a year. She still gets sick on longer car rides and barely tolerates short, smooth drives in our neighborhood, where she still pants anxiously and drools on the back seat. We rarely take her anywhere in a car, unless we must, because it is no fun for anyone.
Soon after Phoebe’s arrival, and weeks of her relieving herself throughout the house, chewing our rugs, and crying herself to sleep in her crate each night, we hired a trainer—two trainers in fact. The first was a very sweet, gentle older woman. Phoebe was dubious of her the moment she entered the house and cowered in her bed. She refused treats and would not engage. The trainer gave up, deeming Phoebe too young to be trained.
The second, and final, dog trainer, named Jimi, was a large, imposing, assertive woman, who appeared at our home wearing a black and white striped referee jersey and a whistle around her neck. After curtly introducing herself, she turned to my six-year old daughter and me and proclaimed: “Dogs are wolves. You are the pack leaders.” It was clear that she would be training us as well as Phoebe.
During our three sessions with Jimi, we learned how to walk Phoebe, command her to sit, come, and stay. None of us was particularly successful at achieving any of these goals, including Jimi. Perhaps Jimi wasn’t used to failure or to small, sly dogs, or was impatient, especially with humans. But when she began to reprimand and insult my daughter and me, I was done with her and further dog training. As long as Phoebe did not relieve herself in the house, I was happy. What difference did it make if she sat, or came on command? Even though Havanese had once been used as circus dogs, we could not expect all of them to do tricks. Besides, I justified, she was much too small to cause any serious trouble.
Much to my surprise, having a dog has made my daughter and me far more sociable and outgoing. While not inordinately anti-social, having grown up in New York City, I still avoid making eye contact with or talking to strangers on the street. My daughter is more of a natural introvert. But when walking Phoebe we have gotten to know many new people in our neighborhood who own and adore dogs. I guess dog people believe they share a certain bond, and the dogs themselves, who have no qualms about going up to an unknown dog and sniffing its bottom, function as social facilitators. My daughter, who ordinarily would not address a dogless stranger, asks unfamiliar dog walkers if she can pet their dogs and even makes pet-related chit chat with them.
Since acquiring Phoebe, I’ve discovered that our neighborhood is saturated with dogs. They live in every direction. One neighbor has three dogs and fosters rescue dogs before they are adopted. I have become friends, thanks to Phoebe, with many of my dog-loving neighbors and discuss many dog-related matters with them as if I am one of them. But I am not. I tolerate Phoebe, usually, but I am not a die-hard dog devotee.
Herein lies the problem: while I like my newfound friends, I do not share their canine adoration. So I fake it, making conversation about dog-related matters, and pretending I really care. After all, you cannot admit to a true dog-lover that you are disinterested.
We have had Phoebe for over four years, and I’ve learned quite a bit about her and myself. First, she is a particularly high-maintenance pet, and I have no interest in pampering a four-legged creature. I want a no-maintenance dog, which I recognize does not exist. The Havanese, a highly inbred group, related to the Maltese and Bichon, was brought to Cuba by Spanish colonists and was greatly admired by the nobility. In the mid eighteenth century, Havanese were pampered throughout the courts of Europe. Queen Victoria owned two, and modern-day noblewoman Barbara Walters owns her dear Cha Cha. After the Cuban Revolution, upper-class Cubans brought their Havanese to the United States. Only eleven dogs from Cuba are the genetic forbearers of all the Havanese in the U.S. today. It’s really a wonder that they are pretty hearty and have a long life expectancy—fifteen to seventeen years.
Her pedigree and history explain why Phoebe is such a little princess. She wants her caretakers to remain in her presence at all times but does not care to be disturbed; she likes company but is aloof. Perhaps her ancestors who sat on the laps of royalty and the wealthy have contributed to her snobbishness. Or, perhaps she was destined to be snooty by her paternal grandparents who were named Attila and Ginger Rogers. Yes, Phoebe is an elitist. She barks incessantly and ferociously at working men especially those wearing hats and dark clothing: mail carriers, UPS drivers, construction workers, plumbers, electricians, painters, repairmen of all types, and gardeners. However, she is relatively congenial to most females, and my non-hat donning husband, and father. She is leery of the laboring class.
Perhaps as a result of her excessive inbreeding, or possibly just bad luck, Phoebe, possesses numerous food sensitivities. We have tried countless types of dog food, all recommended by friends or the vet, which Phoebe would either refuse to eat after a few weeks, or, in reaction to the allergens in the food, be overcome with bloody vomit and diarrhea. It took three years to discover a special, expensive, hypoallergenic dog food that Phoebe could enjoy and stomach. Her digestive issues also mean that she cannot have treats. This makes her impossible to train. No dog will sit or heel from nothing but an unrewarded command. We’ve got no leverage but unappetizing squeak toys.
However, Phoebe’s food sensitivities and general fussiness have never stopped her from eating dirt, leaves, small sticks, dog poop, and possibly even highly toxic mushrooms sprouting on our neighbors’ lawns. For some reason, she has developed no aversion to these non-foods that make her sick, to the point of being hospitalized and on the verge of liver failure, but spurns legitimate dog food that she simply finds unpalatable. It is still not uncommon to find dirt on her beard when she shamelessly returns from a walk with evidence dusting her face.
Because she surreptitiously consumes sticks, dirt, and other poisons, Phoebe cannot be left outdoors on her own recognizance, especially in our backyard. In fact, she repeatedly dupes us into believing that she needs to relieve herself by nosing the high-tech pet door we had installed, but which she refuses to use because she does not approve of its clicking sounds; she has ulterior motives. A soon as we release her to the yard and praise her for so responsibly expressing her needs, she just runs off into the grass and hoards sticks to chew. She conducts no legitimate business.
Dog walking, an often pleasant activity enjoyed by many dog owners, is an endless source of exasperation for us. It can easily take fifteen minutes for her to find an acceptable patch of grass on which to pee. After forcefully directing me to the lawn of her choice, Phoebe then proceeds to sniff each blade of grass to locate the ideal spot on which to relieve herself. She then retraces her steps, often squatting, as if to pee, and then reversing direction or scuttling forwards or backwards until she is satisfied. Sometimes, she will find a particular lawn unsuitable to her liking and begin the process anew somewhere else. Other times, she will lose her focus due to such distractions as a cawing bird, a bicycle, a car, a person, another dog, a squirrel, an overhead plane, a scooter, a drone, a bee, a falling acorn, rain, or some other existential crisis, and forget her mission or stop mid squat in midstream. She is the Hamlet of excrement. Even our dog-expert neighbors agree that Phoebe is unusually distractible and difficult to walk. While walking Phoebe, it is not uncommon to find me muttering to myself in exasperation bordering on rage, “Just fucking pee already!” or “Shit or get off the pot!” This does not help matters.
In order to better understand Phoebe, and to humor our science–loving daughter, we signed Phoebe up for Dognition, a program that provides IQ tests of sorts for dogs. Staffed by scientists and experts from the likes of Yale and Harvard, Dognition provides various games that assess and identify a dog’s “cognitive style.” Their literature claims, “the Dognition Profile will give you an unprecedented window into the workings of Phoebe’s mind and reveal her particular genius.”
Well, it turns out that our Phoebe is a “Renaissance dog,” who is “good at a little bit of everything.” I beg to differ. She fails to poop and pee in a timely fashion; she does no tricks and is often disobedient; and she knows nothing of art, literature, or science. However, her “Cognitive Dimension Results” seemed more accurate, indicating that above all else, she is “wily” or “cunning—using information from others to avoid detection.” Now that explains a lot.
Our clever, little, untrainable, defiant dog uses her wiles to surreptitiously eat sticks while pretending to look for an outdoor toilet location; nose her way out of her appointed, gated zone into forbidden areas of the house; and steal my cozy spot on the sofa when I need to get up briefly. She mostly uses her cunning for ill.
Like it or not, we are stuck with or committed to Phoebe for many years to come. According to our calculations, our Phoebe-enthusiast daughter will be off to college while the dog will be spending her senescence with my less-than-supportive husband and me. Although she has become as expensive as raising a second child, we will continue to outsource her to dog walkers and dog sitters so that we can maintain our sanity, have freedom of movement, and other basic human rights.
But despite it all, when I return home and the little imp jumps up and dances to greet me with her paws raised above her head, plume-like tail waving enthusiastically, or looks up at me with her dark eyes beneath her downy white brows, I succumb to her charms. Sometimes it’s nice to have unconditional positive regard.