Many of my friends understand that I generally like animals more than I like people. While people can entertain, enlighten and elate me, they can also anger, disappoint and horrify me. Animals, at least the semi-domesticated ones, seem to only ask us to allow their whole unconditional love into our lives.
My family always had more dogs than cats around, mostly because our wonderful Siamese cat, Daisy, lived 18 years. As far back as I can remember, we had a dog, sometimes two. And we followed a pattern of black Labrador retrievers, since we so loved the first one, Missy. I went out to feed her one night when I was seven and found her dead. We think the neighbor poisoned her. Maybe I started to hate people before I realized it. Anyway, we had two Labs after that. The first, Tammy, was part of the Seeing Eye program. We were to train her for a year, then return her to work as a service dog. But she failed the physical. The good news: she was offered back to us, where she lived out a great life until my dad and I had to put her down and cried in each other’s arms.
Here’s where I say I’ve been party to euthanasia more times than I can count. It’s a weird divide among dog owners: those who choose to help end suffering (some say play God), and those who never willingly let go. I’ve seen too many animals in obvious agony, blind, crippled, still being dragged around. It’s an ethical discussion not meant for this forum. As usual, it’s unlikely anyone’s thinking will change based on what I or anyone else says. In any event, after Missy, we’ve never had a pet die at home, and that last visit to the veterinarian will never get easier. It’s just the feeling that our pets trust us to know when they’re saying they’ve had enough.
In between Labs, there was Ginger, a wonderful little brown terrier mix; Belle, a sweet beagle; and Chocko, a monstrous retriever and quite possibly horse mix, who was so gentle that my grandmother would cut up an apple and feed the pieces to him. Well into adulthood, I adopted a black Lab named Roxy from the county shelter and had a faithful companion for over a decade. Her kidneys failed, and on her last day she followed me around the house as I gathered her bowls and toys to donate to the shelter. And during her final car ride, instead of her usual fully-engaged self with head sticking out the window, she just lay down. Remember what I said about knowing when enough is enough? She told me. The saddest part of pet ownership is that we are supposed to outlive them.
After that, I went without a dog for almost ten years. Life took me in other directions, including marriage to a fellow animal lover. So it seemed only a matter of time, but I didn’t want to rush it. My wife has vast cat experience (we have four right now) but only had one dog briefly in childhood. I wasn’t sure she wanted one; she thought I couldn’t live happily without one. We found that our truths lie somewhere between. So, net result: in July we welcomed to our family a mid-sized, retriever-German shepherd mix who was named Millie when we met her at the shelter. With a nod to members of my wife’s German family, we re-named her Ingeborg Cornelia (yes, we give our pets first and middle names), or Inge for everyday use. It’s pronounced sort of like In-geh. Her new mommy, who it turns out feels no greater sheer joy than playing with a dog she wasn’t sure she wanted, sometimes calls her Inge Binga Boo or Inge Bear.
All we know is that she is from Virginia and her previous owner surrendered her. It’s easy to create a backstory, since I’ve seen people from the southern U.S. generally treat their dogs much worse than around here. When they buy a hunting dog who doesn’t hunt well enough, they just leave it tied up outside or drop it off in the woods somewhere. But Inge seemed reasonably well cared for and knew some basic obedience, so maybe her owner died or became too ill to keep her. But even during the joyful day we brought her home, I found myself filled with anxiety. Is my wife just doing this for me? What if I really don’t know what I’m doing? How will this change our lives? In the interest of true honesty, many times that first week or two, I felt something like regret. What have I done? I didn’t think this through! I can’t do this.
But all that worry was just me trying to buy problems we didn’t even have. While my wife had said she’d be fine just owning cats, she loves that dog with her whole heart. She was the one shopping for chew toys, bedding, and ID tag that matches her collar; enrolling us in dog school; and gleefully taking us for longer walks than I’d sometimes like. As far as the “not knowing what I’m doing” part, well, I had to admit I really don’t know. You don’t realize that when you’re young, parents are responsible for the pets. Now that I’m the adult, I realize it’s not easy. Four cats are far easier to care for than one dog. You can leave a cat alone with some food and litter box for days, but a dog needs to go out a few times a day. And we had to (reluctantly) board her for our recent vacation. Oh, about that dog school: the idea was more fun than the real thing. Inge gets too jazzed up in the car, always trying to get into the front seat. We got a harness, but it just barely helped. The winding, 45-minute ride to the city wasn’t ideal. Having to learn stuff while five other dogs raise hell was difficult at best. And failing as a trainer while class leader Audrey was like some pied piper, softly directing every move the dog made, was humbling.
But really, Inge’s doing better every day. She still pulls on the leash too much during some walks, but other times she strolls along nicely. She still growls when meeting some other dogs, (ok, pretty much all other dogs) but I think it’s just sometimes fear and sometimes playfulness. Our big trial by fire was taking her to Woofstock, a huge annual event with acres of booths manned by all manner of pet-related people, from trainers to designer dog collar makers, pet stores and area shelter and rescue organizations. And hundreds of dogs. I was so worried while walking into the setting that later I was smiling with relief when Inge earned a top grade for the day. She was wonderful! She wasn’t interested in eating anyone’s treats or even drinking the water liberally set out, and she spent much of her time, as usual, sniffing the ground. But she was so good during frequent interaction with other dogs. And that was our biggest concern.
Now we laugh as her personality comes out over time. Her favorite thing in the world is to chase squirrels and rabbits while out for a walk. She is so excited that it seems roughly the equivalent of me randomly seeing darting pies around the neighborhood. Inge’s the only dog I’ve ever had that is not motivated by food. She is indifferent to meal time. She may tentatively sniff her food and take a bite, or she may not move from the couch. The exceptions seem to be whipped cream and all forms of cheese, even something the supermarket labels “cheese ends.” Maybe she’d like Beef Wellington every night, but she’ll have to subsist on kibble mixed with either pumpkin or cottage cheese. This dietary experimentation has made her coat softer than the coziest winter pajamas. Which reminds me: right now nothing seems like a better idea than curling up in front of the pleasantly lingering Christmas tree with the warmth and pure love of a good pooch.