My first full sentence, which my parents don’t like to share with people because it doesn’t cast them in the best light, was directed at our large, galloping German Shepherd as he chased his invisible demons around our back yard.
Max, You asshole! I am said to have hollered, a perfect mimic of the hundreds, nay, thousands of times my father had yelled the exact same thing at him as Max ran away from the yard or jumped on a visitor under the mistaken impression the person arrived to do harm, rather than good.
Max was, by all accounts, a great family dog, but that is all he was – his loyalty rested solely with my mom, my dad and my toddler self and anybody who came near us, from my grandparents to our elderly neighbor, Florence, to the minister of the 1st Presbyterian Church he perceived as a direct threat to our well-being, and he went on the defensive. My parents had him for years before I came along and within the walls of our house he was extraordinarily gentle, so much so my parents would let me ride him like a horse, but as the years passed by and he aged his basically controllable aggression became worse and eventually my parents had to put him down. I, of course, remember none of this but I do find the leap from my first word – mama – to my first full sentence rather amusing.
Our second dog, Toby, came along after we moved from the country into town, and after my brother was born. By all accounts, upon Baby Duck’s birth, I looked at him and told my dad I thought he was very nice but we had been just fine without him, but with the puppy, Toby, it was proverbial love at first sight. Toby was a full-bread springer spaniel, purchased to scour the woods for woodcock and grouse with my father, and this he did better, all the men in my family agree, than any other bird dog in the history of northern Michigan. Toby, a small, squirmy, liver and white colored spaniel, the runt of his litter, could find birds, damn it. Unfortunately, when he wasn’t in the woods he was rather odd – as my dad said, at some point his dog-brain wires had gotten crossed, and discerning between friend or foe proved rather difficult for him. Odd things could send him off on a barking and growling binge – the t.v. trays, my ballet slippers. None of this mattered to me, though, because Toby loved me and I loved him and he formed my life-long love of dogs. In the mornings my parents would let him in my room to wake me up, except instead of nosing me out of bed (as my current dog does), Toby would jump onto the bed and snuggle into the waiting crook of my legs. Not having enough knowledge to worry about whether or not the dog thought himself dominant, my eight-year-old self would lie on my back, put my hands over my head and let Toby crawl on top of my body to nap. There is no smell more quintessentially autumn to me than the scent a dog emanates after spending a day in the woods, his paws covered in frost – it’s dead leaves and winter-on-it’s-way and pure dog joy.
Toby died my senior year of high school, having seen me essentially through my entire K-12 education. Since then my parents have had two other dogs – Ty, a Brittany Spaniel as talented as Toby in the woods but not nearly as hardy, and prone to injuries every fall that as often as not eliminated him from bird season all together (we called him the “world is too much with me” dog) and now, Nick, a French Brittany born and bred to hunt, who is still somewhat of a pup, a whirling dirvish of a pointer, brilliant in the woods, according to my dad, and incredibly dumb outside of them.
S. and I spent many years without a dog. We did adopt one early in our marriage, a wild little puppy who was supposed to be a Siberian Husky but who instead turned out to have been bred partly with a wolf (we believe) and who went horribly, heart-breakingly bad quite quickly, with aggression issues so unfixable even the vet told us “Sometimes dogs, like people, are just born bad. This dog was born bad. It’s awful, but you have to keep in mind they are, originally, wild animals. It happens.” We had to put him down after he bit S., S.’s dad and S.’s little sister. It was a traumatic enough experience to prevent us from getting another dog until we had a house, a yard and enough confidence we could be good dog owners.
It’s been a year since we adopted Skylar from Animal Friends and we couldn’t have found a better dog for us. I’ve written enough about him here and I am very conscious of the fact that my affection for my dog borders on the weird, and so I won’t enumerate all the ways he makes our lives so much more fun. Instead, I’ll simply reiterate what my dad has always said about his dogs:
They are a pain in the ass if you want to travel anywhere, but I wouldn’t want to live the 99.9 percent of the time I’m not traveling without them.
I consider myself incredibly lucky, to have been exposed to dogs at such a young age. I have friends who think they want a dog, but worry about shedding (hey, you don’t want a dog!), or who don’t want a dog who poops much (hey, you don’t want a dog!) or who want a dog but don’t want their floors to get dirty (hey, you don’t want a dog!). Certainly, they take a lot of work and maintenance (I am convinced the more dog hair I pick up the more Skylar sheds) but from the first time Toby leaped into my arms and licked my chin, I knew two things: I am a dog person, and I will never mind doing the work to remain so.