doug wanted a puppy. we had moved from a cramped, three-room duplex to a house in como park. it was a small house with a big yard where toby could spend his afternoons snoozing and chasing squirrels while we tried to figure out which drawer the silverware should go in and what we were going to do with all these books.
"we have a dog," i said.
"toby's your dog," he said. "i want a dog of my own."
so one afternoon we walked over to the pound on jessamine, just a few blocks away. it was a depressing place, smelling of disinfectant and echoing with the barks of a hundred dogs. a grey and black cat slunk through, briefly liberated, perhaps, from its own kennel.
a caged dog looked at us mournfully. his shaggy head hung low and his eyes looked sad. "Reason for surrender: Owner died," read the card on his kennel door, and i turned away with a feeling of dread.
"let's get out of here," doug said, and i agreed. but how were we going to rescue a dog if we were too tender-hearted to explore the pound?
a few days later we were in line at petsmart, buying some dog biscuits, when i noticed the woman in front of me cradling a puppy. it looked just like a little toby, right down to the coca-cola stripe on its nose. it had that same soft puppy fur and that same very black nose that toby had had when he was little. (his nose turned pink as he grew.) "where did you get that dog?" i asked, reaching out to stroke his silky ears.
the woman told us about a farmer in pine city who had rescued a litter of puppies. half lab, half border collie. "the neighbors refuse to neuter their dogs," she said. "they were going to drown the puppies." i was already digging for a scrap of paper to write down the phone number.
a new puppy was a chance for perfection. i had made a million mistakes with toby's training. he was a wonderful dog and i adored him, but he had some flaws and they were all my fault. he'd taken months to housebreak. he never learned to tolerate other dogs. he was overly protective of me when we were out walking. and until doug won him over with a juicy hamburger, still warm from a neighbor's barbecue, toby hadn't wanted to allow him in the house. really the only thing he would do reliably was chase that tennis ball. and i didn't teach him that.
with a new puppy, we would do everything right. we'd be on top of his training from the very first day. we would teach him to come every time called, not just when he felt like it. he'd be perfect on a leash--none of this zig-zag dragging me down the sidewalk. he'd never pee in the house. he would love the world.
so we resolutely bought a kennel, for housebreaking. no more vinegar, not in our new house. this puppy, whoever he was, would stay crated when he wasn't in the yard. "man, they look grim," i said, looking down at the wire and the latches and the cage-like construction.
"we'll get a big one," doug said, even though we both knew that too large a crate defeated the purpose.
it came with instructions. the box advised us to crate the puppy, and then leave it alone. if it whimpers, come back in the room, tell it sharply, "no!" and then leave. if it continues to whimper, startle it with a loud noise--maybe shake a coffee can of pennies-- say, "no!" and then leave. if it continues to whimper, smack the kennel with a rolled-up newspaper.
"man, that seems cruel," i said.
"the idea is to not reward its whimpering," doug said. "he has to learn to be in the kennel quietly." i was not sure i was mentally prepared for this.
the barn was hot and smelled of dung and hay. a dozen puppies swarmed toward us, all sharp teeth and claws, dancing on their hind legs, pushing each other out of the way, rolling in the straw, yipping and barking. they were about eight weeks old. most of them were covered in black and white fuzz, but a couple were gold and white, just like toby. a thousand mosquitoes stung my legs. I wiped sweat off my forehead and picked up a little blonde puppy. she had a round belly and white paws that flailed in the air. "what about her?" i said, nuzzling her softness against my cheek.. "she looks just like toby did!"
"are you sure you want a dog that looks just like your other dog?" doug said. i was sure. they'd look so cute together! not that toby liked other dogs. but maybe ...
"what about that one?" doug said. at the other end of the barn, away from the scrum of puppies nipping at my ankles and knocking each other over, lay a black and white puppy in the straw. he was industriously gnawing on a rubber chewie shaped like a crown of broccoli. our eyes met; he had two beige eyebrows over dark brown eyes. they gave him a sardonic look. his expression clearly said, hey, sweetie. you've seen the rest. now see the best! he practically winked at me. then he resumed gnawing on the toy.
"done," i said. doug scooped him up and we stepped over the roiling mass of nipping puppies and walked out of the barn.
"how are we going to introduce him to toby?" i asked as we headed south back toward the cities. i was trying to keep the puppy quiet, but he squirmed and whimpered in the little cardboard box the farmer had given us. this might have been his first time out of the sweet and smelly barn. i wished we had thought to take the broccoli chew toy with us; it would have been familiar. i scratched his head and whispered to him. he whimpered and clawed at the side of the box.
"neutral ground, in the park," doug said. "bring a tennis ball."
toby was thrilled to be going to the park so late. i tossed the tennis ball into the dark and he took off at top speed. the puppy screamed--it sounded just like a woman-- and scrambled behind doug's legs. toby ignored him and dashed past after the ball.
after two or three retrieves, he finally acknowledged the puppy, giving him a disinterested sniff. and then we all went home.
we fed the puppy, made a little nest of blankets in the kennel, set him inside, and locked him in. then, as per the instructions on the kennel box, we left the room. we cowered in the hallway and held our breath.
immediately a chirping medley of puppy squeaks sounded forth.
we looked at each other. that sound could break your heart. the squeaks and chirps increased in volume. i poked my head into the room. "NO!" i shouted, and immediately retreated. the puppy stopped, startled. and then after a moment, the squeaks started up again.
for the next 15 minutes, we worked our way up the hierarchy of discipline. a series of sharp NOs escalated to a quick shake of a can of pennies, which escalated to a WHOMP! against the side of the cage with a newspaper. each time, the puppy looked frightened, grew quiet, and then resumed his mournful chirps.
doug and i realized at the same moment that this was a terrible way to train a dog. "he's frightened, it's late, he doesn't know who we are or where he is, we took him away from the barn, away from his 57 brothers and sisters, stuck him in a cage, and now we're bashing the side of it with a newspaper," i said. "that's not going to stop him from whimpering. that's going to traumatize him! he's just a little guy."
so much for training by the book. (or by the box.)
doug knew what to do. he pulled a blanket and pillow from the bed and lay down on the floor next to the kennel. he stuck two fingers into the cage and gently stroked the puppy's soft back. the puppy quieted down immediately.
and after not too long, side by side, they both fell asleep.
Sunday, March 4, 2007
We only made it as far as Beloit, Wisconsin, the first day. i'd gotten a late start out of st. paul, and i was headed straight toward madison at rush hour. the plan had been to visit tiernan that night, but when i saw the rush of cars i panicked and turned south. beloit seemed more manageable to me, driving in my small toyota jam-packed with all my summer clothes, a couple of boxes of books, and toby. we were headed to columbus, ohio, for three months, to live in the james thurber house, teach a class at the university, work one day a week at the columbus dispatch, and, oh yeah, write great literature in my spare time.
toby's plans were to hang around the house and chase as many tennis balls as possible.
so i was already nervous (i'd never taught, i wasn't familiar with the dispatch, i get lost easily, i am terrified of freeways, and the thurber house was haunted) as we tooled down I-94. the thought of trying to find tiernan -- who i hadn't seen in years and wasn't certain i'd recognize -- in rush hour in a strange busy city was three more stresses than i needed.
so south we headed, into beloit, and started looking for a motel.
i don't know what kind of uncivilized state wisconsin is, but motel after motel said, "sorry. no dogs."
it was after dark when i pulled into the parking lot of a bleak-looking place just off the highway. the desk clerk told me that dogs weren't allowed, but then he took pity on me. maybe i looked like i was going to cry. or maybe toby smiled his irresistable toby smile--the one where his ears perked up and he tilted his head.
"we're remodeling the place," the clerk said. "i can rent you a room on the back side, in one of the rooms we haven't gotten to yet."
that'd be great, i said, and pulled the car around back. the front of the motel had looked reputable, if inexpensive. the back looked nightmarish. the parking lot was rimmed by a wooded wetlands. instead of brightly painted doors and cute curtains, these units had ancient siding and doors that looked like a good kick would get you inside. the back lot was filled with battered cars and shady-looking characters milling about. i had a feeling that this half of the motel was the half the drug dealers and prostitute used. oh yeah, and people with dogs.
i hauled all of my belongings inside with me. i would have parked the car inside the unit, too, if i could have wedged it through the doorway.
the room had one lumpy bed with an orange chenille spread, a grungy bathroom, and those waxy orange-and-green curtains that reminded me of my old apartment on seventh street. i filled toby's water dish from the bathroom sink and set it down on the linoleum. he lapped up half of it and cocked his head at me. as long as we're together, everything's ok, i was pretty sure that look meant.
i reached down and scratched him between the ears.
in the morning, i leashed him up to take him for a walk, but before i could open the door, i heard a knock.
from a gap in the curtain i could see a young woman standing at our door. my heart almost stopped. "who is it?" i said.
"can you help me?" she said. "i need help!"
i didn't know what to do. i didn't want to open the door. i didn't want to let her know that the phone in my room didn't work--though maybe she already knew that. maybe the phone in her room didn't work, either. "can you call the front desk?" i said.
she knocked again. and before i could say anything else, toby let loose with a volley of barks. his bark could sound ferocious, and it did now, as he threw himself toward the door and barked and barked and barked.
through the crack in the curtain, i could see the woman dash away. and, right behind her, a large, scary-looking man who had apparently been waiting off to the side.
toby continued to bark his most menacing, i-am-really-a-german-shepherd bark.
i sank to the floor. "good boy," i said. "good boy, toby, good boy."
it was a long time before i felt safe enough to open the door and let him take his pee. which he deserved more that day than probably any other day.