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 each one was my fault. He'd taken months to housebreak. I had had no idea what I was doing, and while I quickly cured him of peeing in the living room, it took months to get him to not pee in the kitchen. All winter my apartment reeked of vinegar, which I used to neutralize the odor. A house smelling of vinegar is better than a house smelling of dog pee, but only a little better.
And Toby was not what you would consider sociable; 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. (Which would be a problem, given that Doug and I eventually married.)
Really the only thing he would do reliably was chase that tennis ball. And I didn't teach him that. That was pure instinct.
With a new puppy, though, we would do everything right. We would be on top of his training from the very first day. We would teach him to come every time we 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.
So we went shopping for crates.
"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. (If the crate is too big, the dog just pees in the far end.)
The kennel 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 again. If it continues to whimper, startle it with a loud noise--the box recommended briskly shaking a coffee can of pennies--say, "No!" again, 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.
We drove up to Pine City on a Friday after work. The sun was low in the sky when we got to the farm, and the barn was hot and smelled of dung and hay. A dozen puppies swarmed toward us, all sharp teeth and claws. They danced 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 of them were gold and white, just like Toby. A thousand mosquitoes stung my legs. I wiped sweat off my forehead and picked up a blonde puppy. She had a round belly and white paws that flailed in the air.
"What about this one?" 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 seldom agonize over choices. When I'm sure, I'm sure. And I was sure. This was the dog for me.
I'd forgotten, in my puppy bliss, that we weren't picking out a dog for me. We were picking out a dog for Doug. He had barely glanced at the puppy in my arms; he was staring off into the far corner of the barn.
"What about that one?" he said.
At the other end of the barn, away from the scrum, a black and white puppy lounged in the straw. He was industriously gnawing on a rubber chewie shaped like a crown of broccoli. Our eyes met; he had beige eyebrows that 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 chewie.
Reluctantly, I set the yellow puppy down. "Done," I said.
Doug scooped up the broccoli puppy, whose eyes widened in alarm, and we stepped over the roiling mass of his brothers and sisters and walked out of the barn. Whoa! Whoa! Easy! those eyebrows said.
We paid the farmwife $60--she had asked for $50, but all I had were twenties, and an extra ten bucks seemed worth it to me. She had done a great thing, saving all these puppies from her callous and irresponsible neighbor.
She slid the money into her apron pocket and handed us a small cardboard box for carrying the puppy, and a folder of information; all of the puppies had been checked by a vet. (The woman was a true saint.)
"How are we going to introduce him to Toby?" I asked as we headed south back toward the Cities. Night had fallen, and I started to yawn. The puppy squirmed and whimpered and clawed at the side of the box, and I gently pushed him back down.
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 flailed. My heart went out to him. What were we doing? Would he be happy with us?
"Neutral ground, in the park," Doug said. "I'll wait there with the puppy. You get Toby, and bring a tennis ball."
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