A dog's life changes with the times
Gail Rosenblum, Star Tribune
AUGUST 1967 -- We got Charlie the way many families become dog owners. First, my two brothers and I killed the goldfish, lost the guinea pig and watched the hamster eat her young as we sat at the kitchen table eating Pop-Tarts. We were eager for a new pet experience.
So we begged. Our parents said, "Over our dead bodies." We wore them down. And Charlie, rejected by his previous owner, was eagerly welcomed by three grateful children who promised to walk him every day -- unless we didn't feel like it.
A 3-year-old dachshund of questionable breeding and plentiful warts, Charlie was destined to live a life of table scraps, periodic scratches behind the ears and romps in our sunny back yard, chasing squirrels and barking at the mailman.
I loved Charlie with a passion reserved for little girls sandwiched between two brothers who did not care to understand the complexities of her psyche. And I refused to accept that Charlie was anything but Best in Show. My parents didn't flinch when, at age 8, I entered him in a community-wide dog show. I walked him in the grand circle (he stalled, then sat). I lifted him onto the table for the judge to examine his teeth (a lovely shade of amber). He growled at the judge, then bit him. The understanding man, perhaps a father himself, bestowed upon Charlie and me a magnificent third-place ribbon, white and silky. I cherished that ribbon until my older brother felt the need to clarify that there were only three dogs in the competition.
Two of a kind.Duane BraleyStar Tribune
That brother is a lawyer now.
Charlie died seven years later, much the way he lived: quietly, with a little heave and a hack and a final breath. I sobbed as we buried him in the back yard and my younger brother asked:
"Next time, can we get a real dog?"
AUGUST 2004 -- I am standing at the PetsMart in St. Louis Park with a decorative blue leash wrapped around my ankles. My 6-year-old is shouting at me to not put my boot down on the three-pound dog who is now running my life.
Pepe and his heftier 4-pound cousin, Chica, are enrolled in a puppy class, but I am quickly realizing that they are not the students. Eileen, the instructor who can make dogs sew quilts by simply staring in their direction, seems skeptical of my abilities. "They're barking incessantly?" she asks me. "What are you doing about that?"
I worry that if I tell Eileen the truth -- that I am getting down on my hands and knees and whispering "sshhhhhhhh" to dogs who jump up and lick my face before barking louder -- she will flunk me.
"I put them in their kennel!" I tell her.
"Yes, that's right," Eileen responds happily as I start breathing again. "You have to remember who's in charge."
IN THE BEGINNING -- It felt so familiar at first. The kids killed the goldfish and gave away the gerbils. We offered them a guinea pig. They begged for a dog. We said, "Over our dead bodies." They wore us down.
To my surprise, there were no Charlies anymore. In 2004, there are "breeds" and "breeders." And Web sites. And societies and magazines and doggie treats shaped like truffles. And schnoodles and labradoodles getting massages and acupuncture.
Friends directed us to an online "breed selector":
Did we want a large dog? A medium-sized dog? A toy? How would we rate and prioritize 674 essential traits of dog ownership? Easy. We wanted a dog that was smaller than our 6-year-old and needed no grooming or exercise; a no-barking, no-shedding, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean dog that could be trained to manage our stock portfolio. We hit "submit" and eagerly counted the seconds until our perfect dog would be revealed.
My children reeled in horror at the result:
"A pug?" shouted my 13-year-old son. "It looks like it ran into a snowplow!"
The 6-year-old was kinder. "I like the way they taped on the tail."
I tried the emotional appeal: "Kids," I asked, "doesn't every dog deserve a good home? Besides, pugs were the dogs of Chinese royalty! And did you know that my best childhood friend, Susie, had a pug? Wow!
Their father took a different approach: "The pug or nothing." We found two
from a highly recommended breeder: A male who needed a $900 hip surgery and a
female we could have for a steal -- $1,100 -- if we'd bring her back twice for
breeding. To Milwaukee.
"OK, how about a dachshund? Charlie was a dachshund." I dashed off a brief and
cheery e-mail to one of the best breeders in the Upper Midwest:
Dear Mrs. Dachshund Breeder:
We'd be delighted to purchase one of your dogs. We have three school-aged
children. My husband and I both had dachshunds growing up. Mine was an
award-winner. [So sue me.] Please let us know how to proceed.
Mrs. Dachshund Breeder wrote back quickly. I was doomed. How many hours a week
would the dog be home alone? she wanted to know. Did we have a fence? (Uh-oh.)
How young was our youngest child? Her dogs didn't like too much youthful
exuberance, you understand ...
I refused to give up.
Dear Mrs. Dachshund Breeder:
Thank you so much for your prompt reply. We do not have a fence, but we are
eagerly planning to build one because my husband and I have little else to do,
and there's money sitting in our children's college funds that we'd rather
spend on wooden posts. Enclosed, please find my children's most recent test
scores, references from several heads of state and a freshly baked apple pie.
Would you believe that I never heard from Mrs. Dachshund Breeder again?
Well! Who cares about stupid wiener dogs?! We'd go to the pound. We'd adopt a
dog desperate for love. We'd save a life! We'd have a dog, why, this very
But the pound was moving to a bigger site and all they had was one 86-pound
labrador whose eye-level gaze with our 6-year-old did not inspire her to think
"play date." The pound people directed us to a world called "animal rescue."
But the chipper animal rescue people referred us to a Web site to download and
complete an application with three references before they would schedule a
site visit to see our fence and, quite likely, check our teeth. Rescue puppies
apparently, aren't that eager to get rescued by just anyone. Maybe we'd just
have a fourth child.
We were beginning to feel desperate. My 15-year-old daughter threw up her
arms. "We're NEVER getting a dog! I'll take the guinea pig!"
Then, just when all hope seemed lost, she spotted a small ad in the newspaper
for something called a papillon -- French for butterfly, which is the shape of
their ears but also, I learned, short for "I'm French, you're not, I'll poop
wherever I want." Papillons are small (6 to 8 pounds), smart, friendly and
they adore children. They nearly groom and walk themselves. And best of all, a
breeder was willing to sell us one without running a perp check first.
On a Sunday morning in June, hubby and the kids drove two hours to Alexandria,
Minn., to meet the breeder halfway. They met and fell in love in a Wal-Mart
The kids, that is, and two perky papillon pups: a 3.8-pound black male and a
4.2-pound red female. They bought them both.
Who cares? At last, our family had what we hoped for: Eight pounds of dog.
We did put up that fence. And Eileen the trainer still has hope for me. We buy
organic dog food at obscene prices and never feed them table scraps. We reward
good behavior with treats shaped like truffles. We wash them with lovely
scented dog shampoo that's nicer than the stuff I buy for myself. We brush
their teeth and clip their nails and never, ever say no to them because Eileen
says we can't. Periodically, we take them to a vet clinic we've dubbed the
Hundred Dollar Store.
But here's my secret: Sometimes late at night, when everyone is asleep and I
sit at my computer writing, Chica and Pepe lie next to me on a blanket in a
plain grocery box, occasionally licking my hand. Then, nose to nose, they fall
asleep, breathing softly. And I know they're not dreaming about Pup-Peroni
treats or doggie acupuncture.
I'll bet they're dreaming about chasing squirrels under a hot sun in our
fenced back yard, where they feel safe and loved.
Just like Charlie.