As I am walking out of yoga class, an acquaintance asks, “How’s Rio ?” She is referring to the two pound poodle puppy I had mentioned I would be getting. At this point, I’ve had Rio a few days.
“He’s great,” I say, “But it’s way more overwhelming than I thought it would be.”
Her face instantly screws up in anger.
“You have to keep him! You knew what you were getting into,” she sputters with contempt.
I’m so caught off guard that I answer, “Actually, now that it’s real, I—”
“You bought him! You’re committed to him!!”
I completed enough inversions in class to be mellowed with serotonin; yoga really does work, at least for one of us. Instead of clobbering her, I say, “I’m committed to his spirit.”
She winces, turns and walks away.
As I watch her cross the street, my jaw drops and I remember that she once mentioned she was adopted. I have just met one of those episodes where someone takes what’s all inside them and spills it out all over you. People have a lot of feelings about attachment.
My current entrance into the animal kingdom begins as I am standing on a crowded street corner in Manhattan. When I step off the curb and turn my head to see if there are any oncoming cars, I find myself gazing into the eyes of a pint size pooch in a shoulder bag. The liquid brown eyes meet mine lovingly and then I watch as the tiniest pink rose petal tongue licks his owner’s upper arm. She coos to him and he wiggles and licks some more. The light changes. As we walk, I ask her,
“How old ?”
“She’s three months and she’s the love of my life.” She smiles. She seems happy. They seem happy.
I start thinking about getting a dog. Now as I walk around the city, I feel like I am seeing wet dog noses under armpits on every block.
I have had a recent loss which is what prompts me to focus on a pet in the first place. I was a caretaker of my terminally ill sister for almost two years, not to mention throughout her entire life because she had some disabilities. It was often hard but the last part was an ordeal. Now she is gone. I want new warmth. I like dogs. Dogs have personalities. I call a breeder a friend of mine bought a puppy from and make plans to pick up a black poodle puppy when he is 8 weeks old. My friend is excited imagining play dates for the “cousins.”
When the time arrives, I drive into Pennsylvania and meet Bonnie the breeder in a suburban parking lot, a halfway distance point from her home to mine. She emerges from her car with a crate and hands me an infant. I begin to try and make ‘Rio’ feel safe. He has just been taken from all that he has known and I can feel his jangling nerves in my hands.
“If he cries for a night or two,” Bonnie says, “Don’t pick him up and he’ll get used to it. It’s better for them.”
I have had quite a few conversations with Bonnie. At night, she watches the puppy litters on a monitor with her husband and granddaughter. She gushes with pleasure when she describes the pups sleeping next to one another on their backs all intertwined. She loves these dogs. Knowing this fortifies me to withstand Rio’s cries. Bonnie is like the “Supernanny” for canines.
When I put Rio to bed that night, I see that he crawls onto an enclosed corner and not into his fleece bed. The next day, I stand in PETCO and read, “Potty Training your Pup.” Last week, I was reading D.H. Lawrence and doing freelance work.
I decide to buy a crate. Dogs are cave animals, descended from wolves (I did know that) and they can feel comfort in small dark places. I line the crate with terrycloth, fleece and an old sweat shirt and a few of his toys. He is reluctant to go in and stares at me intensely popping his head out several times. I feel like a jailer as I snap the door closed and lilt, “Home, home.” All the instructions, say to pick clear appropriate words and repeat them. My friends did not crate train or stopped because it felt cruel. ‘Muffie didn’t like the crate.’ Muffie is now three and still pee-pees, etc. on the floor whenever. Not good. I don’t want an anxious dog so I am clear, calm, consistent and devoted. If I make this crate a haven, he will have that for his whole life. I meditate, do art, I get the need for safe havens. He whimpers for a long ten minutes. The next night when I lock him in his cell, I mean crate, I play new age music and he whimpers less. He’s getting the hang of it. A few days later, he voluntarily rests inside his crate with the door open. I feel so successful, I actually have a flash of becoming an animal trainer.
I cancel plans the next day as I realize that it’s really not fair to leave a new puppy for more than four hours, especially if you are crate training. Rio only has the hang of doing potty on paper if he is in a fenced-in area. If he is out of the fenced-in area and the crate I have to watch his every move and direct him to the paper. Some books suggest keeping him on a leash and walking him to the paper when he starts sniffing. I find that if I do this and look away a moment too long, a puddle appears. Then I have to say, “No,” firmly with kindness, dip paper in the pee, bring it to the proper paper and say my simple chosen phrase, “Good Potty.” After a few days, he’s still having accidents about twenty percent of the time. My hands reek of Baby Angel wipes. Every elimination requires, a supportive ‘Good Potty’ and a special treat. I am squatting and gently correcting him continually. My gluts never looked so good but it is so time-consuming. Animals are poop machines. A neighbor wisely suggested, “Roll up your carpets for the first six months, at least.” Bless her for that advice.
After another day or two, I now have paper on the floor in each room when Rio is with me. I have to remember to close off all other rooms. He is smart and he is really trying. If he is having fun, he gets distracted, looks at me lovingly and pisses on the parquet. Again, I kick into the program. I scoop him up, say, “No, No,” dip paper in pee-pee, move him to the proper paper and lilt, ‘Good Potty.” I run into a friend in my building who lost a younger brother some years back. She says, “I don’t know how you are doing it. After my brother’s illness and passing I didn’t want to take care of anything. It took me a long time to even think about having children, I was so tired.” I feel like falling into her understanding arms and licking, I mean kissing her cheek.
Rio is the most adorable little thing imaginable but it’s only about thirty percent pleasure. The rest is custodial and I just got released from custodial. The balance isn’t so hot. Uh, oh. Before he arrived, I had ‘peripheral consciousness.’ I knew it would be work to have a dog but I only glanced over at that prospect. As a little girl, I had a dog that I loved but my involvement consisted of cuddling him, hanging out and being nagged to walk him. The end. Now I am steeped in the real experience and living how it feels. Every morning Rio wants me the minute I am up. Even if I wait, how long can I really wait? I have to feed him, wash his face and go through the good potty routine. I am running back and forth several times a day to insure that the training is on track. I give him Reiki energy to calm him, a toy to chew when he teethes on my fingers. When I audited a class last week, it ran over time and I started checking my watch, waiting for someone to finish presenting before I could slip out. I grabbed a cab. Twenty dollars. Over the weekend, I attended an opening and couldn’t stay to finish dinner without being uneasy picturing him tearing up his newspaper and spilling his water bowl from loneliness and boredom. I feel bad having him eliminate on newspaper. I will switch to wee-wee pads. After nine days, I wake up with this lyric running through my head, ‘Yes, he’s warm, yes, he’s sweet, yes, it’s poo-poo at my feet.’ No more Bob Dylan lyrics cascading through my mind, only Barney look-alikes.»
As I express doubt, one friend tells me she always has guilt if she is out more than eight hours. That’s a lot of guilt. Another friend with an older puppy shares that she both craves the affection and dreads the neediness when she is tired and not in the mood to play. Dog as lifestyle. It’s not the country where he could go outside on his own, ever. I carry on despite all my doubts circling.
I take Rio for his New York vet appointment. In the waiting room, I overhear an older woman with a Yorkie, bargaining to reduce her bill.
“How old is the dog ?” I ask.
“Four months and he’s costing a fortune. He had ear mites that were misdiagnosed and this is our third trip over here. I hope it gets easier,” she says. Then she picks Angela up and squeals, “Don’t we hope it gets easier, don’t we?” The dog licks all up in her nostrils. She’s happy. I’m getting queasy.
As Angela and her owner leave, another woman is looking morose.
“Dog or cat ?” I ask.
“What’s up with the bunnies.?”
“Bunnies are great pets,” she answers. “But he has a chipped tooth.”
Turns out ‘Fluffer’ has a penchant for eating metal. I hadn’t even considered the possibility of dental work.
Once inside with the doctor, Rio is a charmer, 2lbs, 7 ounces on the baby scale. He has beautiful long legs, gobbles his treats, licks the doctor’s hands and goes rather easily into his carrying case. Everything checks out fine. As I’m paying the bill, I overhear a receptionist discussing the mass on a two year old dog’s nose. It requires surgery. I flash back on the bunny in need of dental work. Ca-chink, ca-chink. There goes my summer vacation.
On my way home from the vet, I return my friend Jean’s call and she hears my anxiety. “I’d never get a dog, I’m too practical,” she says. A day later, she is sitting in my living room with Rio hopping around, nuzzling her and retrieving his American Kennel toy on command. Jean is originally from China and sometimes changes up some grammar. She looks up at me, “He so smart and cute. Oh, Martine, you create dilemma.”
When I walk Jean to the subway, I stop in at the local pet store. While paying for an organic chewie, which Rio loves, I share with the serene animal lover owner that this adoption may be more than what I had expected. “Do you know of people who might be looking just in case I decide to…?” The owner takes my card sympathetically and tapes it to the side of the cash register, “Sometimes people do ask.” Wow, this is weighing on me. At night, after playing with Rio which is fun and giving him Reiki calming energy which relaxes him to mush, I put him in his crate. My head hits the pillow and I’m out before Charlie Rose announces his guests.
A few friends offer support with e-mails:
‘After all you have had to do? Get a fish, it swims, it moves, it’s not an infant, it’s enough.’
Another is babysitting rodents for a neighborhood kid:
‘I was serving my nocturnal pals their complete hamster buffet and decided to get creative. I gave them a lettuce leaf. They pounced and began devouring it. Rapaciously. It's the most enthusiasm they've ever shown. Now I'm worried that I've inadvertently introduced them to the crack cocaine of the rodent world. There must be a reason why fresh greens aren't on the menu. What if it causes diarrhea and they dehydrate? I'll have to explain to Ryan that Tom and Jerry died on my watch. Maybe I'll take the low road and blame it on Pete.’
He's like a big fluff ball -- I think I have bigger ones than him under my bed. But, yeah a huge responsibility -- tough decision I'll bet. My sister says dogs are harder than kids because they never grow up and fluff balls are self-sufficient. Mine grow all on their own.
A couple of days pass and I receive a call from a woman referred by the pet shop. She has a ten year old daughter and they have had some bad luck over the last few months with puppy mills and a breeder. I explain that I haven’t made a decision yet but she says they’d like to visit anyway; just in case. The mom remarks on how calm Rio can be as he uses his toy to relax around new company. I feel proud.
Five minutes after they leave, the phone rings, these words are recorded, “We definitely would love the dog if you feel it’s right for you. Otherwise, we would love to have the name of the breeder.” Oh, God. ‘I create dilemma.’
I keep connecting to Rio and waiting for the answer. That night we lay around together and I stare into his large black eyes. He is soulful and kind. Just watching him yawn is a joy. He really is like the most adorable stuffed toy except he’s alive. Can I do this?
One morning, a few days later, when I am washing his eyes, I glance at the clock and am running late. I place Rio down to get my coffee and check my Week at a Glance. Damn, I have to cancel dinner plans because I can’t be away for 9 hours. I look back at him and see he missed the paper and I am down for the poop. Do I truly want to do this?
Rio and I have to break up. It’s not that I don’t love him enough. Timing is everything and this just isn’t the right time. When I tell a friend that I am writing about my ambivalence, he nods and says, “I totally get it but be prepared for hate mail.” Still, I have to go with what feels right for me, for us.
My mind is a montage: my neighbor who lost her brother flashes, I’m off the hook, I see the woman from my yoga class, I’m on the hook, ‘You knew what you were getting into!!’ Well actually, I didn’t until now. Now I really know. A dog is a baby, forever. I call Rio’s new family and give them their good news.
Zoe and her parents come for a play date (recommended by the pet store owner) so that Rio can get more familiar with them. As Zoe enters, she asks if she can give Rio a stuffed duck that she has held under her armpit for an hour so that he would know her scent. I am so moved and reassured by her gesture that I feel like sniff, sniffing and going home with her too. Who wouldn’t want to be around this kid? She looks at me, full eye contact, ‘Thank you so much. Thank you so much.’ She is a love bath. And they call it puppy love.
The next morning as promised, I deliver Rio. I actually cry in the lobby of their building. I’ll miss him. If I was ready for a dog, I couldn’t have a better one. Once upstairs, I am uncharacteristically awkward when they show me Rio’s new digs. I accidentally knock my arm on a glass door. The dad asks if I’m alright? I am but it’s emotional. I get balanced again; peaceful though sad.
A few days later Zoe e-mails to say, ‘He is so great!!’
She invites me to visit anytime. I will call her.
Now as I walk around the city and see cute pooches in fashionable shoulder bags, I hope that the shoulder they are under is the right one for them to be leaning on.