Pets: I’m not for them at all. In fact, I’m completely against dog and cat ownership. I want nothing to do with either. I’ll tell you why.
The thing about pets that we forget is that they die. Oh, I know. You’re not supposed to talk about that bit. But, it’s true. The little critters worm their way into our hearts and lives and then we outlast them. Of course, along the way, all manner of itsy bitsy life lessons can be learned from cats and dogs, and other little creatures, but saying goodbye is always hard.
My father is 87 years old. We never had a dog during the time I lived there as part of a family of eleven, but we had a cat called Brindle Shit Brown. Of course, my father named that one. It was born high up in an apartment building and the mother cat had dropped the baby cats off the balcony one by one, presumably inviting them to live elsewhere other than in those over-crowded conditions. My father continued to have a cat in the house long after I Ieft home.
Dad says that it so crushed him to see his cat pass away a few years ago that he’s not interested in ever getting another. Too hard, he says. His last little pet used to come out mostly when no one else was around and sit on his lap while he read in his big chair. If ma was in the room, then it would sit between my mother and father, keeping an exact space within an inch of the halfway mark of each of them. It was as if it was intentionally reassuring them, showing no favouritism, both having earned its love, or whatever it is that cats offer us.
I’ve had a few pets myself over the years. I used to keep a couple of Afghan Hounds around when I was in my late teens or so. Of course, this was back before municipal laws made it mandatory to pick up your dog shit. Those fenced in school yards in the evenings made for a perfect place to let the hounds out.
Later I learned a pretty neat trick for avoiding responsibility for the care and maintenance of a dog. I’ve had three major relationships in my life. And each of these women wanted to get a “puppy” to fulfill some kind of maternal need. Of course, to a young man, a dog is better than a baby. It’s hands down a better option.
Truth is, it was my experience with the hounds early in my twenties that made me realize a few things about pets in general. They become part of your little “family” and can no more be abandoned than a sibling or child. You have to look after the suckers. That means if you want to go somewhere, they either have to come too, or you are not going. Not everyone appreciates you bringing your oversized semi-guard dog to their homes.
I suppose it’s kind of like a farmer with horses or a milking cow. That horse has to be walked or ridden daily. Twice a day, that darn cow has to be milked come hell or high water. Dogs are a bit like that with the whole walking bit, aren’t they? Only now you have to pick up the dog shit too.
There’s something about being trained by a dog to wait behind it with a little bag until it is done its business, then feeling its soft poop through the thin walls of the plastic as you gather its offering. It stinks too. Fresh excrement is like that. And while you do it, the dog either looks at you puzzled or just goes off to the next bush or clean patch of lawn to repeat itself. I remember feeling taken for granted on the odd occasion where I’ve had to do this. Conformity costs.
Afterwards, you follow the dog home while carrying a bag of shit. Even today, driving down the road, sometimes I spot a big dog with their owner following. The misnamed master carries the required bag and it reminds me of the bull balls ornament you see some guys tie to their trailer hitch on the back of their pick-up trucks. There’s no nice image that justifies this or makes it any better. You’re still carrying a bag of shit while your dog frolics along. The owners never look happy to me. If you look at them too long, they stare back defiantly.
Over the years I learned to give in to the various gals I was with when the puppy call came. I’d first act reluctant, making it was known that I was not interested in pets. They were all the pet I needed, I’d tease. Been there, done that, I might say.
Once my position was clear, predictably we’d move to the next phase.
This is where persuasion comes in. Of course, I’m no match for a determined woman in that circumstance so it was to my advantage to realize that I was arguing a foregone conclusion. If I was losing the battle anyway, getting the best possible terms while the getting was good was my drop back position. It was a pattern oft-repeated during my years with dogs.
Oh, we’d get the dog alright. But not until it was understood and agreed to that I was not its owner, would not walk it, would not feed it, would not bathe it and certainly would not be picking up shit after it like some feminized male walking a poodle for his dame.
Now you might have a poodle, or you might be happy to walk your gal’s poodle and pick up after it on her behalf. I wasn’t. It’s just me, no reflection on you. And it was under this clear understanding that in all three of my major cohabitating relationships, we got dogs. But not big dogs, mind you, small dogs.
I once knew a fella who was a notorious gangster in what’s known as the Irish Mob here in Canada. He had a small dog too. Despite this apparent incongruence in his otherwise outward appearance and reputation as a tough and masculine male, I think it was a Shih Tzu or similar sized dog he preferred. I once asked him, “George, why the small dog?” To which he answered, “Little dogs need protection too.” Of course, in that moment the answer struck me as obvious: a dog wasn’t going to protect George; he was going to protect the dog.
After my experiences with the Afghan Hounds, I realized that large dogs as actual guards have limited value. Once I gave my second dog to a friend who didn’t have one. His place was broken into and the thieves simply piped the dog over the head and proceeded to empty him out. It left him with a large vet bill and a dog with one prominent canine tooth cracked in half and missing. Champion Kanishka of Douglas didn’t look much like a champion after that.
No. A dog around the house as protection is not a sure thing. But a dog’s hearing is so good that if you’re looking for an early warning system to give you advanced notice burglars are stalking your place, a dog is the thing. They’re also good about warning you to people innocently walking by minding their own business. And squirrels, they tell you about squirrels on your property, or scampering across hydro lines in sight of the windows. Dogs watch over their domain, like a sentry standing guard against all interlopers at the top of the castle’s walls.
So it was that most of my adult life a dog has lived in my home. One other rule I observed: each new relationship, a new breed of dog. Seems only fair, right? What kind of sick guy would manipulate three gals in succession to all get the same darn dogs? It’s deceitful. It’s the kind of thing that happens when someone has three marriages going in three different cities. Eventually, three different widows show up to the funeral. Sooner or later, you’re found out.
No. It would be a picture in an old album that would give me away; or, more likely social media currently. I knew this so it was important for me to keep things on the straight and narrow by ensuring each one of my great loves get a different breed. Luckily, fate never challenged me to the point where one had a preference another had already. It wasn’t like I could suddenly blurt out, “No. That one’s taken!” and not look like a complete idiot. After all, I wanted nothing to do with the whole thing, right? I have to say, I got lucky.
We went from Pekingese to Lhasa Apso to Havanese. All three breeds are similar and reflected their owners to a great extent. I suppose this also reflected my taste in women. The first two gals were blondes and so were their dogs—blond hair, black mask to be more precise. The last one, the Havanese, was all black. Change was due. I suppose. Read into it whatever you like but they were three small dogs bought from certified breeders at full price.
Well, except for the last one, the Havanese. Maggie May. Mel was so grateful we were getting a dog she let me name it. Somewhere, vaguely inside me, I was troubled by this: had I reached the pinnacle of my manipulation? Or was I just fooling myself? Anyway, Maggie was bought from an alternative breeder (read not Canadian Kennel Club) and I talked the lady down from $1500 to $800. Maybe not full price but not chump-change either. It was the exception.
All of them were superb pets and provided my gals with endless enjoyment, grooming, feeding, walking and cuddling them to great satisfaction. Each of them allowed me to rise to the odd occasion and walk a dog on her behalf. Say on a cold wintry night, minus temperatures and snow swirling about. That’s when I’d step up and do the right thing: joint and lighter tucked into my jacket pocket, and walk her dog for her.
The Pekes, as they are known to their owners, snort and snuffle as their pug faces take in air. They walk around with heavy chest pushed out like a diminutive bulldog. It’s pretty hard to not find them endearing. And just as our Pekes were characters, so was their owner. It takes a special person to find the beauty in the ugly. Pekes have it both. All that breeding to achieve their distinctive look takes a toll on the cardiovascular system. Their hearts give out. They die young. I went through two Pekes in that relationship
The Lhasa Apso is a good breed: Smart and loyal little pooches and not at all demanding. They are highly versatile and when their coats are allowed to grow out, a fantastic looking animal. It takes an owner who can dedicate time and effort to grooming to do the dog justice. Luckily, this breed was suited to my wife at the time because she always looked good. I’m pretty sure we had at least two, maybe even three of these dogs during our long relationship.
The Havanese is a Cuban version of a Bichon Frise. The Bichon Frise is normally white and found in the Mediterranean area of France. But in Cuba, it comes in all colours—much like the Cubans themselves. The Havanese is good for herding chickens I’m told. Of the three breeds, this was easily the smartest. It could roll over and play dead. It fetched a toy and laid it at my feet in seconds the very first time I tossed it. You could pretend to shoot it and it would die… for food.
Here’s a question: What’s with the idea that a dog has to sleep at the end of the bed? Can’t you just say no? I have to be honest here, that’s one drawback to my system. If you sleep with someone and they want their dog at the end of the bed, they will simply say, “It will sleep on MY side.” Of course, I have answers to that. Things like: “The dog wakes me up,” or “It hogs my blankets worse than you do.” In the case of the Peke, “The damn thing snores and I’m a light sleeper.”
In my experience, these are good reasons for not having a dog sleep at the end of the bed. Each of them was accepted with sensitivity by my partner, leaving me feeling validated and heard. But even so, the dogs all slept at the end of the bed, interfering with my sleep for decades. The reason for that was the dog just waited until we were asleep, left its own bed, jumped up onto ours and settled in. I know because it woke me up each time. My gal would offer me sympathy when I complained. But no remedy. It was their conspiracy.
But for all its challenges, having a small dog in the house is a joy compared to what happens when we lose one. It’s heartbreaking. Not so much for me, but I feel for my gal each time. In some dark recess of my selfishness, a dog’s death signals release. A good night’s sleep, accidents, barking and vet bills are all welcome benefits of a pet’s demise. A partner’s sadness is not. So I understand a bit about what my father was speaking about. It’s tough stuff.
Our last dog, the smartest one by far and the one I got to name, cost me ten grand in vet bills. I say that as an aside because the real challenge was when I was tasked with putting her down myself. It was something my wife asked me to do while she was at Ronald McDonald House attending to my boy’s life as he spent his first few months at Sick Kids. There she was up every two hours all day and night feeding or pumping breast milk to give our son enough of his mother’s nourishment to survive. It was the least I could do for her.
It is a funny thing how our dogs are so much like their owners. In turn, in my case, it’s a funny thing is about how our wives are often so much like our mothers.
All during the past three years as Mel has dealt with my boy’s health issues, she’s never complained. All the emergency visits to hospital; being awakened almost nightly to attend to him for one reason or another; his eating difficulties so bad that he vomited up almost everything she tried to give him for two years straight, the odd time all over her; and the uncertainty of not knowing if he’d live or die. She was stalwart. She was like my mother.
My mother had ten pregnancies in twelve years, raised nine children, cooking thirty-three meals a day for decades while keeping a house and every one on task following her marching orders. And as soon as she could she went back to her work full-time, putting her nursing background to use first as a medical secretary and later in government for the hydrographic section of Environment Canada. When cancer claimed her finally at age 86, she died on a Friday afternoon surrounded by her nine adult children and husband of sixty-two years by her side holding her hand. My father told me she apologized to him for dying.
Maggie was bleeding out of her ass and could barely walk ten feet.
A lot like her mistress, my missus, and my mother, Mel’s mother in law, the little dog who could do so many tricks never complained. She just tried to carry on, right to the end. She would look at me through her curly black hair and those dark eyes and wait for my signal, at the ready like a good little soldier. She was so accepting of my authority as her pack mate, her alpha and protector.
I can’t say this delicately: the vets offices I called for help in putting her down were assholes. They were condescending, patronizing, contemptuous of my wife’s decision (which I was tasked with carrying out), and disrespectfully obstructionists. I ended up doing it and burying that little dog myself. I fed her steak before she went.
For the last few dogs, I’ve written eulogies. Each has been moving to me and others, cathartic expressions of a cherished being’s impact on all of us. Dogs really are a man’s best friend. I’m a bigger believer now.
This might seem inconsistent of me given I accept little responsibility for the pet’s existence in the first place. Call it maturity perhaps. Or, call it an abatement of testosterone. Maybe it’s just a greater connection to my environment and allowing the bigger picture to speak to me more directly, or through me.
It’s remarkable how often messages from the universe arrive to me in the form of a woman’s voice. I’m not sure I want to understand how that works, though I do. But watching how pained my loved ones are at the demise of a beloved pet provokes in me whatever semblance of poetic licence I can muster to try my best to do some kind of justice to their cause.
My women all loved their pets and I seek to honour their loyalty—especially as the person responsible for providing the animal in the first place. Pets are like family, and no restricted involvement rules set at the outset protects one from this eventuality. If I was a reluctant owner, the dogs made me their alpha because they recognize a deeper natural order that exists far beyond my self-interest.
Recently I moved to a 200 acre spread a few miles outside town, 20 minutes from my father’s place. Not everyone gets to be near their parents as they fade so I feel very grateful to be here. It’s also a great place to grow kids.
It’s mostly bush, very little land is cleared for agricultural use. That means the forest is steps from our back door. There are plenty of coyotes around, and we’ve seen fishers and foxes. Add to that my wife wants chickens. This is what happens you see: you give a gal a couple of kids and they want chickens. Can you imagine poultry in such circumstances without a dog to stand guard over the flock? Seems to me that is almost obligatory conditions for dog-ownership.
I imagine any day now I’ll be writing to announce how my wife and two kids have a new dog. It could happen.
Meanwhile, next time I’ll tell you how we now have not one, but two cats.
Yeah, you read that right. Not winning here. Not winning at all.
©ckwallace September, 2016. all rights reserved.
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