Amanda Kovattana

Middle-aged musings in interesting times

Friday, July 17, 2009

Must Love Dogs (And Cats)

In which I transition from a devoted cat person to being a dog's best friend.

As an avowed cat person, I have been able to ignore the world of dogs nearly completely. Any contact I did have with a dog quickly assured me of the superiority of the cat as a pet. When I moved in with Catherine, she had both a dog and a cat (and a husband). The cat was an exotic Abyssinian with a distinct personality; the dog a Manchester Terrier with boundless energy that made answering the door a challenge. The two were friends, playing together, chasing each other sporadically, then lying about the house stylishly showing off their pure bred lines. Dutch, the Manchester Terrier had the same markings as a Doberman and the same cut ears, but was petite and delicate. She was bred to hunt rats and had the high energy of her breed; she would race in circles around our small yard. A year later, as part of the divorce settlement, she went with the husband leaving Tango to beat me into submission.

I had never met such a persistent and strong willed cat. She woke me every morning at six by standing on my head and if that didn't work she would jump on the floor very loudly, repeatedly. Finally she would meow in a commanding voice waking Catherine, which would make her cranky so I was trained to get up before it came to that. I was an early riser anyway. After her breakfast (not infrequently followed by upchucking her food in some inconvenient place), Tango would insist on getting into my lap when I was at my desk typing. No matter how many times I put her on the floor, she was back in my lap again. I gave up and perfected a leaning posture that allowed me to type while she sat against my stomach looking out the window. I still had to keep her from walking on the keys, but we came to a compromise. She could sit up to the keyboard as long as she kept her paws on the gel pads of my wrist rest. After a decade of this delicate balance, sitting with Tango at my keyboard became my favorite part of living with her. My writing was informed by her feline energy.

Two years ago we discovered that her kidneys were failing and were advised to give her fluids through an IV drip every other day plus a regimen of antibiotics. We took separate vacations so one of us would always be home to administer the drip with the help of a friend enlisted to hold the cat, rolled up like a burrito in a towel, so she couldn't escape or claw us while we poked the needle into the folds of skin on her neck.

The kidney disease slowed her down some, but it wasn't until the final week that she was not her usual active self. And it wasn't until the last three days that she was truly disabled. Those last three days were the saddest, most profound moments of my life. It was only then that I realized that the cat loved me beyond having trained me to be her servant, for even when I could do nothing for her, she would purr if I stroked her head and rub her face against mine reassuringly. When she refused food and wouldn't sleep or close her eyes at all, we knew it was time. The next day she wouldn't move and we took her in to have her put down and say goodbye.

Her passing left a cat shaped hole in our hearts. Her tiny 7lb presence had so filled the house that adopting another cat just wouldn't have been the same. It was then that I relented and suggested that we could maybe get a dog. Catherine had been talking about getting a dog for ten years and every time she mentioned it I had put my foot down or asked if she was going to take it to work with her. Dogs, I knew would not tolerate being left alone and they had to be walked, not my favorite mode of transport. But given all that we did for Tango, a dog wouldn't be that much more trouble. And with Tango gone I felt as though I had lost, not only a dear friend, but a job as a nurse that made me feel essential to the well being of the household. In my mind, my status felt tentative and without an anchor.

About a year ago my carpool buddy, Mary, adopted a chihauha/miniature pinscher mix and took it everywhere with her, even to clients. When I first got into the car with Squirt she asked if I wanted him to sit in my lap. I declined in horror. Eww, dog germs. And he barked his head off on another day when I came out of the house wearing a rabbit fur hat, but Mary had taken him to obedience school and kept him firmly under control so I had no complaints. When we drove to Nevada to the national conference I sat in the back seat and there grew accustomed to having a dog as a peer, as I was happy just to get a ride on such short notice. He started coming to our house with Mary to watch videos about organizing and hoarders, thus aclimatizing me further. When Tango was gone I was so happy just to have an animal recognize me and be glad to see me that Squirt became my new best friend with his floppy ears and perpetually entertaining antics.

When it became clear that getting a dog was an imperative and not just a maybe, I sat down to the task and read an armload of books on the topic while Catherine and I watched episodes of Cesar Milan's the Dog Whisperer. Dog training brought out the disciplinarian British nanny in me. I realized that I didn't have a problem with dogs per se, after all, I had grown up with several on the compound in Thailand and helped raise a litter of puppies when I was nine; it was with dog owners with whom I had a bone to pick.

I made my demands clear. We would have a dog that was well trained, wasn't aggressive, liked cats, had good manners and didn't bark a lot. Catherine was interested in a Jack Russell Terrier; she liked how they looked had seen the one on Frazier always getting the last laugh. Plus she wanted to get it as a puppy since she felt this was the best opportunity to bond with a dog and make sure you could brush its teeth. (Besides, as we had seen, the shelters were full of pit bulls and chihauhas.) A puppy! This was all going too fast and I hadn't finished all my reading. I called a professional dog walker for advice; she mentioned that it was very important to train a puppy "bite inhibition". I'd never heard of the term. Now I was really overwhelmed. If we got this wrong we would create a monster.

In Bangkok, I had a friend who whose dog bit me. She loved her dogs, but seemed to know nothing about them, just fawned over them much like I'd seen other dog owners do. When she and I were growing up, dogs were allowed to run lose as has been the custom between humans and dogs living together in villages for eons. At our house the gates were rarely closed, so the dogs ran all over the neighborhood and were happy, well-adjusted, friendly dogs (until they got run over by cars). As Bangkok grew more developed and crime ridden, the wealthy built high cement walls and closed their gates. Now the dogs were not only confined, but were encouraged to be aggressive to strangers, for their primary role were as guard dogs.

The first time I was bitten by dogs, at age fifteen, I wasn't frightened I was in awe. I'd never seen such elegant dogs; they were a pair of Dobermans bearing down on me at a run. Each got a nip in before their owners called them off. The skin wasn't broken, just bruised and the remedy my aunt administered hurt more than the actual biting. I was impressed that the dogs retreated as soon as they heard the command, but I would never forget that dogs, all dogs were potential killers armed with teeth.

My friend's dog was not so well trained. When I came into her house he set to barking furiously. She thought I should give him a treat saying he was probably hungry. This didn't seem right, but I followed her lead and offered him the treat stick. Seeing me approach, he lunged at me and bit my leg, breaking skin. I did nothing. Later I showed off my wound to her friends as a scar of battle, but I was not happy. I wished the dog dead. It lives still—in a cage. Apparently it had bitten someone before—a worker who had come to the house. That was all right, but the dog was supposed to be able to distinguish between working class and high society humans. I was not surprised that it had demoted me. I was clearly a stranger in my own land.

My new found alpha dog personality was now informed by these past grievances and I snapped at Catherine, bringing up all the past transgressions of her last dog, Dutch and the cat too. In response Catherine called off the dog project entirely and was mad at me, but I persevered and secretly watched more training videos.

The German shepherd puppies trained by the Monks of New Skete won me over. They were adorable and the monks were so gentle, yet firm, assuring me that dogs would naturally respond in a civilized manner if some simple training was invested in their upbringing. They emphasized what a privilege it was to develop such a bond with another species. I felt I would be missing out if I didn't try it. When else would I ever have such an opportunity? Just thinking about a dog banished all my thoughts about the coming apocalypse. In fact a dog might be just the thing for the apocalypse to help guard the house and protect us. They were even nomadic should it come to that.

We worked it out and decided to look for a more mellow breed like a Beagle. I put my boat making plans aside and built a dog pen. Before going to check out a litter of Beagle pups, we stopped at the swanky new Silicon Valley Humane Society. The facility was impressively appointed; each dog had its own dorm room. They had no puppies, but as we were there anyway we asked to see two dogs. Catherine picked out a mocha colored Chihauha named Hershey and I opted for Myles the Miniature Pinscher mix.

Hershey was cute, but shy. Catherine got her to sit in her lap and I snapped a picture. Myles was a wriggling ball of energy; he came straight to me, put his paws on my knee and looked at me. I spontaneously grabbed his head, looked into his face and said, "Are you my dog?" Then he was off, throwing a toy into the air and leaping waist high. And just as I was beginning to think that he was too hyper, he got on the ottoman I was sitting on, lay down beside me, rolled over and offered his stomach for me to pet. I did. From all our reading we knew this was a positive sign of submission. He was two years old, a stray; his history unknown.

I admired his powerful body and his black and brown markings just like a Doberman. Catherine liked his puppy friendliness and thought he was a cool dog. Then we thought better of it. He was so high energy and might be too aggressive as a male dog.

We left to visit the Beagle pups. They were living in an Asian family's back yard with the mother. Three bundles of puppy chaos streamed out towards us, making for the food bowl; all were female. They were cute all right, but a handful of uncontrolled energy. The mother was mellow and not very big. I thought we could handle such a dog, but I was still drawn to the athletic Myles. He might actually pull me on my scooter, he was so strong, and dog scootering was an actual sport just like dog sledding. I was quite taken by the idea.

Catherine wanted me to make the choice so I would be equally invested and enthusiastic about our pick. When I chose Myles, she had no hesitation either and back we went to claim him. It tickled her that I had picked a dog so much like Dutch with whom I had so many complaints. I was still cautious about how such a commitment would impact my life, but I was ready to try and Myles had more pluses than minuses. He turned out to be house trained; he loved to cuddle which pleased Catherine; he pulled on his leash all the way home when I walked him which was good and bad; he didn't bark until he saw a cat in the yard so we would have to work on that, but most of all I was proud to be seen with such a fine animal.

I had felt the same way wearing a cowboy hat and riding a horse in Woodside. It gave me a legitimacy to belong to this American class of dog owners walking their dogs; it overpowered my sense of being a minority in a mostly white, wealthy neighborhood. It gave me a cover for trash picking and checking out other people's houses. It was nearly as legitimizing as being a parent for a quarter of the trouble. I felt primed to train this dog—participate in the dog community. Then I could hold my own in this competitive, family oriented culture, even sport a bumper sticker declaring "my dog is smarter than your honor student". Yes, good boy Myles.

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