Last month, walking out the door onto a snowy deck, I slipped down the front steps, smacking my head on the last three in cartoon-stutter fashion. Coming to, I sat up and groggily muttered, “I think I’ll get a puppy.”
Forces in the universe must have been conspiring, because no one really “gets” a puppy without a solid reason, any of which has at least something medically related to it (like a concussion). Especially if you’ve had a dog — or dogs — before, and you know the train you’re about to ride.
In our case, a prior bird-dog background is now only moderately important. Twenty years of marriage and several dogs under my belt have suggested a compliant house citizen that won’t chew the Good Wife’s shoes and performs a few stupid pet tricks trumps the ability to complete a 300-yard blind retrieve in heavy surf. Let me be clear, it’s like .05 percent more important; but still, if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy.
The painstaking process of finding a breeder begins the festivities. While plenty exist within minutes to a few hours away, we often overanalyze the idea and drive or fly to places like Mississippi, Texas or … Europe. Why not? Hopefully you’ll have the dog for 12 or more years, so what’s a little extra out of the kid’s college fund?
After puppies are born and you’ve made your pick, more money changes hands for crate kennels, expensive puppy food and play toys. But at last the big day arrives, and you drive home with a fuzzy Tasmanian devil suffering from separation anxiety. The teenage daughter so keyed up to have her new cuddle-buddy share the long ride home asks if it’s too late to trade her in … for a cat. Over the next 200 miles, you seriously consider it.
So much is determined by the initial greeting on the Homefront. My wife’s first impression with our older resident dog, Mabel, when she was a pup, could have gone better. Picture Lani — who’d waited up till 2 a.m. for me to complete the arduous journey from Iowa with a yowling-all-the-way black Lab — eagerly sitting at the top of the stairs. The door flings opens and life crawls to a slow-motion rendition of "Chariots of Fire;" Mabel bounds once, twice, three times, right through Mommy’s outstretched arms and sticks the landing on the carpet in a perfect squat. Yes, in less than three seconds, the dog was pooping in our living room.
What’s a little excrement, you ask? Expected, of course. But what Mabel did those initial days was on par with biblical plagues. Stocks of Bounty paper towels and odor-fighting carpet cleaners traded up 30 percent on overnight markets.
From that first night onward, the family embarks on a sleepless, zombie apocalypse. Some dogs — owned by now ex-friends of the family — catch on quickly and dream the night away. Ours seem to take a few days longer … about 19 weeks.
Then there’s the chewing. Good Lord, the chewing. How can tiny teeth create that much confetti out of sofas, books, chairs, shoes, socks, photo albums and the stock of a newly refinished side-by-side shotgun? I have no shame in admitting that when those puppy teeth finally start dangling, a few are given an extra turn.
After the chewing subsides and commands are learned, we enter the terrible twos, which, for Mabel, began at 7 months and lasted until a year ago; she’s currently 9. In between those years are all the juicy stuff: Annual visits to the vet, where doctors and techs wrestle with your dog while exclaiming, “They all act like this!” No less than 10 late-night, panicked neighborhood searches, with teary-eyed kids yelling for their furry buddy, who’s often waiting home on the front porch with stamps on his body from a truck stop in Nebraska and a tattoo parlor on Guam.
If you’re lucky, only a small house fire or two will be blamed on the beast, and all but a half-dozen Christmas trees will survive the season; low-hanging branches and ornaments become targets for their lead-pipe tails. There’ll be three mystery illnesses and at least one blown knee, to the tune of $12,000. Anxiety creeps in as you consider their overall comfort.
If they clear the middle-aged minefield, after 9 years old, they’re on borrowed time. You spend their remaining years in a combination of contentment at hanging with a cool old-timer and worry that this perfect time will be snatched away too quickly as the ailments of old age inevitably set in.
Then, finally, the last days, when you bury your head in their thick neck mane and mumble the tear-filled goodbye you’ve been dreading from the moment you picked up that little fur ball all those years ago.
When all is calm and you can’t possibly shed another tear, you swear off dogs, for the heartache is simply too much.
And then, almost immediately, you start looking again.