When the holidays go to the dogs
Dogs were a part of growing up in Jim Thorpe in the 1950s. We shared a back yard with my grandparents. Midway between our house and theirs was a dog coop with a pair of beagles. When I was five, my parents bought me a fox terrier we named Buttons. He was a frisky little guy, short of hair and springy of leg. He liked to run around the yard, while I shot plastic balls at him from a bazooka-like air gun. I don't think those balls had anything to do with what happened to him on Christmas Eve 1953.
Buttons lived with the hounds. The night before Christmas, my Grandpappy went out to feed the three dogs as usual. An hour later, he sat me down in my Nana's kitchen and told me that Buttons was dead. We never knew what killed him. The beagles hadn't hurt him. He hadn't starved or frozen to death. He wasn't very old. Pappy saw no signs that he was poisoned.
Maybe it was the Grinch who stole my Christmas.
Whatever the cause of my dog's demise, it soured me on canines for a long, long time. Mom and Pop never offered to replace him, and I never asked.
My life was pet-free until Claire came along fully three decades later. Once she outgrew plastic horses and stuffed Beanie Babies, I might as well have been a veterinarian. Our house was never again without animals. She led me on a guided tour of all the major phyla: amphibians (newts, salamanders and frogs); reptiles (chameleons that required a diet of live crickets purchased weekly at the pet store; turtles that roamed the back yard in mobile screened boxes, until the neighborhood cat got them; and Rambo, an iguana that grew to be four feet long and eventually terrified even my daughter); and rodents (mice, hamsters, gerbils, and Butterscotch the Bunny, who liked to bite me).
Finally, when she turned 12, Claire was allowed to get a dog. The deal I cut was that everything else had to go, including the horrifying Rambo, the stinky mice, and the aquarium swarming with newts and two tiny but ferocious aquatic frogs that stalked the newts. Spike, a Bichon, was four when we adopted him from a rescue in Northeast Philly.
No outdoor pen ala Buttons for 'ol Spikey. For ten years he enjoyed the run of the house. No pizza crust or candy bar was safe if in his reach. No couch or chair or bed was off limits, when he had a nap in mind. No mail slipped through our door slot went unmolested. (Whenever we got a late notice, we automatically searched until foyer carpet and doormat for the original bill.) And no Christmas stocking was ever hung in safety if it held any chocolate.
Two years ago Spike died of old age and one or more of the maladies that it brings. I was yet again dog-free. But this Christmas Eve brought déjÃÂ vu all over again.
For anyone out there who sat around the tree this Christmas, watching the kids open presents, and suddenly thought that a puppy might make a great gift for little Timmy or Madison next year, I'm here to warn you: don't do it. Just think of me as your own personal Ghost of Christmas Future.
We never intended to get a puppy for Christmas, of course. I like to think of myself as a fairly responsible pet owner; I know all the rules, and "Don't get a pet as a Christmas present" is Rule #1. It's a bad idea, plain and simple. There's too much going on around the holidays, and a new puppy is bound to get too little attention, or too much attention, and invariably develop terrible habits when he should be learning the basics, like, "Don't poop in the house."
But I'm also one of those poor souls known as a pet lover who also happens to be allergic to animals. It limits my options by quite a bit. As you may have noticed from the first half of this column, my first dog was a Bichon Frise, one of the few non-shedding, hypoallergenic breeds of dog. This time around, though, we decided we wanted a slightly larger dog, and eventually landed on the Soft Coated Wheaten Terrier. But as it turns out, Wheatens aren't exactly easy to come by.
Like the good little planner I am, I made a first round of inquiring emails to all the breeders within a one-hour radius, and received only one response (a curt "we have no puppies at this time"). So I widened my search to two hours and still received only a handful of responses, all of them vague and noncommittal. I finally widened my search to three-plus hours, and finally made a bit of headway. One breeder wanted me to call him and have a chat.
It turned out that "chat" was code for "interrogation." The breeder pumped me on every detail of my lifestyle, my knowledge of the Wheaten breed, and of dog ownership in general. Given that I am a previous dog owner who works from home, I thought I had a pretty good shot - but I guess I was wrong. After quizzing me for a full thirty minutes, the breeder finally informed me that he had no puppies available and that he could foresee no time in the future that he might. Apparently I had failed some sort of Wheaten owner hazing ritual, and I wasn't getting one of his precious pups.
Eventually I did find a breeder who was willing to sell one of her dogs (for a princely sum that I assume eased the separation anxiety, I might add), and she only lived three and a half hours away - which seemed like nothing after all the work I'd put into finding her. Unfortunately, for a multitude of reasons I only partially understood, we absolutely had to pick the puppy up on the 22nd of December. The situation was, to say the least, not ideal.
We ended up having to take our brand new, eight-week-old, still-pees-on-himself puppy to every single holiday function. I spent Christmas Eve shivering in the snow along with my new pup, waiting for him to get in the mood to go potty. I spent all of Christmas day rushing home from various grandparents' and relatives' houses to get him outside or fed on time. I think I developed an ulcer dreaming about urine getting on my mother's carpet.
Now it's the day after Christmas, and I'm sitting here trying to type up this article while simultaneously keeping a hawk eye on the puppy, who has no rhyme or reason to his bathroom schedule and seems to get into everything. It makes me suspect that parents secretly enjoy dropping their kids off at daycare.
But cuteness does make up for a multitude of sins. In fact, it may be the only thing that's stopped me from driving straight back to New York and dropping him off on the front lawn of the breeder whom I naively paid for this experience. Hopefully he'll be trained in a few weeks and I can laugh about little Brody's first Christmas, having selectively forgotten all of the painful, exhausted, pee-soaked memories of the past.
That's what keeps humans procreating, right?