STELLA

 

A green-eyed beauty lay beside me.  She nibbles idly on my ear while I stroke her exposed chest.   Please, dear reader, in pursuit of salacious gossip, do not reach the wrong conclusion.  My marriage is secure.   Due to their anatomy, I suppose, ears are particularly important to cocker spaniels.

Nearly a decade after swearing off dogs for life, a cascade of circumstances has brought a new puppy into our household.  As recently as a month ago, we marveled at our dog-obsessed neighbors and friends and expressed relief at not being similarly tied down.  Dog ownership, we felt, is a self-imposed troika of emotional, economic and physical obligation.  A dog offers companionship, we acknowledged, and the illusion that a dog’s super-human displays of loyalty and affection are somehow meaningful.  In reality, we felt, those prized moments of connection and love merely reflect the fact that a dog’s owner is his food source, his life-blood.  A dog greets you at the door because he feared you would never come home again, and he would starve without you.

Stella is testing that cynical view.  She was declared an “angel” during her initial nine-hour car-ride.  She whined less than I did about traffic and slept contentedly between sessions of cuddling.  Her first night at home, however, showed how close the dichotomy between angel and devil can be.  Literature is full of such realizations, yet, we rarely experience them so acutely in life.  Stella whined piteously most of the night, a shrill keening completely out of proportion to her tiny six-pound body.

Now that two weeks have passed, a routine is emerging.  We know that she urinates twice, not once, each time she “goes.”  We know that she defecates, like clock-work, fifteen minutes after eating. (I should be so lucky!)  We know that she enjoys occupying laps indefinitely and that shoe laces are great for chewing.

My previous dog experiences have been baleful.  When I was a small child, we had Bagel the beagle, for about six months, before he ate a string and died on the operating table.  Family lore preceding me is littered with unsuccessful dog tales, a litany of the lost and ill, vicious and smelly.  We turned to cats before I was ten and never looked back.  We prized their independence and discrimination.  Our cats offered attention and intimacy only to the immediate family.  We believed them, therefore, to be a higher order of pet.

When my children were younger, a several-years-long campaign resulted in our acquisition of Max, a handsome wheaten terrier.  “All the neighbors have dogs,” truthfully plead the children.  “We’ll walk him and brush him,” they said.  Their intentions may have been pure, but the reality is that we parents did almost all the dog-care.

Max turned out to be overly excitable, scratching the hard-wood floors of our home at the sight of a squirrel or bird outside.  He grew to be forty pounds of pure, empty-headed muscle, pulling on his leash as though separating my shoulder were the desired outcome.  The children professed to love Max, but kept their distance, having seen him lunge, teeth-bared, at the door, when we departed for work and school each morning.

We had Max evaluated by a canine psychiatrist.  I tried to imagine how he communicated with the patient.  Did he ask about dreams or, perhaps, a difficult childhood?  For $225, he suggested several specific commands and techniques to calm Max’s anxieties.   We used them diligently for several weeks but the threatening behavior continued.

“We’re afraid we may have to give him away,” we said to our veterinarian, after describing Max’s tantrums.

“Not with that temper,” she said.  “He’s dangerous, especially with small children.  If that continues, you have to put him down.  You probably should not have him in your house now.”

“What is the chance he will improve?” we asked.

“Not good,” she said.  “It’s up to you, but I’d be very concerned about keeping him around.”

We did not deliberate long before choosing, sadly, to end our relationship with Max.   He had risen to the status of a “factor” in our household but, with his defects, had not attained “member of the family” indispensability.  Thus ended our relationship with dogs — until two weeks ago.

So, what sort of conversations do I have with Stella?  I do most of the talking, such as:

“Is it so difficult to determine where the peanut butter ends and my finger begins?”

“Must every leaf on the lawn be tasted?”

“How is it possible that you, who are so physically small, can upset the entire routine and living space of our household?”

Her response is to cock her head and raise one of her conspicuously visible eye-brows.  They are an amazing feature – bushy caramel-colored brush strokes on a cocoa-brown canvas.

“What?” she seems to ask.  “Am I not adorable enough to merit total attention?”

So far, I admit, the answer is “yes.”  Stella is charming, worming her affections into the skeptical soil of our souls.   She is excited to meet everyone in the neighborhood, but I’m sure I detect a special twinkle in her eye when she sees me.  Oh, yes, she is definitely discriminating.  Meanwhile, it’s time to walk her for the fifth time today in the hopes that she will finally be exhausted, and sleep through some reasonable portion of the night.

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