A Dog’s Life

My “most handsome son” has four legs, any number of names, and a special place in my heart.
Down, Boy: The men in my family wanted a fearless hunter. I wanted a sweet puppy lover.
Illustration by Jeff Szuc

Mr. Brown and I have been together for six years. My husband, John, knows about him, just as I know about Ruthie, the green-eyed feline female who snuggles on his chest each night and shoots me a sultry, condescending look that says, “You know he likes this . . .”

In 2001, shortly after our nest emptied of sons it filled with animals. Mr. Brown came before Christmas as a feisty, blue-eyed chocolate Lab pup first known as Cisco, short for San Francisco (the saint who loved animals) but also for a stock that took a doggie turn in December that year. Like a newborn at age four weeks, he got us up at 3 a.m. I learned from the vet that the pup’s redneck mother, Shelby Jo, had shirked her maternal responsibilities, leaving me to teach “no biting,” especially “no biting the hand that feeds.” Besides me, he chewed the laces on my tennis shoes, the ruffle of my nightgown, the cuff of my favorite jeans, the leg of the dining room table, the skirt of a recently upholstered chair, and the corner of a well-sauced old cookbook. John lost an alligator watchband, the antenna from his cell phone, and the tassels off a very nice pair of loafers.

While I babied the pup, rocking him to Schumann’s lullabies, the men in my family encouraged his aggressive traits, tugging toys away from him, knocking him off balance, and growling back at him when he uttered his ferocious snarl. They wanted a fearless hunter-warrior dog. I wanted a sweet puppy lover and was careful to protect him from Channel 8 helicopters and roaring vacuum cleaners. In another month, he weighed in at fifty pounds. I could walk him for about three blocks, but even with a choke-chain collar, he could pull me right out of my sandals when provoked by a squirrel or a yappy Chihuahua and drag me through a smelly compost heap in a neighboring alley. When he behaved and walked beside me, I gloried in the compliments people shouted from car windows. “Great looking son of a bitch!” did stun me for a minute. I found myself introducing him to strangers as my most handsome son—a difficult birth, however, with all those legs.

The vet suggested that neutering him might alter some of the objectionable behavior. This idea never goes over very well in all-male households. My sons were already concerned that, thanks to my maternal hovering, the dog was squatting to pee like a girl. Someone had also spread the rumor that neutered dogs never develop full, manly chests.

The last straw occurred one evening after dinner. It is our quaint custom for John to have a cigar on the side porch while I play the piano for him. As I played a Chopin nocturne, Cisco tucked his head under his dog bed. John noted that the dog clearly didn’t find my playing up to his standards. When we retired for the night, I lifted the dog bed to find that while I was performing, Cisco had been happily eating the rug—not just any old rug but the only really fine antique rug we owned. “That’s it!” John yelled. “Tomorrow he goes! Put an ad in the paper!”

I wasn’t sure how to word the ad, because John had changed the dog’s name again. “Shithead” probably wouldn’t have passed muster with the Dallas Morning News classifieds. The rug was actually salvageable, so when John got home from work the next day, he relented and said that perhaps we should talk to the vet about that “procedure.” “He can do it without anesthetic far as I’m concerned.”

John accompanied me for a consultation with the vet. I couldn’t believe my ears. My husband, who in his youth did enough medical malpractice defense work to qualify as a third-year medical student, deposed Dr. Vandermeer on his experience with bilateral orchiectomies. I had to bite my tongue when he asked if the vet couldn’t just do a vasectomy. “You know, if population control is all we’re concerned about, wouldn’t that do the trick?”

Everyone except me managed to be out of town the day of Cisco’s surgery. As I walked him to the vet’s office, I considered that, in the afterlife, he would probably drag me around with a similar spiky collar. For now, he just trotted goofily beside me, looking like that Gary Larson dog who leans out of a car window to tell his dog friend, “After we go to the drugstore and the post office, I’m going to the vet’s to get tutored.” I handed him off to the vet’s assistant, who said they’d keep him 48 hours after surgery for observation. I felt like Dr. Mengele. I postponed picking him up as long as I could and tried to avoid eye contact with my groggy patient while the vet reassured me that he could still be a good hunting dog. He even recommended a trainer in Ennis, less than an hour away.

My household returned to almost normal, except my sons didn’t speak to me and insisted on calling Cisco “Charlotte.” To assuage their concerns about his masculinity, I agreed to send him to hunting dog college in Ennis for two months, but when I saw the setup, I had second thoughts. Roger, the trainer, intended to treat Cisco like a dog. He’d be sharing his assigned cement-floored kennel with a bunch of yelping strangers and would be fed only once a day. Water was a common slobbery bucket. (He was accustomed to a soft bed with a pillow and twice-a-day feedings with treats and peanut butter as needed.) This was reform school, and visitation was on Saturdays.

Cisco was always overjoyed to see me. The poor skinny thing wore a shock collar. I know for a fact that he has at least thirty words in his vocabulary (“dinner,” “play ball,” “go swimming,” “cookie,” “bone,” “take a walk,” “leash”), but “fetch” didn’t seem to stick.

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