I didn’t used to be a dog person. I know, it’s almost sacrilegious: today, if somebody tells me they don’t like dogs I’m likely to stare at them in horror, wondering how anyone could possibly not turn to mush at the sight of a floppy-eared canine. I remember being surprised the first time I heard a friend describe me as a “dog person” after observing that every time I see a dog I make a beeline for the furball in question and start the requisite petting and speaking in high-pitched baby tones. But I used to go the other direction when I saw a leashed creature on four legs. I was actually afraid of them. So what happened to me?
My mother acquired a toy-sized poodle when she was a teenager, and when she had me in her late twenties, the poodle was still there, albeit getting on in years. I cried when the dog, named “Peepers” for her big eyes, had to be put to sleep when I was five. I vowed I would never get another dog, wanting to spare myself the pain of losing another pet.
Then when I was sixteen, my mother decided my brother should have a dog–I strongly suspect it was really for her–and brought home a lovely soulful-eyed golden-haired rescue cocker spaniel, who my brother named Billy. After grumbling about the adoption, I convinced myself I could live with it, but then my hypersensitive nose caught up with me. I have always had a super-keen sense of smell, and if the dog had been sitting on furniture before I got there, I could smell that doggy scent. I had to wash my hands if I petted him, too. Needless to say, Billy and I didn’t end up spending too much quality time together.
Ten years later, my mom had to put him to sleep after he became incontinent. I expected not to mind the inevitable, but felt my heart sink instead. My mother gave me some time to say goodbye to him in the backyard before she drove him for that final visit to the vet. By this time he had grown slow and gray-haired, but he still sweetly nuzzled me. The sadness was almost too much to bear.
After mom returned home, I asked her how it went, and she described how she had taken a lock of his hair before the fatal injection and how his tail had gradually ceased to wag after he had left this earth for good.
“That’s our Billy,” she said, giving a sad smile.
Almost against my will and to my mother’s great surprise, hot tears started to pour down my cheeks. Damn, I had actually grown attached to that smelly mutt, I thought. How could that have happened without my realizing it?
I made my mother wait a year before we would get another dog–I was still living at home–despite my mother’s assurances that she would get a hypoallergenic dog to deal with the smell issue. Sure enough, almost exactly one year later I came in the door one evening and unexpectedly found a doggy crate with a small clump of black fur sitting inside. I felt myself grow furious and had the urge to run upstairs without a word. Mom knew I didn’t want another dog, but got one anyway.
But almost as soon as the annoyance arrived, I forced it to cease. I might as well go over and meet the little bundle of joy, who my mother had purchased after meeting a family whose dog had unexpectedly given birth to puppies. Remembering how crushed I was when Billy died, I figured this new pooch and I were destined to become unwilling pals no matter what. Might as well not fight what was bound to happen.
I walked over to the couch next to the crate and sat, and my mother opened the door and placed the shivering three-pound eight-week-old schnauzer-poodle mix in my lap.
“This is Gina,” my mother cooed at the puppy, who eyed me carefully. Hello, little stranger, I thought as I petted her super-soft fur so she would stop trembling in fright at the large unknown human who was holding her. And just as my mom promised, she didn’t stink even a little bit.
Almost as quickly as my anger appeared, I became enchanted with the pure sweetness that was Dixie, who provided endless cuddles, kisses and affection for all members of the family. Unencumbered by the smell issue, the little things about her made me fall in love with her more and more: the way her ears pricked when she heard the word treat, how she barked and ran around in circles when somebody came home, the way she would paw at your hands in order to demand a petting, and feeling the warmth of her body heat when she curled up next to me for a nap. Not only had this little creature wormed her way into my heart, but she managed to change my opinion of dogs entirely. Now I could understand how much dog owners loved their dogs.
Shortly after, I was watching a report on CNN about how a great number of dogs had been abandoned and rendered homeless in a recent natural disaster. I started to get upset, far more distressed than I had been a moment earlier when the program had been reporting on human beings affected by the tragedy.
I realized that Dixie, with her sweet and expressive brown eyes, so heartbreakingly similar to the abandoned dogs on television, had turned me into one of those people. The kind of people I used to ridicule, who would more willingly give to the ASPCA after viewing a commercial of sad-eyed unwanted pets than they would to a charity that aided the the poor. Why is this?
Probably because animals represent the ultimate in innocence and vulnerability. And in the back of our minds there is the inkling that a human could have been clever enough to escape tragic circumstance. Dogs can’t. The notion, of course, absurd: it’s not like the victims of the 2004 Thailand tsunami could have ran faster to avoid the massive tidal wave. But we’re not talking about the intellectual side of ourselves here. And truth be told, we Americans are probably the most dog-nutty people on Earth. Case in point: when President Obama promised his girls a new puppy if he won his first election, he later openly admitted that questions about the dog outnumbered any policy issue on his website. Later, when the Obamas adopted Bo, a Portuguese water dog, a media event was held on the White House lawn, with scores of reporters in attendance snapping pictures of our new national pet.
In short, the dog got his own press conference. It seems charming at first, until you consider the extremely low possibility that a new pet acquired by the prime minister of Great Britain or chancellor of Germany would warrant a similar circus in their respective countries.
One day, I was relaying my metamorphosis to my brother–that I had realized that although it was Dixie that made me realize that I now carried the label “dog person,” it was actually Billy that had laid the groundwork. It was Billy who taught me to the love four-legged creatures popularly known as Man’s Best Friend.
“So somewhere, Billy is smiling,” I told him.