The lowest point, so far, in my three-month experience of dog ownership came one miserable, rainy night at 11—when you get a dog, you realize your life has become a series of lousy late nights. There I was, wet, tired, waiting for my new beagle, Sasha, to relieve herself when I saw she had picked up something out of the grass and was vigorously chewing on it. I knew that an unauthorized ingestion could result in a really late night: a trip to the animal emergency ward and a $1,000 bill for surgery. (I know of a basset hound who ate a dozen bagels and had to have his stomach pumped, and a Great Dane who died after eating his owner’s pantyhose.) So I bent down, inserted my hand into Sasha’s mouth, and removed what I soon discovered was a used condom.
Perhaps I should blame the people I had previously thought of as my nice neighbors. But without Sasha, I would have been able to continue thinking well of them. Without Sasha, I would have been home, my feet resting on one of my cats. Without Sasha, I wouldn’t have had to undertake this painful, Skinnerian experiment of trying to turn myself into a dog person.
I am a cat person. A lifelong cat person. During the 100 or so years I was single, I spent hours discussing my problems in baby talk to my cats. (Through a heat pipe, I once heard my downstairs neighbors imitate one of these conversations.) My clothing and furniture were always covered with a fine layer of fur. I rated potential suitors on their reaction to my cats (a scale running from hostility to indifference).
Dog owners talk about the unconditional love you get from a dog. Unconditional love is one of those popular concepts, like closure, that doesn’t actually exist. Dog love is full of conditions: Feed me, walk me, praise me. Dog love grovels. One of the things I admire about cats is that they are capable of love; they just dole it out when it suits them. As Churchill said, “Dogs look up to you; cats look down on you.”
Cats are so soothing. I once read that the purr is a healing mechanism for them, the frequency of it having an effect similar to electronic stimulation for broken bones. But it’s a healing mechanism for the owner, too. What could be more comforting than having a purring cat nearby? Or more convenient than being able to go away for the weekend without having to do anything more than leave extra food and water?
We have had cats for the entirety of my 6-year-old daughter’s life. A year ago, when my 20-year-old cat, Sabra, finally bid adieu, we got two kittens, Goldie and Biscuit. Our daughter initially appeared to be enchanted. But shortly after the kittens’ arrival, my then entirely preliterate daughter managed to write her first sentence: “I love dogs.” I realized that I had given birth to my sister. Somewhere in my genetic soup, my daughter had found the dog-lover gene.
On my sister’s mantelpiece is a coffee-can-sized container, the remains of her last, miserable dog. Her passion has been for huge, deservedly obscure breeds. For example, she had a Fila Brasileiro named Paris, a dog that looked like the missing link between mammal and reptile. Its most prominent feature was an unstoppable stench. When I tried gently to point this out to her (“Liz, your dog stinks!”), she would get defensive and say, “That’s just the way dogs smell.” But if that’s just the way dogs smell, then skunk would be man’s best friend. Her other dog, an Akita named Knute, had a lifelong skin condition of such virulence that my sister devoted, oh, 90 percent of her income to futile attempts at a cure.
So how did I go from happy cat owner, amusedly contemptuous of dog owners, to dog owner? My husband and daughter ground me down in one of those emotional assaults that are usually characterized as “family life.” Did it matter that I said, “Who will walk the dog? Me! Who will take the dog to the vet? Me! Who will make dog-sitting arrangements on the rare occasion I leave the perimeter of my home-office like some defiant Taliban wife? Me!”
As I began researching an appropriate breed for our family (“Who will do all the work of finding a dog? Me!”), it became clear that the dirty secret of dog lovers is that they are closet cat people. How else to explain site after site, created by dog fanciers themselves, that described their breeds as “excitable,” “hard to train,” “massively shedding,” “not for the allergic or those uncomfortable with dog smell,” “needing constant attention,” “not good with children.” I thought the fact that in the 12 or so millennia since dogs have been domesticated, none has been developed that met our needs was the clincher for sticking with cats.
But this did not convince husband and child. Instead, I was persuaded to go out and look at actual dogs. Since I decided I would not support the dog-breeding industry, I insisted we only look at incarcerated dogs. Going to an animal shelter with a 6-year-old is an excellent exercise if a) you like driving home from an animal shelter with a 6-year-old sobbing bitterly, “Why couldn’t we get Punkin?”or b) there’s not enough pathos in your life.
It was at a shelter that we encountered our first beagle, a sweet, tiny creature who had been found wandering. We put in a request for it, but the owner retrieved it. We had now been programmed for beagle ownership, so we discovered a local group that finds new homes for mistreated beagles and went to its adoption fair.
There’s something about being surrounded by roomful of abandoned creatures that makes you realize you’d adopt a wart hog under the right circumstances. When my daughter saw shy, scrawny Sasha (then known as Conchita), I knew I was headed for years of late-night walks.
Sasha has lived up to the one promise the head of the rescue organization made about her: She was completely unhousebroken. OK, we’ve gotten over that misery. But when we took her to the first session of our six-week dog-training course, I had one of many cat-person-with-a-dog sinking spells when the instructor explained how dog training was a lifelong process. All I could think of was the process of training our cats: “Fellas, here’s your litter box.” End of training.
Walking a dog has been a revelation. Who knew so many of my neighbors, most of whom I’d never seen before, owned dogs? It was like discovering that at 11 every night, people all around me were running out to go ballroom dancing or attend Communist Party meetings. There is also a strange etiquette to dog-owning: We don’t introduce ourselves, just our dogs. So Sasha knows Pundit and Woody and Linus, but I have no idea who their owners are. When you walk a beagle, you also find out about half the population used to have a beagle when they were kids. Which makes me worry that a message went out about 30 years ago—”Don’t get another beagle!”—that I somehow missed.
So now I’m a dog owner. Given that Sasha was a year old when we got her, I only have 14 or so more years of late nights to go. I have to admit she’s wormed her way into my heart (although not while I was giving her de-worming medication). I even forgive her for eating the phone charger, the entire family’s slippers, and my favorite bra. (No, I wasn’t wearing it at the time.) As I was writing this, she crawled under my desk so I could rest my feet on her. If only she could purr.