On owning, and failures in owning, a dog.

It was the sixth or seventh visit to the SPCA last April when she entered our lives. We had been to that place of chain-link cages and sad-eyed occupants more times than my heart could bear. Not only that, there never seemed to be puppies. All were either older or behind a sign that read “adopted”. We were sure we wanted a puppy. We could get the maximum cuteness and influence that way, we thought. So we held out for a pup. The staff came to know us and alerted us to potential adoptees for our family. One day, we got a call about two available puppies and again made the traffic-infested, 45-minute drive to northeast Philadelphia.

There was a lab mix and a second dog there. A lean, white terrier-hound mix bounded over to the kids and gave what can only be called a hug. She wiggled all over and leaned her quivering flank against our charmed children one by one. Who wouldn’t love this sweet four-month-old puppy? She had a natural bindi on her forehead, tan against the white and perfectly centered between her tan, adorably floppy ears. She cocked her head in a terminally cute gesture and came home with us that same day. Pippin was the name we bestowed on the little bundle of fur, and thus she became part of our family.

I may have a husband, four kids, and a house I moved into almost 20 years ago, but I am not very domestic. I have come to terms over the years with the reality that my enthusiasms in life come more from travel and other extradomestic pursuits than from homemaking. I don’t point this out to lessen the importance of creating and maintaining a beautiful, comfortable house: sometimes I wish I had that ability. Life, though, has reinforced for me that my talents do not lie there.  Even as a mother, I do best with my kids outside the home. Hence, the many journeys I have documented here. But we had gone on an extraordinary 15-month world tour and the rest of the family wanted domesticity. They wanted a house, a kitchen, their own bedrooms. And they wanted that trope of family home and hearth: they wanted a dog. I had never had a dog in my life. I wanted the travel, and they had gone along with it. I reluctantly agreed to the dog.

She really was cute, especially at first. She pulled on the leash and pooped in the house, but she would learn better. She played in the park with other dogs, even happily running around off leash until she ran into the street and across two lanes of traffic. And even then we tried again, and she got into a nasty dog fight over a toy. And then another fight. At our rural property, there were no busy streets or dogs to fight with, but when we had our annual party there, Pippin had moments of aggression towards four of the other five dogs in attendance, and also towards a toddler. That was when we got serious about training her.

We signed up for an expensive private session and more affordable group lessons. Now Pippin can sit and stay, but persists in nipping at the kids’ friends when they visit, and at random strangers during walks. She is not consistent about coming when we call. She inserts herself, half growling, into any two people interacting in the house, often barks and growls at visitors, and, six months into her time with us, still surprises with urine and feces on the floor. I often consider how she would be the perfect dog- with a muzzle, a diaper, and a sedative. I am aware that this attitude is not conducive to improving this animal’s behavior. 

My contribution, initially a range of activities to exercise this energetic puppy in the hopes of encouraging good behavior, became narrowed after numerous bad experiences. What I felt best doing was riding my bike with her running next to me. She could get exercise this way in our urban environment without risking fights or escape, though dog biking does have its own challenges. There are cars with which to share the road, leash entanglements, and squirrels. But still, it works pretty well for a number of blocks, and then we reach the tennis courts, which are usually empty. There she can run or sniff around in safely fenced bliss. After a time, we bike home. 

What I am not so good at is dominance and consistency. We heard it over and over- we humans have to be the “top dog” in Pippin’s “pack”. Again I have been confronted by my weaknesses: I do not like imposing my will on anyone, and I am not particularly consistent. My temperament leans to the peaceful, lassaiz-faire and hobbit-like. I like books, good food, comfort and peace, and excitement when I choose to seek it. I like to live and let live. I did not like to expose my toddlers to society’s dangers and constraints (gender roles, motor vehicles, commercialism, school), but often had to, and had to shape their behavior to some extent. I wanted to let my babies explore a nontoxic and free world, but we are in the urban east coast in the 2000’s.  Similarly, the puppy is in a dense urban neighborhood full of people and other dogs, in addition to cars and squirrels, and she can’t act on many of her natural instincts to defend her territory, hunt prey, and so on. I don’t relish the needy presence of this whining animal clamouring for interaction after my hard day at work. I seldom have the energy to assert my dominance in many situations, certainly not between sleep and the day’s demands every morning and night with a young canine. Her age was likely misrepresented by the pound, by the way- vet students from the nearby university invariably told us she was at minimum six months old when we brought her home. We don’t know anything about her prior life.

Though I may not feel dominance, I do get angry at the dog, but that’s another no-no. It is not ok to hit the dog, according to most sources. Negative reinforcement of any kind is frowned upon by the trainers with whom we are working. We are supposed to “set the dog up for success”, which means lots of attention, exercise, consistency, and clear rules. In the case of this puppy and myself, my thoughts return to diapers and muzzles and sedatives. 

She has fleas this week, despite our monthly applications of expensive anti-flea products. Fiercely took the lead on researching and dealing with this situation. The kids have become more involved after a serious discussion on whether we are the best family for this dog. We have gone as far as locating a no-kill shelter in upstate NY as a potential plan. She may or may not be with us in the future. To be honest, both options are uncomfortable for me. Dealing with her day in and day out is stressful, but giving her away carries its own difficulties. I am not sure which way this sequence of events will go. 

I guess I am writing this to tell a story behind the cute photos we all see of ostensibly happy families. Anyone with children knows that the photographic moment is preceded by many moments which are far from photogenic. There are tantrums, potty training, filthy kitchens, marriage problems, mental and physical health issues, and more. Our situation with Pippin is another one of struggle and cuteness, and one from which it is easier to extricate ourselves from if necessary. I offer our evolving story to anyone pondering the world behind appearances, and to those questioning dog ownership. I know couples often get a puppy in preparation for childrearing, but my experience was the other way around and not very helpful: four children did not prepare me for this!

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