You’ve probably seen the movie Marley & Me or read the book by John Grogan. My wife and I watched the movie a couple years ago. We laughed, we cried. I went to bed that night dreaming about how wonderful it would be to have such a beautiful pooch as part of our family. Sure, I saw the parts in the middle of the movie where the large yellow Labrador was indiscriminately shredding their home, jumping on everyone and causing yelling and screaming fits as the adults tried to go about their daily lives.
But somehow my mind focused on the cute puppy eyes, the moments of the man and his loyal dog sitting together on the beach, and the family of three boys running through the snow in their idyllic Pennsylvania home with the big yard and the historic stone exterior. That could be us, I thought.
What I failed to see, I have since recognized, is that I was fooled. Sucked in by the Hollywood propaganda machine. Lulled into a false sense of serenity by Jennifer Aniston’s smile and Owen Wilson’s Zen attitude. In the real world, adding a dog to your household is hard as hell. If they’d cast Rosanne Barr and Tom Arnold in the leads, no one would ever get a dog.
Almost three weeks ago, after several years of pushing my wife to agree, we got Charlie. We’d been eying a few breeders of Golden Retrievers and Yellow Labs around Richmond and had bought a couple requisite books that laid out all the basic facts. Unlike my wife, I’d had a dog most of my childhood and felt pretty cock-sure about the whole thing. Sure it would take some getting used to, but nothing I hadn’t done before and couldn’t handle. I was a father of three boys and infinitely more experienced in parenting and household issues. I’d even worked at a small country feed and pet store all through high school and could tell a bag of Eukanuba from an Iams or Science Diet with the best of them.
True, I had a few recollections of hearing my parents yelling phrases like “drop it!”, “outside!” and “no, no!”, but those were just fuzzy background memories of fun times playing in the yard and our dog waiting for me to come home on the bus. I did remember once having a big black Newfoundland that we had to give away because it always knocked over my little sister, but I viewed that as mostly my sister’s fault. There was also my father’s regular grumbling about stepping in piles of (poop) when I forgot to do my bucket and shovel duty in our backyard where our dog did her business. With three boys and some woods around our yard, I was confident that we’d be able to stay on top of that.
At my wife’s insistence, we’d waited until our youngest son was four and it was springtime to get the dog. She wanted to make sure our last baby was not a baby anymore before we got another one and that the weather was warmer for all those middle of the night potty breaks that I’d be taking. Our youngest turns four in late March, so we almost made that goal and I swear that last February (our first in Virginia) the weather was much warmer.
So with our two milestones within sight, when a mid-February day reached 60 degrees and a sun-drenched view out my office window proved too much for me to resist, I drove an hour out into the Virginia countryside and visited with three of the cutest little 8 week old Goldens that I had ever seen. Somehow I contained myself from bringing one home that afternoon without further discussing with the wife, but I knew I was smitten and that, for better or for worse, our fate had been sealed. The breeder tried to convince me to take three, one for each of our boys (I have to give her credit for selling it), but I assured her they would be arriving to a single parent family if I pulled that one.
While I did refrain from bringing a pup home that afternoon, by early afternoon the next day our family was loaded in the minivan, fresh from stocking up at PetSmart, and headed back out into the country to pick out a pup. Somehow during the 24 hours since I’d last been there, a front had come through and by the time we arrived, it was snowing and 33 degrees. My wife glared at me as I explained how it really had seemed like Spring the day before.
I’ve heard it said that the reason (alright, one of the reasons!) people have more than one child, is because they tend to forget the hard times that came with an infant. I think this is probably true, maybe more for dads than moms, but the crying, the getting up in the middle of the night, the diapers are all a bit fuzzy in my mind after nearly four years since our last. My wife says that is because I didn’t do most of it, to which I pointed out that it was warm outside today, but she just rolled her eyes. Regardless of one’s memory of our previous bundles of joy, there’s no doubt that we now have a new one. Not three children and a new pet. It’s a fourth baby.
When our human babies came to live with us, for the first few months they were contained, even when they weren’t asleep. When a puppy arrives to the house, he’s already a full blown toddler. If a dog year is six of our years, then does that mean that every day with a puppy is nearly a week? If so, then our growing 20 pounder with enormous feet is really already 18 months old.
I’m also becoming convinced that our new arrival may quite possibly be possessed by a terrible demon. Once the kids get to bed, an exhausting exercise in its own right, a whole new kind of fun starts. Our evenings seem to be a rollercoaster ride of pants pulling, hand biting, barking, leg-humping and pillow chewing. I’m quite certain that there never used to be any pillow chewing before the puppy arrived.
We read the books that encouraged crate training and about how dogs love to have their special den space and it helps them feel secure. (We can’t call it a cage, that’s too mean.) For the first two weeks, Charlie acted like we were locking him in the gas chamber when we tried to close the crate door at night. He howled, cried, moaned, barked and whined like a hyena despite my sleeping next to him on the couch the first couple nights. After multiple bleary-eyed trips to the yard in the middle of the night, I was shot for the day ahead. I felt like I was in some weird sci-fi dream when I ventured out half asleep at 2AM under the harsh glare of the floodlights against the dark of night and frozen grass every time the beast beckoned. Curse you February.
Lest you get the wrong idea, Charlie is truly the most adorable dog you’ve ever seen. Particularly when he’s sleeping. Not so much when he’s humping my leg as I sit trying to eat my breakfast. Or walk across the room. (Honey, stop laughing, it’s not funny.) I suppose it is getting better though. He’s generally sleeping till at least five (AM) now. Once the sun is up, he and I go on walks through the trails in the woods, inspect the creek behind our house, chase the soccer ball and are learning to pick up the newspaper from the end of the driveway and bring it up to the porch. (OK, he brings it to a tree and starts chewing on it, but we’re getting there.)
I have no doubt (ok, I have a few doubts) that Charlie is going to end up being a great dog. We just have to get past this puppy stage. Six months, max. At least that’s what my online puppy support group says. Last night, I nearly lost it after he would not settle down in the evening and was driven to search online for solutions. (How do I get the dog to stop biting my hand? OK, I can find that for you. Thanks Siri.) My hand looked like it had been stuck in a barbed wire fence there were so many tiny red puncture wounds from his “mouthing” (biting). Advice came back that I need to yelp or scream sharply in pain whenever he does it and refrain from playing for a few moments. It seems to be working, however unfortunately the children awoke this morning talking about dreams that Dad was being murdered while they slept.
It is possible that I underestimated how hard it is to raise a dog. Like most things I guess, being the parents in charge brings a lot more challenges than when you’re just a kid. Charlie jumps up a lot on my (almost) four year old too, so I guess my sister wasn’t completely at fault. We’ve only been together for nearly three weeks, which is guess is actually three and a half months in dog years.
Things are slowly improving. The kids have just about come to terms with having to use a new route around the house to avoid the gates that block certain doorways. Now early March, warmer weather has to be just around the corner. Aside from occasional jailbreaks to the upstairs bedrooms (which he seems to confusingly think is outside), he’s not leaving smelly gifts for us on the rug anymore. He’s learned that the bus driver always has a treat and has mostly stopped trying to play tug of war with the leash going up the driveway. There are actually times when we leave the room and he doesn’t stand at the gate and bark for us to return. Sometimes he doesn’t go berserk and try to tackle the cat when he enters the room.
There’s a quote from Marley & Me that I’m trying to hold onto for our future with Charlie: “In a dog’s life, some plaster would fall, some cushions would open, some rugs would shred. Like any relationship, this one had its costs. They were costs we came to accept and balance against the joy and amusement and protection and companionship he gave us.”
One thing that I definitely remember from when our boys were babies, is that at the end of the day, when they finally did drift off to sleep despite our exhaustion, they looked so peaceful lying in their beds. When I work at my desk and Charlie is sleeping on my feet, when he lies upside down in the rug with his feet up in the air while we watch TV or he curls up beside my chair when we eat dinner, there’s a similar glow that says from the back of your mind that things are going to be alright. Despite the trials, it’s definitely a feeling that I just can’t deny. Or maybe it’s just Charlie humping my leg.