A few years ago, I visited a friend who has three dogs. I’d come with my young daughter for the weekend, and I was a little nervous. I’d known this friend for years, but I’d never stayed at their house, with their family around. We’d been colleagues for most of the friendship, though they were more experienced and considerably more accomplished. I admired them. They were compassionate and kind, smart and loyal.
I’d never had a dog growing up and had recently lost my beloved cat after sixteen years together. To me, she was more dog than cat insofar as she licked my face and fetched toys and spooned with me every night. She’d consoled me through my various depressions and had promised not to die before I found a partner or had a child. She’d kept her promise. I loved her.
My friend’s dogs were beagles, maybe, or basset hounds, or some combination of the two. They were huge. My daughter was terrified of them. My friend’s always been a dog person, had several over the years. I’d always understood how much they cherished having these animals in their life.
So there we were, hanging out in the living room, when my friend started talking to one of the dogs—possibly all three—saying, muttering, really: You piece of shit. You jerk.
I can still remember how stunned I was. Who talks to their dog like that? If they’d slapped their child, I might still not have been as surprised. Or unsettled. What was all that anger about? It seemed so inappropriate.
After that, they let the dogs out. “Get outta here, you pieces of shit.”
Now, my friend does not identify as a “they.” Rather, I have chosen this pronoun for them to ensure their behavior doesn’t get gendered right away, like: women are taut with anger and can snap at any moment, or: men are brutes, easily provoked, and quick to rage. Forget all that. I don’t think gender is the thing here. I think it’s the dog.
During the worst of the pandemic, I did all the things. I made bread. I took long walks. And when, one afternoon, I found my only child bawling about having no one to talk to and nothing to do all day, I decided to get us a puppy. Also, because my daughter is scared of dogs, I decided exposure therapy was just the thing.
I spent months trying to adopt, but the puppy craze was on, and it was hard to find exactly what I wanted, which was, you know, a puppy who’d grow into a low-maintenance, lazy dog sized for a NYC apartment. So I started looking into buying a dog (it’s amazing how consuming the guilt of this move still is) and was warned to stay away from puppy mills and backyard breeders. So of course my daughter and I ended up standing in the foyer of a home in Lancaster, PA, waiting for the owner to come while her four sons—identical but for their descending height: blond, capped, in overalls—ran around the backyard, breeding dogs.
The mother arrived in the passenger seat of a pickup truck whose driver was smoking a cigar. He looked like Boss Hog. We watched them unload giant boxes of corn flakes. My daughter wanted to know about the horse and buggy in the driveway and why no one was wearing a mask. I just wanted to get out of there.
The woman invited us in, at which point it was clear she had no idea where our puppy was in the chaos that was her house. We all started looking—under furniture, in closets—until one of the boys noticed him cowering in a corner—this little six-pound Boston Terrier/King Charles Cavalier mix.
I’d researched both breeds. Cavs were sweet and friendly and good with kids. Bostons were loving and fun. Neither needed that much exercise. This was the perfect mix for us.
With minimal fanfare and paperwork, I scooped up this puppy and plopped him in a crate bound for NYC. My daughter likes to say he started his life as a Trumpy, country dog (there were Trump signs all over the neighborhood) but would become a liberal city dog. They’d named him Bubba. We named him Lego. The trip home was uneventful, he barely whined at all.
And then the trouble began:
Lego had worms. We dewormed him.
Lego got into something in the park and three hours later, his face had swollen up so bad, he couldn’t open his eyes. We gave him a cortisone shot.
Lego had diarrhea for months. I changed his food five times.
Lego got mauled by a dog who just didn’t like the looks of him. We were walking by on leash. The other dog was also leashed and sitting on the sidewalk. Lego took one step towards him to say hello, just as I was asking the owner if this was okay, and: wham, this dog had my boy in his mouth and was tossing him around the way an orca handles a seal. It was the most ghastly, gruesome thing I’d ever seen. It took six people to get this dog to let go, at which point the owner just shrugged and waltzed off while I was left with my bloody puppy. I do not know how he survived, but the wounds were not as bad as they appeared—not the physical or psychological ones (though I am still shattered and antsy whenever another bigger dog comes anywhere near us—so much for the new dog helping me make new friends).
Lego had a hernia. I got it repaired.
Lego got a skin infection (I think?) featuring sacks of pus and skin sores.
Lego’s harness rubbed off all the hair under his arms. When I switched to a collar, it rubbed off the hair around his neck.
Lego has lots of energy and needs to run around like a wild man for at least forty minutes in the morning.
Lego has zoomies.
Lego does not always listen. I have spent hundreds of dollars trying to train this dog. To come when called. To sit. Leave it. Drop it. Stop barking. And from “stop barking” to “Quiet!” And from “Quiet!” to “SHUT UP!”
When he picks up a cedar chip at the dog run, which will either make him throw up later or will come out the back end in some gross way, I tell him to drop it and when he doesn’t drop it—on the contrary, he runs away from me—I find myself engrossed with rage. And then I start the muttering. Asshole dog.
Which I cannot believe. The first time I called my dog an asshole, I immediately remembered my friend. And how I’d judged this friend. And yet here I was.
My cat used to puke hairballs all over the house. She clawed up not one, but two sofas. Sometimes litter wet with urine would clump around her tail, which she’d clean in my bed. On my pillow. But I never got angry about any of it. Instead, I just adored her.
So I wonder if the problem with my dog has to do with expectation. The narrative in our culture about the obedient, loyal dog is paramount. To have that narrative debunked, undermined, trashed with daily frequency really is infuriating: the more destabilized we are, the angrier we get. The more control we relinquish, the more vulnerable and thus enraged.
I have watched hours and hours of dog training videos. I’ve watched my fair share of Cesar Milan’s show (this well in advance of ever owning a dog—*blush*) and, yep, I’ve seen that tearjerker about the reincarnated dog—A Dog’s Purpose, A Dog’s Journey, this movie seems to have two names—and so, yeah, all of these explainers and videos and media (and let’s not forget touchstones like White Fang, Lassie, The Call of the Wild) have told me I’m the boss. And that for once in this lifetime, someone was just gonna listen to me. Do what I say. And love me anyway.
Didn’t happen. Hasn’t happened. Isn’t gonna happen.
Now, by no means is my dog out of control, aggressive, or mean. On the contrary, he is incredibly sweet and cuddly. He’s an energetic, happy guy, and my daughter loves him—she’s no longer afraid of him or of any dog, for that matter.
Some days when we come home, we have (I’m embarrassed to share this!) “Love the Puppy Time,” which basically means we pile on top of him and squeeze the bejesus out of him. Some nights, at 3 am, I wake up and find I am curled so tightly around this dog, it’s like my sleeping self knows he’s all that stands between me and apocalypse.
In sum: I love this dog.
But not in the uncomplicated way I’d hoped. And not without a degree of anger that shames me. So I guess the next best thing is to stop examining what’s up with my dog and get to the bottom of what’s up with me.
Every dog trainer I’ve worked with parrots Cesar Milan’s refrain about how training dogs is actually always about training humans. To lead the pack. Establish boundaries. Praise, reward, rule. I wonder, though, if what’s really needed here is to be trained out of this attitude so that when my dog doesn’t listen to me, that’s fine. We just need to negotiate a solution. I can give up control, which will necessarily make him less of an asshole, by definition.
You’d think having a child would have taught me as much. But no, I was ready for the give-and-take of parenthood. Which is maybe why I’d been looking forward to the dog. Solo authorship, unilateral decision-making—all that is just less exhausting than having to collaborate. And yet, of course, collaboration is what it means to live in the world.
And so I guess the world, via my sweet little guy, has decided to remind me of as much. Every day. In every way. So, fine, don’t mind me, Lego. Just go ahead and do your thing.