This morning, moments after I hit “Publish” on this post, My Bride and I will pop in the car and head to The Knucklehead’s college campus for a visit. He’s not all that far away, but we try to give him his space, so it’s the first visit since Knucks hit campus about four weeks ago. We’ve cobbled together a care package of his favorite foodstuffs, and a CD I decided he really, really wants. But the most important part of the care package is a visit from Hugo:
Hugo is The Knucklehead’s dog. Well, one of them, anyway. But he’s the one who travels best, so it’s Hugo that we’ll drag into the dorm with us. What could possibly go wrong?
* * *
My boyhood was a dogless one, an accident I corrected once I was in a position to do so. My first dog was a mutt I rescued at the tender age of 4-6 months. She was probably mostly a beagle/terrier mix, and I named her “Hannah” and I loved her. She came into the marriage with The Knucklehead’s mom, and Hannah was the first dog who loved my son. The night he was born I ran home after a few hours to feed Hannah and let her out, and I brought home a blanket Knucks had been wrapped in to introduce her to his scent. I have no idea if that made any difference or not, but Hannah and The Knucklehead were as thick as thieves from the moment we brought him home. Hannah wasn’t allowed in the nursery, but if Knucks was in the downstairs bassinet, Hannah was curled up underneath, on watch. Once Knucks was eating solid food in a high chair, and discovered the dog would scarf up anything he threw down to her, the two became inseparable.
When the divorce hit, there was no question who would have custody of Hannah. It was Knucks. My dog had become his dog, and I wouldn’t have had it any other way. But I was dogless again, and would be for about the next ten years.
* * *
People say that dogs and other pets are good for kids, that they help teach them responsibility. I don’t dispute that, though I do think a lot of that is also dependent on the adults in the household. No, more than responsibility, I think dogs help children learn empathy.
Dogs can’t tell us what’s going on with them, so it’s up to us to pay attention. We like to talk about our dogs being “bad” or “misbehaving” but I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Dogs always behave. They just always behave like dogs. If they’re doing something “bad” like pooping in the house or chewing up our shoes, it’s because some need they have has changed, or simply isn’t in line with a need we have. To “correct” the behavior, you have to look at what’s going on from the dog’s point of view. Maybe the dog is pooping inside because his territory isn’t clear enough to him. Maybe he’s chewing things up because he’s anxious or lonely. Or teething. Figuring out the behavior from the dog’s point of view is the only real way of getting on top of it. Yelling at the dog* or shaming or smacking him is not only distasteful, it’s usually counterproductive. It doesn’t work. You have to investigate.
So bring your knucklehead in on the investigation. Solicit her advice on what might be missing from the dog’s life that would produce the behavior you’re looking for. Does the dog need to go out more often? Does the dog need more exercise, like a daily walk? Does the dog need a little extra attention? Is the dog sick or in pain? What could be the reason for the dog’s behavior?
Thinking like that helps get your knucklehead thinking about the world from another’s point of view, even if that other is “just” an animal. That’s never a bad perspective for a young one to learn. Instead of just hollering or getting mad, your knucklehead is learning to tend to a relationship. Your knucklehead is learning empathy.
(And in case you missed it, that’s a pretty good lesson for we parents to keep re-learning. It’s not just animals that have trouble expressing themselves in human language; anyone who’s ever asked a child “Why did you do that?” and gotten “I don’t know” in reply knows what I’m talking about. When kids say, “I don’t know” to “Why did you draw on the walls?” or “Why did you throw that toy?” they’re usually not lying. They don’t know. They’re not as experienced in dealing with frustration or anger or sadness as we are. They don’t have the tools for introspection we have. They need to learn this. They need our help in figuring it out.)
These investigations with your child can sometimes have a secondary benefit, especially with the very young child. If you ask your knucklehead why he thinks the dog chewed his toy, and your kid says, “I think maybe he misses his mom,” maybe it’s time for the conversation to head in a slightly different direction.
* * *
The dogless years weren’t without pets, however. My 12-hour+ shifts as a nurse meant a dog was out of the question, but we turned to some other critters that were a little more self-sufficient. Early on we kept a very small fish tank, through which passed a steady parade of goldfish, none of whom were with us very long. The fish weren’t much on companionship, and we weren’t much on getting terribly attached to them; they all had names like “Fishboy” and “Swimmy.” They did serve an important function. They gave Knucks and I someone else to blame when one of us belched or farted.
Eventually came Nick, who seemed like a great idea at the time. Nick is a black and white cat, still with us at the age of fourteen. I picked him up from a local farm when he was a kitten, and Nick has despised us ever since. You who are owned by cats know of which I speak. Nick has a disdain for us I thought only ‘tween girls were capable of. Not that Nick in any way won the jackpot when he picked us up as housemates. One evening when The Knucklehead was about five, we were in the bathroom, he taking a bath, me washing his hair and supervising. Nick decided to check out what was gong on, and hopped up on the edge of the tub. Knucks, not really knowing any better at this age, decided to plop Nick in the water as a bath toy.
Pandemonium, as you might imagine, ensued.
It took me a few minutes to catch up with the streaking howling blur that was rocketing through the apartment and throw a towel on him, then calm down the kid that was unprepared for the feline freaking out that was the result of the dousing. After both were more or less dried off and calmed down, Knucks and I sat on the couch for a baseball game on TV. Nick sat on the couch, too, making sure to keep me between him and his tormentor.
“Nick doesn’t like me anymore,” Knucks pouted.
“He still likes you,” I sighed. “He’s probably just wondering if you’re going to drop him into a tub of water again. He needs space right now.”
* * *
There’s another lesson dogs teach us, and Hannah taught it to us when she was about fourteen. To bring a dog into your life is to start a countdown to grief and heartbreak. Adults know this, even as we attempt to deceive ourselves when we bring a new dog into our lives. For children it’s a rite of passage when a dog dies. As pure as the love our dogs give us, such is the purity of the grief we feel at their passing. This is where kids have the advantage on us, for in spite of all our adult sophistication, it’s a grief we’re never prepared for, even though we say we are.
It’s an opportunity to teach mourning and loss to our children; they’re watching, wondering what to do with these feelings. I’m a talker, so that’s how I dealt with it. The next time I saw The Knucklehead, I hugged him and said, “I miss her. This hurts more than I thought it would.” On the drive to our place, I talked about the day I met her, running to the pet store afterward to get bowls, toys, food, everything I’d need to welcome my first dog. I talked about how much I missed her goofiness. I talked about how exasperating she could be. Knucks had his stories, too, and it felt right for us to reminisce about her, cry a little, acknowledge the loss. It helped. I could tell it helped him, because he did a lot of the talking about her over the next few days; a lot at first, then tapering off as the need became less acute. I like to think that I let him know that the hurt was good, it was something that was real and tangible, and as such, manageable. When you lose someone you love, it’s good to be around someone who knows what that loss means.
* * *
It was My Bride who made me dogful again. Knucks was already dogful; his mom had picked up a brace of beagle pups about a year after Hannah died, and The Knucklehead named them Manny and Papi, after Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox. No matter that the dogs were both girls; Knucks had his heart set on the names before they picked them up, and I kind of admired him for not letting convention get in his way. It was fun picking him up at his mom’s place, and being greeted by wagging jumping licking puppies.
My Bride had Libby, who was four when we met. My Bride rescued Libby as a puppy from the local ASPCA, and thought she was getting a lab mix, until the vet pointed out that she had a pit bull on her hands:
As all pit owners know, there is no love like pit love, and My Bride found her to be one of the most loyal and loving dogs she’d ever met. And stubborn. Libby accepted the intrusion of The Knucklehead and me with dignity, but reserved her affection until she had done her research. An early test was teaching us that any clothing with our scent on it was fair game for Libby to get her jaws on. Knucks had a Red Sox cap that was a favorite, and Libby grabbed it one day and started gnawing. By the time we got it away from her, there was some sizeable damage to the brim. Knucks accepted it philosophically, and to this day, despite the “character” Libby gave his hat (or maybe because of it), it’s The Knucklehead’s go-to baseball cap.
Libby wouldn’t go to sleep at night until My Bride gave her a good-night scratch behind the ears, which Libby would reward with one of her kisses. The night she came to me for a good-night after the ear-scratch from My Bride, I knew Libby was claiming me into her pack. By that time, she was already in my heart. You can’t watch a creature devoted to someone you love without falling a little in love yourself.
* * *
Fenway was entirely my fault:
We met Fenway on a trip to the local ASPCA, where My Bride would like to stop by sometimes to play with the animals. I had never done this before, and never will again, because we found out I’m not strong enough to leave without a dog. Fenway looked at me with those sad soulful cow-eyes of hers and I was hooked. We took her for a walk on the grounds, and when we stopped and I sat down, she leaned into me like she was trying to get inside. “We could call her ‘Fenway’ ” I said to My Bride, who rolled her eyes and said, “You didn’t seriously just name that dog did you?” But she was smiling when she said it, and the next day we brought Fenway home with us.
And never called her “Fenway” again, on account of her abbreviated little stump of a tail. To this day, she answers to “Nubby.”
Nubby is our “special needs” dog. She was clearly never socialized with other dogs, and was terrified when Libby wanted to play. Nubby is afraid of everything, and always seems convinced the worst is about to befall her. She has a BB right under the skin in her belly, so maybe she has good reason. Every second of every day she wants to be held and reassured she’s loved. We are happy to provide that. I don’t know what this poor soul’s life was like before we rescued her, but we’re determined to spend the rest of her life showing her what love is.
Her breed? We don’t know. We even swabbed her cheek and had her DNA tested and we still don’t know. The lab says she was 12.5% Australian Shepherd and that was the most of any breed she has in her. It’s like the line in Jurassic Park when they tell you they filled in the gaps with frog DNA. We don’t care. That just makes her all the more special.
* * *
Hugo came from a flyer at the hospital. A local family had goldendoodle (3/4 poodle, 1/4 golden retriever) pups for sale and My Bride fell in love. Wouldn’t it be fun to raise a puppy? We’d be adding a third dog, so it made sense to have one we knew the whole history of, didn’t it? This one won’t even shed!
Of the three, Hugo is the most boisterous, even bringing it out in the other two (we’ll forever be grateful to him for teaching Nubby to play). He’s the jump-up-oh-my-god-where-have-you-been-I-thought-you-were-going-to-be-gone-forever dog. We’re bringing him to visit The Knucklehead (aka “Skinny Dad”) because Nubby has social anxiety issues, and Libby, frankly, is getting too old for this shit. Dorm stairs in particular. Hugo has no idea what’s coming. The look on his face will be priceless.
* * *
The joy, the mayhem, the work of living in a house with three dogs has been beneficial to The Knucklehead. I look forward to the day he picks up his first dog – I wonder what she’ll look like, whether she’ll be a rescue, what he’ll name her. I only know that unknown dog has no idea of the life and love in store for her. When My Bride or I come home at the end of the day, all three dogs are wagging their tails (or nub as the case may be). When The Knucklehead is home, the dogs are wagging their entire back sections – tails, butts, and hind legs. The energy level, the excitement in the house goes up when The Knucklehead is home. He’s done as much for these dogs as they’ve done for him. The joy that The Knucklehead brings into the house for these beautiful creatures is palpable. Not a bad gift to carry into a house.
Even (especially) to a dog.
*I know. I yell, too, sometimes, even though I know better.