We first saw the puppies when they were just over a month old and past the point at which they are susceptible to human germs. A tiny Shiba pup can hardly be surpassed for cuteness: a roly-poly bundle of red fur, soft as mink, with a face resembling that of the ideal Teddy Bear. The short muzzle is dramatically dark, and the ears, which will point straight up in a few weeks, still flop over at the tips. The tail is a little thing that could fit on a chipmunk, a far cry from the bushy doughnut-like shape it will take on. So new to the world, the puppies appeared meek and uncertain when we arrived. Four became increasingly active during our visit. They explored the limits of their small home with growing boldness and persistence, while the fifth snoozed soundly. Cuddling a furry bunch of pure sweetness the color of brown sugar, I didn’t mind (too much) when I realized it had peed on my shirt. (We’re pretty sure this was our boy-to-be).
Because the “pick of the litter” male and female had been reserved for buyers in the dog-show world, we couldn’t simply choose a puppy. Debbie was evaluating the pups during their first two months, to determine which would make the best show dogs. In our eyes, only very subtle markings set the five apart, and they all looked perfect. The dog show circuit was not for us. One of the males was somewhat darker that the others. He had inherited his father’s rich red coloring. This would turn out to be our Kiko.
When we visited again in two weeks, the puppies had grown considerably and blossomed in personality. Their bodies were sturdier, their ears stood up, their tails were furrier. This time we went out with them into the enclosed yard, where they exhibited a wildly exuberant fierceness. They ran, they tumbled, they attacked a big stuffed bear. And they assaulted one another (and us) repeatedly with their teeny sharp puppy teeth and toenails. The two females were especially aggressive, often leaving their brothers reeling with bewilderment. Not without good reason are female dogs called bitches. One of the males latched onto our daughter’s hair and clung on tenaciously. Again, this would be our Kiko. During his first weeks at home he periodically treated human hair as his own special toy.
At eight weeks we could bring our puppy home. We had brought the travel crate, but we couldn’t bear to put Kiko in it. D was eight and still in her booster seat, so she got settled and took the puppy in her lap. He was understandably anxious, having just been wrenched from Mama and his pack. Clearly he wanted to be somewhere else, anywhere else, and D couldn’t hold the slippery, wriggly, strong-willed little guy. When I leaned back to get him, he looked up at me with such sorrow and confusion I almost cried. Debbie had given us a stuffed fox that had been in the kennel with the pups and had the smell of home. (Foxy is still Kiko’s favorite toy. I have re-stitched her seams several times.) I tried to cuddle Kiko and Foxy together, but the puppy was inconsolable. His instinct was to escape. He was determined to climb up the sides of the car, onto the dash, even onto H’s lap as he drove.
Once home and out on the porch in the sunshine, exhausted from the anxiety of the ride, Kiko promptly fell into a deep sleep in D’s lap. That night, Kiko endeared himself to H by sleeping on his foot as we sat on the sofa. All was peaceful. I marveled that this small fuzzy four-legged creature was with us in our home. I noticed that his little tummy was freckled and nearly hairless. He looked vulnerable and defenseless. Already I loved him so much. But some tough days of puppyhood lay ahead, for all of us.