We woke up to a morning fog that reduced the spring colors
to black, white and shades of silver-gray.
A bit later, green and blue tones begin to emerge.
The street sign, appropriately, reads Misty Pond.
This oak is evidently in no hurry to welcome spring.
I can see the painter George Inness capturing this scene.
A locust tree beginning to flower.
The dampness seems to heighten all the attractive smells.
Kiko had much to attend to this morning.
The scrubby foliage by the pond was dotted with dew-covered spider webs.
A lone mallard on the pond.
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.
Now that the question of dog or no dog had been settled in the affirmative, my husband asked for only one consideration: a dog without excessive fluff.
At first this saddened and irritated me, because I love the fluff. While there are many short-haired, sleekly handsome dogs, my personal tactile preference is for thick, luxurious fur into which I can sink my face and fingers. I had envisioned a cuddly mixed breed puppy, perhaps with Chow Chow, American Eskimo Dog or Keeshond parentage. Or maybe we could find a black and white Popi look-a-like. (His full name had been Potpourri, to reflect his mixed heritage of Chow and Cocker Spaniel.) But when it hit me that I would be an adult instead of the child in this dog-human relationship, I began to see the housekeeping advantage of less fluff. I would be the primary wielder of vacuum, Swiffer and dust-cloth. Still, I needed a dog with substantial fur.
Early on in our dog-decision process, I assumed we’d simply look for an appealing mutt at the Humane Society, likely the best place to discover a potential Popi II. But as I considered my childhood dog’s personality in a less nostalgia-tinged light, I began to second guess both the shelter and the Popi aspects of the plan. My beloved dog’s loyal devotion to my parents and me was a big plus. We were all the pack he needed. He had little interest in other humans or in his fellow dogs. He didn’t require doggie play-dates (an unheard-of concept then). We saw him as highly intelligent, discerning, unwilling to waste affection on strangers. These positive points had their corresponding negatives. Popi didn’t suffer fools; he didn’t take crap from anyone. On a number of occasions, when provoked, he bit people, usually children. He wasn’t vicious; he never bit without due cause, and he rarely broke the skin. During those less litigious times, such behavior was more frequently seen as justified. Parents now tend to think a dog has no business biting their child, even if the kid does sneak up and roughly wrap a belt around the dog’s neck or try to stuff the dog into a box. I realized that while I still appreciated Popi’s aloofness, I didn’t want to deal with a biting dog, no matter how justified.
Another problem with choosing a shelter dog is our family’s soft-heartedness for animals. What if we saw a dog that tugged at our heart strings but somehow wasn’t suitable? I was afraid we’d be haunted by the memory. I still remember a dog that looked plaintively at me twenty years ago when I happened to walk past it at an adoption event at a shopping center. I was a student; I had no permanent address; I couldn’t get a dog. But I can’t forget that face begging for love. D and H are similarly inclined.
Gradually, I realized we should consider a purebred dog. I had been a lifelong champion of mutts, so this took some getting used to. With a purebred we could avoid the problems of uncertain temperament that can result from a mixed breed’s unknown parentage. The best path, we concluded, was to decide on a breed that fit our needs, then locate a reputable breeder. We would be more likely to get a non-aggressive dog. We would have a higher chance of getting a puppy. And we could better avoid the heartache of having to refuse a dog that wasn’t a good fit.
It took us a while to settle on a breed. Most were too large or too small, too clumsy or too yippy, too shaggy or too sleek, too friendly or not friendly enough. My daughter and I were watching the Westminster Dog Show when we spotted an unfamiliar breed, the Shiba Inu, of Japanese origin, a smaller relative of the Akita. This fox-like dog has a jaunty walk, proud bearing, pointed ears, bright slanting eyes, a tail curled to resemble a bagel, and red velvety fur that is thick but decidedly not fluffy. D and I were entranced. We felt sure we’d hit upon a dog that even H could love, or at least abide, especially when the announcer referred to the Shiba as very neat, clean and intelligent, “a big dog in a small dog’s body.”
The more I learned about the breed, the better it sounded. The Shiba tends to be reserved around other dogs, but not aggressive toward people. Maybe we could get a touch of Popi’s aloofness but none of his bitey-ness. D and I were excited; we could sense our dog dream becoming a reality.
After seeing Kiko again with Beau, his playmate from puppy days, I’ve been thinking about the protracted process through which we became a family with a dog. Popi, my childhood dog, was with me from second grade until after I finished college. I have felt his absence ever since. But our family doesn’t acquire dogs lightly. The time was not right, and so the years passed by, dogless.
My daughter began campaigning for a dog nearly as soon as she could talk. She was, no doubt, at least partially motivated by the Popi stories I had been telling her since she was born: how he once boarded the bus to Grant Park, as though seeking out his roots, his utter lack of fear, his unshakable self-confidence, his delight in the little stocking Santa filled for him each Christmas, his talents for hide-and-seek and squirrel scattering, his noble loyalty to family. Popi had become a legend, for me and my daughter. But the time still wasn’t right. My husband was traveling four days a week, and I could all too easily envision the complications of being an often-single parent raising a young child and a puppy. (I know my limits, and they are low.) Thinking back on my experience, I told D that I would be ready for a dog when she reached second grade.
H, however, was very firmly not in favor of a dog. He had grown up with a menagerie of pets: rabbits, birds, guinea pigs and a box turtle that lives with us still. But no dog. D and I set forth every possible justification: a dog is a surrogate sibling for an only child, a dog is an effective security system, a dog offers a unique, transforming love, difficult to comprehend until you’ve experienced it. By this point, my wish for a dog had morphed into a full-blown ache, and it wasn’t going away. I had now loved the dead Popi far longer than the living Popi. For me, the time was right, and getting more urgently right with every passing day. H worked longer hours and tried not to hear. (He would probably say this is an unfair assessment). Second grade came and went, and there was no dog for us. D continued to end her nightly prayers unfailingly with the words, “and dear God, please let us get a dog.”
H had one final defense to which he clung fixedly: he was convinced that his allergy to cats extended to dogs. And he was pretty sure that his daughter, so like him in many ways, would prove to be allergic, also. I had D allergy-tested. She had no animal allergies (not even to cats). At long last, H reluctantly agreed to testing. Unfortunately for him, he showed no allergy to dogs. Had he been a less honorable man, he would have tried to rig the test. He was out of ammunition, he had lost the battle. D and I were jubilant: we would be getting a dog.
Kiko had a reunion this week with an old pal, Beau the Boston Terrier. Their friendship was sealed the day they met in the neighborhood, nearly four years ago, when Kiko peed on Beau’s head. During their puppyhood they were best buddies, frequent companions for walks and exuberant doggie play-dates. The question “Kiko, Want to go see Beau?” was answered by an especially enthusiastic tilt of the head. Celeste, Beau’s owner, is a lovely, easy-going woman (she laughed when Beau was sprayed by Kiko), and I liked her instantly. Twice a week, for an hour or so, she and I would talk and watch our dogs tear around her spacious, fenced back yard. We had no fence at our house then, and running free was a great luxury for Kiko. Beau is highly proficient at Frisbee-catching and tennis ball retrieval. Kiko does not excel at these pursuits; he cannot grasp the concept of running away from the object as it’s thrown. But he is fast. He used to be lightning-fast. He could turn on a dime, reverse directions in a flash, and leap like a deer. He very nearly flew, and it was exhilarating to watch him.
Our dogs’ lively play-dates were cut short when Beau required knee surgery. Several months later, his leg had healed, but before we could meet again, Kiko was injured, in our own newly refurbished yard. When we moved in, the area behind our house was not a yard but an expanse of cracked concrete that might surround an aging gas station; there was considerable room for improvement. By this time we were almost finished with the renovation. We had our wrought-iron fence, a grassy area, stone patio and a new porch that still lacked screens and railings. Kiko and I had returned from a walk with two friends and their dogs, and I invited them in for a short off-leash run. This was the very first time Kiko had played with guests in our new yard.
He appeared thrilled at the opportunity to impress his large lady friends, a Lab and a Doberman. He sped around crazily, a blur of red fur. When he could run no further, he paused, panting mightily, to survey his domain from the porch. Then, going for the big finish, he leaped off into the grass. He must have landed wrong. Kiko is tough, and he didn’t whine or cry. But he was hurt. He sat down at once, holding up his hind leg gingerly. He flattened his ears against his head, looking up at me imploringly and pitifully.
At this point, my mind launched into the absurd, frustrating routine I think of as the “If Only” game. I try to rewind recent unfortunate events. If only I could move time backwards and not let the dogs play. If only I could keep Kiko from taking that jump. If only, etc., etc., until I feel like screaming.
Had Kiko simply broken his leg it might have been easier. Instead, the injury was ambiguous, perhaps a micro-tear in the Achilles tendon, perhaps something else. A complicated surgery was a possibility, but because the outcome was uncertain we didn’t seriously consider it. For six weeks he wore a bright green splint. Tight and itchy, of course he hated it. The splint was to be kept dry. We were given an I.V. bag to tie around the splint during rainy-day walks. This was not a good solution. He had only to kick his leg a bit to send the bag flying. Duct tape and plastic wrap were no more effective. Sometimes I didn’t notice the missing bag for a while, until I turned to see it lying in a distant puddle. When this happened, all I could do was carry my dog home. On many occasions I could be seen trudging through the wet leaves, Kiko in my arms, the rain pouring down my face. I felt like an actor in a made-for-TV post-Apocalypse drama.
It’s been two years now since Kiko’s fateful jump. On most days he seems fine, but he has lost some of his amazing speed. And he will probably always run a little strangely. His back legs tend to move simultaneously. We don’t encourage him to run for long periods, but since he’s older, he tires more quickly anyway. There is always the chance that he could re-injure his leg.
This week marked the first time Kiko and Beau have played in our yard. Kiko looked elated to see his buddy, and he showed him that he can still move. They ran together with something close to their former energy and speed, but only for a short while. Celeste and I leashed them and went for a walk. By then they were subdued. As a puppy, the excitement of being out with Beau often incited Kiko to bursts of frenzied circuitous sprinting. If Celeste and I weren’t vigilant, we’d be tangled up in a pretzel-like configuration of leashes, dogs, mailboxes, shrubbery and bystanders. This time there was no such juvenile behavior. Our dogs are young adults. How quickly they grow up!
How good it is to walk in the morning sun again! Last week when we were still plodding along blindly in the dark, Kiko paused and I didn’t notice (couldn’t see him, never think I really need a flashlight). My shin hit his rock-hard head. The blow didn’t phase him, but I found it painful enough to wonder momentarily if I had fractured my leg. Now that we’ve Fallen Back and said goodbye to Daylight Savings Time, it’s great to see where I’m going again. The fall colors are especially brilliant here in Virginia, and we savor them all the more after the devastating rains of this past September.
A bright November morning in Virginia.
Every weekday morning, as my daughter heads to the bus stop, Kiko and I are off on our morning walk. He is eager to sample the wealth of smells, sights and sounds the new day brings. His peppy, prissy little walk resembles that of a prancing circus pony. We’re usually out for nearly an hour, and we move quickly. We often meet friends, both two and four-legged; Kiko is an enthusiastic greeter of all fellow walkers. His exhilaration is contagious. Even on those days when I’d rather be sleeping, once out with my little dog, there is no place I’d rather be. (Here he is, ready to go.)
Later in the day, Kiko’s joie de vivre is considerably diminished. He has passed a demanding morning sleeping soundly on the playroom sofa. He’s restless, and it’s time for a walk. But he is ambivalent at best. Does he really want to go? Wouldn’t it be better to sleep a little longer? Have a snack? Play with foxy? He is uncertain; he is bored. Perhaps I’m reading my dog too deeply, but sometimes his attitude seems to be one of profound regret.
Only a ride in the car can lift Kiko out of his funk. The slightest jingle of a car key awakens him from dreams of successful squirrel hunting. His favorite sentence is: “Kiko, do you want to take a ride?” These words are the equivalent of the reset button. Upon hearing them, he tilts his head, stretches, shakes vigorously, and he’s recharged. His greatest desire is that the ride will lead to a walk in another neighborhood, one more interesting than our own. When this happens, his exuberance is as boundless as it had been in the morning.
I try to accommodate him. When the weather permits, he goes with me on errands. But even I find it ridiculous to drive the dog around every single day to elevate his mood. There are afternoons when I insist we walk along our own street.
It’s during these walks that Kiko tends to flaunt his array of annoying tactical maneuvers. They include:
• Scrambling like mad as though to avoid an approaching predator, straining sideways at the leash so his body forms a sharp angle to the road. (This requires a great expense of energy for both him and his walker.)
• The sudden dead stop, feet splayed out, head down, collar puffing out the sides of his face dramatically. (He used this move often when H tried to jog with him.)
• The missile launch leading into a fast sprint, best performed after the dead stop.
• The exhausted plop-down, usually attempted in the center of the road.
• The pause to eat grass, which he chews with the thoughtful delicacy of a connoisseur. (More frequent during periods of pouring rain.)
• The double back: once moving, a quick turn-around to head in the opposite direction. (Especially popular when time is limited.)
• The serpentine: darting impulsively from one side of the road to the other, typically attempted when cars are approaching quickly. (Is he suicidal?)
It would seem that simply turning toward home would put an end to some of these behaviors. Unfortunately, Kiko differs from the horse that runs only in the direction of the barn. He remains conflicted no matter which way we’re going. Sometimes it’s necessary to pull him repeatedly by the collar. If worse comes to worst, he can be carried, because he weighs only twenty-five pounds. I’m very glad he’s not bigger.
We may never attempt another family dog walk. Kiko, who looks like a fox and acts like a cat, tends to be ill-behaved on the leash. Four years ago, before we got our new puppy, I read Cesar Milan’s books. I was determined that our dog be thoroughly leash-trained. My faithful little friend would walk beside me in an orderly fashion, never lurching or tugging. But of course Kiko lurched and tugged. As Cesar the Dog Whisperer instructed, with each pull on the leash, I stopped abruptly. I maintained this practice for quite a while. Our “walks” consisted of standing by the road, me angrily fuming, and Kiko coughing, choking and looking bewildered. With each start he shot off again like a rocket. Kiko’s determination outlasted mine. Now I let him go just about anywhere he wants, as long as it won’t get him killed.
H and D, however, are less complacent. They still try to control Kiko, who is dogged and refuses to be controlled. They blame me, rightly enough, for his lack of training. But neither were they willing to do the training.
The night walk is typically H’s responsibility, and he held the leash. Kiko was straining to go just beyond the reach of the cord. Seeing that he was heading toward a fence he finds attractive, I commented, easily enough, I thought, “Why don’t you let him sniff the fence? Sometimes he pees there.”
At this, H bristled and replied testily that he needed no dog-walking tips; he knew how to walk the dog.
I should have left well enough alone, but instead I forged ahead, foolishly. “No wonder he doesn’t pee for you. If you’d let him go where he wants, he would.” Now, I’m not making this up–there have been times when H storms in after the evening walk, griping that the dog wouldn’t pee, even though they went down the street and back.
H did not appreciate my valuable offering of constructive criticism. He rather vigorously handed me the leash, saying something to the effect that if I was the expert, I was welcome to walk the dog.
Soon, the whole family had jumped heatedly into the squabble. We spoke at once, our voices raised and tense. We used a variety of forceful gesticulations. I have no idea what was said, but it was impossible to miss the animosity that swirled around us, as sudden and destructive as a flash flood.
I’d had enough. I put the leash down. And we NEVER let go of the leash. Kiko may be badly behaved on the leash, but running free he would soon be dead. D looked at me with horror. It was the same look she gave me when I hit her in the head with the Frisbee at close range. (This was accidental, but she couldn’t believe anyone could be that bad at Frisbee.) It was a look that says she has realized her mother is a monster. But she quickly grabbed the leash, and Kiko lived on. I set off in the opposite direction.
H followed, telling D to get the dog walked. My instinct was to walk somewhere, anywhere, by myself, lengthily, exhaustively. Instead, H and I found ourselves at home together, still too furious for coherent speech. There was much stomping and banging as we ostentatiously performed our respective household chores: H took out the trash and I loaded the dishwasher. Too restless to stay in the house, I went back out to check on D.
I found her trudging morosely toward home, pulling Kiko unwillingly behind her. She played the child card. How did she get stuck with the dog, she asked, when she had been an innocent bystander to her parents’ bad behavior?
The evening was a loss. We all recognized the truth in that age-old pearl of wisdom, “Don’t go to bed angry.” Yet we couldn’t follow it. There would be no healing birthday cake that night.
Because of the early surprise party, we had been polite, considerate and somewhat uncharacteristically jolly for over a week when my real birthday finally arrived. All that good behavior evidently took its toll. We were a tad grumpy that evening. I didn’t feel like cooking—it was my birthday, after all. We were drawing a blank on meal ideas.
After much aimless avoidance and procrastination, we opted for our Sunday-night default setting and ordered Chinese food, which we ate in front of the TV. We had run out of conversation. We couldn’t eat in the kitchen, as we were battling an onslaught of ants, and the table was piled with the usual contents of the counters and cabinets. It was getting chilly on the screened porch. Despite an excess of cable channels, Tivo, Netflix DVDs and the vast possibilities of streaming video, there was nothing we could all agree on. Not even an old Seinfeld or Raising Hope. H commandeered the remote and persisted in not hearing the program requests made by D and me. Segments of House Hunters, 60 Minutes, and AFV interspersed with annoying commercials proved to be an especially unsatisfying combination. We were grumpier after the meal than before. It made me wish we had eaten on the porch in cold and silence.
There remained, though, the chance that birthday cake and ice cream would offer, if not real fun, then at least some solace. D and I had baked and iced a beautiful cake with snowy meringue frosting.
At H’s urging, we decided to walk our dog Kiko before dessert. This would prove to be a most unfortunate choice.