He arrived as a gift, in a wicker basket. A red ribbon was tied around his neck and his eyes were playful and concerned at the same time. His flappy ears smelled vaguely of lavender. His soft beige fur, slightly lighter on his chest and belly, felt warm and huggable. When he walked, he waddled from side to side and then lay down to rest every few minutes. From head to tail, he barely measured 12 inches. Next to him in the basket, were his feeding bottle and papers — the certificate of ownership and his pedigree. According to the latter, he was the proud descendant of a renowned canine family, whose members had won awards at dog shows in the United States and Europe. A great-great-great grandfather of his had belonged to the last Russian Tsar and had survived the revolution.
“Well, what do you say?” my wife asked looking at me happily. “Tell me that you like him!” Excited beyond words, my young children were watching intently. I said I liked him and they jumped on me enthusiastically, kissed me and buried me under an avalanche of information. “You have no idea how long it took us to find him,” they said. “How hard we looked, how many pet stores we visited, how many people we talked to and how many books and magazines we consulted.” He was a surprise gift for my birthday — a mid-size apricot poodle, a real family guy, calm, hypoallergenic and who likes children. He was smart and loyal and didn’t shed. As pure breeds went, poodles were very expensive. Luckily, this one exceeded standard dog show dimensions and was a find, a bargain, really — only $400, including the basket. His siblings went for thousands of dollars! But since we weren’t getting him for dog shows, his pedigree didn’t matter. All we wanted was a cute, healthy dog for the family. And wasn’t he sweet? Look at him. Look at his eyes, shiny and dark like two olives! And his fur that just started curling!
The children ran to the car and returned with his kennel. “He needs to sleep in here,” they told me. “He’s small and not used to large, open spaces.”
I came up with a few rather sonorous names for him, in an attempt to smartly and humorously underline his miniature stature, yet all my well-inspired suggestions were rejected. I quickly understood that my children had in fact decided on a name during their drive home from the breeder — Bobby! “Sure,” I said. “Bobby, short for Robert.”
That evening, when we put him in his kennel, Bobby started whimpering. My children cried, upset that the puppy missed his mother. So I brought him into our bed and cuddled him, covered him with the blanket, held him close, and he curled up and calmed down. He glued himself to my legs. I swear, had he been a cat, he would have started purring.
The next day, I learned, to my dismay, that it wasn’t right to give cow’s milk to puppies. Instead, one feeds them soymilk, thinned with water, and soft nuggets made of chicken bone meal. In the days that followed, I learned many other things about raising dogs and I purchased numerous accessories: a walking leash and a training leash, a couple of stainless bowls, one for water and the other for food, dog biscuits for teeth cleaning, treats to reward good behavior, pills to keep away flees and ticks and a pink pill for an upset stomach, a cleaning solution that removed carpet stains and odors, toy bones made of plastic, rubber rings, soft and hard, brushes, dog shampoo, and a round metal tag to hang around his neck with his vaccination record and my name and phone number.
Trying to stand my ground, I didn’t let him sleep in our bed and I set up his own soft little bed, pillow and blanket in the bedroom. He refused. I brought up a low stool from the basement and placed his stuff on it at the foot of our bed. Obstinate little fellow, he chewed the stool and my shoes in the process.
“Dogs are pack animals,” my wife read to me from a well-documented book. “The owner is the leader of the pack and the dog follows him in all activities. In fact, house dogs consider themselves people, and if they’re not allowed to sleep with their masters, they become insecure and nervous, develop an inferiority complex and might even die an early death.” Since we didn’t want such an outcome for Bobby, we allowed him to become, from that point on, a regular guest in our bed. Mi casa, su casa.
Life with Bobby became routine and, to this day, I’m convinced that he was like a third child in our family. We seriously considered obedience school for Bobby, but never pursued it. Several times a year I took him to the vet. He had a hairdresser appointment once a month and, freshly groomed, he looked thinner and cuter. The vet was adamant about not feeding him scraps from the table and my trips to the supermarket invariably ended in the pet food section. There were countless choices, beef, chicken, vegetarian, soft treats and hard treats and even ice cream, but, what really amazed me, was that dog food and cat food were different.
Poodles have sensitive stomachs and when Bobby got an ulcer, our vet kept him for four nights and provided him with unparalleled care. Then I received the bill that caused my own ulcer. When we went on vacation, the dog came with us or went to the kennel, where he was fed, brushed, taken for walks and allowed to play with other dogs in order to alleviate loneliness. A dog’s life!
On a business trip to Monterrey, an industrial city in central Mexico, I had an interesting insight regarding the costs of having a dog. At a meeting, I asked for a cup of coffee, fully expecting to be led down the corridor to a coffee machine. Instead, a young man, dressed in a crispy white shirt and tie, walked into the room carrying, on a tray, a porcelain cup of coffee, along with an elegant bowl of sugar and a small pitcher of milk. Seeing the surprise on my face, my host later explained that the man’s job was to serve coffee and perform a various other insignificant office duties. They only paid him 60 cents an hour. “That’s less than five dollars a day,” I said. “He is lucky to be employed,” my host replied, “with a family to take care of and all kinds of other obligations.”
The daily charge for Bobby’s kennel was more than that man’s weekly income, which struck me as downright immoral. But I was in Mexico, where people were poor and dogs ate their masters’ leftovers.
When I returned home, Bobby met me with his sweet face, head bent slightly to the right and his dark eyes as shiny and innocent as ever.
He’s gone now. He has had a good life — 18 years, remarkable for a dog if one calculates that a human year is equivalent to seven dog years — and has left us with many memories that we cherish. Thanks to him we witnessed an accelerated life span, from a playful pup, bursting with energy, to old age, when he could hardly walk up and down the stairs, had lost his teeth and couldn’t care less if the front door was open. When it was time, I didn’t have the guts to play God and it was my wife who took him to the little animal hospital at the corner of our street for that last fateful injection. A week later, we received a corny postcard from the vet, urging us not to be sad because a pain free Bobby was now bouncing around in dogs’ heaven.
My children are grown and have left the house. They have children of their own and my daughter has adopted, from the dog shelter, a black and white miniature schnauzer adequately named Spartacus. My wife and I often walk the wooded paths through our neighborhood. We meet people with a variety of dogs on their leashes, and sometimes we feel our hearts drop with a mixture of joy and sadness when, like a ghost from the past, we see another mid-size apricot poodle striding merrily along his or her happy owner.
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