Even though I live with two of the furry creatures, I wouldn’t call myself a dog person. My husband makes over dogs the way love-sick males hang on beautiful women in a bar, but I’m more selective. I loved Rosie, our yellow lab, but god, that shedding. Sticky hair everywhere, including the bottom drawer of the refrigerator. The affection I harbored for our over-protective Rottweiler vanished the day he wouldn’t let my brother and one-year-old nephew into the living room, but I adore beyond all reasonable measure that same brother’s West Highland Terrier—one of the most entitled, spoiled and altogether delightful creatures I’ve ever known. So go figure.
On a Sunday afternoon a few weeks ago, a couple in their early 70’s pulled up in a black Escalade. They had come to meet Max, our cocker spaniel. We had decided Max needed a new home. One of Tony’s clients had given our phone number to the couple. I could tell these were dog people. The woman stood in the doorway, holding out her hand for Max to sniff. She laughed when the little dear made a bee-line for the wilting clematis at the end of the fence. “Ah, the male thing,” she said.
I sighed. Max could teach you a thing or two about the male thing, I thought, but kept my mouth shut. This was a sales call. Max probably ran out the front door because he felt unusually free and unencumbered at the moment, what with his wrap-around diaper off and out of sight. Diaper?
It hasn’t always been like this.
We acquired Max as a puppy eight years ago, Ali’s birthday present the summer she turned 14. I had had it up to here with the me-me-me attitude and thought a dog might move her a few degrees left of center of the universe. Max was a cute puppy, adorable really, a buff-colored cuddle-ball with a spiked tuft of hair at the crown. His favorite thing was to find an aluminum can on a walk and strut through the neighborhood, an empty Bud Light clenched between his teeth.
Things were fine until Tony and the kids moved in. “I’m not sleeping with a dog,” Tony announced, and relegated the two-year-old to nights in his crate. To complicate things, we brought a new puppy into our blended fold, a lovable black poodle with silver-tipped paws and muzzle. In a few short months, Max plummeted from top dog to underdog. His mistress was devoted to another man. The entire family loved the puppy and Max, try as he might, couldn’t garner the attention he knew he deserved.
So he bit Tess. She had been cuddling with him and apparently rubbed him wrong or touched him in a sensitive place or maybe he’d just had enough… It’s hard to know with Max. He snarled and bit, catching her lower lip. She quickly took responsibility, apologizing like a well-seasoned co-dependent, claiming she must have done something wrong, Max loved her too much to bite her.
“That’s it,” I said. “Max needs to go.”
I emailed the ex-boyfriend whose decision it had been to get a cocker spaniel in the first place, and who had reassured me that the suspicious-looking puppy farm was really an okay place to buy a dog. When we parted ways, he had vowed he would do anything, anytime, for Ali and me. All I had to do was ask.
“I need you to take Max,” I wrote. To think that a man who couldn’t commit to Friday night plans on a Thursday afternoon would agree to the responsibilities of a dog now sounds preposterous, but I was desperate. Yes, he’d like to help, he really would, but he didn’t lead the kind of life that would be good for a dog. Spare me.
The lip healed. Without a handy option short of dropping Max off at a shelter, we put the incident behind us and set about learning to tolerate the dog’s less than endearing ways—snatching food that isn’t his, barking at the air in the backyard, insisting on being underfoot in the kitchen, dashing out the front door in search of a trash can without its lid. We knew he wanted more from us, most especially from me, but I was maxed out. A daughter with special needs, a new husband, two more children, clients, and a puppy. Max knew he’d landed at the bottom of the heap. We all knew it. Sometimes we felt badly but mostly we—okay, I—wished he’d go away.
A male dog who feels threatened or ignored or simply unhappy has a weapon guaranteed to capture the attention of human beings who do not want to live like animals. When things didn’t go his way, Max walked over to the basket in the living room, or the blue chair, or the floor lamp, and lifted his leg. I guess it makes sense to a dog—pissing to show he’s pissed—but I was livid.
“Have you thought about a trainer?” suggested a friend. “Maybe one who’d come to the house?”
I hear things like that and think another phone call to make, another appointment to arrange, another person to interact with, somewhere else to spend money. Besides, I had my doubts. I had tried every technique known to the common pet owner. I rubbed Max’s nose in the urine. I flipped him on his back, stared into those brown eyes and made sure he looked away first. I lifted him by his collar and dragged his sorry ass outside. I yelled and screamed. In calmer moments, I reassured him that he didn’t need to pee in the house, that we loved him.
Apparently he detects insincerity. The marking didn’t subside. In fact, it heightened until the day I announced a second time, “I’ve had enough. Max has to go. I’m serious.”
The nail tech at Tony’s salon gave me a short list of people she thought could help. Linda loves her three dogs. She loves all dogs. She will do anything to ensure a dog’s well-being, short of taking Max off our hands. I explained the situation to the first woman on the list. “You need to train him,” she said, and jumped on her soapbox: there-are-no-bad-dogs-only-bad-dog-owners. I interrupted her tirade mid-sentence, thanked her, and hung up. I never did reach lady number two but the third one was helpful. She gave me the number for cocker rescue.
A man named Scott answered the phone. I took the psychological approach and shared Max’s story: poor dog demoted by new husband is irritated by rowdy children and threatened by new, very cute puppy. A chorus of dogs barked in the background. Scott was sympathetic. We talked for twenty minutes… I thought I had him. He asked me to email him the whole story and he’d see what he could do. So I spent another thirty minutes re-telling what I’d already told him, sent the missive, and waited.
A week later he replied, asking me to complete the attached form and return it to him. Once he received it, he’d call to arrange a home visit. Home visit? I roll my eyes and download the form… eight pages, double-sided. After 22 years of filling out paperwork for schools, government agencies and healthcare providers in order to obtain services for Ali, I detest paperwork. It makes me emotionally distraught. The quintessential over-achiever, I procrastinate with one lame excuse after another. So when I look at the stack this stranger has requested for a DOG, I know there’s no way, and toss the papers in the recycle bin. Besides, I was having issues. A few sets of fingerprints and a physical and the process would eerily resemble what I had gone through years before to adopt a child, only in reverse. Instead of inviting in, I was sending out. I couldn’t do it. The paperwork was a convenient cover.
A year passes. Max goes in and out of favor. “He’s like a bad boyfriend,” I tell Tony one night after another now-forgotten dog disaster. “Things go well for awhile, he’s all happy and content, and then one day you don’t give him what he thinks he deserves at that particular moment and he goes around the corner and lifts his leg. I’ve known guys like that.” Ask any woman. We all have.
So one morning Max walks in from the backyard, passes me in the kitchen and heads for the living room. Something clicks. “Max!” I yell, and follow him around the corner to find a fresh puddle by the leg of the blue chair. There is no screaming, kicking or hauling him outside. I simply stare in pity and disbelief. “You’ve just lost your last friend,” I tell him, and vow to remember the incident as long as it takes to re-home the blonde monster.
“Let me handle this,” Tony says that evening.
He breaks the news at dinner. “We’re going to find a new home for Max.”
“But he’s been good.” Pierce to the rescue, always the first to defend and excuse errant behavior. During his middle school years we reckon Pierce bonded with this defiant, equally lovable male who can’t seem to get his act together. Tony tells the kids about the blue chair—and reminds them of the stains on the maple floor, the snarling and biting, the food obsession, the barking over nothing.
“Max is stressing out our household. We all love him but he’s not a good pet. He’s driving us crazy.” The royal we. Nice try, Tony. Max is driving the adults crazy and everyone at the table knows it.
The kids listen in silence, their eyes fixated on empty plates until Tess pushes hers aside, folds her arms on the table, buries her head and starts to cry. She and her brother were long ago traded for booze and drugs by a mother too sick, too wounded and too foolish to know better. They’ve lived through the big hurt. They wear abandonment well until something or someone tugs a little too hard at the scar and the old, still fresh blood is free to flow.
“I’ll agree to one last thing,” I say. Tony shoots me a look. He can’t believe it. “The three of you go out right now and buy a diaper. We’ll try it for a week and then we’ll talk.” I wonder if I sound as heartbroken as I feel.
The kids breathe for the first time in ten minutes, push back their chairs and head for the car. Tony turns on his way out. “Why did you do that?”
“I can’t stand it when she cries.”
The three of them come home twenty minutes later with a faded blue denim wrap-around diaper, secured with velcro at the top of the dog’s back, a contraption I have come to call the Maxi-pad. There have been accidents, most of them the result of someone leaving the inside back door open and Max running out the pet door to pee, returning five minutes later, soaked and dripping. I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing that wide strip of denim around his midsection that yesterday, while I had the dogs on a walk, Max was watering the lamp post before I realized I hadn’t removed the pad.
“They’re not going to take Max,” I said to Tony after the couple left that afternoon.
“Why do you say that?”
“I watched the woman watch the kids, Max going back and forth as they took turns loving on him. I saw the look in her eyes. She’s going to think she’d be taking away the dog they adore and she won’t do it. She’s a mother.”
The woman’s name is Ellen. She left a voicemail that night. She would have taken the “sweet boy” home that afternoon but her husband has his mind on a bigger dog, probably another springer like the one that died. They’re meeting a few more dogs before making their decision. “Besides,” she said, “I think those kids of yours are going to have a hard time letting Max go. There’s a lot of love there. But we’ll be sure to call if we decide he’s the one.”
Nearly three weeks have passed without a word more from Ellen. The couple would have been perfect: older, calm, no children, plenty of time to make all over Max like dog people do. But instead, we have another opportunity to render the ego helpless, to practice gratitude, and let go. This time we’re letting go of stains and a dog underfoot with an insatiable appetite. Wish me luck with the diaper. Max appears to be ours for the long haul… Unless someone is interested in a very cute cocker spaniel?