It happened like this: After a walk in the park with a friend, I saw a young woman sitting in a car talking to a dog. Even from a distance, beneath the hard glass of the windshield, we could tell this was an exceptional animal. Never shy, I tapped on the young woman’s door to ask her what kind of dog it was. We live in Nashville, where people do things like this and no one is frightened or surprised. The young woman told us the sad story: The dog, who on closer viewing was nothing but a mere slip of a puppy, had been dumped in a parking lot, rescued, and then passed among several well-intentioned young women, none of whom were allowed to have dogs in their apartments. Finally the dog had landed with the young woman in the car, who had been explaining to said dog that the day had come to look cute and find a permanent home.
She was small and sleek and white. The sun came through her disproportionately large ears and showed them to be pink and translucent as a good Limoges cup held up to the light. We petted. She licked. We left the park with a dog.
I didn’t think it would be this way. I thought when the time was right I would make a decision, consider breeds, look around. The truth is, I too was a woman who lived in an apartment that didn’t accept dogs. But when fate knocks on the door, you’d better answer. “Let’s call her Rose,” my boyfriend said.
I was breathless, besotted. My puppy tucked her nose under my arm and the hundred clever dog names I had dreamed up over a lifetime vanished. “Sure,” I said. “Rose.”
I was 32 years old that spring, and all I had ever wanted was a dog. While other girls grew up dreaming of homes and children, true love and financial security, I envisioned Shepherds and Terriers, fields of happy, bounding mutts. Part of my childhood was spent on a farm where I lived in a sea of pets: horses and chickens, a half a dozen sturdy, mouse-killing cats, rabbits, one pig, and many, many dogs, Rumble and Tumble and Sam and Lucy and especially Cuddles, who did justice to his name. Ever since that time I have believed that happiness and true adulthood would be mine at the moment of dog ownership. I would stop traveling so much. I would live someplace with a nice lawn. There would be plenty of money for vet bills.
At home, the puppy, Rose, played with balls, struggled with the stairs, and slept behind my knees while I watched in adoration. It’s not that I was unhappy in what I now think of as “the dogless years,” but I suspected things could be better. What I never could have imagined was how much better they would be. I had entered into my first relationship of mutual, unconditional love. I immediately found a much nicer apartment, one that allowed dogs for a ridiculously large, nonrefundable pet deposit. Since I work at home, Rose was able to spend her days in my lap, where she was most comfortable. We bonded in a way that some people looked upon as suspicious. I took Rose into stores like the rich ladies at Bergdorf’s do. I took her to dinner parties. I took her to the Cape for vacation. As I have almost no ability to leave her alone, when I had to go someplace that foolishly did not allow dogs, I’d drive her across town and leave her with my grandmother. “Look at that,” people said, looking at me and not Rose. “Look how badly she wants a baby.”
A baby? I held up my dog for them to see, my bright, beautiful dog. “A dog,” I said. “I’ve always wanted a dog.” In truth, I have no memory of ever wanting a baby. I have never peered longingly into someone else’s stroller. I have, on occasions too numerous to list, bent down on the sidewalk to rub the ears of strange dogs, to whisper to them about their limpid eyes.
“Maybe you don’t even realize it,” strangers said, friends said, my family said. “Clearly, you want a baby.”
“Look at the way you’re holding that dog,” my grandmother said. “Just like it’s a baby.”
People began to raise the issue with my boyfriend, insisting that he open his eyes to the pathetic state of maternal want I was so clearly in. Being a very accommodating fellow, he took my hand. With his other hand he rubbed Rose’s ears. He loves her as blindly as I do. Her favorite game is to be draped over the back of his neck like a fox-fur stole, two legs dangling on either shoulder. “Ann,” he said. “If you want to have a baby. …”
When did the mammals get confused? Who can’t look at a baby and a puppy and see there are some very marked differences? You can’t leave babies at home alone with a chew toy when you go to the movies. Babies will not shimmy under the covers to sleep on your feet when you’re cold. Babies, for all their many unarguable charms, will not run with you in the park, wait by the door for you to return, and, as far as I can tell, know absolutely nothing of unconditional love.
Being a childless woman of child-bearing age, I am a walking target for people’s concerned analysis. No one looks at a single man with a Labrador Retriever and says, “Will you look at the way he throws the tennis ball to that dog. Now, there’s a guy who wants to have a son.” A dog, after all, is man’s best friend, a comrade, a buddy. But give a dog to a woman without children and people will say she is sublimating. If she says that she, in fact, doesn’t want children, they will nod understandingly and say, “You just wait.” For the record, I do not speak to my dog in baby talk, nor do I, when calling her, say, “Come to Mama.”
“You were always my most normal friend,” my friend Elizabeth told me, “until you got this dog.”
While I think I would have enjoyed the company of many different dogs, I believe that the depth of my feeling for Rose in particular comes from the fact that she is, in matters of intelligence, loyalty and affection, an extraordinary animal. In the evenings, I drive Rose across town to a large open field where people come together to let their dogs off their leashes and play. As she bounds through the grass with the Great Danes and the Bernese Mountain Dogs, I believe that there was never a dog so popular and well adjusted as mine (and yet realize at the same time that this is the height of my own particular brand of insanity). The other dog owners want to talk about identifying her lineage, perhaps in hopes that one of her cousins might be located. It is not enough for Rose to be a good dog. She must be a particular breed of dog. She has been, depending on how one holds her in the light, a small Jack Russell, a large Chihuahua, a Rat Terrier, a Fox Terrier and a Corgi with legs. At present, she is a Portuguese Podengo, a dog that to the best of my knowledge was previously unknown in Tennessee. It is the picture she most closely resembles in our International Encyclopedia of Dogs. We now say things like “Where is the Podengo?” and “Has the Podengo been outside yet?” to give her a sense of heritage. In truth, she is a Parking Lot Dog, dropped off in a snowstorm to meet her fate.
I watch the other dog owners in the park, married people and single people and people with children. The relationship each one has with his or her dog is very personal and distinct. But what I see again and again is that people are proud of their pets, proud of the way that they run, proud of how they nose around with the other dogs, proud that they are brave enough to go into the water or smart enough to stay out of it. People seem able to love their dogs with an unabashed acceptance that they rarely demonstrate with family or friends. The dogs do not disappoint them, or if they do, the owners manage to forget about it quickly. I want to learn to love like this, the way we love our dogs, with pride and enthusiasm and a complete amnesia for faults. In short, to love others the way our dogs love us.
When a dog devotes so much of herself to your happiness, it only stands to reason you would want to make that dog happy in return. Things that would seem unreasonably extravagant for yourself are nothing less than a necessity for your dog. So my boyfriend and I hired a personal trainer for Rose. We had dreams of obedience, of sit and stay and come, maybe a few simple tricks. She didn’t really seem big enough to drag the paper inside. I was nervous about finding the right trainer and called my friend Erica for moral support, but she was too busy going on interviews to get her four-year-old son into a top Manhattan preschool to be too sympathetic. The trainer we went with was the very embodiment of dog authority figures. After a few minutes of pleasant conversation in which Rose jumped on his shoulder and licked the top of his head, he laid out the beginnings of his plan.
Number one: The dog doesn’t get on the furniture.
We blinked. We smiled nervously. “But she likes the furniture,” we said. “We like her on the furniture.”
He explained to us the basic principles of dog training. She has to learn to listen. She must learn parameters and the concept of no. He tied a piece of cotton rope to her collar and demonstrated how we were to yank her off the sofa cushion with a sharp tug. Our dog went flying through the air. She looked up at us from the floor, more bewildered than offended. “She doesn’t sleep with you, does she?” the trainer asked.
“Sure,” I said, reaching down to rub her neck reassuringly. She slept under the covers, her head on my pillow, her muzzle on my shoulder. “What’s the point of having a twelve-pound dog if she doesn’t sleep with you?”
He made a note in a folder. “You’ll have to stop that.”
I considered this for all of five seconds. “No,” I said. “I’ll do anything else, but the dog sleeps with me.”
After some back-and-forth on this subject, he relented, making it clear that it was against his better judgment. For the duration of the ten-week program, either I sat on the floor with Rose or we stayed in bed. We celebrated graduation by letting her back up on the couch.
I went to see my friend Warren, who, handily, is also a psychologist, to ask him if he thought things had gotten out of hand. Maybe I have a obsessive-compulsive disorder concerning my dog.
“You have to be doing something to be obsessive-compulsive,” he said. “Are you washing her all the time? Or do you think about washing her all the time?”
I shook my head.
“It could be codependency, then. Animals are by nature very codependent.”
I wasn’t sure I liked this. Codependency felt too trendy. Warren’s sixteen-year-old daughter, Kate, came in, and I asked her if she wanted to see the studio portraits I had taken of Rose for my Christmas cards. She studied the pictures from my wallet for a minute and then handed them back to me. “Gee,” she said. “You really want to have a baby, don’t you?”
I went home to my dog. I rubbed her pink stomach until we were both sleepy. We’ve had Rose a year now, and there has never been a cold and rainy night when I’ve resented having to take her outside. I have never wished I didn’t have a dog, while she sniffed at each individual blade of grass, even as my hands were freezing up around the leash. I imagine there are people out there who got a dog when what they wanted was a baby, but I wonder if there aren’t other people who had a baby when all they really needed was a dog.
This story first appeared in Vogue, March 1997, and is also included in Dog Is My Co-Pilot, an anthology compiled by the Editors of Bark and published by Crown. © Ann Patchett; used by permission of the author.
Photo by Neil Beckerman