When my husband and I were considering a move out to the country 26 years ago, one of my conditions was that we get a dog. A week before the planned moving day, we started visiting the animal shelters – just to check out what kinds of dogs were available. Yeah, right. If anyone has ever been in one of those places and been accosted by dozens of puppies, they will know how hard it is to leave again without a dog. In our case, we were looking at a litter of Labrador/Schnauzer pups when a wiggly little black female ran over to us, her tail pumping back and forth so fast it was hardly visible. She jumped into my lap and greeted me like a long lost soulmate. Her attitude was a clear “Finally!! Can we go home now?” So began our 11 year relationship with First Dog.
First dogs, like first cars or first crushes, retain a special status in a person’s life – and so it was with ours. None of her three successors could ever live up to her perfection. She was obedient, but not in a particularly impressive way. She had personality and exuded harmlessness. She was smart enough to earn herself the nickname “Brainless Wimp”. And throughout our 11 years of struggling with childlessness, she filled up that hole in our souls.
After our move, it was not surprising that two of the first people I met in our new community were the local veterinarian and his wife. They lived in an old four-tract farmhouse where he had his practice and she ran a kennel – or a “Doggie B&B” as they call them here. My first visit there was somewhat startling – as I assume it was for most people. The place was a bit reminiscent of those homes you see on TV shows about hoarders. But the house itself was also somehow fantastic. It had so much potential! Or it would have, if not for the fact that the many animals living there clearly had the run of the place – and animals are not known for their decorating and housekeeping skills. As it was, all the places to sit down were covered by dogs and cats or blankets covered with dog and cat hairs. The animals ran freely all around the house, in and out of the courtyard or the large fenced in yard. Dog bowls coated with the last remnants of dog food could be found here and there on the floors of all the rooms and the grounds outside. It was impossible to tell which of the animals were resident pets and which were kennel guests because they all seemed to feel at home.
First Dog immediately loved the place. The vet’s wife was an anglophile who liked to speak English, so I soon felt at home there too. A sort of friendship developed and I dropped by now and then for coffee and a chat. Each time there was a new constellation of dogs and a new social hierarchy for First Dog to navigate. Most times the dogs were left to work all that out for themselves while my new friend and I chatted away about this and that. We always came home from those visits with First Dog exhausted and happy and with both of us in need of a bath.
Sometimes during these visits, a new client and guest dog would arrive. I started to enjoy watching these encounters – the slightly fearful looks of the owners as their eyes took in the surroundings. The way they explained the characters and eating habits of their treasured dogs. The wife listened politely, making small talk and necessary assurances until the clients sighed and, haltingly, forked over the cash. They made their farewells to their pets, handed over the leash and left. As soon as their cars had disappeared around the first bend, their canine darlings were released into the pack and left to fend for themselves.
One day, an elderly woman came with her yappy little Foofy, fresh from the doggie hairdresser, and three type-written pages of information and instructions. She gave the vet’s wife some advice on choosing the appropriate spot for Foofy’s bed and selecting suitable canine playmates. She pointed out the different sections of her instructions covering special dietary habits – which treats Foofy got when – as well as her walking times and the schedule for her various medications. She emphasized Foofy’s need for special attention due to her sensitive nature. When the woman finally left, the three pages of instructions were promptly stuffed into a folder unread and little Foofy began what was quite probably the greatest week of her life.
Before my next visit to the vet’s wife, I prepared some “Instructions for First Dog” to add to her collection:
Address: Our House 10, Small Village, Austria
Birthdate: April 22, 1989
Breed: pure bred “Noah’s Ark”
Health Issues: itchy ears, brain cell deficiency, chronic loss of hair, addicted to chocolate
Diet: likes pieces of cheese and beer, doesn’t like carrots or potatoes, undecided about peas
Character: good with children, good with other dogs, likes cats except when they get fed and she doesn’t, really likes cow pies, confused by balls and bones (prefers pieces of wood)
- When feeding the cat allow her to lick the spoon.
- At least ten times a day kiss her on the nose and say in a high voice “Are you my mousie?” or “Are you my stinky mousie?” or “Are you my sweet mousie?” (Vary the adjective depending on the situation.)
- Five times a day roll her over on her back, scratch her and say in a stupid sounding voice “You got a big fat belly?” Wait for sigh.
- When playing with a stick: Pretend to spit on stick. Throw stick and say “Go get it.” Watch her run in the wrong direction. Go pick up stick yourself. Repeat.
- When playing with a ball: Bounce ball two times. Throw ball and say “Where’s the ball?” Watch her run in the wrong direction. Go pick up ball yourself. Repeat.
- Never say the word “Chappy”. If necessary, spell it out.