November 16, 2006
Our little dog Lucy went into heat the week we were taking her to the vet to be spayed. A puppy whose life was previously occupied with walks, chasing her ball, running, pouncing on bugs and cadging treats is now focused almost exclusively on becoming a mother. Or, at least, on finding a mate. Judging by her avid scenting on our early morning walks, there are a lot of fine male dogs in the vicinity. But she won’t be meeting them. She’s too young to be a mother.
For three weeks, therefore, we have to keep her very confined. To take her mind off her newly restricted circumstances, I order a bunch of new dog toys online. There’s a tug toy, a nylon frisbee, a multi-colored spiky rubber ball, and a rather odd, latex, squeaky camel.
"Look at that thing," I say to Fred, and we eye the camel skeptically, wondering how long it will hold up under an assault from our pint-sized chewing machine. It’s not much like a camel. It’s squat and compact, with a U-bend neck and ill-defined humps leading almost immediately to four sturdy, round feet. The lumpy skin is rusty yellow and white. Random splashes of orange decorate the undersides of the feet.
Fred squeezes the latex flesh and it emits a truly alarming squeal that brings Lucy running. She jumps frantically up at the counter on which camel is sitting. Fred gives it a few more squeaks and Lucy goes beserk, so we put it on the floor.
The little toy looks even more odd, standing on those four round feet in the middle of our kitchen floor. Lucy approaches it carefully, gives a tentative sniff, jumps back and starts whining. Fred gets on puppy level and makes the camel squeak again. Lucy whines even more, walks away, pads in again for another sniff, and leaps backward in alarm. The camel is entrancing yet disturbing. I think "smart dog" because it is, in fact, a very odd toy.
But something more is going on. She’s been wary of new toys before, but her reaction to this one is different. She is upset by it and drawn to it. She nudges it, and whines, and nudges again. Finally, she picks it up by the back of its latex neck and parades in triumph out the kitchen door, down the hallway, back to the kitchen, around the table, and out again. She does the circuit over and over. She won’t let us touch the toy and she won’t put it down. Fred and I look at each other. This is very odd.
I had read something in one of our dog books about female dogs mothering their toys when in season. The light breaks. "It’s her baby," I say. Our hormonally active dog, still a puppy herself, has adopted this ugly little latex lump. We watch as she puts it down, sniffs it, and carefully picks it up again, always at the back of its weirdly arched neck. She takes it to her bed and sits there with it, whining.
I’m impressed by her commitment. Only 8 months old herself, she unhesitatingly grabs the reins of motherhood when presented with a tiny creature in need, despite the unattractive package. And with what pride she displays her new charge! Then comes the dawning of responsibility: can’t put it down, can’t sleep. I have to take care of my baby, no matter how odd.
Me, I had trouble handling the responsibility of Lucy. Circumstances made me the primary puppy-carer in the early days, and I felt overwhelmed and a bit desperate at the new constraints on my life. No more sleepinig late, no more open schedule, no more casual weekends away. Working at home, previously a great freedom, became a burden when my space was invaded by a demanding puppy.
Of course she was also adorable, and made me laugh every day with her exuberant puppy antics. She had her own agenda, her own life force, and her own personality. But this tiny creature was completely dependent on me, and the responsibility terrified me. "What if I screw up?" was the unspoken thought that ruled my days. What if, somehow, I fail to take care of my puppy, and something bad happens to her?
But nothing bad happens, and five months later she still makes me laugh every day. Fred and I take her for early morning walks (unimaginable in my previous "sleeping to whenever I feel like it" writer’s life). We make sure she has her shots, we de-worm and de-flea her regularly. We brush her, pick burrs from her shiny coat, give her baths when she rolls in something nasty, feed her, play with her, train her, and let her be. She’s got a personality. We’re finding out who she is.
For the next half hour Lucy parades and pets her new little treasure while we wonder if our pup is entering the zone of a serious personality disorder. Eventually she stops and sits on the living room rug, camel in mouth, swaying slightly, eyelids dropping in fatigue. But she won’t put baby down. "We have to get that thing away from her," I say. "Ok," replies Fred, man of action. "I’ll take her outside and you grab it."
We execute this manuever. When Lucy gets back in the house she searches frantically for baby, but we distract her with the spiky colored ball. She proves distractible. Later, just before bed, she does another sniff search around the kitchen, but does not seem too distressed about the mysterious loss of her pup.
Lucy’s too young to be a mother. She can put that away, and go back to her puppyhood. Whereas I’m on the verge of being too old to be a mother. This puppy might be the closest I get to it.
Let’s hope I don’t screw up.