After about twenty years of thinking about it and ten years of talking about it, I finally adopted a dog from Washington Animal Rescue League, which looks and acts like a different species than a typical animal shelter. Because I’ve had cats for my entire adulthood, people’s reactions have ranged from outrage (“But I thought you were a cat person!”) to misty idealism (“Having a dog will completely change your life”) to tears (mine, anyway).
As I said many times before I ever adopted a dog, I am an animal person who (up until now) has had a cat lifestyle. Every creature with four legs and fur has been at risk of adoption since the day I was born. My life has definitely changed, but not in the unconditional-love-at-last sense, since the five different cats I’ve had in my lifetime have all done their solicitous best to defy every myth of feline independence.
For some reason, people also feel compelled to give commentary on my dog’s name, Kerfuffle. About a third of the people who hear it think it’s the best name ever, a third have no idea what “Kerfuffle” means and say something along the lines of, “That’s a mouthful!” and the rest suggest that the name has too many syllables. “Cockapoo” also has three syllables, so I’m not sure what the problem is. Secretly, I call him Kerfuffle Cappuccino, Kerfuffle Puffle, Kerfuffleupagus, or often, just “Fuff.”
People also feel compelled to opine on Kerfuffle or me, either directly or obliquely. One elderly walker of two chubby Shih Tzu mixes told him sternly and insistently, “Your tail should be wagging!” When I tried to quiet Kerfuffle when we were at the dog park with dogs five times his size, another owner said, “Oh, let him bark!” I’ve noticed, though, that nothing breaks up a conversation like a barking dog. Some of the advice, like other owners’ informal reviews of dogwalkers and doggie daycares and groomers, is welcome and useful. Most of the owners are responsible and loving towards their dogs. One of my favorite dogs in the neighborhood, though, scared Kerfuffle with a rough invitation to play, and other large dog owners seem mystified that Kerfuffle might feel a little hesitant around the gigantic Cerberuses strutting through the streets.
It’s not at all that I don’t need advice, since my transition to dog owner – while far from tempestuous – has not been entirely smooth. Kerfuffle arrived with an ear infection, a cold that needed antibiotics a few days after he came home, separation anxiety, and a predilection for stealing cat toys and eating paper products. One of the first things he ate was a rough draft of a story, and it occurred to me that being an English professor and writer with a paper-eating dog might eventually pose some problems. Next, he started what I learned was “resource guarding” (a common issue in which dogs defend their food and toys), snapped at the vet when she tried to look inside his ears, began barking at new people in the building hallways, chased my cats, refereed their tumbling play with more barking, and developed a habit of barking at a certain corner in the neighborhood where dogs and owners tend to congregate. At times I feel like I have a misbehaving toddler at the end of the leash!
You would think that someone who can teach students to write 10-page essays or love Hamlet would be able to train a 17-pound cockapoo. I grew up around family dogs, rode and helped out with horses, and managed to teach my cats some house rules. Kerfuffle, for his part, seems sweet-natured and eager to please, and I’m fairly sure that someone put a lot of effort into training him, based on his generally excellent leash manners and apparent prior knowledge of “Stay.” A couple of years ago, I read David Wroblewski’s novel, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, and was absolutely captivated (among other things) by the information on dog training and psychology embedded in the book. I was determined to have a happy, well-behaved dog, I felt able to be clear and consistent, and I understood that most dogs feel most secure when their owners provide them with a sense of purpose.
Yeah, right. Can you hear Anubis snorting at me from where you’re sitting? There is something uniquely humbling about having the best of intentions and yet still managing to confuse a generally willing, intelligent dog. So far, Kerfuffle has learned (or maybe relearned) to sit, sit-stay, stop at street corners instead of rushing out into traffic, not jump on me or the furniture (I would love to have him up there, but aboveground is cat country), not chase the cats, release his toys, quit begging for human food, and start walking on the leash when I say “Let’s go.” From Kerfuffle and the many people I have consulted about Kerfuffle, I have learned that I am not quick or gushy enough with praise, that forgetting to pick up a dog dish when you have cats is just asking for trouble, that raw honey is a good treatment for itchy skin (I haven’t tried that one yet), that walking a couple of hours a day is good for both dogs and humans, that I’m not as consistent as I think I am, that to teach a dog to stop barking you should first teach him “Speak,” and that training with positive reinforcement requires my constant, focused attention.
Back to school, indeed.