Monday, August 25, 2008

Good Girl - Part III

Her name was Poppy, like the flower, although she wasn’t so named. She was named for the deli where my then girlfriend would wait for me to pick her up after work during the period of time when we (she) got her. The name also makes some reference to a movie about a boy who might have been disabled and that might have starred DeNiro, but as you can see I’m a little unclear on the details. I don’t know that I would have chosen the name, but in the end it worked. It had the requisite two syllables that all dog names should have, so as to make them easy to call out in a sing-song manner when the animal has run off.

On a side note, I once spent New Year’s Day sing-songing the name Biko through the woods of Pound Ridge, New York in a vain search for a friend’s Rhodesian Ridgeback that had run off in pursuit of a deer. It was a terrible experience, but it taught me something about breeding, instinct, and training that it’s wise to keep in mind when selecting a dog. Sight hounds (like Ridgebacks) and scent hounds (like Beagles) will instinctively take off in pursuit of prey, despite years of training, and may never come back. Retrievers, on the other hand, tend to return. It’s in their nature. Of course, if you’ve read Part I you know that I didn’t choose Poppy. She did, however, choose me.

Dogs are pack animals, and as a social order, the pack works because it has a leader. Dogs removed from the pack still look for a leader, and in the absence of one, may assume the role themselves. Spend some time watching the Dog Whisperer to see what I mean. A single dog in a family will usually identify a member of the family as the leader of the pack. It won’t necessarily be the one who feeds the most or walks the most or plays the most. But whoever it is, the dog will focus on that person and respond to his or her motions and emotions above those of everyone else in the family. In our little family, Poppy chose me.

When my girlfriend and I broke up in the winter of ’96, she left Poppy behind. Initially, the stated reason was because she had moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets, but even when she relocated, she left Poppy with me. She knew, as I did, as Poppy did, that in so far as Poppy was concerned, I was the leader of the pack. Still, in leaving behind the dog she had picked out, the companion she had chosen to help her through a difficult time in her life, she had done an extremely unselfish thing, and a thing for which I will always be grateful. I’m sure I never told her that.

So that’s why Poppy and I ended up together in North Carolina in the winter of ’98, heading over to my sister’s house for a holiday visit shortly before Christmas.

It would be the height of understatement to say that my older sister Denise, the eldest of my three siblings, is a bit high-strung. It would be more accurate to say that her life is one prolonged panic attack tempered by brief intervals of high anxiety. What this means is that pretty much any event in her life is potentially disastrous, and the first and best response to anything out of the ordinary is to scream. That is why, when she opened the door in December of 1998 to find me and Poppy on her doorstep, she reacted as if I had a bloody axe in one hand and the head of her older son in the other. Poppy, as even-tempered a dog as I’ve ever seen, was in no way unsettled by my sister’s screams. Obedient as ever, she reacted as she had been trained to, and that was unfortunate.

Once Poppy had mastered all the basic tricks, I had to move on to others to keep her sharp (and me amused). One of my favorites was the dog biscuit balanced on the snout, held there patiently waiting for the snap of the fingers that told her it was OK to flip the biscuit in the air, catch it, and gobble away. I would leave the room, come back, and leave again, and still she waited. I would fake the snapping motion but make no sound, and still she waited, the saliva dripping down in long strands from her jowls. It was a trick I had seen a friend’s dog perform many years before, and I was very proud of Poppy for mastering it. My girlfriend had different ideas.

An avid hockey fan, she wanted to train Poppy to “five hole” people. For those of you unfamiliar with ice hockey, the five hole is the spot between the goalie’s legs, and “five holing” someone is sending an object, any object, through their legs. It was standard practice at that time for us to throw discs, beer cans, and the like through the legs of friends and foes alike. But to “throw” a dog through? That would be brilliant.

As trainable and eager to please as Poppy was, it didn’t take her long to learn to respond to the command “five hole” by walking through the legs of whoever gave the command. Soon thereafter, she learned to respond by walking through the legs of whichever person was pointed out, much to our delight. So delighted were we, and so pleased was Poppy to experience our delight, that in time the whole trick got a little confused. She began to “five hole” anyone she saw, even complete strangers, hoping to elicit the same delight. Moreover, she would “five hole” them with her whole body wagging back and forth in expression of her happiness at pleasing us. Meanwhile, the person being “five holed” could only awkwardly attempt to maintain his balance while simultaneously wondering why 70 pounds of gyrating dog was passing between his legs.

So there we were, in a charming little cul-de-sac in Raleigh, NC, its tidy houses festooned with festive decorations twinkling their holiday cheer, my sister’s panicked screams piercing the air as she seemed to ride a bucking brown dog backwards around her front porch. Merry Christmas.

Once I convinced my sister that letting Poppy attend the party would not result in her shitting on the carpet, her fleas getting in the carpet, or her eating up the carpet, she somewhat reluctantly let us into her home. What followed is a story I lived more times than I can count. Poppy was perfect. She lay on the floor next to me and didn’t budge unless I told her to. She never begged, no matter how close someone came with food. She never barked, growled, whined, or otherwise made a sound. And when my niece and nephews petted, poked, pulled and prodded, she didn’t flinch, not even when my sister’s toddler climbed onto her back and yanked on her ears.

While the party was in its extended good-bye phase, and we were all variously chatting in small groups and making our ways to our cars laden with Tupperware, my sister confided that despite her calm demeanor (remember, this is her speaking) she was certain that having a dog in her home would result in some calamity. Precisely what calamity she wasn’t sure, but most likely one involving a small child bleeding profusely from the gaping hole where a limb used to be and Poppy running around the house with the bleeding limb in her mouth. Although I didn’t say it at the time, I feel certain that the most upsetting part of my sister’s imaginary calamity was not the prospect of one of her children being permanently disfigured so much as the quandary of how she was ever going to get all of that blood out of the carpet.

Fortunately for everyone, the imagined calamity remained just that, and my sister was left standing on her front porch and marveling at Poppy’s exemplary behavior. In fact, in what was probably the most unexpected praise she ever received in her life, my sister remarked that the only way she could ever see herself getting a dog would be if that dog were Poppy.

At once embarrassed and beaming with pride, I responded by saying the best thing I could ever say about her: “She’s a good girl.”

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