Human Parts
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Human Parts

THIS IS US

How To Be a Dog Person

What I learned from unexpectedly falling in love. With a puppy.

Photo: Anita Kot / Getty Images

I had never been a dog person. Dogs were always too in-your-face for my taste. They barked, they growled; they slobbered, they howled. They nosed through your garbage, ate your pantyhose, vomited on your fresh-from-the-cleaners black pants, and defecated in public. And please don’t get me started on people and their dogs; I simply couldn’t understand their attachment and privately viewed them as, well, deranged.

Instead, I preferred the imperturbable grace of cats, noses delicately bobbing, tails held regally aloft as they made their plush-pawed way through the world. But since I was, in the words of my allergist, “exquisitely allergic,” to cats, I could not sustain a feline in my environment without serious risk to my health and apart from the occasional rodent or reptile purchased in response to the children’s pleading and badgering for a pet, our family remained without one. So no one was more surprised than I was when well into middle age, I fell suddenly and precipitously in love with a small, black and white Pomeranian that lived on our street.

It happened like this: I was on my way to pick up my daughter Katherine, then eight, from school, when I stopped to chat with a neighbor. He was tinkering with his bicycle and tied up nearby was a small, black and white dog. The dog had a pointed snout, pointed ears, and a luxurious coat and tail. He was also very friendly, leaping up in an effort to lick my hand, and when he couldn’t reach that, settling for my shin. Despite myself, I was charmed. “Are you going to be here for a while?” I asked. “I’m getting my daughter from school and I know she’d love to play with your dog.”

“Is the school far?”

“About two blocks.”

“Then why don’t you take him with you?”

“Could I?” Me with a dog? What a novel idea.

“Sure. His name’s Travis, by the way.”

I took the leash and Travis trotted eagerly along beside me until we reached the corner, where some workmen were laying new asphalt. The process was noisy, malodorous, and loud. Travis was having none of it. He sat down on his haunches and refused to move. I cajoled, I coaxed but to no avail. I’ll be late to pick up, I told him. Katherine will fret. Travis cocked his head engagingly but wasn’t budging. So I scooped him up — he was like a furred loaf of bread in my arms — and carried him the rest of the way. He put his snout somewhere in the vicinity of my clavicle and looked up at me, eyes dark, alert, and filled with a seemingly impossible trust. Something about his heft, his warmth, his animate expression, and docile nature stirred me and by the time I reached the school, I was in love. So, predictably, was Katherine.

From that day on, I resembled nothing so much as a 13-year-old girl in the throes of her first deep crush. I peered out the window for glimpses of him and hissed, “There he is!” to my daughter when I spotted him trotting by. I dashed out of my house — barefoot! On the filthy sidewalks of Brooklyn! — for the chance to pet him. Several months into this madness, I realized I needed a Pom of my very own.

I scoured the internet, gathered books, called the American Kennel Club, and consulted with a bevy of breeders. And finally, there was the Sunday when Katherine and I boarded the LIRR train out to Ronkonkoma, to pick up Queenie, the Pom puppy we’d selected. At barely six pounds, she was like a doll dog. Tiny body, tiny paws, tiny, foxy snout. She was nimble, she was funny, she pranced like a circus pony and stretched her small hind leg in a reasonable facsimile of a ballerina’s arabesque. I marveled at her subtle coloration, a mix of ginger and gray, with sooty markings under her chin and tail.

She was also a singularly responsive creature: She took note of — and yapped hysterically at — visitors, passersby, other dogs, the sparrows that tweeted in the tree outside the house, and the trucks that roared past it. And she was most responsive of all to me: My entry into the room was greeted with unrestrained circling, prancing, and yes, occasionally peeing. She flung herself on her back for belly rubs, caresses that caused her tongue to loll from her mouth and her eyes to glaze in rapt, stupified joy. She followed me where she could, and watched me where she couldn’t. Mine was the touch she sought, mine the voice her keen hearing was trained to.

I wasn’t entirely prepared for this but I have to confess that it was, well, flattering. Who else welcomed my presence with such unadulterated delight, delight, by the way, that was exhibited multiple times a day? I could leave the room for 10 minutes and when I returned, it was as if Beyoncé and Taylor Swift had just arrived — together. “It’s you!” the squirming, gyrating bundle of fur seemed to be saying. “How did I ever get so lucky? I might just faint from happiness.” Certainly, my husband and children loved me, as did the many close friends I was fortunate enough to count in my circle. But this — this was love of a different magnitude.

Yet it took more than a year of life with a dog for me to understand that I wasn’t simply looking at a creature who preferred me to all others on earth. I was in fact looking in a mirror, and at first, I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. You see the truth is, I was always much more like a dog than a cat. Easily excitable, easily hurt, unable to mask my feelings, passionate about those I loved, snappish and growling with those I didn’t. No wonder I’d never liked dogs — I was too ashamed of being one.

Once I realized that it led me to start thinking about — and questioning — all sorts of assumptions I’d held both about myself and the way I’d moved in the world. I’d always wanted to be the cool one, the one who didn’t care, or at least never showed she did. I had wished, so many times, that I didn’t get so upset, or reveal what I wanted so nakedly. These were futile wishes though, and what growing older — and loving a dog — helped me to see was that they truly were misplaced. I didn’t need to be different. I just needed to accept who I was in that regard, to accept my own doggy nature.

I had to say goodbye to Queenie about 10 years ago when fluid collected and could not be drained around from her all-too-full heart. But she had set me on a path, and she was followed by other Poms — Tallulah, Holden, Willa, and now Dottie — who’ve each brought her or his own particular tincture of happiness into my life. Having these dogs taught me not to shun but to embrace that intense, in-your-face quality, both theirs, and my own. I no longer had to strive to attain a feline froideur that while admirable in some could never be mine. No, instead I’d learned to celebrate my inner canine, and to bask without shame in the glow of puppy love — an intoxication I hope will never end.

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Yona Zeldis McDonough

Yona Zeldis McDonough

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