This is an essay about ugliness and it begins with a puppy. Last month, my family and I adopted a thirteen-week-old puppy from an animal shelter. The puppy is believed to be a Lab/Shepherd mix and may have some Boxer and Pit in her too. It hardly matters. On first sight, I didn’t see breed or much of anything else, but puppy’s large brown liquid eyes, two bright rounds full of feeling, like right there inside her lovely face, the invisible was made visible.
It turns out my husband, two daughters, and I had very romanticized ideas about what our life with a puppy would become. We didn’t quite envision the connectedness and impossibility of a “What’s that, Lassie? Jimmy’s fallen down a well?” relationship with our puppy, but—much like the arrival of a newborn—we did imagine she would bring us joy and an abundance of love. We believed we were prepared for the inevitable work, chaos and stress this puppy would also bring and that our love for her would be unconditional. We’d done our research, searched our hearts and dwindling bank account, and decided we were ready.
For years, our daughters, now aged twelve and nine, begged my husband and I to get a dog. We refused. There were the obvious reasons, including but not limited to the time, work, energy, discipline and expense involved. We travel a lot too and visit Ireland for a month every summer. Who would take care of our dog during such long absences? My husband, born and raised on an Irish farm, also believed it was cruel to own a dog in a pell-mell metropolis like San Francisco where the bemused animal would be largely confined to a leash and small spaces. For my part, my family owned a long series of dogs and to this day I have strong feelings around the dogs I loved and lost to death-by-accident and illness. There was also our vicious dog, Prince, whom I adored and who I believed adored me. Prince had to be euthanized after biting one neighbor too many. I clung to the animal control officer’s leg, begging. My girl’s heart believed Prince would never have bitten me. For a short time, we also cared for another aggressive dog, Jack, who found my flesh especially tasty and whom I feared and hated. At all of ten-years-old, I felt no regret whatsoever when one day Jack raced off our Dublin street and never returned. No, my husband and I chorused down through the years, we would not cave to our daughters’ tears and saliva-threaded gasps. We were not getting a dog.
In early January, fresh from the magic and manipulation of the Christmas season, our daughters renewed their ‘Let’s Get a Dog’ efforts and launched a formidable ‘101 Reasons’ campaign. They pleaded and wrangled, and tore my resolve to shreds. As though I was a puppet and someone else was talking through me, I heard myself tell our daughters that if they could get their father to agree to a dog, then I would go along too. Once they moved their coercive incisors off of me, I channeled the cartoon dog, Muttley’s, wheezy snicker. In the matter of canines, my husband had a will of titanium. As it turns out, though, our daughters’ powers of persuasion would serve the CIA well. Within forty-eight hours of my calculated agreement to their demands, I heard my husband also whimper agreement. Part-panicked, part-excited, I immediately bought books and DVDS on everything ‘How-To -Puppy’ and could now be crowned World General Knowledge Champion on everything related to Cesar Millan, Martin Deeley, and the Monks of New Skeet.
Sadly, within days of bringing our new puppy, Coife (“Keefe-a”), home, we realized something wasn’t right. At first, she’d seemed nervous and despondent and we’d put that down to separation anxiety and a sense of displacement. Three days into our new arrangement, Coife’s energy increased and she seemed more relaxed, alive and affectionate, albeit very submissive. Intelligent, she quickly learned several commands and to adapt to the crate and, for the most part, potty-training. She also regularly offers her pale pink tummy for tickles and has almost licked the skin off of us. For all her adorability, though, she also sometimes scares us. Every morning and evening, she experiences manic episodes where she alternatively races through our house or garden with surprising speed and power and/or chews and shakes her toys with alarming ferocity. She also exhibits hyper and worrying behavior with our nine-year-old daughter where she frequently lunges at the child and tears at her clothes and skin, ruining the clothes with puncture marks and leaving teeth scrapes on her skin. The unwanted behaviors are worsening. Whenever someone calls to our front door or we pass people, especially men, during her walks, she barks frantically. The barking sometimes devolves to growling and raised shackles and now she rarely allows strangers to approach her. She’s now that dog that stands in the front window and barks and growls at everything that passes. Whenever I try to get her to behave, she sometimes gives me a fierce, about-to-pounce look that sends a jolt through my heart. Coife sees me as Mom and yet, without any known reasons, she also sometimes growls, snaps and lunges at me. Many witnesses to these behaviors, including a vet, have voiced concern, saying they’ve never before encountered aggression in a puppy. The consensus is to fix the problem before Coife bites someone, or worse.
It’s hard to find the words to describe my anxiety and anguish these past couple of weeks. This morning I awoke with a pain in my stomach so severe I couldn’t stand straight. It’s as if Coife was right there under my diaphragm, dragging, hurting. I’m close to returning Coife to the animal shelter and I feel saddened and sickened. Everything I’ve learned about dogs in these few short weeks points the blame at my family and me and not Coife. We are somehow not fulfilling Coife’s needs and are failing her. I don’t know how. We’ve addressed all the obvious in terms of food, exercise, shelter and affection. We’re at a loss as to how to correct the unwanted behaviors and are currently taking two consecutive dog-training courses. One course subscribes to ‘tricks and treats’ and the other to ‘affection and sometimes treats, yes, but also corrections with a training collar’ i.e. quick collar squeeze on the dog’s neck for unwanted behaviors. The wealth, diversity and extremes of information out there regarding dog discipline is confusing and overwhelming. I wanted to care for Coife the same way I care for our daughters i.e. a fair, firm, gentle and loving parent. Unfortunately, I think the firmness needed to handle Coife is beyond my ability and I’m growing too afraid of her to be stern and demand she behave.
The fear I’ve felt around Coife has thrown me back to my past. I’ve looked into Coife, really looked, and silently asked her would she ever hurt me or my family or anyone? I remember looking into my mother’s face as a child during her rages and silently asking her how she could love her children so much and yet hurt us too. When Coife is having a manic episode and I can see the whites of her eyes and hear her snarl, I’m also returned to the worst of my mother’s psychosis. I’m returned, too, to my old beloved pet, Prince. I remember the grief and the confusion I felt around the depths of his love and his savagery. My old boyfriend, too, a young man I almost married, had a violent temper. I would further push his triggers during our terrible arguments, testing him to see how far he could go, needing to know if he could ever hit me. He could. I don’t want to fail Coife and I most certainly don’t want to condemn her as an aggressive dog. There’s a reason she came into my life. I’ve seen enough of violence, my own and others, to know that viciousness almost always comes from fear. Coife is a mirror to my fear and my anger. I was an angry and sometimes cruel child and would get into the most dreadful verbal and physical fights with my siblings. Coife has made me look back hard. She’s also forced me to acknowledge the anger I still carry around. Sometimes, when Coife scares me, my right hand and/or leg twitch, ready to retaliate. I would never hurt Coife, but the urges are there. Perhaps Coife is my opportunity to help rehabilitate a troubled animal. A troubled me. Or maybe this is another hard life lesson about putting my love and trust in the wrong places.