mutt

Life Partner and Puppy

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Nutmeg trying to chew even while sleeping

At an early age, Nutmeg foreshadowed the joy she was destined to bring us. As a puppy, Nutmeg once lay chewing on someone’s nylon tote bag. After a scolding, she remained curled up with the bag in her mouth, but she fell asleep. Nutmeg is by far the most orally-fixated dog I’ve known. While this blog is about Nutmeg, today’s post is about events that led up to Nutmeg joining our family.

Boston in autumn of 1983 was exciting to a kid from a semirural upbringing. I worked as a typist in more than a dozen companies including Polaroid, MIT, IBM, and Lotus Development Corporation. I felt amazingly fortunate eventually to receive job offers from both IBM and Lotus, but choosing between them was easy: the young, rising star company with their magical electronic 1-2-3 spreadsheet appealed to the thrill seeker in me.

I was the first employee hired specifically to work on a magazine Lotus was planning to introduce. There were already future magazine employees, but they had started at Lotus in other jobs. Soon came a publisher, his assistant, editors, copyeditors, a production manager, and an advertising sales team. I got to see a magazine publishing company assemble around me, and I participated in defining the magazine’s content, design, and tone. Oh, but the Publisher’s assistant.

Being socially and emotionally stunted, I hit on her within the week she started at the magazine. She agreed to eat lunch with me on a bench by the Charles River, and when I suggested dating, she shot me down; there was a boyfriend.

Slow Starter

For some two years, I managed to spend an unnecessary amount of time hanging out in the magazine’s marketing department—just outside the publisher’s door. That’s where the unavailable publisher’s assistant sat. There were corporate events where we interacted, and she graciously invited me to participate in social activities involving a subset of employees who were all starting their careers. I even met the boyfriend a few times.

Then, amazingly, there was a spark. Nearly the entire magazine attended a sales meeting at Callaway Gardens in Georgia. While most of the staff headed out to party late, I (being socially and emotionally stunted) preferred to hang back and read in my room. The publisher’s assistant also hung back, and we spent at least one evening chatting and looking at constellations. Still there was the boyfriend.

Pound Puppy

Wedding invitation cover

Our wedding invitation was not traditional. I posed some plush toy doggies holding a rope tied in a figure eight knot and wrote the obvious pun, “Stacy and Daniel Tie the Knot.” We used the two as the cover for our invitations. Could this have been a sign that real dogs were in our future?

To this day, I can’t fathom why she did, but about 13 months after the sales meeting in Georgia, the publisher’s assistant married me. And about a week after our honeymoon, I invited her to join me for a drive to an unnamed destination. As I turned into the entrance of the nearest SPCA pound (back then we were only just beginning to call them shelters), she warned me: “You know if we go in here we’re going to leave with a dog.”

I reassured her that that wasn’t necessary; I had a habit of visiting dog pounds without adopting dogs. My wife (“My wife!” Three weeks! Whoa.) got all misty-eyed about a six-month-old black dog with perky ears, and we left with it.

Spooner and Stacy get acquainted
At six months and fresh from the SPCA pound, Spooner was already an armful. The professional model holding Spooner in this photo is the same hapless woman who, for as yet unfathomable reasons, agreed to marry me.

In the naming discussion, I explained about my silly idea to name each of my dogs after the traditional Scottish word for a golf club. My previous dog had been Niblick and I listed the few clubs whose names I could remember: Cleek, Mashie, Spoon, and Brassie. We settled on Spoon, but added “er,” so our (“OUR!”) first dog became Spooner.

Spooner the Entertainer

We felt terrible about the long hours we left Spooner alone, so we took turns going home at lunch to walk her and give her attention. It was always painful to leave her on my way back to the afternoon shift.

Spooner jumps for a helium balloon
To Spooner, helium balloons were the bomb. It didn’t take her long to figure out she could leap high, grab the ribbon, and repeat until she had dragged a balloon to the floor. This photo captured her on her second jump; she had already pulled down once on the ribbon and was leaping to grab it again closer to the balloon.

It would be hard to choose just a few of Spooner’s antics to share if I could remember all of them. I suppose we captured the most impressive on film. She came up with one when she was quite young that revealed uncanny intelligence: We had a helium-filled balloon with a long ribbon that hung almost to the ground. Spooner was fascinated and jumped and snapped at it repeatedly. After some amount of crazed engagement, She discovered she could pull down on the ribbon, re-grip it before the balloon rose to the ceiling, pull down again, and so on. Then, she bit the balloon. I swear she was near tears when it popped.

Of course, from that moment we couldn’t keep helium balloons with long ribbons in the house. It took Spooner just seconds to pull one down and bite it—I guess the joy of the conquest far overshadowed the sadness that came with the balloon’s destruction.

Spooner and a balloon she destroyed
Having isn’t always as satisfying as wanting.

Spooner loved to help Stacy (my wife) exercise. When Stacy sat on the floor to stretch, Spooner slung her legs over Stacy’s shoulders and leaned hard, providing extra weight so Stacy could bend lower. When Stacy lay flat to do leg lifts, Spooner tried to climb Stacy’s leg—I’m sure this increased the value of the exercise.

Spooner helps Stacy exercise
How can this NOT be a more complete stretching experience than attempting the same exercise dogless? Rather than her using a private room to stretch, Stacy preferred the living room and seemed to think I should restrain Spooner. Hmmm … Struggle to hold off a dog, or enjoy the free entertainment. Which would you choose?

My wife urged me to understand that Spooner’s helpfulness wasn’t supposed to entertain me. Rather, it was supposed to anger me so I would hold Spooner back and let Stacy exercise on her own. I chose entertainment.

During car rides when Spooner was small, she would curl up on the cargo cover under the sloping window in the back of our hatchback. Thankfully, she gave up that perch before she was too big to block our view through the rearview mirror. Spooner had the run of the furniture in our house. In fact, Spooner slept on the foot of our bed and that was OK. (Idiosyncratically, I wanted Spooner to have the few comforts my parents never allowed for Whisper: being on the furniture and sleeping with humans rather than in the basement. Stacy was very tolerant.)

Spooner the Toughie

Have you ever teased your dog by spraying water toward it? The dogs I’ve known tended to duck. Not Spooner. To Spooner, spray from a garden hose was an invitation to play. Actually, spray didn’t interest her as much as did a water jet. When I concentrated the spray nozzle for its most powerful stream and pointed it toward Spooner, she’d charge at the nozzle letting the water shoot at full force directly into her mouth. This, she told me was one of the greatest games.

Spooner rode on the cargo cover
It’s hard to get a decent photo when you’re aiming over your shoulder and trying to keep the car on the road. Spooner, like so many dogs, had a dominant “here’s a cute thing to do” gene and it expressed itself when she rode in the car.

And what Spooner taught us about douche! Turns out that skunks wander freely about in the city of Boston. Occasionally after a dog walk I’d wait on the street for a skunk to leave our yard before Spooner and I could go inside. The first time Spooner met a skunk face-to-face, the skunk won the conversation.

We learned from our vet that Massengill douche is effective at removing skunk odor from a dog. Buying a shopping cart full of douche, I’m sure, helped me conquer some of my social awkwardness. When you try douche with your next skunk incident, don’t believe anything you read about using two ounces of it in a gallon of water. Apply the douche undiluted directly to the dog. Apply it liberally. Apply it often. Rinse and repeat and do it again and again. Your dog will smell less bad; more less bad than it will if you wash it with vinegar and tomato juice.

Good times. But despite the fond memories, Spooner was the worst dog I’ve ever had. And that’s a story for another post.

 

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Before Nutmeg there was Whisper

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Nutmeg at about 18 months

Yes, this blog is about Nutmeg, my chocolate lab. I’m telling the story in the spirit of my favorite television show, How I Met Your Mother. While this photo is of Nutmeg, today’s post is about Whisper.

Kids. This is the story of how I met your doggie. Not just about how I met her, but about her life and her perfectly ordinary dogginess. The story begins when I was a kid – just five years old. On my fifth Christmas morning, there was Whisper.

Whisper was a purebred mutt: 57 varieties of dog rolled into one. As we stood over the puppy’s gift box, my mom “suggested” we name the dog after a character in a book we’d recently read as a family: The Thirteen Clocks by James Thurber. Please, if you haven’t read The Thirteen Clocks, do it at your first opportunity.

One plot twist in the book involves a spy named Whisper, and there’s a memorable verse that informs readers of Whisper’s fate. For our love of the book (and my mom’s authority) we unanimously accepted the dog’s name.

Whisper and Me

As the youngest in the family, I didn’t impress our new dog. For years I was clearly no more than her peer in the pecking order of our pack.

Whisper joins the family at Christmas

What a Christmas! We opened a cardboard box, and found a most adorable mutt-puppy.

She was extremely intelligent which served her well because we were too stupid to keep her on a leash. She’d vanish for hours, mooching off of neighbors who enjoyed her visits. She learned a lot of tricks: She could sit, lie down, roll over, sit up (beg), shake hands, catch, and flip a cracker off her nose into her mouth. She learned to sneeze on command and would go to her box in the basement when we told her to.

Most amazingly to me, Whisper learned that the command over meant move to the side of the road. This was critical because she ran alongside when my brother or I road a bicycle, putting her in the road a lot. We’d yell over when cars approached, and she always made it with time to spare.

Whisper’s repertoire of tricks won her “best in show” at a mutt show sponsored by the YMCA. She behaved well with the crowd of dogs and people, but this belied her dark side: she had a police record because she played aggressively.

Whisper and the Neighbors

Whisper soaks up heat from the radiator

More than any dog I’ve known since, Whisper curled up tightly and tucked her nose underneath. She was the perfect size for a lap dog, but Mom wouldn’t let her on the furniture. The restriction made me hungry someday to have a lap dog of my own.

We’d play games and sports with neighbors in a park behind our house. When Whisper joined in, she’d be overzealous and bite – not nip – people running. Worse, though I can’t remember a specific incident, she bit more than one visitor to the house.

When I was nine my family moved for a year to Milan, Italy. My parents rented the house to strangers who agreed to keep Whisper while we were away. The dog did fine and obviously hadn’t forgotten us when we returned, but I always wonder what she felt losing her family for so long and then getting it back.

Why I’m a Dog Person

Whisper’s love for team sports in the park resulted in a horrible accident when she was quite young. In a baseball game, a kid threw a bat after smacking a long ball and the bat hit Whisper in the head. She squealed and went into convulsions: Her muscles stiffened. Her eyes glazed over. She foamed at the mouth. She rocked from side-to-side. She moaned. Then it passed.

Over the years, she had more convulsions. She knew when one was about to start and would look fearful, and we’d sit and comfort her until the convulsion ended. My dad, a neurophysiologist, hooked Whisper up to electrodes and recorded her brainwaves as part of a databank of EEGs of epileptic dogs.

Whisper howls along with harmonica tunes

Either because certain loud noises hurt her ears, or because she was musically inclined, Whisper howled along to my brother’s trumpet or my harmonica. I hope it was the musically inclined thing; otherwise, we tortured her a lot to get her to perform with us.

Whisper would run alongside when we went horseback riding in the woods. On one trip, she suddenly started squealing in agony, and I jumped off my horse to see what was wrong. The dog had stepped on the trigger of a steel jaw trap and gotten her toe caught. Only a few months earlier I’d learned trapping at Boy Scout camp or I wouldn’t have known how to free her. I draped her over the saddle for a few minutes until she made it clear she was good to walk.

Whisper taught me the meaning of devotion and loyalty. Whatever mistakes I made with her; however I might have abused her (bratty kid that I was), she never seemed to think less of me. And, when she needed me, she’d tell me so and she’d thank me for being there. I don’t know any human as devoted with so few strings attached; I’m certainly not that reliable.

Wing Dog

When I was in college, I’d take Whisper to campus and let her walk free down hallways in an all-girls dorm. Naturally, she’d walk into any open room and become the icebreaker. On one such trip, she stopped to sniff along a sidewalk and we got separated by about 20 feet. I turned to wait and saw her look toward me without seeing me, turn to look the other direction, and then look panicked. I called to her, but she didn’t hear. As she started to hurry in the wrong direction, clearly trying to find me, I hustled back and tapped her on the butt. When she spun and recognized me, there was obvious relief in her eyes. I had to acknowledge her advanced age and the nearsightedness and deafness that had come with it; I died a little bit inside.

Whisper died within a year of that incident. No dog I’ve had since has lived past the age of ten – not even two-thirds of Whisper’s age. I can’t help comparing every dog to Whisper. With her tendency to bite people, she wasn’t the best. But, of course, she was the first. That first made it very hard for me to live without a dog.

 

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