I think Matt and I have set the world record for dog poisoning. We have poisoned our dog (our adorable, innocent, ever-trusting dog), Penny, two times in the past two years. It's true: We are unfit doggie parents.
I know every dog owner thinks their dog is the cutest, the smartest, the most endearing. But I have never purported that Penny is the "best" at anything – examples: she will only play "fetch" for a total of, say, 40 seconds and then tires of it and (I swear) rolls her eyes. She is a lab but is terrified of swimming (nevermind my father insisted we try one day on a swiftly moving river – the poor thing doggie-paddled for her life and couldn't keep up with the current). I've arranged doggie play dates and she has ignored the other dog (or cowered in terror), as she jumped (and jumped and jumped) on the other dog's owner. She can be a terror on walks – she loves greeting other patrons of the trail and catapults her fifty pounds of muscle at them. It always plays the same way: she lurches, we pull back, the other person sidesteps, we smile sheepishly and then they frown.
You see, we adopted Penny when she was just turning four (she will be six in April), and you simply cannot teach an old dog (er, an adolescent dog) new tricks. Or so we say. But Penny is no Marley – she is a quiet dog, and after her hectic greeting (which never lasts more than a couple minutes) she returns to the sidelines and grins at you with her brown eyes. She has beautiful eyes – wide, muddy pools that just seem to say, "I am here for you. What's next?"
Matt and I moved into our house from an apartment on April 15, 2007. On April 21, before we had curtains on the windows or books unpacked, we adopted Penny. Penny came pre-named and already had an arsenal of tricks (she could sit, stay, shake, lay down). We adopted her from the Women's Humane Society (www.whspets.org) in Bensalem after I saw a dog (a different dog) on the internet. (That dog turned out to be a terror and we never looked back.) Then we saw Penny. Matt saw her first. She was one of the few dogs not barking in her kennel as we walked past. She sat, peering at us, seemingly smiling. She tilted her head, her ears perked up, and I saw those amazing eyes. We read her tag "Penny – 4 years, Black Lab". I promptly told Matt I didn't like the name Penny.
The lady who worked at the shelter brought Penny to us and, unlike the other dogs we met who licked and jumped, she immediately went on her back in a sad display of submissiveness. We rubbed her underbelly and Matt whispered, "She kind of smells." I smelled my hand – god, it stank – and then she grinned at us, and we saw her rotting black and brown teeth. But she was quiet and docile and housebroken. We wanted quiet and docile and housebroken. We were told she was a product of divorce; her previous owners had split and neither could care for her. She was brought to the shelter a month and a half ago. We said we'd take her.
We couldn't bring her home that day. They had to do a yard check. That Saturday I picked her up (Matt was at a paintball game or some such questionable activity). I laid out a towel so her doggie stench wouldn't permeate the Corolla and then I was off – heading down 276 with a panting, stinky black lab in my passenger seat.
I wonder what Penny was thinking as she balanced in that front seat. Look, I know she's a dog. But, really, does that make this situation any less profound for her? Here she was, being taken away for the second time in two months, driving to god-knows-where with this stranger, this silly stranger, talking to her like an adopted child. "Penny, you'll love it where we live. We have a nice yard and live by Valley Forge Park and we'll go on long walks and you'll meet the other dogs in the neighborhood and, oooo, I picked up some yummy treats at PetSmart!" I yammered on for a bit more. She continued to look out the window.
I took her home and bathed her and brushed her teeth (it did no good – we have since learned her tooth enamel has eroded and it must be genetic – like a vain parent, I still encourage her to keep her mouth shut when we meet new people). Then she sat quietly in our living room, alert but weary. She slept a lot those first two weeks, and ate little. I learned if I sat next to her bowl and fed her the kibble, one by one, she would gingerly take it from my hand. Each day she ate more as she became more comfortable with us.
Which brings us to yesterday, where I almost (for the second time) killed our dog. [Some background: A year ago Penny got into a one-pound bag of Nestle semi-sweet chocolate chips. I cried, Matt called an emergency hotline, we poured hydrogen peroxide down her throat, she grimaced, she threw up a bit, we took her on a walk to try to get her to vomit further, I sprained my ankle on said walk, I cried some more, Penny whined and then Matt took her the University of Pennsylvania Vet Hospital at 3 am, then came home and took me to the hospital, and, well, it goes on from there.] Basically, both the dog and I were in sorry shape and Matt was just exhausted from our whining.
So this Saturday I left a bag of grapes on the couch (yes, couch). It was late (2 am), I have no excuses, I was just being lazy probably. I was eating them watching late-night TV. The next morning we discovered an empty bag with three grape bunch vines strewn around the living room. This is my favorite part: each grape vine was in impeccable shape. She must of plucked each single grape off the vine ever so carefully. She is such a lady. Then, the usual events unfolded (see above, you know, the crying, the hydrogen peroxide, and so on and so forth).
Grapes are toxic to dogs; they cause renal failure. So, like dorky drug pushers, we kept offering food and water, trying to get the grapes to pass from her system. I also took it upon myself to monitor her urine output. I'd go out with her when she relieved herself, following her to the corner of the yard and shining a light on her butt, saying "Good girl, good girl!" when she urinated. She looked annoyed.
Now it's Monday and Penny is alive. I think she's still confused about all the attention Matt and I are lavishing upon her. What she doesn't know is how much we love her. Penny - with Matt - has been my constant companion through my recent bout with Crohn's. When I cry, she's there. She quietly comes up to me and puts her chin on my knee, peering up, with those glorious brown eyes.
In his memoir "Dog Years" author Mark Doty said something along the lines of this (although he phrased it more beautifully than I ever could): In part, it's incredibly painful to love a dog. You are accepting loss when you a love a dog because they will leave you in 10, 12, 14, 16 years. But - conversely - there isn't much that's more simple, and beautiful, than that love. They love you for you - expect nothing from you - and you love them just the same.
So, I'm a dopey "dog person". I have a dog print in my kitchen. A dog pillow on my chair (in my defense, that was a gift from my equally dog-crazy parents). Now that I think about it, another dog print in the bathroom. I don't care. I've never felt better than when I come home, and Penny runs down the stairs (from sleeping on our bed all day), excited, smiling, and asking, "So -- what's next?".
And thank god that dog has a tough stomach.
(Photos -- Top: Penny and Matt having a tiff. Bottom : Penny enjoying the long ride to Chincoteague, VA.)