Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Chapter 2: The Antimother

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I wouldn’t be writing this book if my wife Mary Ann had not decided that our first pug, Percy, needed another dog for companionship. The chief element of canine companionship, of course, is mutual butt sniffing, and our six cats were of no value to Percy in that regard. Cats would not be caught dead with their noses anywhere near a dog’s butt, and any dog who goes snooping around a cat’s butt will soon be wearing an eye patch and a prosthetic lip.

When Mary Ann said that Percy needed another dog for companionship, she wasn’t thinking of another pug. She was, in fact, partial to Cavalier King Charles spaniels, despite the fact that William F. Buckley and the Ronald Reagans owned Cavaliers. I, however, tend to amass things that I like. That is why I have one of the world’s largest free music collections, courtesy of the Internet. That is also why we had forty cats and kittens in the house one summer. Fortunately I have never liked children; otherwise we’d be living in a dormitory.

As soon as Mary Ann had said that Percy needed a companion, I replied, “Oh good. Let’s get a female and breed some pugs.”

Mary Ann was horrified. The memory of the summer of forty cats and kittens, although three years in the past, must have appeared closer than that in life’s rearview mirror. I promised her she no longer had anything to fear from the Law of Unintended Consequences, and I was soon on the phone to our pug mentor, Charlotte, who had sent us Percy.

As luck and the progress of this book would have it, Charlotte had a nine-month-old female named Debby and a deal I couldn’t refuse. We could have Debby free of charge if we agreed to show her a few times, to breed her twice, to pay half the stud fees and half the cost of raising the resultant two litters of puppies, and to whelp and care for those puppies until they were twelve weeks old. Charlotte and her husband Edward would pay the other half of the breeding and puppy-raising expenses. They would also split the two litters with us. Mary Ann and I would get the pick of one litter and every other puppy in that litter. Charlotte and Edward would get the pick of the other litter and every other puppy in it.

As it was late in the spring of 1991 when this scheme has hatched—and already too warm to ship a dog by plane from Destin, Florida, where Charlotte and Edward lived—there was nothing to do but drive to Tampa to meet them and to pick up Debby, who was, we had been told, a little shy. Perhaps wanting to mask her shyness, Debby burst into our motel room that July afternoon like a velour-covered cyclone, charging at our stately ten-year-old Persian, Polecat, and forcing her to take refuge on the bed. We could see Polecat thinking, “I rode eleven hundred miles in a car for this?”

Next Debby turned her attention on Percy, who was too stunned to move. She sniffed his equipment and snorted dismissively; then, placing her front paws on the bed, she hopped up and down, huffing and puffing at Polecat, who couldn’t have been more dismayed if a vacuum cleaner had sprung to life and begun menacing her (one of a cat’s primeval fears). When Polecat retreated to the far side of the bed, Debby followed, propelling herself sideways around the bed with her hind feet while keeping her front paws on top of it.

Debby was too busy terrorizing the cat to notice when her former owners took their leave. Later that afternoon she dove gleefully into her dinner, but she turned cantankerous when we put her into an extra-large carrier for the night. We had read in several training manuals that dogs feel secure being crated their first nights away from home, but the trouble with dog-training manuals is that few dogs bother to read them. Indeed, I sometimes wonder if the experts who write such books even bother to read them. I cheerfully confess that I have written more animal-training books than I have read, but that’s another story.

At any rate, instead of retreating to the security of the far reaches of her carrier as the dog experts had said she would, Debby banged and clawed at its door and made these tiny, strangulated noises that sounded almost human. That was Debby—one part sledgehammer, the other part pathos. Obviously we weren’t going to get any sleep that night or any other night unless she slept with us.

After we had transported the shy Debby to our house in southeastern Pennsylvania, she proved to be an irrepressible bad-hat of a dog. She chased the cats just to watch them run. She never let us cut her nails without making us suffer. She attacked Percy if she thought we were paying too much attention to him. She seldom let us eat in peace. She was wont to sneak upstairs to go truffle hunting in the cats’ litter pan and to leave a truffle or two of her own on the rug to express her disdain for lower species.

She was, in short, nothing like Percy. Where he was nervous, she glowed with self-confidence. Where he was sweet, she was sassy. Where he was stuffy, she was a bowling shirt. Where he was timid, she was truculent. Where he played life close to the vest, she lifted her vest at the slightest provocation. In the five-and-a-half months that Percy had lived with us before Debby arrived—a time that Percy often referred to as the happiest months of his life—we had connected the dots of his personality and had arrived at what we thought was a realistic profile of a pug as a mannerly, unobtrusive type. Debby, we soon realized, was given to coloring outside those lines.

Debby was bred in February 1992. The dog to whom she was bred had been one of the highest-scoring pugs in the country when he was being shown and had sired many champions. We were eager to see what kind of puppies Debby and this celebrated pug would produce. Before we had a chance to find out, however, we discovered that the person who had formulated Murphy’s Law—if anything can go wrong, it will—must have been a dog breeder.

Seven weeks into her pregnancy Debby began favoring her right hind leg. Our vet, after examining Debby, told us that she had a luxating patella (the canine equivalent of a trick knee), a genetic defect that occurs to a greater or lesser extent in most small breeds. Worse yet, Debby couldn’t be operated on for at least six weeks—not until her litter had been weaned.

On April 20, Debby had three puppies—two girls and a boy. The first puppy, a girl, was an easy delivery. The second, a boy, was not. He didn’t survive. We feared we were going to lose the third puppy also, and we probably would have were it not for the diligence of our veterinarian, who popped over at 4:00 a.m. to assist in delivering her. The puppy was stuck in the birth canal and was cold to the touch by the time the vet arrived. Undeterred, the vet somehow extracted the puppy and proceeded to shake the life into it, holding the puppy securely in both hands and swinging it up and down.

The vet’s performance was nothing short of brilliant. In addition to trying to jump start the puppy, she put her mouth over the puppy’s face and sucked fluid from its nose and mouth. Grimacing mightily, the vet exclaimed, “Yuck,” and spat the fluid onto the floor. As I was wondering if Nancy Reagan’s vet spat on the bedroom floor, the puppy, another girl, began gasping for air.

After the vet had departed and we had cleaned the floor, we put Debby and her girls into the whelping box we had set up in the bedroom. Then we put our tired selves into bed.

Shortly afterward we discovered that Debby did not like children, an obvious shortcoming in a dog being groomed for the role of matriarch. We made this discovery as the sun was coming up, which is far too early in the day to be making discoveries. Coffee? Yes. Amends? If necessary. But discoveries? Not before midafternoon, thank you.

Debby announced her dislike for children with a series of indignant snorts. Squinting painfully in the direction of the whelping box, we saw Debby’s large, luminous eyes peering accusingly over the top of the box. They clearly said, “Yo! I sleep with you guys. Remember? Why’d you shut me in here with these dwarfs?”

We told Debby it was not unusual for puppies to seek maternal attention, but she wasn’t having any of it. We wondered where we might find ear plugs at 6:00 a.m. We hand fed the puppies at 6:30. An hour later my wife, a university professor, left for work. Feeling guilty, I sneaked back to bed for a nap after I had fed the puppies at 8:30.

That evening we struck a bargain with Debby. The poor, abandoned puppies would sleep alone on their heating pad in the whelping box; and she would sleep with us, if she agreed to let the orphaned tykes nurse from her on the bed at the proper intervals. We, of course, would have to be awake at those proper intervals to oversee this arrangement—every two to three hours the first week, and every three to four hours for three weeks thereafter. She grudgingly consented, as long as we kept a hand on her while she was allowing the puppies to nurse, and as long as she didn’t have to clean the little monsters.

The monster’s names were Patty (the first born) and Ella (the one who had been born half dead). We chose those names to commemorate Deb’s luxating patella. Had the boy survived, we would have named him Luxor.

Freed from the rigors of motherhood, Debby spent her days in the back yard harassing the Doberman who lived next door. When we took her outside, Debby hobbled to the yard, her right hind leg bowed and wriggly; but when she spied the Dobe, she ran as straight and fast as ever. She raced back and forth barking at him like something possessed. She choked out imprecations while her short legs churned, her ears flapped, and her face radiated an intensity that was comical, satanic, and endearing. After she had stopped running, the leg was wobbly again, and she limped toward a shady spot to rest, but I never saw her wince.

Following what seemed like an eternal six weeks, Debby was operated on to repair her injured leg, to which the vet applied a splint. He recommended plenty of crate rest, but given Debby’s aversion to crates, we ignored that advice. We were happy just to keep her from jumping onto the bed at first, and by the fourth and final week the splint was on, she was jumping onto the bed anyway.

We never bred Debby again, even though her daughters earned their championships in the show ring. Luxating patella is an inherited condition, and if you knowingly breed a dog that has produced such a condition, you knowingly participate in its advancement—to the detriment of your chosen breed, not to mention your karma.

Debby, of course, was pleased to be exempt from even limited maternal duties, though she never understood why we kept both her puppies. Surprisingly she was more attentive to her grandchildren, two of whom still live with us, and to her great-grandchildren, two of whom also live with us, than she had been to her own daughters. She sought out her grandchildren and great-grandchildren and took much delight in washing them and cuddling up with them for naps. I was perturbed by this behavior at first, but then I remembered something that Socrates had once said: “If life sends you iron-willed dogs, you might as well make irony.”    

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