• U.S.

Demoting the Dog

5 minute read
Lisa Takeuchi Cullen

Take your daughter to work day, in April, is a brilliant idea, and I can’t wait to take part in it once my little girl is old enough to stop confusing “writer” with “waiter.” Take Your Dog to Work Day–June 22–is a cynical copycat that for me confirms this cold truth: in my heart, my daughter and my dog are not equals.

Before my baby came along, my dog was my baby. He arrived in my life the day after my wedding, a gift that my husband and I had no memory of registering for at Bed Bath & Beyond. But an 8-week-old basset hound–all ears and belly and panda paws–is way cuter than a vacuum cleaner. We set his quivering body down on the city sidewalk, and he promptly sucked down a chicken bone. We named him Hoover.

Hoover was a difficult dog. Bassets are genetically narcoleptic, but ours made a case for canine Ritalin. He careered around the apartment possessed by a long-eared, drooling demon. He practiced situational bladder control on our cherry-wood parquet floors. He grew into 60 lbs. of torso with 3-in. stubs for legs, yet he could do a dead leap off the kitchen floor to swipe a pizza off the counter. Plus he bayed–a siren of woo-woos that endeared us to our condominium neighbors. But after every misdeed, he would turn his googly-eyed gaze up at us, and we would turn to butter. We couldn’t help it: we loved him. I loved him.

Like many a childless couple, we conferred the status of treasured child upon the dog. We phoned each other with updates of his escapades. We gave him nicknames like Bunny and Sir Gas-a-lot. Framed photos of him adorned our home and my office. For Christmas portraits, we dressed him in a Santa cap.

The parenting magazines we read after I got pregnant instructed us to prepare the dog gradually for the baby’s arrival. Wean him off the furniture first, the experts said. Let him sniff something of her before she arrives from the hospital–a blanket, a cap–to allay his suspicion. When she does come home, take care that I, his special person, do not carry the baby in. All this will teach him to embrace or at least tolerate the new member of the family and not act like a dingo and drag her away. The articles didn’t say that last part, but I assumed.

None of the research prepared me for what actually happened: the moment my child entered my world, there was no more room in it for my dog.

My change of heart was so powerful and so organic that at first I chalked it up to hormones. What else would explain my reaction if he approached while she nursed, which was to bare my teeth and snarl? Soon my ferocious protectiveness soured into tired irritation. He shed on her burp cloths. He bayed as she napped. He developed a taste for diapers. Our relationship deteriorated to a cycle of infractions followed by scoldings. Before I knew it, I had withdrawn from him his exalted former status. In the span of a few months, I had demoted him from pal to pet to pest.

In our culture, this is the hate that dare not speak its name. Consider as evidence the best-seller lists, which are crowded with odes to mutts by philosophers and poets. Admitting to anything less than worshipping my dog will lump me with–heaven forfend–the cat people. The cult of the caninophiles does not allow for defection. Dog lovers will remind me that he has given me many things, not least among them undying loyalty. I know that. I even admit he has helped equip me for the trials of parenthood, not least among them the manual handling of poo.

It’s possible my love for him will return. It may take a Lassie moment in which he saves my child from a grizzly, but such an encounter is not so likely in New Jersey. In the meantime, he persists. The dog follows me like a bad smell, settling at my feet as I read my child a bedtime story, panting by my knee as I cook my daughter’s dinner. Dog lovers would call it unconditional love. They’re wrong. A dog’s love comes with a lengthy prenup: vet bills when it gets diarrhea; peroxide baths when it gets skunked; low-carb kibble when it gets old and fat. Through rich and poor, sickness and health, waning affection and growing annoyance, he is my dog, and I am his person. And when he turns his googly-eyed gaze up at me, it’s clear that we are at least agreed on this matter.

I’m still not going to take him to work.

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