It’s been more than five years since our yellow lab Floyd padded off to the Rainbow Bridge. Okay, that’s as sappy as I want to get. But the point is my wife and I still miss him and we’re still in debate about getting another dog. The debate is not between, but within us. We’ve enjoyed our dog-less time together, sometimes even feel selfish about sharing it. Then someone comes to the house with a four-legged fur-friend and we melt into mezzo-soprano cooing and wooing.
The pros and cons pile up daily. Interestingly enough, the aging process weighs on both sides. We’re getting up there, so why complicate life by bringing a dog into it, something dependent that needs care, something that can curtail travel plans? Then again, why not bring something into your life that they say could add years to it, give you a reason to get up in the morning and bring you slippers and joy?
Of course, this is followed by the other debate — if we get a dog, what kind? Should it be large or small? Large can knock you down. Small you can trip over. Long-haired, short-haired, smooth, curly or hypo-allergenic? Should it be a swimmer or a sailor? Better yet, should it be a puppy or rescue?
Once we start going down this rabbit hole, my wife goes into another room, tears open a bag of popcorn and starts playing solitaire on her phone. I, on the other hand, find a neutral corner and assume the fetal position.
Actually if we so choose, I’d like to get a puppy, a perfect puppy, just like the one that grew into Floyd. I say this because I know how to pick a puppy. Let me explain.
Back in 2000, having never owned a dog in my life, I was given the job of producing for a PBS series called Woof! It’s a Dog’s Life. This was a series of half-hours devoted to training as conducted by “Uncle Matty,” the pet name Matthew Margolis used in his role in LA working with such dog owners as Madonna, Elizabeth Taylor, Merv Griffin and Goldie Hawn.
For one segment we went out on a shoot to a Pasadena boxer breeder. Here Uncle Matty set out to show America and me how to pick a puppy. He had a test. Before us was a litter of five-week-olds. He held down each one, placing his hand under its collarbone. He wasn’t hurting the pup, just pinning it.
Matty said it would give one of four responses: it will fight you like crazy (energetic, needs good amount of training at the start); it will give up in five to 10 seconds (submits to you being the Alpha, easy to train); it will just lie there (potentially lethargic, you’d be buying a carpet that eats); or, it goes into a fetal position, tucking in its limbs as protection, because it’s been kicked a lot unintentionally by mom and siblings (afraid of touch, needs good amount of training, period).
When we wrapped the shoot for a half dozen episodes, I realized I had learned a lot about living with dogs. I certainly learned that the human needs as much training as the animal. Right before we parted, Matty gave me a soulful look.
“You should have a dog,” he said. “You’re totally comfortable around them and they’re totally comfortable around you. What are you waiting for?”
A few months later, 9/11 happened. And so did a litter of six yellow Labrador puppies in West Tisbury at the home of Patty Linn. Time appeared to be running out for excuses. Time also seemed to be precious, given the global disorder. Time to get a dog.
When I tried the puppy test at Patty’s, each gave up in about five seconds. I called Matty and told him my dilemma.
“What are you with, a bunch of Labs?” he asked. “Forget it, the test won’t work. Labs will do whatever you want. Why do you think the breed is consistently Number One in popularity?”
“Is there a runt?” he asked.
Yes there was. In fact while his siblings were jumping up and down, the runt was across the room staring at a bookcase. My mind raced. Stephen Hawking reincarnated? Mentally defective?
“Call me back when it’s feeding time and let me know what the runt does,” Matty said.
As it turned out, feeding time was then and there. Mom walked into the pen and the runt made a beeline dash for her nutritious underside. A startled me gave the play-by-play to Matty.
“Buy him,” he said. “He’s using his brain. He wasn’t the first one on in the first four weeks.”
And so the runt became Floyd, our wonder dog — calm, inquisitive, responsive, stoic, funny and smart. It had been said he would do calculus for a treat.
So I’d be a damn fool not to remember what I learned being with Matty and Patty if there is a next time to get a dog. I should be looking for that puppy who doesn’t totally act like a puppy. Preferably one that’s light-coated so it’s easier to spot a trespassing tick. If there is a next time.
This essay originally appeared in The Vineyard Gazette. Visit vineyardgazette.com for more commentary by Arnie.