Dog Story – How Did The Dog Become Our Master?

I think a few of us have been down this road before!

I was so ignorant about dogs that I thought what she wanted must be a Javanese, a little Indonesian dog, not a Havanese, named for the city in Cuba. When we discovered, with a pang, the long Google histories that she left on my wife’s computer—havanese puppies/havanese care/how to find a havanese/havanese, convincing your parints—I assumed she was misspelling the name. But in fact it was a Havanese she wanted, a small, sturdy breed that, in the past decade, has become a mainstay of New York apartment life. (It was recognized as a breed by the American Kennel Club only in the mid-nineties.) Shrewd enough to know that she would never get us out of the city to an approved breeder, she quietly decided that she could live with a Manhattan pet-store “puppy mill” dog if she could check its eyes for signs of illness and its temperament for symptoms of sweetness. Finally, she backed us into a nice pet store on Lexington Avenue and showed us a tiny bundle of caramel-colored fur with a comical black mask. “That’s my dog,” she said simply.

My wife and I looked at each other with a wild surmise: the moment parents become parints, creatures beyond convincing who exist to be convinced. When it came to dogs, we shared a distaste that touched the fringe of disgust and flirted with the edge of phobia. I was bitten by a nasty German-shepherd guard dog when I was about eight—not a terrible bite but traumatic all the same—and it led me ever after to cross streets and jump nervously at the sight of any of its kind. My wife’s objections were narrowly aesthetic: the smells, the slobber, the shit. We both disliked dog owners in their dog-owning character: the empty laughter as the dog jumped up on you; the relentless apologies for the dog’s bad behavior, along with the smiling assurance that it was all actually rather cute. Though I could read, and even blurb, friends’ books on dogs, I felt about them as if the same friends had written books on polar exploration: I could grasp it as a subject worthy of extended poetic description, but it was not a thing I had any plans to pursue myself. “Dogs are failed humans,” a witty friend said, and I agreed.

We were, however, doomed, and knew it. The constitution of parents and children may, like the British one, be unwritten, but, as the Brits point out, that doesn’t make it less enforceable or authoritative. The unwritten compact that governs family life says somewhere that children who have waited long enough for a dog and want one badly enough have a right to have one. I felt as the Queen must at meeting an unpleasant Socialist Prime Minister: it isn’t what you wanted, but it’s your constitutional duty to welcome, and pretend.

The pet-store people packed up the dog, a female, in a little crate and Olivia excitedly considered names. Willow? Daisy? Or maybe Honey? “Why not call her Butterscotch?” I suggested, prompted by a dim memory of one of those Dan Jenkins football novels from the seventies, where the running-back hero always uses that word when referring to the hair color of his leggy Texas girlfriends. Olivia nodded violently. Yes! That was her name. Butterscotch.

We took her home and put her in the back storage room to sleep. Tiny thing, we thought. Enormous eyes. My wife and I were terrified that it would be a repeat of the first year with a baby, up all night. But she was good. She slept right through the first night, and all subsequent nights, waiting in the morning for you past the point that a dog could decently be expected to wait, greeting you with a worried look, then racing across the apartment to her “papers”—the pads that you put out for a dog to pee and shit on. Her front legs were shorter than her rear ones, putting a distinctive hop in her stride. (“Breed trait,” Olivia said, knowingly.)

All the creature wanted was to please. Unlike a child, who pleases in spite of herself, Butterscotch wanted to know what she could do to make you happy, if only you kept her fed and let her play. She had none of the imperiousness of a human infant. A child starts walking away as soon as she starts to walk—on the way out, from the very first day. What makes kids so lovable is the tension between their helplessness and their drive to deny it. Butterscotch, though, was a born courtesan. She learned the tricks Olivia taught her with startling ease: sitting and rolling over and lying down and standing and shaking hands (or paws) and jumping over stacks of unsold books. The terms of the tricks were apparent: she did them for treats. But, if it was a basic bargain, she employed it with an avidity that made it the most touching thing I have seen. When a plate of steak appeared at the end of dinner, she would race through her repertory of stunts and then offer a paw to shake. Just tell me what you want, and I’ll do it!


One response to “Dog Story – How Did The Dog Become Our Master?

  1. Martha Martell

    This is a terrific article. I remember reading it—the New Yorker or the New York Times. It deserves an attribution. Thanks.

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