Category Archives: Dog thoughts

For Canines of Mixed Ethnic Heritage

IMG_0121He’s a golden doodle?” said the woman with the boxer, eyeing my sweet, black-and-white puppy with the same skepticism my mother had faced when I was little. Back then, everyone wondered how I—this brown, curly-haired baby—could belong to my white, straight-haired mother.

“He doesn’t look very golden to me,” said the boxer lady.

“Well he is,” I could almost hear my mom responding. Short, sweet and a little indignant. Just like she handled people who questioned my parentage.

I, on the other hand, lunged into an explanation. “He’s a quarter golden retriever and three quarters mini poodle. His parents were bred from black and white parti poodles. So …” Did the boxer lady need such detail? Did she deserve the lowdown on my puppy’s ancestry?

Of course not. But her question caught me off guard, triggering something in me. An age old response to having my own ancestry questioned.

When Rico came home I thought I was prepared for everything. I’d been researching puppy care for over a year, grilling every dog owner I knew—and some I didn’t know—for tips. I’d learned about crate-training, treat-training, leashes and harnesses, apple spray, and chew toys. I’d researched vets and arranged my schedule to accommodate a “new baby,” which is how everyone said a new puppy would feel.

We’d been trying for a rescue dog for some time also, getting turned down again and again because I’d never owned a dog before, I did not have a vet in place, and because my last pets (the gerbils) had perished in a house fire. And—the ultimate deal-killer for pet rescue organizations—we had children under fifteen. Finally we bit the bullet and started researching goldendoodle breeders. When we found a reputedly great one, I looked on the website for “waiting puppies” rather than signing up for an upcoming litter. You could click on the link and watch a YouTube video of each golden retriever-poodle mix pup interacting with the breeder’s young grandson. I fell for Rico immediately.

A mini-goldendoodle expected to top out at about thirty-five pounds (he’s thirty-three), Rico was sweet and playful with a curly coat—predicted not to shed much, which was a good thing for my husband’s and daughter’s allergies. Though plenty of pups on the website were golden goldendoodles, ranging in hue from off-white to rich amber, Rico and his litter mates were black and white, like Snoopy and Harry the Dirty Dog and the Pokey Little Puppy. Like us too.  Both his parents were half “parti” poodle, meaning black and white spotted.

Rico is a party dog it turns out. He’s a total charmer, loves people, loves other dogs, is even gentle with our neighbors’ toddler twins. He doesn’t chew shoes or furniture. He slept through the night and potty-trained with relative ease. His only vice—kind of a big one—is that he loves to eat debris. Sticks, rocks, socks, ace bandages—a habit that’s sent him to the pet ER more than once. And yes, everyone at the ER loves him too.

None of us can imagine family life without him. He fits us perfectly. As my son says, “he’s even a quarter black and three quarters white like me.” True. But that’s just what I wasn’t prepared for: having the same conversations about Rico’s heritage as I have about my children’s and my own.

For example, this is what people say about my son:

“Wow! You really can’t see the black in him.”

And about Rico:

“Wow! You can’t see the golden retriever in him at all!”

About my daughter:

“That hair is beautiful. It must be a lot of work.”

About Rico:

“That coat is beautiful. It must get so matted though.”

And the kicker (seriously this happened): “We were thinking our goldendoodle’s coat might get curly too. But Misty has that nice, smooth golden retriever fur. You can barely see the poodle in her.”

Now substitute the words “biracial child” for “goldendoodle” and “black” for “poodle” and you have something like what my mother used to hear when I was a kid.

“Are you sure he’s part golden retriever?” (Are you sure she’s yours?)

And I explain. In varying degrees of detail. You might ask, WHY must I answer to these curious passers-by and dog owners? Why do I need to answer prying questions about my dog’s, my own or my children’s ancestry? Why can’t I be more like my mother and give a simple—if snarky—response?

In Maria Root’sBill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage,” it says specifically, “I have the right to self-identify. To identify myself differently than strangers expect me to identify.”

In other words, I have the right not to explain my heritage. As someone who does not look mixed, I am called upon to do this less frequently than my racially ambiguous-looking mixed friends. Since I look black, I don’t get asked “what are you?” very often. People assume I’m black and leave it at that. It’s only when I mention a different piece of my background—that I’m Ashkenazi Jewish on my mother’s side, for example, that people ask How is that possible?  

Similarly, people assume Rico is a poodle or a Portuguese water dog. No one means anything by it; no one is judging him. But the word Golden hits strangers the same way Jewish hits them with me. Rico couldn’t care less. The words he knows are sit, stay, leave-it, drop-it, walk, bone, and Ruby (the little dog next door). But I care.  His heritage is what it is—not to be questioned any more than mine or my children’s.

photo 3This is why I explain. I explain to be understood. To acknowledge all my heritage, my children’s and my dog’s, not to deny any part, but to embrace all, even the parts that are unseen.

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The House Fire Chronicles: Why I Almost Kidnapped Someone’s Dog

It is a strange feeling, for a mostly home mom to be displaced, living with your family in the home of another family with another mostly home mom.  My host is the best imaginable.  Not only is she generous enough to put us up while we look for alternate housing for the year (minimum) that it will take to rebuild our house, she is also flexible enough to let my family’s schedule and quirks melt naturally into the flow of hers.  Somehow a routine is forming for us all.  If your house is destroyed in a fire and your kids are in school and you need time to find a big-enough-for-four, comfortable-enough-to live-in-for-a-year rental, there simply could not be a better situation.

Still, the fact remains that I cannot go home.  Not all the way.  I can go look at my home, I can smell my home, but I cannot provide a life for my family there.  And that’s a big piece of my mother-identity, on hold until we can go back.

People are amazed at how upbeat I seem, how well I’m taking it, how calm  I am.  They say this because I am not usually calm.  I am normally type A, with a long checklist of daily rituals and  requirements—for exercise, productivity, family care—in order for  the day to count.  But now that I’m removed from all that, I am indeed surprisingly calm.  I’m able to be so thanks to our god-sent host family and also to the fact that I have to be calm for the sake of my kids.

Still, the loss hits me in strange ways when I least expect it.  For example, our local paper ran an article about someone else’s generator fire.  In it was a flippant mention of another freak fire that had taken place the week before.     Something about “a house fire, just last week, when a family went out, leaving a lighted candle.”   By “a family,” I realized they meant us.

We hadn’t gotten the fire report yet, so it was news to us that we’d left a lighted candle.  The truth was we’d blown the candles out before going upstate and checked the house twice for stray ones.  However, there was one big pillar candle, a fat one—the kind you don’t think you need a base for—which we had blown out, but apparently NOT WELL ENOUGH.   There was still an ember, deep inside where we didn’t see it, an ember just strong enough to reignite.  It took all day and probably most of the next night to melt all the way down to the dining room table, for the wax to melt, serving as an accelerant, igniting the table, which burned through the floor, which fell into the basement, and so on, and so on.

But we didn’t know that yet, and reading the quote in the paper felt so demoralizing.  Careless couple torches own houseGoes up state to do laundry.

This enormous sense of helplessness hit me while I was driving, running some post-fire errand.  Helplessness because I could not undo this horrible thing, which was such a fluke, after all.  Helplessness because it was now something that felt so public casting a harsh, cold light on what should have been our private pain and loss.  Helplessness, because no matter which way I drove, I could not drive home.

As I came to one of the town centers, I noticed a small, white dog—a poodle mix of some kind, running across the street.  She was alone, no Frisbee in her mouth, no leash dragging behind her.  She scurried through the traffic, now up on the sidewalk, now back into the vehicular current.   Clearly frightened, she ran in circles; I was terrified that she’d get hit.  Now I noticed three young men in pursuit of her, meaning to stop her and keep her safe, but the dog didn’t understand.  All she knew was that three big humans with deep voices were chasing her.  She turned a corner and they followed.  I thought fast, made a three point turn (on a busy street), and drove around the other way, where I hoped to head the dog off and save her myself.  Surely she wouldn’t be afraid of a nice lady with a soft mommy voice, right?

Suddenly I knew: I had to save this little dog, whom I took for a stray.  I wanted to take her home, though I myself had none to share with her.  It didn’t matter; I had children, a husband; we were the perfect family for this animal (who looked like a non-shedding mix, which would be okay for Jon and Zoe’s allergies).  In fact, it was kismet that I had seen her on this day, of all days.  She was my phoenix, rising from the ashes of our home.

The morning after we learned our house had been destroyed, before we returned to New Jersey to view the damage, my husband and I had taken our kids to brunch at a little Rhinebeck diner.  We’d been talking about the year ahead: where we would live?  What we would do, while our home was being rebuilt?  We’d all cried and bemoaned the loss and now were at a new stage of grief: crisis management and making the best.  Without consulting one another, my husband and I had made the same, seemingly spontaneous promise to the children:

“When this is all over and we move back in, we’re getting a dog.”  The ultimate silver lining, as far as the kids were concerned.   My gaze had met Jon’s over the remains of an omelet.  Did we mean this?  Yes we did.

It wasn’t that spontaneous an idea.  Unbeknownst to the kids, we’d been thinking of it for almost a year, but now, we felt suddenly ready.   Partly, it was the loss of our gerbils in the fire, the tiny triumvirate who were themselves dog-placeholders.   But the fantasy of family life, complete with dog, somehow eased our homesickness.  As if having a dog in place would make our new home more solid than the one we’d lost.

The runaway pup had disappeared around the corner of Walnut and Christopher, where there was a big, leaf-covered schoolyard.   Once I’d made my illegal three-point turn, I sped ahead, whipped around Label Street and then onto Christopher, anticipating that the dog would be running toward me.  She was, with the three young guys still in hot pursuit.  I stopped abruptly, which startled the dog.  She froze, staring at my car.  I got out, approaching her slowly, one hand extended, addressing her in the gentlest tone I could, as I might talk to a lost toddler.  The guys followed my lead, but this seemed to make the dog even more uneasy.  She cowered just a little, black eyes darting from me to the guys and back.  I asked if they knew her; one guy said he’d seen her
around.   But when he took a bold step toward her, the little dog growled at him.   The young man jumped back as his friends chuckled.

“Uh—she really doesn’t like people.”

I refused to believe it.

“Hi sweetheart,” I said, keeping my voice high and soft.  But she was afraid of me too:  the crazy lady with a minivan who seemed to be sniffling for some reason.  I knelt and repeated my words until she began inching toward me, meaning to sniff my outstretched hand, anxiously seeking  someone to trust.   How I wanted to be that someone.  But then, one of the guys made a sudden move which spooked her again.  The dog bolted, ran through the school yard, across the street and up the front steps of a house on the far corner.   By the time we caught up with her, she was pawing at the door, though no one seemed to be home.  The guy who knew the dog explained: he’d seen her there before and thought she lived there.

So the dog had a home, a rundown little home where no one seemed to be missing her at the moment, but still, a home with toys out front: a red wagon, a Little Tikes house and truck.  A home with children.  And now I could see that the dog had a collar and tag: a red, heart-shaped tag.   Someone had taken the care to provide her with that.

Finally–since no one seemed to want to harm her–the dog allowed one of the guys to get close to her.  First he let her sniff his hand, then gently he patted her.  She didn’t growl or otherwise object, though her tail did not wag.  The guy rose to ring the doorbell.  We all waited.  No one came.  The dog seemed to relax nevertheless, trust growing; we might be her friends.

The guy rang the bell again and still, no one came, so he called the phone number on the dog’s tag.  By now, I knew they had her under control.  There was no reason for me to stay any longer.   I was glad the dog was safe, glad that I might have played a role in her rescue.  Though as I walked back to my car, I felt this overwhelming sense of empty-handedness.

Here was my real fantasy of the rescue: I whip my car around the corner of Label and Christopher, the little dog stops, unsure, but sensing a loving presence behind the darkened windshield.  I get out, slide open the side of my minivan, crouch down to her level and say:

Here, Sweet Doggie.  Come: be safe and loved.   I have a family who needs you, who have lost a home just like you have.  Together we can make a new one.

It doesn’t take much coaxing, because her instincts are strong and she understands truly who I am and what I mean.  With a little yip and a wag of her tail, she hops inside and rides shotgun as I bring her home to begin a new life for us all.

Story of a Dog Called “Munch”

This week, since next week is Spring Break for my kids and I’ll have almost no writing time, all my focus has been on my book.  Hence the blog neglect.  But I did wanted to post something light and fun.  I came up with an idea of a dog story from my memory, because strangely–the more my children ask for a dog–as friends get dogs, and families with dogs arrive on my street–the more conscious I become of being a person without a dog.  After all, you either are a dog person or you aren’t.

Well, once upon a time, I was a dog person. As a kid I loved them and routinely demanded one despite our apartment building’s prohibition against them.  I’d let the biggest, sloppiest dog jump up on me; I’d shriek with giggles when it knocked me down and smothered me with dog kisses.  So you can imagine my delight, the summer I was ten, when my family stayed in a house just down the road from a farm where there lived seven lively, full grown dogs.

Our first day there, after we’d unpacked and my mother had begun inspecting the kitchen, my father and I were sitting in the living room, reading.  Suddenly, the front door swung open and Blue the Hound came plowing in.  Didn’t stop to sniff or scratch: just streaked through the house and blasted out the back door.  My dad—a diehard dog person if ever there was one—looked at me and I looked at him and we burst out laughing.  It was clear that the dogs ran the place.

About a hundred yards from the house was a decent-sized lake, used by everyone with a house in the area, unofficially presided over by a German Shepherd known as Munch.  Munch loved to swim, loved to be with people swimming.  Most of all, he loved having people throw things into the lake for him to retrieve.  Tennis balls, Frisbees, sticks, oars–anything.  Munch would hurl himself into the water with a euphoric wo!  and swim like a maniac out to whatever you’d thrown.  He’d grab it in his teeth, swim back to shore with just as much gusto, drop it at your feet and pant with anticipation, ready to go again.  It could go on for hours if you let it.

Most people got tired of throwing things for Munch after a while, even a dog-lover like my dad.  After seven or eight rounds, he’d say something like: “OK, Munch, that’s all she wrote,” and go sit on a deck chair in the sun.  In this, I could relate to Munch.  Adults were always ready to move on when you still wanted to play.  But Munch was a happy-go-lucky guy who never personalized the fatigue of adults; he’d just shove the play thing over to the next person and wait for him or her to spring to action.

Though I was always ready to play, Munch usually chose me last for practical reasons.  Munch’s favorite retrieval object was a canoe paddle with half the handle broken off.  Had it been whole, it would have been about as long as I was tall, so I just didn’t have the power to throw it more than a couple of feet.  Munch could make it twice as far in one bound.  He liked me, so he’d humor me and make a deal of running the yard or so into the water.  But he’d try to bring the paddle to someone else next time if he possibly could.

Nevertheless, I loved Munch.  His face was sweet, pretty for a German Shepherd, with the warmest brown eyes and widest smile. He was considered the lesser of the two Shepherds, Denver being the larger and more majestic–pale gold and black where Munch’s coat was ruddier, muddier.   Denver was dignified, with better training, while Munch was wilder and more humble: never too proud to go through someone’s garbage if he suspected the remains of a sandwich.   When the two dogs wrestled, it was always Munch who started it, though he was way outmatched.  Denver seemed to enjoy himself well enough but he always had this tolerant air– Haven’t you had enough yet?  On the rare occasions that Denver wouldn’t wrestle, Munch would handle it the same way he did with people at the lake.  He’d try the next dog, and the next, until he found one who was ready to go.

There was this one day, when my mother and I had arrived at the lake to discover a smashed-up Jeep, right there in the grass between the road and the sandy bank. Our house was far enough off the road that we’d heard no accident the night before; no one from the farm had stopped by to report any disaster.  There was no one hurt inside, no broken glass on the road, no tell-tale skid marks: just this crumpled mass of metal and rubber, off to the side where it was in no one’s way.  Whatever had happened had clearly been taken care of except for the remains of the car.  A mystery, but nothing we felt we needed to pursue, so we moved ahead onto the beach and spread out our towels.

It was already very warm that morning, though it was still too early for most of the vacationers to be out.  There was no one there but Munch, lying on his belly near the water’s edge, fondly gnawing his canoe paddle.  He lifted his head and gave us a brief dog-grin, slapping the sand happily with his tail.  Apparently, the Jeep was already old news to him; he’d probably finished sniffing and inspecting it long before our arrival and had moved on.

Munch let us swim and enjoy ourselves for a little while.  He knew how to bide his time, knew better than to look desperate right away.  When he finally approached us, we could see him hesitate for a second.  Do I bring it to the kid who likes me but can’t throw?  Or do I risk annoying the lady—who could do without me but whose arm isn’t half bad?  There was a slight air of apology in the glance Munch gave me as he dropped the paddle at my mother’s feet.

“Aw, Munch,” she said, “We just sat down.”  But she was smiling; he really was a sweet animal.

Mom got to her feet, picked up the paddle (using only her thumb and middle finger at first, careful to avoid the dog-drool), and followed Munch to the water’s edge.  I was impressed with the distance Mom got that day.  She knew: the further she managed to throw, the fewer times she’d have to do it.  At last, she told Munch, no more; she was going back to her towel and book.   So I took a turn.  The stakes were higher than usual.  Aware that I was Munch’s last hope, I put all I had into my throws.  By the time my arm got tired, Munch was getting bored anyway.  I was good for a laugh or two, but he craved a challenge.

I got into the water while Munch stood on the beach, deliberating.  No one else had arrived and there was no question that my mother—now thoroughly engrossed in her book—was done with him.  Munch turned toward the road.  He looked one direction, then the other, and finally fixed his gaze on the jeep.   His tail began to wag lightly.  We saw hope register in his muscles as he trotted over to the grass where the mangled vehicle sat.  Munch dropped the paddle before the car, backed up the respectful distance he gave all his prospective playmates, and sat, full of anticipation.

We laughed; what was he expecting—someone to emerge from the rubble and throw the paddle?  Or did he believe that the jeep itself might rise to the challenge?  After few minutes, he got up, shoved the paddle a few inches closer—like he often did with people who weren’t immediately responsive—and sat again, tail thumping.

Fifteen minutes later, when my mother closed her book and joined me for one last dip, Munch hadn’t budged.  Nor had he half an hour after that, when we packed up our things and prepared to go back to the house for lunch.  Munch barely glanced our way as we passed him.  By that time, he’d rested his head on his paws though his eyes were still watchful.  Munch was in it for the long haul.