When was the last time anyone wanted to push a vacuum around here? How about daily? I know, I was thinking the same thing: we have a vacuum?
What we do have is a new dog. Penny comes without papers, but with just about everything else you’d want in a dog. She’s mellow, rarely barks, doesn’t shed and never jumps on people. She knows about a dozen tricks – more than both our kids put together. She’s about half the size of either of our last two dogs (something I care about particularly after having carted an ailing dog in and out of the house repeatedly over much of the last six months). She tilts her head in a cute way when I make a funny noise at her, which I do a lot. I need to remember to keep the windows closed.
She also happens to be toxic to humans. Well, to one human in particular, something we discovered about four hours after bringing her home, when Mike started wheezing and his face swelled up.
Four weeks prior to that, we were saying goodbye to our aging and ill yellow lab, Gus. For Jack, this was especially hard. Or maybe he didn’t take it any harder than the rest of us, but just displayed his grief more prominently. By that I mean he cried so hard he looked like his face was melting off like he was in a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. But it had been Jack’s choice to be there when the vet came. And when he held Gus’ head in his lap those last moments, I had melty-face problems too.
This propensity for over-emoting is something Jack and I share, especially when it comes to dogs. We sob at dog movies or dog commercials or at other people’s dog stories. We wave at dogs we pass on the street. We talk about what dogs the boys are going to have when they’re on their own. It’s our weird family thing we try to tamp down when we’re in public.
With Gus gone, we knew we’d get another dog, but I had half a hope that we’d wait long enough for our stressed-out lawn to recover. We knew we’d have a month or two in between dogs when we applied to an Idaho Humane Society program that places “unadoptable” dogs in a training program with prison inmates.
I know – so many potential jokes in that statement.
Seriously, inmates in the program are trained to handle dogs, and work in teams over a period of months to teach each dog to walk on a leash, heal, stay, sit, come, get in their kennel and potty on command.
… Yes, I did say potty. On command. I know what you’re thinking, but there are plenty reasons it wouldn’t be kosher for them to train your toddler, so don’t ask.
The inmates have to behave well to be a part of the program, and the dogs get attention around the clock, because they’re dogs, and what other productive things do inmates have to do all day except study legal texts, find Jesus or surreptitiously carve things into shivs? I’m just guessing, but the dog thing sounds like more fun.
And the inmates get really into it. Penny was part of the 9th or 10th graduating class in this program that has taken dogs, some with serious behavior problems, or even disabilities, and turned them into success stories. Sure, they’ve taught dogs some things that may or may not ever be used in the real world, like jumping through hoops. One dog was taught to stand with his front legs against a wall and submit to a frisking. Prison humor. A deaf dog was taught to follow commands on a flash card.
Forget the whole potty-on-command thing. They taught a DOG to READ.
There are more people applying to adopt these dogs than there are dogs in the program, so the humane society screens the applicants, and tries to match up dogs that would be better respectively with grown adults, or less active seniors, or active families. Even then there are people who adopt these amazing circus-trained quality dogs and things don’t work out. Largely because the people are lazy putzes who end up leaving the dog in the yard for extended periods of time where they can revert back to the habits that made them unadoptable in the first place.
Penny was matched up with a family with kids who were interested in the program, but not in waiting, as it turns out. They ended up adopting a different dog. So we got a call when Penny was set to graduate the following weekend but had no family to go home to.
In addition to the screening, applicants need to go through a two-hour orientation prior to adopting their dog. I mean, these guys really, really try to weed out the putzes from the adoption process. The orientation includes a seminar where the potential adopter and adoptee meet and the former learns a few basic commands.
When we went through orientation, we let Jack take the lead, learning how to handle the dog under the tutelage of the most demanding drill sergeant this side of Full Metal Jacket. Jack was willing to stand in the sun and be yelled at as he walked in a circle, stopped, turned and walked the other way with the dog. Penny didn’t tug on the leash or jump at other dogs or get distracted. She looked up at Jack in a way that we could see from 200 yards away was going to give him melty-face. Penny was definitely coming home with us.
By that night, however, we realized Mike was going to have problems.
He started swelling and itching and wheezing. He’d pet her and his hands would start burning. By Sunday morning we had to break the news to the kids: Penny would likely be going back to the pound.
Would returning Penny disqualify us for another dog? We’d always had a dog. This allergy thing was new, but was it permanent, or just with a particular dog? Would we ever be able to have another dog that wouldn’t make Mike miserable? Or would we have a total last minute Brady Bunch moment, where we discovered it was the dog’s flea powder that was the real problem?
The Brady Bunch moment never happened, and on Monday, Mike called the pound and explained things to the woman who runs the program. Turns out she’s allergic too, to each of her five dogs and three cats. She made some suggestions, and Mike decided to suck it up for a while and see if he couldn’t acclimate.
We bought a couple of HEPA air filters for extra large rooms. Even though Penny doesn’t shed, we vacuum almost daily to remove dander from the carpet, and anything she might have rubbed against. We wipe her down with dryer sheets when she comes in from outside. We feed her grain-free food coated with salmon oil to control dander. The boys bathe her with hypoallergenic soap twice a week.
So we currently have a dog that gets more attention, and more stuff, than any newborn that ever entered our home. Mike starts a regimen of allergy shots next week. We might actually have to rent her out to the circus to pay for all of this.
Penny has a lot to get used to around here. She doesn’t understand mirrors or the reflection in the glass door, which makes her a little paranoid some family with a dog is casing our house. She’s interested in chewing anything that’s left out – which has resulted in everyone keeping their crap picked up.
The boys, whom she wakes up early every day, are in charge of feeding, bathing and walking her. They have found out where we keep the vacuum and how to use it. I am really digging living in a space where everything is picked up and put away and the carpet is clean. So what if we spend more on food for the dog than our entire college beer budget?
Meanwhile, Mike’s face burns less often and he seems to be breathing better. He’s not going overboard on the martyrdom thing nearly as much as I would, and for the kids, the effort he’s making has catapulted him to superhero status.
While we wait to see if things continue to improve, Penny is becoming unmistakably ours, which of course makes us vulnerable to angst and heartache and melty-face; our ultimate fate anyway whenever we take on a new pet, or a new friend, or anything worthwhile. We don’t know if Mike will continue to improve, or if, when when we’re all socked in for winter, things will take a turn for the worse. We’re in a holding pattern. An expensive, time-consuming holding pattern. For a dog.
But she’s a dog that does tricks.
Give Penny a little love. Vote.