Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sleeping with dogs

The morning before I left for Paris, I woke up jammed between Sig Other and Hank.  This isn't as kinky as it sounds.  We’re all familiar with the term “family bed.”  And while its true that the children have now outgrown the stage in their periodic interruptions middle of the night visits resulted in Sig Other and I relinquishing romantic privacy for blissful sleep, still there is no rest for the weary (or in this case, the indulgent).  But, ours is no longer a family bed of anxious children.  Ours is a family bed of a different sort. 

Over two years ago my beloved Golden Retriever died.  And after three weeks of enduring my weeping, Sig Other threw me in the car and drove me to Sun Valley, California - mecca for doggy rescue organizations.  For years, Sig Other had been talking about getting a Weimeraner.  He touted their sleekness, their aesthetically pleasing color, their intelligence and the fact that they match the house.  And I resisted.  “They’re not fluffy,” I insisted.  “I need a fluffy dog.  No dog will ever take the place of Cass but if I have to get another dog, it MUST be a Golden Retriever.  I am a Golden Retriever person.” 

And yet there I found myself, in front of the Sun Valley Friends For Pets organization – home for abandoned and wayward Weims.  We were there to meet Coco, a half Weim/half German Short-Haired Pointer that S.O. had seen on the internet.  Coco had two homes before landing at the rescue and, we were told, had been badly treated by a more aggressive dog in her previous home.  Sig Other immediately committed to Coco and pledged to save her from a life of concrete cages.  But in addition to Coco, there were at least thirty other gorgeous creatures, more than half of which appeared to be full-bred Weimeraners.  Sig Other pointed out that it didn’t seem right to leave these homeless dogs behind when we could easily have two dogs in our house.  And, he reasoned, wouldn’t it be best to have a second to keep the first company?  After walking with Coco with three other dogs to see which she got along with best, we settled on Hank – a young male who’d arrived at the rescue only the day before.  Little was known of his background but he seemed sweet and docile, if not a bit fragile.   So we came to “look” at one dog, and suddenly I was test-walking two.  I protested that they weren’t “cuddly” – that they seemed standoffish and that certainly I would never bond with either of them as I had my beloved Cass.  But I liked the idea of walking companions and I did confess to the house feeling terribly empty without canine companionship.  And so home we went with Coco and Hank. 

Weims, it turns out, are a deceptive breed.  We’ve all seen them in the famous photos of William Wegman.  They are posed on roller skates or curled in impossible positions on chairs, wearing hats or funny outfits.  And based on these images, they seem to be dogs of quiet repose – docile creatures willing to bend themselves into any shape for their masters.  And they are.  Sort of.  A well-trained and well-exercised Weim will happily twist himself into a pretzel for his or her beloved owner.  And when I say “well-exercised” what I mean is exhausted.  By reputation, they are “Velcro” dogs – they cling to one person - intensely loyal, incredibly intelligent, excellent guard dogs and (I now know) the cuddliest of creatures.  They are also mischievous, ridiculously energetic and can be maniacally anxious.  They are hunting dogs with a high prey drive and a desire to please which often results in dead rats dropped at my feet or birds snatched out of the air and presented as prizes. 

In my fantasy of owning two dogs, they are both crate-trained and happily retire to their “homes” in the evening where they sleep undisturbed until morning.  And so, upon bringing Hank and Coco home, I rushed to Petco and bought two big fancy crates for my new creatures, which I assembled and installed in our bedroom.  Understanding that Hank and Coco had been subjected to a concrete prison and had suffered untold horrors before coming to live in our lovely home, I felt it necessary that they be close and that their nests be feathered with soft cozy blankets.  Every book I read about Weimeraners (and I bought every one on the market) suggested that the bond to the owner is terribly important.  And so, the first night they spent in their home, I very gently coaxed them into their crates and shut out the lights.  And it was perfect.  For a while.  Coco slept like a champ.  She’s a sweet girl, our Coco, with enormous spurts of joyous energy leading to equally enormous spurts of pure exhaustion.  She has two speeds – on and off – and two emotions – love and kill.  Her simplicity is her great gift.  Hank, on the other hand, is far more complicated.

There are dogs who enjoy their crates and recognize in the confinement a sort of natural nod to their den instinct.  These dogs will go to their crates, unprompted, during the day for rest – the crate providing a safe and comfortable place of respite.  Then there are other dogs – dogs who view the crate as a sort of canine Guantanamo – a prison in which captivity is an anxiety-provoking hell, escape from which must come at any price.  Hank is that sort of dog.      

Hank is a neurotic, anxious canine.  The first time we left him alone in his crate, he caused a ruckus that set off the burglar alarm.  Left alone in his torture chamber, Hank will rip apart any blanket or toy, no matter how rugged.  He will foam at the mouth so aggressively that a lake of saliva forms around the exterior.   He will rub against the metal grate until his nose and gums bleed from friction.  He will howl until the neighbors call with questions about cruelty to animals.  Hank is also the creature that breaks my heart every morning when I leave the house for work and he stares mournfully out the window, making puppy ears and pleading with me not to go.  He is the sweet, sensitive boy who curls into my lap at every opportunity, who follows me around the house, curious about where I’m going and what I’m doing.  His is the soft, warm body that snuggles up against me as I watch tv at night and rests his head on my belly as I read on a weekend afternoon.   And he is the reason I have redefined the family bed.

After the first few weeks of unsuccessful crating, Sig Other and I relented and allowed Hank to sleep on the sofa in our bedroom (the rather expensive Danish sofa which was formerly in the living room but is now the de facto dog bed).  And still, Hank’s anxiety persisted.  His preference, really, was for the bed – our bed and more specifically, my side of the bed.  Snuggled close to me (or sometimes on top of me or even on top of my head) was the place Hank went for a really good night’s sleep. 

Like any good codependent dog-parents, Sig Other and I believed in those first few months that the dog’s comfort should come first.  After all, he’d only recently been sprung from doggy jail.  If Hank wanted the pillow, Hank got the pillow.  And as it hardly seemed fair that Hank should be the sole beneficiary of our weakness.  Coco was sprung free of her crate and allowed on whatever cozy bed-like surface suited her as well.  If that meant being separated from snuggling with Sig Other, or that I spend my night sweating with one dog in the middle of the bed and one on my head, then so be it.  Those first nights with the new dogs were restless and sweaty.  And while sleepless, they were also cozy and sweet and peaceful.  Cesar Milan would have been so pissed.

Years passed and routines were established and, as happened with the children, the dogs got more comfortable and Hank’s deeply neurotic insecurities were replaced by quirky eccentricities.  He is still, as Child One points out, a dog unique from all others in that he loves conditionally.  But he is now mostly sweet and happy and, when well exercised, less prone to breaking into the pantry or stealing my sweaters for his own nest.  And the family doggy bed has morphed from a nightly contortionist act to one that is limited to a few hours in the early morning.  Every night, Sig Other or I tell the dogs its time for bed, and they trot off to their respective sides of the couch.  And every morning at about 5am, I am awakened by a stare – an intense pleading stare down a long soft nose, begging me to move over and make room.  And so I do.  I scootch toward the middle of the bed to make room for Hank’s morning ritual climb onto the mattress, followed by a triple twirl and a not-so-gentle thud down onto the bed in as tiny a circle as he can make himself, his back pressed firmly against my stomach and chest.  There he’ll remain for an hour or so until the chirping birds wake us both and he rises, insistent that I open the door for him.  When he first started this ritual I leapt from bed, convinced that he was being a good boy and communicating his need to pee.  In fact what he wants is to stand in the open doorway of our bedroom so that he can gaze at his domain.  He doesn’t go for a morning pee.  He doesn’t roam the yard.  He simply sits, nose out, body in, and stares as the yard comes to life in the early morning.  I’m not sure what he’s thinking.  Often he seems burdened by the troubles of the world.  And there is no convincing him to stay in bed.  He must go, every morning, and carry out his ritual.  

And so I rise, eyes half open and open the door for him before stumbling back to bed and wiggling my way back into the resting curve of Sig Other.  And through it all, Coco sleeps sweetly, dreaming about chasing birds and worried about absolutely nothing.  

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