Canine Reconsidered

Not quite sure how this came about but sometime in the last few months the two daughters/roommates in Chicago began talking about getting a dog.

Perhaps it was dissatisfaction with men their age. Or the unrelenting call of estrogen that makes young women want to mother something. Anything.

Either way, “getting a dog” became a persistent point of conversation during our long-distance FaceTime calls, or when Kate and Mags hustled up I-90 for a Badger game and lolled about Sunday morn over coffee before the drive back.

They approached me with temerity on the subject. Understandable, as I have the reputation of being The Anti-Dog Dad.

There is truth to this charge. My childhood experience with dogs, one dog actually, was consistently traumatic. The mutt’s name was Candy, an orphan that Mom and Dad got for us while we were living on Norwood Place in the sixties. A mid-sized cross between spaniel and retriever, she was likable enough.

But dropping an untrained dog into a household of six Irish Catholic kids, all seemingly born nine months and one week apart, was a wild example of taking human chaos and then adding animal chaos on top of it. We had no idea how to train or care for Candy.

Every day we would tie her up in the backyard with cheap, rubber-coated laundry line, and every day she would break said line and chase the Illinois Central train down the tracks as it left town. All of us would weep and sob, knowing that Candy had been run over by a succession of coal cars, only to rejoice when she returned an hour later exhausted by the ten-mile run, and frustrated that she had not been able to wrestle the train to the ground.

This went on for months, until Mom and Dad took Candy to “a nice couple on a farm.” I still can’t ask my Dad what they actually did with her.

The ensuing years did not make me care for dogs more. My tolerance for crotch sniffing, lawn befouling and unleashed rushes at me while jogging or biking conspired to make me a dog curmudgeon. My favorite quote to dog-loving friends was always, “Yeah, right—‘He’s a nice dog, he won’t bite’ are the last words everyone hears before they head to the emergency room for stitches.”

I steadfastly opposed getting a dog while our children were younger. A break from the unrelenting task of changing diapers by walking around the neighborhood carrying a plastic bag full of dog waste isn’t the quiet time a harried young dad needs.

And how can anyone hope to carry on a neighborly conversation while blithely pretending you’re not carrying a warm wad of dog feces wrapped in a Copp’s bag in your right hand? Seriously. How can anyone do that?

We had a mouse once. My kids still remind me of their trauma when he died of overeating and I unceremoniously threw him into the woods off our deck. So a dog seemed utterly out of the question.

But then I met Ozzie.

Ozzie was the companion of Steve, one of our kids’ closest friends, and the only canine ever welcome at the Roach cabin. Indeed he became a mascot. His quiet, mature friendliness and intelligence was a revelation to me. I christened Ozzie “The Only Dog I Ever Liked.” I still remember our eldest Kate calling to inform me, with a tear in her voice, that Ozzie had passed.

So it was with trepidation, but an open mind, that I greeted Phillie, when daughter Mags brought him home the first time this fall. A
fox-like mix of collie and retriever, Phillie was rescued by our girls from a Chicago shelter.

Maggie asked if I would watch Phillie while she headed down to the game to party with all the recent Badger grads. I agreed.
And to my surprise, I was smitten.

Phillie was a blast to walk, every squirrel a revelation, every bird a discovery. He quickened my usual pace by straining at the leash, not because he is rude, but because he thought the park behind our house was the Most Beautiful Spectacular Thing he had ever seen.

He made me view it, and other things in my world, in new light. I was stunned by the simple pleasure I took in his quiet company as I read on the back deck while he lounged at my feet. I even began to think that he liked me.

My reaction to this animal has been, frankly, stunning.

And now, I am embarrassed to admit, I can’t wait for the girls to bring him home for the holidays.

I am so taken by Phillie that I am thinking of buying him a freakin’ Christmas present.

All of this has made me wonder.

Have dogs changed all that much?

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Comments? Questions? Write johneroach@mac.com.

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