The Year of the Dog

How does a guy who's a curmudgeon about dogs learn to accept a four-legged friend?

The guy from MG&E came by this week. He sprayed neon orange paint on our lawn, all the way from the front curb to the back deck, revealing where the electric cables lurk. He was able to navigate the area despite the fierce protective instincts of our new pooch, Phillip Seymour Dog.

Phil has been with us a year. His story is remarkable for several reasons, the least being that his new owner has historically viewed dogs with abhorrence.

Phil was left at our house in November of last year via our daughters, now living and working in Chicago. A combination of estrogen and lifelong wish fulfillment had compelled them to go to an animal shelter and select Phil from a sad array of urban strays who were mere hours from euthanasia. Although Kate and Mags always wanted a dog, they were denied that privilege in their youth, as their younger brother was allergic to critters and their Pops was a curmudgeon regarding pets.

Our kids did once have a white mouse. He died of obesity in a cage in our laundry room. Our children are still appalled at the funeral he received. The ceremony? I put on a glove, carried him out the back door and threw him into the woods off our deck.

Hey, he was too big to flush.

This very back page has been used to chronicle the issues Dad has had with dogs, including their penchant for sniffing crotches and soiling the yard. Behavior we would not tolerate from humans. Canines also play a lead role in the eternal drama of speeding to the emergency room after hearing the words, “Don’t worry. He won’t bite.”

Phil first visited our home last Thanksgiving. The daughters were weary after a frantic ride from Chicago with the collie/husky/cattle dog/shepherd/Tasmanian Devil mix flying around the car for three hours straight. Thanks to their upbringing the girls had absolutely no idea how to handle the thing. Not only were the daughters exhausted, but they were also understandably anxious about their dad’s reaction to the mutt. They knew it wasn’t going to be good.

But to their surprise, and mine, I discovered, after an afternoon reading on the back porch with Phil, that I kinda liked the guy.

Sure, he was hyper and manic, but he was also smart. And interesting.

But sadly, Phil was too much to handle in Chicago. Long work hours and a small condo are no formula for dog serenity. The girls were teary at the thought of returning him to the shelter. So, much to everyone’s amazement and the wife’s chagrin, I suggested that he stay with us on a short-term contract. I viewed myself as the Hero Dad, taking one for the team.

The first several weeks with Phil were horrific. He was wary of us and we knew absolutely nothing about the animal and how to control him. In his anxiety with our ignorance he chewed leather car upholstery, lawn chairs, exercise equipment and our digits. After nine long dog days we decided that we had to return Phil to a shelter. He was simply too much. After all, we had just finished raising three large mammals of our own. We deserved a break.

The next morning, after a restless sleep, I called the shelter and made arrangements. We would have one more day with Phil. I slept little that final night, shocked at the emotion I was feeling about thirty pounds of frenetic mutt. In the morning, after three bracing cups of coffee, I confessed to Diane that I did not want to part with Phillip Seymour Dog. Diane was understanding, but disappointed. She liked the thing, but he was driving her nuts. I promised to fully own the project, with the qualification that this was simply a one-month extension, not a long-term contract.

Phil was on probation. A short leash, if you will.

Through the spring and summer Phil and I got to know each other. I discovered the Zen of dog walking. He learned to chill. We have reached a good point in our relationship. I feed him and he, in turn, acts happy to see me. This is a new experience. Humans are often interested to see me, but rarely jump up and down giddy and happy upon my arrival.

Phil, on the other hand, does this every single time I walk up to him. How can this not be good for the soul?

The orange paint on the lawn is dry. This week the fence guys come to build a dog run off our deck. Phil will have a penthouse from which to monitor the squirrels and keep his master safe.

And our family will enjoy a traditional holiday gift with a twist.

Our kids will not get a puppy for Christmas.

But they will get to keep one.

Madison-based television producer John Roach writes this column monthly. Reach him at johneroach@mac.com.

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