ou just don’t like men,” my friend Amanda dismissively says, but that’s a distortion she generates out of her own needs.
I just shrug my shoulders, refusing to be drawn in. Then, while we’re walking down a crowded Columbus Avenue, sipping skim milk lattes, she moves in for the kill.
“Do you ever – ever at all – give them an even break?”
Well, no, hardly ever, is the answer, but what I say is “Men are dogs.”
That’s not a bad thing. I love dogs. Who doesn’t? Name me one president, even, who didn’t show the nation his dog. But not all dogs are the same. Scottish Terriers, for example, to me, are always cute and interesting. Some men, on the other hand, are more like Springer Spaniels or drooling Mastiffs, dull and over bred.
“You need some behavioral therapy,” Amanda says, shaking her head. Of course, I happen to know that Amanda’s been trying, to no avail, to find someone to marry so that she can get pregnant, before that whole tape runs out.
“Look at the consequence of compromising a standard,” I point out. “It’s everywhere.” This seems especially so on the Upper West Side of New York, where we’re walking, a neighborhood filled with couples and their babies, too many with bad conformation. We both glance briefly at a good example, smiling quietly at one another, acknowledging the glorious, sunny day that it is. Amanda smiles at them, but I don’t. Clearly, not enough thought was given to matters such as the shape of the hindquarters or the size of the snout, what happens when two non-champions get together to mix it up. That’s where the grooming part can become important. It can downplay, or, if one is really skilled, hide, those kinds of defects.
We’ve passed by the enraptured couple by now and I’ve started to refocus on a grumpy looking Kerry Blue, strutting up the block. Walking with the dog is an attractive man, but he looks equally grumpy. And that suggests the basic problem - that even if a man’s lines and form were to comply with my prevailing standards, even if the grooming were to be impeccable, there is also the issue of temperament. The ideal dog would excel in all three, but there is no such thing as a perfect dog. And there are, I have discovered, even fewer perfect men.
I have been grooming Scottish Terriers for dog shows for eight years now (as well as other dogs, more for the cash than for love) and breeding them for four. Like the Kerry Blue, the Scottie is a very high maintenance dog when it comes to grooming. My fee of eighty-five dollars just about covers the cost of visiting the stylist who takes care of my own high maintenance, thick black hair.
A Scottie’s hair has a hard wiry coat that needs to be stripped, not cut. Otherwise, the coat gets ruined. Not only does this require continuous attention, but also a multitude of similar, if not identical, tools to those used on me: stripping knife, scissors, nail clipper, comb, powder, electric clippers for the head and so on.
Usually, the dogs come to me. I don’t like to leave my own dogs alone too much, so when I groom for shows, it’s mainly local.
The world is full of strange convergences like high maintenance hair. Over these years, I have formulated a small set of rules about what I have seen in my Scottish Terriers. Those same rules also apply to what I have seen in my relationships with men.
Poor attention to grooming requirements is often a sign that something is wrong. Grooming is an ongoing activity. What works best, if possible, is to take the dog’s coat down in one session and then work on the coat as it grows back in. That way, the coat stays nicely balanced. You don’t want a fluffy Scottie. It means you haven’t been properly focused on the requirements of the dog.
I first realized that my relationship with my boyfriend, Jeff, for example, wasn’t working when I stopped having waxed the thick dark hairs that appear on my upper thighs, just outside my panty line. Instead, I began to spend my waxing appointment times sitting in the park, where I’d watch the dog walkers enjoy the suddenly warmer weather. Also not a good sign was that I spent my waxing money on sluttish Italian lingerie that I folded and put away in a drawer. I was hoarding my resources for the theoretical next man.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to find this next man. Perhaps, I thought, I could spot him as he walked by. Of course, that required that I pay attention not only to his presentation, but that of his dog as well. I was looking for good show ring personality, especially in the man. Now, what if he was appealing, but - horror of horrors - walked a dog I thought a slouch?
The greens of the park were filling in with color and the iris tips were starting to poke out. I began to pack my lunch and bring it to the park each afternoon, positioning myself on a bench for maximum effect. I wanted an immediate replacement for Jeff and took one of my little dogs, rotating each time (I had five), figuring they were better than I was at being overtly friendly. The first week and the following Monday and Tuesday yielded lots more sun, but little else. Wednesday had a distinct possibility.
“Hi,” my possibility said. “Nice dog.”
I smiled, showing nice, evenly spaced teeth, as I let my female, Beryl, sniff his male. With infinitely fewer resources than my Scottie had at her disposal, I tried to check him out. The man wasn’t shy – that was promising, with nice brindle colored hair, a salt and pepper that matched my dog. I had gotten a quick look at his teeth, a nice level, square jaw, with a slight scissor bite. The initial appraisal was positive. He was a much finer looker than Jeff. His dog, a spirited and scrappy Welsh Terrier appeared poorly cut, but it wasn’t a fatal flaw. I could do something about that.
“Donald!” A leggy, blond, woman that I hadn’t noticed called out, holding a large cardboard cup of soda and ice in each hand, as she walked towards us. Oh well, I thought. I wondered if they were hopelessly mated, or just friends, or, maybe she was his sister. They looked enough alike. It was hard to tell. Men, like dogs, sometimes forget their last partner, at least for a while.
“Where do you have your dog groomed?” he asked, as he started to turn and wave to her, the soda woman.
I quickly handed him my card, before my potential competition got any closer and I would have to growl.
Temperament, as important as appearance, should be alert, spirited and steady going. After all, a dog nicknamed the “Diehard” should have a certain attitude, a certain fire. A Scottish Terrier should not be wishy-washy. Neither should a boyfriend. When I stopped going to my waxing appointments, did Jeff say anything? Not a word. Did he just not notice? I didn’t think that he was that unperceptive, just too benign, too much like a lumbering Golden Retriever, without the beautiful coloration. He took no strong positions and that was his problem: no fire. Jeff simply didn’t have a heads up, tails up, attitude towards life. I resolved that the next one would have better terrier character.
An example of Jeff’s temperament: we couldn’t have snarling, drag-out fights. Jeff always caved in because he didn’t like conflict. So, I would always win. After a while, this became mega-boring and I found myself picking fights just because I could. Stupid fights. Dogged fights.
“Look, if you aren’t sure how much cream I want in my coffee, don’t put it in.” That was a morning that I was feeling particularly snarly.
Jeff had shrugged. “I just wanted to be helpful.” He drew the words out like pizza dough in his not-that-long-in-New-York Louisiana drawl.
“You’re not being helpful. You’re ruining my coffee.”
“Did I ask you to add the cream?”
“I won’t make the coffee anymore, O.K.?”
“Good. Don’t.” No question about it, I could be a top bitch.
Earlier in the century, if a breeder wanted to test a Scottie’s mettle, he’d put the dog in a barrel with a badger and see who won. If the dog killed the badger, well then, it was a fine dog. If the badger killed the dog, well, there had been a problematic temperament. Any badger worth his salt would make short shrift out of Jeff. No power or resolve.
Clearly, I was going to be the badger in this barrel. Chivalrous, in a sort of antique, hokey style, Jeff wouldn’t have the grit to counter my aggressive inclinations. I was a dirty barrel fighter. There was such a thing as being too sweet. Wasn’t there? Give me someone with more stubborn determination! I felt like biting him, I was so disgusted.
Donald, Wednesday’s Welsh Terrier man called two weeks later, ostensibly for a grooming appointment for George, his dog.
“I’m pretty busy,” I told him, “but I’ll do you a favor and squeeze you in.”
I then phoned Amanda and we spent a good hour discussing all the subtexts embedded in “nice dog.” It was a phrase with complex possibilities.
Close confinement, via crate training, creates psychological security. But too much time in one leaves an animal bored. Crates, or enclosures that confine your dog can be very helpful for security, safety and housebreaking. What better way to enjoy peace of mind than to know that, when you leave your dog, it is not going to be able to develop bad habits and get into trouble? It’s a nice way to create peace of mind for the dog too. That way, he doesn’t get too over-excited or confused. The crate should provide enough space so that the dog is comfortable. Also very important is that the dog not be neglected in the crate. You want him to feel that he’s getting enough attention and love. Dog crates are not meant to be used for long hours with adult dogs.
Dogs are den animals, descended from den dwelling ancestors. Sometimes, it seems that we, too, had den dwellers in our past. Why else would we all need to find our place, even if it’s only to escape that place? It’s partially an artifact of modern times, but I’ve noticed that my friends, Amanda excluded, are all suddenly busily engaged in the process of fixing up their den. I don’t mean a den in terms of a family room, like in a suburban home. After all, we all live in overly cramped apartments here. What I mean is that being closed in, having structure to one’s life, actually makes a person happier and psychologically more centered. What looks like a cage one moment, with a slight movement of the mind, becomes home. Of course, with certain problem dogs, another slight movement of the mind turns that special place into a cage again.
All of my Scotties had been crate trained and were proper, serious, well-behaved little creatures, who had made the transition from hanging in their crates to hanging under the furniture from where they could peer out and watch the world while napping and chilling. I was the problem. I’d shifted something and Jeff was no longer part of my center, but just taking up space. He didn’t live in my den, exactly, but he spent a significant number of days and/or nights of the week there – three, usually. He was getting too used to it, doing about the same amount of napping and chilling as my dogs.
“Listen, I need to talk about things with you,” I started, one evening after all of the dogs had been fed and walked. We were throwing a latex squeak mouse lazily to the other side of the living room, where Heather, usually the fastest, would catch it before the others tried to grab it and rip it to shreds, gradually bringing it back to one of us to start the whole thing over.
“O.K.” Jeff rolled onto his back and began to scratch behind his ears. I noticed that he was starting to get soft around the middle.
“I think seeing each other three times every week might be a little too much.”
Jeff just shrugged. “O.K.”
Worse than a Golden Retriever, I thought. An Irish Setter. We were silent for a while.
“Don’t you want to know why?” It was my hunting instinct, zeroing in on someone with no defenses.
“No,” he said, avoiding eye contact, and threw the mouse to the other end of the room again. He had been the one gradually increasing the time we spent together, sometimes just showing up, “to check on the dogs.”
Maggie couldn’t stand it anymore and, growling with fake menace, grabbed the mouse a split minute later than Heather and wouldn’t stop growling and wouldn’t let go, whereupon Stuart, my champion stud dog started barking without end, trying to get into the fray, ignored by all the girls. Beryl and Fiona, eyes riveted on the mouse, waited for the next interesting thing to happen.
Jeff sighed, walked over to separate the dogs, whereupon they all followed him back, eyes still focused upwards on the mouse.
“I thought this was maybe going somewhere,” he whined. “Marriage, kids…”
“What?” I was being tactless, but his comment came out of nowhere. What was he talking about? We hadn’t had a single conversation that contained those words. I’m sure that I would have remembered.
“Well, you know, something – some movement towards something.” Jeff tried to formulate a rationale for why he was going to miss his crate, when what he really needed was to get out and exercise more.
“Maybe just living together.” Jeff tried again to explain. “I don’t know.”
I stayed dumbfounded and when I didn’t say anything more, he reached into his pocket.
“Here,” he said, and handed me back his copies of my keys. “I don’t want to be where I’m not wanted.” Then he turned and went off to pack up his things in a couple of Pet Wonderland shopping bags, patted all the dogs goodbye, and left. It was the only thing that Jeff had ever done that surprised me. He was completely gone, like a cat, not like a dog at all.
When considering which two dogs to mate, use the strengths of one to balance out the weaknesses of the other. Still, it’s a crap shoot. If a dog has a negative characteristic, the prospective mate should not share that same negative. When evaluating breeding stock, for example, it’s important to keep in mind that a Scottie’s eyes should be wide apart, small, dark and almond-shaped. It can mean the sacrifice of points if they are not up to the standard. So, say you have a dog that has a great general appearance, but round eyes, instead of almond-shaped ones. You should try to find a mate with better-shaped eyes and keep your fingers crossed about the puppies. Still, once your puppies open their eyes, somewhere between the tenth and fourteenth day, anything is possible.
On the morning that George was scheduled to come in, I was trying to decide what to do about Heather’s next season in two months, whether to mate her to Stuart again, which had produced my youngest, Beryl, among others, or to look for a dog from another ancestral line and, if so, which one. So, although I was thinking mostly about that as I thumbed through The Bagpiper and looked at photos of recent winning dogs, I was also hoping that Donald, and not the woman with the sodas, would be the one to drop George off for his appointment. To my good fortune, or so I thought at the time, that’s what happened.
Welsh Terriers, like other Terriers, can be scrappy and independent and I talked myself into the belief that the choice of breed reflected something positive in Donald. Scotties are ordinarily rather aloof, but very devoted to their own family and home. Since my last conversation with Jeff, followed by several with Amanda, I needed to feel that I wasn’t entirely dysfunctional. I looked to find that devotion to someone myself.
Upon second evaluation, I still liked Donald’s look – his wheaten coloration, his thinness – very different from my own, as I was squatter, much like my dogs and had the same tendency to become barrel-like and put on weight. I applied my makeup a little more carefully that morning, to help demonstrate my receptiveness. Needless to say, I had also begun to keep an appointment again at the waxing salon.
“Hi,” I was all smiles, having decided that sunny disposition was the way to go.
He smiled back and I could sense in that smile an inquisitorial sniff for availability. George wasn’t interested in spending the day with me and stiffened his legs to put on his brakes, which forced Donald to pick him up and place him in my arms.
“I have a suggestion,” he offered.
“O.K.” I waited, holding George.
“How about if I pick up George right before you close and then we go to dinner after I drop him off?
Bingo, I thought, he’s decisive and focused. Casually, I said, “Sure, why not?” Temporarily, I decided to put aside concerns about the soda woman.
George, of course, looked wonderful at seven o’clock, when Donald came back for him, and jumped around excitedly at the thought of never seeing me again. Donald suggested that he first drop George off and then return for me, which gave me an hour to shower, change, and call Amanda to strategize. Dinner was at a nearby Thai restaurant, where we split various sorts of dumplings and chicken Satay, followed by Pad Thai with shrimp. We talked about food, travel, our dogs and our lives, both conveniently skipping over our most recent mating attempts.
“So,” I tried to sound casual, not really being able to stand it any longer, “are you – divorced, or what?”
Stuart, my stud dog, is a real gentleman, tolerant, but indifferent in the street to strangers, children and yappy dogs. If you respect his rights, he respects yours. But, like other true gentlemen, he is purposeful. Aimless behavior doesn’t interest him. If he tries to rip up a squeak mouse, it’s because he’s honing his finely tuned hunting instincts. If he’s going for a walk in the park, he’s checking the place out for vermin. I didn’t yet realize it, his scent being off, but Donald was not entirely purposeful in this way. He was out for an amble.
Donald smiled, giving me another look at his bright white teeth. “Are you proposing already?” he asked. And that’s when he put his hand over mine on the table, where I had put down my chopsticks.
“See? No ring,” Donald pointed out. His hand felt dry and warm and solid. Just goes to show you how much information you lose when you depend solely upon sight, sound, and touch.
When engaged in training, praise is more effective than punishment. In spite of an independence of spirit, the Scottie does want your approval. Stubborn as the breed is, strong language or punishment probably will not work. A Scottie dog doesn’t like to be blamed for anything by his human and may respond by ignoring you or becoming sulky. No one wants to have a dog moping about, especially one that by his nature is game and perky. Showing that you are happy with your dog’s actions will make him feel secure and a whole lot better. After all, your happiness is essential to his happiness.
Donald started coming around once or twice a week, after work, whereupon we’d go out for dinner to a variety of ethnic restaurants, which he would choose – Indian, Vietnamese, Japanese, Mexican - and then back to my apartment where I’d successfully try out my new lacey lingerie. I wanted him to stay over though – for the whole night.
“It presents certain logistical problems,” he’d explain, showing those great teeth again.
“Well, George, and all your little dogs. I don’t know, I think it would be too much for him. He’d feel outnumbered.”
I wasn’t in the mood to argue. Not with Heather going into season soon, which would mean that George couldn’t stay with me anyway. So we continued to have our dates and I continued to fall asleep without him. He clearly was being spooked by my den, but I thought that to push the issue would be self-defeating.
“Remember, you catch more flies with honey,” had been my mother’s philosophy and it would be mine, although I had somewhat modified it to “you train more dogs with treats.” I would be the fearless one, but I wouldn’t be demanding about it. I would remain pleasant, I would let him know how wonderful he was and, eventually, Heather’s breeding situation would be resolved and Donald would be more tractable.
“Too bad there’s nothing similar to liver snacks for training men,” Amanda told me.
She was joking, but I thought it was a need tragically unmet. Liver snacks could definitely speed things up.
Still, I wondered why I wanted this to happen. It was the middle of the night, long after Donald had left. One or another of my girls chased rabbits in her dreams, and I could hear the whimpering, knew her paws were twitching. (Stuart, wheezing quietly, but not dreaming, was on the bed with me.) I had just gotten myself out of a situation that felt too confined. And Jeff really was gone, not even a “phoning because I left one of my socks there and, by the way, I wondered how you were doing without me” call. Was I so institutionalized that I felt insecure now with absolute freedom? Maybe I was the one who needed to be retrained.
No, I decided after a while, it wasn’t me. It was him. I needed to borrow a page from my dogs and think about this in terms of how to effectively pursue my quarry. This could be a rough hunt and, so, it should be a strategic one. I opened an eye and looked at my little guy breathing deeply on the pillow in the ambient light from the outside streetlamp. He might look like a clown, but he was nobody’s door mat. I would have to think like him.
Just then, Stuart rolled onto his back and looked at me with his beautifully piercing eyes.
“Rub my belly,” he seemed to be asking me and so I did.
The thing was, I didn’t want to sound whiney with Donald, the way Jeff did with me at the end. That sort of pursuit would work against me. It was important to keep the tone of things on a more lighthearted and fun level. Maybe I could be more inventive about our sex together, move beyond the lacey props.
I finally realized that I wasn’t going to fall asleep again, no matter how long I lay in bed. So I got up and, with a mug of coffee and the correct amount of cream, pulled out my old The Joy of Sex. Skipping over the preachy don’t-shave-your-legs-girl text which, considering my rules, I thought best to ignore, I searched through the illustrations looking for some new ideas.
Even with the best of training, character and personality ultimately reflect origin. It’s hard to transcend basic nature. Scottish Terriers originated in the gray, rainy, moors of the Highlands and the best dogs, the dogs that were the foundation stock of the breed, were the ones that were adapted genetically to a rather bleak and rigorous existence. They needed to be tenacious, hardy and rough, not pampered lap dogs. Today, the best ones continue to exude power and keenness in a very compact package.
My planned breeding of Heather, who was now late coming into season, had come down to two potential stud dogs. One was Stuart. Also under consideration was a dog from another line, one to balance out Heather’s (and Stuart’s) slightly too short heads and slightly too long ears. Heather and Stuart were both products of in-line breeding and I was tempted to try something else. But the dog I had interest in for his looks was more high strung than Stuart and Heather both were, and so I was hesitant about the genetics of personality. I did not want my puppies to be too snippy. I leaned towards the prettier and more pugnacious dog, and had approached his owners, but, knowing that Stuart’s temperament was all around superior, I hadn’t made a final decision.
Meanwhile, Donald and I were doing whatever it was that we were doing, but there continued to be a vagueness about the whole thing. He continued to rely upon George as a reason not to stay overnight and I began to ignore warning signs that usually would have caused my ears to prick up: I never went to his apartment. I never met any of his friends, other than George, who had been brought around for another grooming by this time. But George didn’t have much to say and wasn’t any more glad to see me the second time around. It’s hard to get to know someone well when the only friend of theirs that you ever meet doesn’t like you, doesn’t have language capacity and can’t tell you funny stories about all of that someone’s historical quirks and foibles.
So there were a lot of question marks. But even though I had a strong desire to dig, there was an inner voice in my head that kept sharply shouting “No! No dig! Bad dog!” So I didn’t for a while. Instead, I continued to attempt to demonstrate the wonderful quality of my temperament, grooming and appearance and to train him to be responsive towards my attributes. And despite the fact that I really should have known better, I continue to believe that I had found someone near to perfect. Except for the parts that weren’t so perfect, all of that evasiveness that I tried to ignore.
I mean, what did I actually know about Donald? I knew more about my dogs and they couldn’t talk. I’d met more of their relatives. Come to think about it, I probably knew more about his dog than I knew about him. Whenever a politician is quoted in the media as having said something really stupid, he or she always complains that the quote was taken out of context. That context could really be important. I had no context for Donald, not home, not workplace, not parents nor friends (human). He was a photograph against a plain white wall and I was getting snarky and trying not to let it show.
Fundamental truths about character can reveal themselves in odd ways - the friend I thought gracious who then spoke rudely to a cleaning lady, the neighbor I would have sworn up and down was a yuppie narcissist, until I ran into him on the street after his weekly night volunteering at a soup kitchen, the seemingly dour and unmanageable Scottie who ended up as an adult with an obedience title.
One evening, I just decided. I was on my way to drop off Fiona’s stool sample at her vet. It looked like she might have hemorrhoids. Donald’s brownstone apartment was only three blocks from there and I conveniently was walking by when he came home from work.
“Surprise,” I said, as Fiona wagged her tail, oblivious of the impending disarray.
“What are you doing here?” He put down his briefcase on the stoop, but, I noticed, not before he glanced up at the parlor level windows.
“Oh, is that the one that’s your apartment?” I asked and turned around in time to see the soda woman from that first day in the park looking through the curtains. George then apparently jumped up onto something like an ottoman and looked through the curtains too, giving a sharp bark when he saw Donald. Fiona thought this was meant for her and necessitated a sharp yip in turn. The blond from the park moved further back.
Donald grimaced, then sat down on the stoop, looking beat. “So, what did you say you were doing here?”
I didn’t want to get into Fiona’s hemorrhoids with him. “Looking for context,” I replied.
He nodded and looked at his hands. Yeah, I knew those hands.
“So,” I asked, “is she your wife or something?”
He took awhile to answer. “It’s complicated,” was all that he could finally come up with.
“I guess that’s a ‘yes’.”
“It’s like, we’re together, we split up, we’re together again. It’s complicated,” he repeated. “Plus, she travels a lot too.”
“So,” the last thing I wanted to know was, “how many times did you split up and get back together in the last few months?”
When he finally looked at me, I noticed that his eyes weren’t as bright and attractive after all.
“Twice,” he answered and I got up, as Fiona quickly did too, and left, but not before I handed him the plastic bag with Fiona’s stool.
“I think you’d better get someone else to groom George,” was the last thing I said to him.
When I quickly glanced back a half a block later from across the street, he was still sitting on the stoop. I couldn’t tell any longer if he still had that startled look at my final gesture.
I continued to rotate my dogs on outings to the park, and I began to size up the dog owners again, but the kind of good presentation that I was looking for either wasn’t there or I wasn’t yet at a point where I could judge it. Meanwhile, I decided that Stuart would be the sire of Heather’s next litter of puppies and when she finally came into season, the mating went forward, with only a little bit of help on my part. The more I thought about it, the less I wanted to gamble with the possibility of aggressive puppies. And the more I thought about that, while I watched the litter grow, the more I began to think that I had been right in my decision about Heather. But, perhaps I had been looking at my own relationships in a distorted way.
“Behavioral therapy,” Amanda continued to prod. I continued to ignore any advice from her that I didn’t want to hear.
Heather was a really sweet mother. Stuart, bold and confident, a true Scottish Terrier, when the situation required it, was nevertheless also a really sweet guy. O.K., so the ears and heads probably wouldn’t be perfect. What was?
When the four puppies were out of the whelping box after four weeks and in the process of getting weaned from Heather, I began to cast longer and more wistful glances at the telephone. Sure, some of it was cabin fever, the overwhelming work and captivity of being a mother’s aide. But, some of it was also a re-evaluation. Maybe following some rules meant breaking others. Maybe men weren’t always directly comparable to dogs. I wasn’t sure, but I thought that I might have made a mistake.
At six weeks, when the puppies could be handled by strangers, I finally picked up the phone and dialed, but not before picking the idea apart for hours with Amanda.
“Better the devil or dog you know,” she had finally concluded, and I agreed.
“Jeff?” I began tentatively. “How would you like to see the new puppies?”
Copyright © Susan H. Case 2003. Title graphic: "In the Doghouse" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2003.