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One Nation under Dog: Adventures in the New World of Prozac-Popping Puppies, Dog-Park Politics, and Organic Pet Foodby Michael Schaffer
From Doghouse to Our House
By the time we finally saw Murphy, wed driven the two hours of highway from our house in Philadelphia to what felt like the last rural place in all of New Jersey. Wed nosed through the townover a pair of railroad tracks, past a warehouse, down a short road. And wed gingerly tiptoed past the chain-link fence that held Boss, the massive Saint Bernard at the shotgun-style home opposite the towns small-scale animal shelter. My wife spotted him first, an oddly undersized example of the same breed running around the muddy melting snow in the kennels yard: "Its Murphy!" she exclaimed.
Wed spotted the pup a few days earlier on Petfinder, the Web site that lets prospective adopters eye hundreds of thousands of potential adoptees from shelters all over the United States. For a long time, wed visited the site as a diversion, a way to kill time at work staring at snapshots of wet noses and wagging tails and drooling jowls. Wed e-mail links back and forth, each of them attached to a heartbreaking story of how this particular dog was a sweetheart who really needed a place in some familys happy home. Eventually, we got to thinking that it was about time we became that happy family.
And then we stumbled across the page that featured Murphy, his tongue drooping, his watery eyes staring cluelessly from inside a cage that turned out to be only two hours away. When we arrived that morning, wed been talking about him long enough to feel like he was already part of our household. The woman who ran the shelter mashed a 100-length cigarette into an old tin of dog food as she led him over. As they got close enough for us to see the matted dreadlocks on Murphys back, Boss began growling. "Dont mind him," the woman said, as the guard dogs growls turned to angry barks. "Boss dont like other dogs."
Murphy, though, was another story. He was sweet and cuddly and goofy, exactly as wed wanted. Of course, we tried to stay skeptical. Knowing little about dogs when we started thinking about getting one, wed searched for wisdom in a book on how to adopt an animal. Dont let those heartbreaking shelter stories trick you into getting an animal you cant handle, it warned. Put them through the paces now, or suffer later. So in the ensuing half hour, we tried the books suggested tests as best we could. We put food in front of him and then snatched it away. No growling. A good sign. We put more food in front of him and then pushed his face away as he ate. No nipping. An even better sign. The shelter manager gazed with dismay at this spectacle of anxious yuppiehood: one of us reading reverently from the book, the other vaguely executing its tests on the befuddled dog, neither of us quite sure what to do next.
Following the books instructions as if they were holy writ, we asked how Murphy had wound up in the shelterand then steeled ourselves against what wed been warned would be a maudlin spiel designed to undercut doubts about a potentially troublesome pooch. The dog, we were told, had been brought to her kennel twice. First he was turned in by someone who the manager suspected hadnt been able to unload this especially runty runt of his litter: Murphy was eighteen months old and 63 pounds at the time; ordinary male Saint Bernards can weigh in at 180. Next he was returned by a woman who couldnt housebreak him.
"But she was some kind of backcountry hick," said the shelter manager. "She didnt even know what she was doing." Ever since, Murphy had been waiting in a cage next to Bosss yard, staring up at people like us. "Look," she said. "I dont much care about you, but I do care about him. And if he goes and bites someone, someone like you will put him down, right? Since I dont want that to happen, Im telling you: He dont bite."
The logic was pretty good.
The dog was pretty sweet.
The time was pretty right.
And so we said yes, signing some not quite official-looking paperworkthe adoption document identified the dog as "Murfy"before forking over one hundred dollars and agreeing to take into our lives a Saint Bernard with fleas and dreadlocks and a stench somewhere between warm bunion and rotten tripe. The shelter manager whipped out a syringe, planted what was purported to be a kennel cough shot into Murfy/Murphys snout, and wished us well. We coaxed the dog into the backseat of our Honda, where he promptly fell fast asleep.
As we began the drive home, we felt a bit proud of ourselves. Not for us the fancy breeders sought out by so many in our sweetly gentrified corner of upscale America. Not for us the genetically perfect beagles and bassets and Bernese mountain dogs whose poop is sanctimoniously plucked from city sidewalks in recycled blue New York Times home-delivery bags. Wed gotten a dog, yeah, but we werent going to become, like, those peoplethe ones who shell out for the spa days and agility training and homeopathic medicine for their animals, the ones who laugh it off when their puppies frighten children away from the neighborhood playground, the ones who give up vacations and promotions and transfers in order to save pooches with names like Sonoma and Hamilton and Mordecai from having their lives disrupted. No, not us.
Thats what we were telling ourselves, anyway, when the PetSmart came into view along the edge of the highway. "We should go inget some food and stuff," said my wife. "Itll just take a sec." Thus began our unwitting journey into the $41-billion-a-year world of the modern American pet.
It didnt take long to realize that the line between sober pet owner and spendthrift overindulger wasnt as clear as Id imagined.
I started thinking about that very subject an hour or so after Murphy nosed his way into the PetSmartat around the time the exhausted-looking staff at the in-store grooming salon told us there was no way they could attend to our filthy new pet today; we ought to have made reservations a couple of weeks in advance. My wife, whod grown up with a dog and had roughed out a budget when we started thinking about adopting one of our own, hadnt been aware that salon grooming was such a standard piece of contemporary pet owning that chain stores had weeks-long waiting lists. Still, without having to shell out for a wash, we made it out of the store that day for under $200. Murphy had a new bed, a pair of collars, an extend-o-leash that expands up to twenty-five feet, a variety of chew toysthat hes never usedand other goodies. The spending seemed like basic, ordinary stuff.
But as anyone whos read one of the dog-owner memoirs that seem to occupy about half of the weekly New York Times best-seller list could confirm, it was no onetime expense. Its a basic law of pet storytelling: Just as the romantic comedy vixen must wind up with the guy shed vowed not to marry if he were the last man on earth, so too must the beloved dog stomp and scratch and poop on your very last nerveand chow down on your shrinking walletbefore weaseling his way into your newly receptive heart. No surprise, then, that four years later Murphy has gone through a variety of ever newer beds (he seemed not to like the old ones) and redesigned collars and leashes (we wanted to try the special ones that are said to keep dogs from pulling too hard) and still more chew toys (we have a PetSmart discount card now and live in the eternal hope of finding one he likes). He also owns Halloween costumes (too adorable to resist), reindeer antlers (ditto), and a picture of himself with
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