From the moment Cricket entered my life, we set on a stringent regimen of housetraining as prescribed by all the ‘how to properly raise a puppy’-type books, which I had researched thoroughly so as to train the world’s best dog. Unfortunately, Cricket hadn’t read the same books, which led to more than a few moments of angst in our first year.
According to the books, the key to properly training a puppy to use the grass instead of the carpet is to crate train them, creating their crate as their own personal space or den, which they will refuse to soil, and upon allowing them out of the crate, taking them immediately outside where they can do their business. Anytime they are outside of their crate they must be under constant supervision, and at the first sign of the need to expel waste, they are quickly run outside and then praised lavishly once they complete the job.
All well and good with the books, but nowhere in these books, their appendices, or their references, could I find a description of what to do when the dog is scared to death of the crate and refuses to enter. Given her background on the plane trip and the malodorous scent previously described, I can certainly understand Cricket’s reticence upon entering her crate. But I was not even remotely prepared for the ability of a six-pound puppy to avoid being stuffed into a crate by a physically fit 170-pound human. To say that it was impossible to place Cricket into her crate hardly begins to do the issue justice.
At the first sign that I might even glance at the crate, Cricket would run up the stairs at speeds breaking sound barriers as well as several FAA regulations and jump onto the king size bed, crawl under the covers, and sprawl herself somewhere under the covers of the bed. Getting her out from under the covers was no easy feat either, as a mighty small dog in a large bed hiding under a down comforter doesn’t make much of a bump to try to extract. Truly, the only way to efficiently extract the dog from the bed when she wanted to remain hidden involved stripping the bed of all sheets and blankets. Re-making a king-size bed, although not a difficult chore, is not something you want to repeat on a daily basis unless you have a personal penchant for linen layout. However, it can be done, and following five minutes of hunting through the bed, the dog could be removed.
The next step, however, actually placing said dog in said crate, proved a task beyond my physical and intellectual capabilities. Now, I’m not a brilliant man, but I do have a graduate degree in an engineering field and have even taught subjects encompassing the realm of plasma physics and computer chip fabrication at institutions of higher learning. Compared to placing Cricket in her crate, such endeavors were child’s play – figurative ‘cake,’ so to speak.
Getting back to the topic at hand, however, as Cricket was pushed closer and closer to the crate, much like the blowfish in the ocean, she could somehow expand herself to three times her normal size, splay her paws, tail, and head to exact positions of a six-sided star, and hold her posture with the strength of tempered steel, steadfastly refusing to be placed inside the crate. No amount of pushing, shoving, coaxing with treats, or pleading could convince Cricket that going into the box wouldn’t result in her being placed on an airplane for another 1600 mile trip, an experience it became quite obvious she had no intention of repeating. Ever.
Therein ends the attempt to housetrain Cricket using all the ‘book’ methods. As part of her obedience training, however, I happened to ask the dog trainer one day if she could provide some direction in how to best housetrain a dog that had no interest in ever seeing the inside of a crate again. Which led to the development of plan B – Cricket would be confined to the kitchen during the day (where she only in the rarest of circumstances had an accident), and I would set up a bell by the front door which I would use her paw to ring before we went out each time, hoping she would learn to ring it herself. Apparently bells are quite scary to eight-pound dogs, so the results were similar to those of the crate program.
Plan C, also developed by the dog trainer, required Cricket to remain tethered to me by four feet of leash at all other times, under constant supervision. It sounds like an easy enough plan, really. How much can a tiny puppy interfere with your life when tethered to you by a four-foot leash? Oh, the things I learned. Events as mundane as cooking dinner, running laundry downstairs, and even operating a computer incorporate an added spark as you try to also cope with a puppy dog whose entire mission in life is to lick and hug you.
Our first major setback with Plan C occurred in the early winter following several months of a very well behaved puppy dog. Having just gotten out of the shower, I had adorned my skivies when the phone began to ring. I put down the rest of my clothes and picked up the handset, sitting down on the bed to talk to my dear friend Ray as Cricket wandered around the bedspread. About five minutes into our conversation, however, I looked over to see Cricket crouch down and take a leak on the bedspread. I very rudely dropped the phone and scooped up Cricket, telling her bad dog in my best mean voice with a very upset face as I rushed her out the front door and into the area of the yard I had cleared of snow for her to do her business. It was precisely five feet from the front door that I realized I was still clad only in my underbritches. Which guaranteed that this was also the same moment my next-door neighbors pulled into their driveway along with another couple, having just returned from some dinner or movie-type gathering. Not knowing what else to do, and with my feet freezing to the ice on the driveway as Cricket played in the snow (having fully relieved herself on my king size goose down comforter, of course), I couldn’t think of anything else to do but attempt my most genuinely warming smile, wave a greeting to the neighbors, and act as natural as a mostly naked young man in the midst of winter can pull off, all the while supervising a dog in his front yard. It’s a very good think Cricket is a very cute and loving puppy dog.
Upon returning inside and bundling up inside a thick blanket, and after having a heart-to-heart talk with Cricket about the merits of relieving oneself in places other than on top of her master’s king size goose down comforter, and waiting until the master is dressed before having to go out, I heard a noise that sent chills down my spine. No! It couldn’t be! I heard laughter coming from the handset of the phone. Apparently I’d forgotten to hang up in my haste to get the dog outside. Thankfully, Ray is a kind and gentle soul, and with but a modest bribe, has to this day kept what he heard through that receiver to himself.
Once Cricket (and her crate, and the towel, and my shirt) were cleaned up, we began the process of acclimating ourselves to our new living situation. Cricket slept and shook for most of her first two days as she recovered from the shock of her plane trip. During this time we cuddled on the couch, read, and basically laid low, as Cricket was still scared, and I had picked up some sort of bug from the trip home from the airport and was fighting off a sore throat, pulsing headache, and sinus infection at the same time. It’s safe to say we were both miserable.
During these days I first became aware of one of the defining aspects of dear Cricket’s personality. She was, and is to this day, a scarfpuppy. Now for those not familiar with the term, a scarfpuppy is exactly what it sounds like. A puppy that thinks she’s a scarf. The most comfortable place in the world for Cricket, and Crickets are, as a rule, comfort-seeking creatures, was lying down across the neck of whomever would entertain such a gesture of love and macroscopic fur. Although it sounds quite awkward, it is actually a very cozy position for both Cricket and human, and hastened our bonding and my recovery.
My parents came to visit on Cricket’s second day in the house, coinciding with my graduation from graduate school. They arrived that morning, and after ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the puppy for a half hour or so, my mother’s frustration level began to show. For some reason unbeknownst to us to this day, Cricket had no desire to assume the ‘scarf’ position for my mother, who took it as a personal affront. My father, who was content to lie back in his chair and watch Sportscenter, couldn’t keep the miniature bundle of fur off his neck. Personally, I believe it had something to do with the perfume my mother was wearing, but she was truly offended.
Moving on, however, I took some Tylenol and off we went to my graduation ceremony (leaving our dear puppy in her crate so as to avoid any major clean-up work upon our return). The ceremony went well, but upon arriving home we were all rather tired, and looking forward to some lunch, a low-key afternoon, and perhaps even a nap on the couch with the Sunday paper.
As we walked back into the townhouse, we were amazed to find dog poo sitting at the back door. Amazed for two reasons – the first being that Cricket was locked in her crate, which is exactly where we found her. The second being, we had left Cricket’s crate at the front door, a good 40-plus feet from the back door, facing 90 degrees away from the back door. From her crate, there was no way she could have had a direct shot to the back door. Being a very detective-like family with roots in investigatorial reporting going back centuries, we determined that we must figure out how this had happened. Following a thorough examination of Cricket’s crate the fundamental events of the transgression became apparent – she had felt the urge to use the restroom in her crate, and upon completing her task, had managed to fling the pungent doggie feces out the caged door of the crate and around a 90-degree corner and 40-feet down the main hallway. What made the feat even more impressive, however, is that a close inspection of both the dog crate and her paws showed no evidence of there ever having been a mess in the crate or paw-to-poo contact. My father was extremely proud, stating that his son’s new dog had ‘skills.’ Thankfully, similar incidents were never repeated, but despite a variety of theories on the event, the Mystery of the Flinging Poo has never been definitively solved.
I’ve always been a dog person. I grew up with dogs. I like dogs. Most of them like me. But never in my wildest dreams was I prepared for the eight-pound agglomeration of love, sass, and eccentricity in the form of a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel that I so aptly named ‘Cricket.’
As early as I can remember, we had a dog in the house. I fondly picture the sunny days in suburban East Coast America as a toddler playing with the family’s golden retriever. Only later did I find out that my parents so trusted Joshua that they tied my little red wagon to his collar and allowed him to pull me around the block unsupervised without a worry in the world… how times have changed. Or maybe they just loved my twin brother more than me. No, truly, it must have been the former. Strangely, my folks have always been relatively adverse to being pinned down on an answer to that question.
As I entered my elementary school years in the northeast, we adopted a spaniel mix known affectionately (and appropriately) as ‘Trouble.’ Trouble was a vigorous young pup that had a secret mission from the day we took him home from the shelter – he was going to drive my mother insane. He might have been quite successful at it, had he not managed to sneak out of the house one afternoon and run away. We never did see him again, although I sleep soundly at night dreaming he embarked on a cross-country rabbit chasing expedition and to this day is happily living out his dreams of watching his grandpuppies chase various woodland creatures with the occasional trip into someone’s front yard to tear up their newspaper into tiny little pieces of doggy drool moistened pulp.
Then there was the chubby little Beagle mix with red spots on his belly we came to know as Freckles. Freckles wasn’t especially sharp, nor did he juggle or walk on his forepaws like the dogs at the circus, but he was the dog I most remember growing up with. From his days as a puppy decorating the upstairs with toilet paper to zipping around the yard ever-so-slightly out of reach of the recruited horde of neighbors assisting us in returning him to his leash, he was the archetypal family hound. He’d sit when asked, would lie down about half the time, and even served as first line household dishwasher, a job in which he took great pride, going so far as to become an expert in quietly devouring cauliflower under the table when provided by an over-vegetabled 13-year-old boy.
And there were more. My mother’s four-pound teacup poodle that loved to run the bases while Pop and the boys took batting practice at the neighborhood ball park, and absolutely loved bed-time, when he’d scamper downstairs into my brother’s room and curl up and wait for him to snuggle throughout the night.
Or Duh-Duh-Dale, who was a very sweet and comfortable dog, but also what a champion of political correctness might call mentally challenged. Not being a champion of political correctness personally, I’ll describe Dale as a bastion of idiocy. We all loved Dale – you really had to, he was a very happy dog, mostly because he wasn’t smart enough to know when not to be – but Darwin would have turned over in his grave had he learned Dale survived past the ripe old age of a few hours. Dale, for example, wasn’t quite bright enough to realize he had to open his mouth to eat. Really, please, take a moment to get the picture in your mind, and then take another moment to realize this description is, more or less, factual. With some assistance from a very patient household member to open his mouth and demonstrate how food entered the body, Dale managed to get by. But this was a daily ritual. Feel free, go ahead, take your time and picture it again, it’s worth a second look.
None of these experiences, however, prepared me for what was to come in the spring of 2003. Living alone in upstate New York, I’d pined for a dog of my own for years, but realized I didn’t have the time nor was my schedule conducive to keeping a canine companion. As the last weeks of night school waned, however, I saw an opening – soon I would be working and living a ‘normal’ 8-5 schedule, and with a little help from my young neighborhood friend Mike, who entered my employ as a dog walker each afternoon, I could finally adopt a puppy.
This realization sparked an exhaustive search for the right breeder. Throughout my years of puppy pining, I had already decided on what breed I wanted if circumstances would allow. Living in a townhouse by myself without a fenced yard, a small dog would be most appropriate. I also wanted a dog that was relatively quiet, medium energy, and wouldn’t tear the house apart when I couldn’t be home. My research led me to the Cavalier King Charles Spaniel breed — the sweetest, prettiest dogs I’d ever seen. For those not familiar with the breed, however, they are quite hard to find and not at all easy on the wallet. I saved for months and found a breeder I connected with who answered all my questions and came with recommendations from previous customers.
The breeder, who lived in the central United States, sent me pictures of several puppies and described their personalities. I immediately fell in love with one, though – she was on the smallish side but every picture the breeder sent showed her either squirming through cupped hands or pouncing on the breeder’s German shepherd – she was a true trouble causer, which meshed perfectly with my personality. I sent my deposit so that Cricket would be well kept until she was old enough to begin her new life with me.
Following further arrangements, another check, and many household preparations, the day for Cricket to make her journey from Missouri to New York finally arrived. I could hardly contain my excitement or anxiety. She was flying on a major airline, leaving her home early in the morning and arriving, following two connections, at my local airport at 4 p.m. on Friday afternoon. I must have checked her flight status on each leg of the journey 10 times throughout the day, finally leaving work early in order to meet up with my friend Melissa who would drive while I comforted my new puppy on our trip from the airport back to the townhouse.
When Melissa and I arrived at the airport, we immediately ran to the airline customer service counter to await the new arrival. We waited nervously for 20 minutes after the plane arrived, hardly containing our excitement before we spied the airport clerk returning to the customer service booth. She was carrying an animal crate with large red “priority post” stickers on it. For some reason both Melissa and I found this extremely amusing – my new puppy was traveling priority post.
As the clerk neared, we smelled Cricket well before we saw her. Now, I’m no shirker when it comes to items that are something less than olfactory nirvana — I’ve changed my share of diapers, scraped the occasional dead animal off the road, survived a year with a roommate in a college dorm — but nothing could prepare a human being for this. With gritted teeth I leaned down to look in the crate and saw only a tiny five-pound ball of white, black, and brown fur shaking in the corner. Poor little smelly puppy. I immediately wanted to comfort her, and coaxed/pulled her out of her crate and wrapped her in an old towel brought especially for the occasion. Then arose the true test of a man’s heart. Could I pull this puppy in close to my heart and face to comfort her, knowing full well that every inch I pulled her closer would lead to an order of magnitude increase in the power of that malodorous stench? The good Lord provided some measure of assistance, as I believe dear Cricket’s current state of putridity must have killed most of my olfactory nerves, and as the dog neared my face, the level of difficulty inherent in hugging this beautiful, innocent, sweet, scared bundle of reeking spaniel dropped into the realm of achievements surmountable by mere mortal men. My nerve held as, thankfully, did the towel, and we began our bonding process right there in the airport.
The drive home was somewhat anticlimactic, although we did get more than a few strange looks from other drivers. Melissa drove while I held Cricket in the passenger seat, wrapped securely in her warm towel. Although the drive from the airport to my house was less than 20 minutes at a leisurely pace, after 30 seconds in the car it became apparent to both Melissa and I that absolutely every window in the car would have to be open if we were to reach our destination without losing consciousness. The complications arose, however, when one realizes that upstate New York in late April is in general both cold and wet. This particular day combined the thrill and excitement of a light downpour with temperatures that would have made a wooly mammoth dream of a Daytona vacation.
We survived our trip home, but we’d turned the newly adopted smelly puppy into a soaking wet pupsicle. Melissa and I weren’t much better off. Following two consecutive baths (of the puppy), we all warmed up around the fire, neither Cricket nor I quite sure what to make of each other. Our lives together were off to an auspicious start.