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.