I've given friends a lot of reasons for why my family got a dog, and they are all absolutely true: We wanted to be the kind of parents who get their kids a dog. I had a dog when I was a kid. WE COULD ALL DIE TOMORROW!
But there is another truth, a deeper truth, that I haven't told a single living soul: I thought that the dog would cure my son's Crohn's Disease.
The dog is not a doctor, I know that, but still, I thought he would.
Stranger things have definitely happened, for instance, on Lifetime TV. As far as I know, there has not yet been a biopic entitled The Crohn's Miracle or No Crohn's for Christmas or, more aptly, The Eight Days of Crohn's, but when and if there ever is, it will tell a story like this one: A 9-year-old boy has unexplained abdominal cramping accompanied by frequent pooping. This goes on for some months as the pediatrician keeps insisting the child will be cured by a diet of bland foods. The child grows pale and loses weight, and the parents take him to a specialist who diagnoses him with an inflammatory autoimmune disease that stretches the length of his entire digestive tract. What this means is his immune system is constantly attacking him, despite him not doing anything to provoke it, like calling it bad names or poking it with a stick. What follows are years of medications and therapies and colonoscopies, terrible pain, and the ever looming threat of hospitalizations and surgery, relieved only by occasional, blissful periods of remission.
At the end of the story, the boy is cured. Maybe by a dog.
Look, I didn't actually think the dog would cure my son's Crohn's. That is, I didn't think it rationally, with my brain. More like I muttered it somewhere deep inside my body, like in my thigh bone or in the fat of my ass, neither of which has any medical training.
But dogs! Dogs are said to have palliative abilities. There have been studies. They lower blood pressure in the elderly, they anticipate seizures in epileptics. They relieve loneliness and despair. They calm troubled teenagers and reform violent criminals. People who have pets live longer. As far as I know, there have been no studies linking dog ownership to a cure for Crohn's.
The year before we got the dog was a tough one. A few friends died abruptly, shockingly, and Crohn's was having a field day with our boy, then 14. We figured there was no time like the present. To do what? Oh, lots of things, like counting our blessings and adventure travel. But the thing that popped into our heads first was this gem: Get the kids a dog. They wanted one badly. What kids don't? Mine said things to me like, "YOU'LL never get us a dog!" as though they were resigned to the fact that I, their mother, not only didn't care enough but didn't even have it in me to satisfy their greatest desire. They didn't say this to their father.
This is pretty much the same way I ended up with a dog when I was a child. I'd begged my parents for a dog every birthday and Hanukah from the time I was four. Tears were shed. Then, the summer I turned 10, they suddenly announced that a new dog was on the docket for the fall. Why? Well, recently, my mother told me that it was because I had been getting brutal headaches preceded by blurry vision and nausea, and they didn't know if the headaches were stress related or if the situation was more like Cindy's Last Hanukah Wish.
I was diagnosed with migraine headaches and I still get them, so clearly that dog was not a magical doctor dog. But then, I'm still alive, so maybe he was.
I set off in search of the dog who was going to save my child. I looked at pictures on the internet of different breeds and read about their temperaments on the American Kennel Club website, on blogs, and on owner forums. I thought the dog should be affectionate but not slavish, playful and smart, and should be on the medium-small side. I was, of course, describing myself.
Based on my research, there was one dog and only one dog for our family — the ancient, noble, and hypo-allergenic Welsh Terrier. Welsh Terriers are intelligent, spirited, alert, and friendly (me), and also rugged and courageous (not so much).
This is the point in the story when dog people feel the hair on the back of their necks prick up. Welsh Terriers also possess a stubborn streak (me), can be independent to the point of diffidence (me), and are given to excessive barking (yes). Welsh Terrier, they're thinking, are you sure?
Oh, I was sure. You see, there was a dog once. The memory of him was there, in the back of my mind, from the very beginning. His name was Aberdare. He wasn't mine. Aberdare was a Welsh Terrier named for a faraway mountain range in Kenya. So romantic, so wild! Kenya! My husband and I met Aberdare at a lake house in Wisconsin and we were completely taken with him. We followed him around the property, trying to get him to like us. He did not. Naturally, this inflamed our desire and so we stalked him for the duration of our stay.
I've had boyfriends like this.
Inspired by fond memories of Aberdare's indifference, I contacted a well respected breeder of Welsh Terriers and put a hold on a puppy from an upcoming litter.
We drove to Virginia to get him. It's where he was born and where I hoped he was finishing up a PhD in biomedical research. We named him Otis, after the lounge act Otis Day and the Nights from the movie Animal House, mostly so my husband could say, "Otis, my man," all the time. The dog would have been better named for the John Belushi character, Bluto Blutarsky, who was often hilarious and adorable but also sometimes weirdly aggressive, starting food fights and smashing the sensitive guy's guitar at the frat party. Like Bluto, Otis was funny and endearing — he looked like a cross between a stuffed animal dog and a stuffed animal bear — but he was also nippy and barky, particularly at anything that was, let's say, in his field of vision, like our arms and legs, small children in the park on or off of scooters, and my parents. The kids struggled to love him, often wondering aloud what had led me to pick this particular breed as opposed to a nice breed.
All kids really want is a dog they can love who will love them back and maybe learn to catch a Frisbee. Or make them feel a little less lonely. In that sense, I totally blew it. I got them a dog that does not have a job with the National Health Institute or even an internship with Pfizer, and he's a jerk. On the other hand, maybe I got the exact right dog. The one meant to show me just how ill-conceived my scheme was and that I am powerless to protect my children, to cure them, to make the bad stuff go away.
But, as they say, time is a winged something, and having trained Otis like a Marine for the past year and a half, he is holding steady at about five percent jerk. He plays fetch and tug of war and can catch a tennis ball in his mouth. I believe he loves us as much as he is capable of loving anyone or anything, other than dried chicken jerky, the rubber mat under the living room rug, a petrified mouse which he once found after the snow melted in Central Park, unwashed underwear, and the crunchy sound of pens breaking in his mouth. And some nights, while our son does his homework, Otis wanders into his room and curls up on his bean bag chair.
So, here's how the story really ends: I love him. I do.
I love him because I have to get up in the morning and walk him instead of crawling back under the covers after the kids go to school. I love him because when I walk him, I can't think about anything else. I have one job, and that is to make sure he doesn't lunge at a someone he thinks is giving him the stink eye. I love him because we do not share genetic material, and when he gets sick, it won't literally be my fault. I love him because he lets me hug him despite the new research that dogs hate this. I love that he comes up to me and touches my calf with his nose and then goes away. I love that neither of us overthink that. I love that when he sleeps on his side, he looks like a perfect half a dog, and that amuses me. I'm pretty sure he thinks I'm funny, too. We are left most days to wallow together in our mutual failure. Correction: my failure. Otis feels fine about all this.
If nothing else, I ended up with the dog I need. Which is a good thing, because two months ago, our 13-year-old daughter, too, was diagnosed with Crohn's Disease.
I couldn't help myself. I wondered if Otis could cure her.
"Give the dog another shot at it," a voice somewhere within me said.
"You never know. Bluto Blutarsky ended up a state senator."
So he did.