The Puppy Diaries: Raising a Dog Named Scoutby Jill Abramson
An instructive and marvelously entertaining chronicle of a puppy's first year, by the managing editor of The New York Times
One sparkling summer day, Jill Abramson brought home a nine-week-old golden retriever named Scout. Over the following year, as she and her husband raised their adorable new puppy, Abramson wrote a hugely popular column/i>/b>/i>… See more details below
An instructive and marvelously entertaining chronicle of a puppy's first year, by the managing editor of The New York Times
One sparkling summer day, Jill Abramson brought home a nine-week-old golden retriever named Scout. Over the following year, as she and her husband raised their adorable new puppy, Abramson wrote a hugely popular column for The New York Times's website about the joys and challenges of training this rambunctious addition to their family. Dog-lovers from across the country inundated her with e-mails and letters, and the photos they sent in of their own dogs became the most visited photo album on the Times's site in 2009.
Now Abramson has gone far beyond the material in her column and written a detailed and deeply personal account of Scout's first year. Part memoir, part manual, part investigative report, The Puppy Diaries continues Abramson's intrepid reporting on all things canine. Along the way, she weighs in on such issues as breeders or shelters, adoption or rescue, raw diet or vegan, pack-leader gurus like Cesar Millan or positive-reinforcement advocates like Karen Pryor.
What should you expect when a new puppy enters your life? With utterly winning stories and a wealth of practical information, The Puppy Diaries provides an essential road map for navigating the first year of your dog's life.
The New York Times
The New York Times Book Review
- Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.80(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.10(d)
Read an Excerpt
The truth about getting a new dog is that it makes you miss the old one.
This reality hit me hard one spring day in 2009 when we arrived at Thistledown Golden Retrievers, near Boston, where my husband, Henry, and I had come to meet Donna Cutler, a breeder of English golden retrievers. Because it was named Thistledown, and because I knew that the golden retriever breed was started by someone actually named Lord Tweed-mouth, I was expecting the place to look like a country manor.
Instead, we parked in front of a plain suburban ranch, and the only hint of the litter of the seven-week-old puppies we had been invited to inspect—though we knew it was really us who had to pass muster with the breeder—was a sign on the front door that showed two golden retrievers and said wipe your paws. Why did I suddenly feel like wiping my eyes?
My heart was still hurting over the loss of Buddy, our stone-deaf, feisty-to-the-end West Highland white terrier, who had died in March 2007 at age fourteen. Our two children, Cornelia and Will, who grew up with him but flew the nest years before his demise, often mused that Buddy was my one perfect relationship in life.
Buddy, like me, was a self-sufficient type, and despite his small size he was no lap dog. Like many Westies, he was woefully stubborn and never once came when called. He could be unpredictable and grouchy around small children and once bit my goddaughter’s upper lip. He wasn’t great with old people, either; years later, he bit the leg of an elderly woman who, for some inexplicable reason, was standing barefoot and dressed in her nightgown in our elevator when the doors opened on our floor. (Happily, that incident triggered an unlikely friendship between Eve, Buddy’s victim, and me.) Nonetheless, I was madly in love and forgave Buddy all his sins. I learned a lot from him, too; among other things, he taught me that even in stressful situations dogs have a unique way of steering you in unlikely and interesting directions.
I confess that I spoiled Buddy beyond all reason. House guests often awoke to the aroma of grilled chicken with a dusting of rosemary, which I liked to give him for breakfast. Henry would sometimes note, without rancor, that when I took business trips and called home, my first question was always “How’s Buddy?”
Long after Cornelia and Will began to wriggle out of my embraces and find my made-up games annoying, Buddy was always happy to have me scratch his pink belly and play tug-of-war. While my children filled their lives with school, scouting, and sports—and, later, college, work, and love—Buddy remained my steadfast companion.
When Buddy was a puppy, we lived in Virginia, and together he and I would amble around our neighborhood for miles, discovering new side streets with interesting houses. Someone always stopped to admire him, which is how I met a lot of my neighbors. During our walks I was also able to let go of some of the pressure of my job as an investigative reporter, back then for the Wall Street Journal. Sometimes, with my mind wandering free as I pulled the leash this way and that, I would come up with a great story idea or reporting angle on the Washington scandals that were my frequent reporting targets. Buddy, steadfast and true, was my loyal coconspirator.
I once experienced a rare eureka moment while on a walk with Buddy. I had recently left the Journal and gone to work in the Washington bureau of the New York Times, where I was on the team of reporters covering the Monica Lewinsky scandal. One day in late 1998, as Buddy and I strolled up Second Street South in Arlington, I realized that one of the people I had encountered in a document the previous night was familiar to me; he was a prominent conservative lawyer in New York. Why his name surfaced in my brain during a walk with Buddy the next morning is anyone’s guess, but when Buddy and I got home, I took out the documents I had been reviewing and found that this lawyer was mentioned repeatedly. That discovery led to a front-page story about how a cabal of conservative lawyers had secretly worked on the sexual harassment case that triggered impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. Buddy, my silent partner, deserved to share the byline on that story.
Although inde pendent and often fierce, Buddy was always happy to see me. When my children were in their late teens, I couldn’t help but notice that he, unlike Cornelia and Will, was never sullen and didn’t ask to borrow the car. And when I became the Times’s Washington bureau chief, I noted that unlike the reporters who worked for me, Buddy was unfailingly delighted whenever I came up with what I thought was an inspired idea.
Buddy, you see, was my first dog, and I had fallen hard. Perhaps this new relationship was so intense partly because it wasn’t based on words, unlike the rest of my personal and professional life. I spent so much of my day talking, reading, and writing that it was both a relief and a joy to spend time with Buddy. Except for a few simple commands, our conversation consisted entirely of my silly cooings and his appreciative grunts.
My older sister, Jane, has often observed that what she found most surprising about me was my late-in-life transformation into a dog lover. “You were a wonderful parent,” she once told me, “but I’ve never seen you so affectionate or expressive with anyone the way you are with this dog.” It was true. At work, where some of my colleagues and sources said they found my tough-girl investigative journalist persona intimidating, I was constantly pulling out the latest snapshots of Buddy and telling everyone my latest dog stories. Buddy was more than my coconspirator; he also seemed to certify me as a nicer person.
It wasn’t just Buddy. I also adored Arrow, my sister’s Jack Russell mix, who greeted me with ecstasy at her door. Arrow and I formed a special bond when I moved from Washington to New York in 2003 to become the Times’s managing editor. Henry—who worked at a Washington, D.C., think tank and was in the pro cess of becoming a consultant in New York—and Buddy weren’t able to join me in Manhattan right away, so I lived for a couple of weeks with Jane; her husband, Jim; and Arrow. My love aff air with Arrow was kindled during this period by the doggy bags I often brought home from the swanky restaurants where I had business dinners. Arrow, I recall, was especially fond of the grilled liver and bacon from an Italian place called Elio’s.
I grew up in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Our parents allowed Jane and me to have turtles, fish, parakeets, and even a hamster, who outlived all our other pets. (During the famous blackout of 1965, I spent hours funneling water into a tropical fish tank to provide enough oxygen to save a pregnant fantail guppy and her impending brood.) But my parents drew the line at a dog. “The city is not a good place to raise a puppy,” my mother told us. Despite our pleas, and even though we lived across from Central Park, she was unyielding.
Buddy arrived in 1992, when Henry and I were in our late thirties and our kids were nine and seven. That was also the year my father died, so Buddy was especially welcome. Cornelia and Will told the usual children’s fib about getting a pet: they assured me that they would faithfully feed and walk this adorable addition to our family. It didn’t work out that way, of course, so I took care of Buddy, training him, feeding him, and singing him to sleep in his tiny crate. I didn’t mind, though; having new life in our house was a tonic for my grief over the loss of my dad.
Our setup in those days was perfect for an active puppy. We lived in an unfashionable corner of Arlington, Virginia, in a sturdy bungalow ordered out of the 1928 Sears catalog. The house came with a large fenced yard, and since Buddy had a little dog door he could come and go as he pleased. His purpose in life became patrolling our patch of lawn and protecting us from a host of imagined intruders. He also learned to open our mail slot; every day, he would wait inside for the mailman to arrive and then race onto our porch to retrieve the day’s post. When it snowed, Buddy would often disappear under the white mounds in our yard and then tunnel and burrow to his heart’s content. I especially loved to walk him when the snow was crunchy under my boots—amazingly, Buddy made me look forward to winter.
Buddy was already eleven when we arrived in Manhattan, and I worried that the move might kill him. We sublet a loft downtown, in Tribeca, but happily Buddy loved all the action in his new neighborhood, including the smells of so many other dogs and the fishy sidewalk outside a high-end Japanese restaurant called Nobu.
Once Henry and I settled into our own place in the same neighborhood, I hired a dog walker named Carlos, who took Buddy for a walk each afternoon. Once, when I forgot to bring some papers to work, I returned home to retrieve them and bumped into Carlos on the street walking Buddy in a pack with three other dogs. Buddy hadn’t socialized much with other dogs during his yard-patrolling years, but now he seemed perfectly at ease with his cool city friends. When he saw me that day, he regarded me with a dismissive “What are you doing here?” look.
Before going to work, I often took Buddy to a dog run near the Hudson River where he bonded with a Scottie about his size. They looked like an advertisement for scotch when they romped together, and I enjoyed chatting with the other owners, who sat on benches and loved arguing with me about the theater, movie, and dining reviews in the Times. These mornings reminded me of the years when my kids were toddlers and I made a number of good friends while sitting on benches in the playground, talking about everything from biodegradable diapers to our marriages.
One day when I took Buddy for a checkup to the veterinarian in Tribeca, I encountered a woman with two Westies. The woman was wearing a pair of plaid socks emblazoned with Westies. “I have the same pair,” I told her. She laughed and then looked at Buddy. “How old is your Westie?” she asked. When I told her Buddy was thirteen, she said, “Oh, we have an eighteenyear-old.” Since the two dogs accompanying her were obviously much younger, I asked where the older one was. “He lives in a hospice nearby, and we visit him almost every day,” she replied. I was stunned, never having imagined the existence of live-in, end-of-life care for dogs. This encounter marked the beginning of my fascination with the rarefied world of Manhattan dog owners, some of whom seek out dog hospices—not to mention dog massage therapists and dog shrinks who dispense antianxiety medications.
Henry and I were also startled to discover that everything having to do with dogs is so much more expensive in Manhattan than in Arlington. Although we live in an old, unrenovated building that used to be a spice warehouse and has no doorman, Tribeca is one of Manhattan’s most expensive neighborhoods, full of Wall Street brokers who earn fat salaries and big bonuses. Signs reading luxury lofts for sale are everywhere, with luxury being code for apartments that sell for two million dollars or more. A rubber ball I purchased at the local “pet boutique” cost six dollars. True, I splurged on a dog walker, but other dog owners in our neighborhood spent even more to send their pups to the Wagging Tail, a doggy day-care center on Greenwich Street.
By the time Buddy turned fourteen, he had lost his hearing, but he was still a hardy boy. In the winter of 2007, though, he developed a persis tent cough. “I think it may be his heart,” said Cornelia, who was then in her second year of medical school at Columbia. One weekend, he had what seemed like a small stroke: he was temporarily confused but snapped back to his old self pretty quickly. Then, in late February, while Cornelia and I were walking him one eve ning, he collapsed on the sidewalk. I carried him as we raced to the vet, who told us to take him to an animal hospital on lower Fifth Avenue. After he was given some oxygen, he seemed to stabilize. We were advised to leave him overnight, and I became tearful when we were ushered in to say good night and I saw him lying in a little cage, looking so vulnerable.
At 3 a.m. the telephone rang. It was the vet: Buddy was in full congestive heart failure. “He’s having a terrible time breathing and he seems to be in pain,” the on-duty vet reported. “I think we should put him down.” Cornelia grabbed the phone and said we would be there in just a few minutes.
Henry, Cornelia, and I dashed out of our apartment, almost forgetting our coats in our hurry, and hailed a cab. When we arrived at the animal hospital, Buddy was lying on his side on a gurney, his back heaving up and down, a tiny oxygen mask on his face. We asked a barrage of questions and tried our best to convince ourselves that Buddy could recover, but it was clear there was no hope. As the medical technician prepared the lethal injection, Henry and I couldn’t bear to watch, despite the counsel of friends who said that it was comforting to be present when a dog’s life came to a peaceful end. Cornelia, in doctor mode, stayed with Buddy to the last.
When we returned to our loft, I felt the silence envelope me. It was heartbreaking; I had become so accustomed to hearing Buddy’s metal tags jangle as he walked from room to room. To my ear, that was the music of loyal companionship.
After Buddy died, I was disconsolate. It wasn’t simply that I missed the unconditional love or the ecstatic
greeting each time I walked in the door, even if I’d been gone for only a few minutes to take the garbage to the basement. I missed everything about our routine, from feeding him grilled chicken to our late-night strolls along the windy riverside. And I assiduously avoided walks that took me anywhere near the dog run.
Most people pushed Henry and me to get another dog right away. But as the weeks passed, I grew accustomed to some aspects of a dogless life. With no dog to walk, I could not only catch up on what ever I hadn’t read the previous day in the Times, but also scan the Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, and a number of Web sites and political blogs—all before work. I got an iPhone and quickly became a master of distracted living, a lifestyle not well suited to the focused playing and training a puppy needs. I filled my digital nest with Facebook friends, including rediscovered distant relatives and former high school classmates. Henry and I often spent weekends in the Connecticut town where he grew up—we had purchased an old farmhouse there in the late 1990s—and now we could go to the beach all day or stay out late without worrying about getting home to let the dog out.
Before long, I had almost convinced myself that my mother was right: the city is probably a bad place for a pup, even one that can live part-time in the country. My days as a dog owner seemed to be over.
Two months after Buddy died, life took another terrible turn. On the morning of May 7, 2007, while walking from my office to a nearby gym, I was struck by a large white truck at West Forty-fourth Street and Seventh Avenue in Times Square. Having grown up in the city, I considered myself an expert navigator of Manhattan’s busy streets. Like most New Yorkers, I had had a couple of alarming experiences when a taxi almost clipped me as I stood on a corner or a bicycle messenger whizzed by so close that he touched my jacket. But I walked everywhere in the city and never gave its hazards a second thought.
Now, as I was crossing Seventh Avenue, a huge refrigerated truck making a right turn came barreling straight at me. The truck’s right front wheel smashed my right foot and I was dragged to the ground. The truck’s rear wheel rolled over my left thigh and snapped the femur. Luckily, other pedestrians stopped to help me. As I lay bleeding in the street, I was conscious but in terrible pain. While some passersby got a policeman to call an ambulance, others chased down and stopped the truck. When the ambulance arrived, paramedics told me I would be taken to Bellevue Hospital, the city’s famous trauma center.
I spent the next three weeks in the hospital. Besides my leg and foot injuries, I had broken my pelvis and sustained significant internal injuries. One of the doctors told me that if the truck’s rear wheel had struck my left thigh just two inches higher, I would have been killed. After surgeons operated on my leg and inserted a titanium rod, I was told that I would have to spend six weeks in bed and then learn to walk again.
As I began my recovery in Bellevue, I learned to move from bed to wheelchair by using only my arms and upper body. Soon I started an intensive course of physical therapy; working side by side with patients who had sustained terrible head injuries, I realized how lucky I was. The nurses on the front lines of my care were always adroit and warm. I remember that the first time I had to move from my bed to a wheelchair, my nurse Angela told me to clasp my arms tightly around her neck as she carried my entire weight. “Dance with me, baby,” she joked, as she supported my limp body.
Once home, a skilled physical therapist named Pearl visited me three times a week. I was like a baby again, but Pearl taught me how to progress from crawling to walking, first by using crutches and then, finally, a cane. Feeling so helpless was very hard for me, and I became easily frustrated when I couldn’t do simple tasks, such as putting clean dishes away in the kitchen.
I missed Buddy terribly during this difficult time—it would have been such a comfort to have him by my side. The climb to get back on my feet was hard, and three months after the accident I still walked unsteadily. But the human body, even in middle age, is remarkably resilient, and my years of dog walking and gym workouts helped the bone grow back over the rod in my leg relatively quickly. Slowly, my physical mobility returned.
Just as I was returning to something approximating normal, a depression descended and seemed to smother me like a hot blanket. I had never experienced anything like it and was somewhat reassured when I learned that an episode of depression is fairly common after a traumatic injury. Fortunately, I was able to get some good counseling from a therapist. During one session, my therapist told me that when I talked about Buddy my whole face lit up. “Maybe you should think about getting another dog,” she gently suggested.
Henry, the kids, and Jane Mayer—my best friend and fellow dog nut—promptly launched a massive cheer-up campaign. Their collective diagnosis was a severe case of midlife blues: in the past few years I had turned fifty, seen my grown-up children leave our nest, and lost my beloved Buddy. Now, as I struggled to recover from the accident and my depression, they were certain that what I needed above all else was a new dog.
Over the years, Jane and I had enjoyed many capers, both professional and personal. We had cowritten a best-selling book about Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, a project that involved some of the most challenging reporting of our careers. This undertaking did have its lighter moments, however; in one instance, our investigation required that we watch X-rated videos featuring a porn star named Bad Mama Jama, and they were so ridiculous and boring that we both fell asleep on my living room couch. A couple of years earlier, we had rescued Jane’s lovable yellow Lab, Peaches, from the clutches of a very bad boyfriend who had insisted on keeping Peaches after he and Jane split up. One hot Friday, as I was planning a drive to New England for a summer vacation with the kids and Buddy, Jane enlisted my help in a plot to kidnap Peaches. That afternoon, while the boyfriend was still at work, we pulled up to his house in my creaky green minivan. Jane was so tiny that she had no trouble sneaking into the house through the dog door. In a flash, she emerged through the front door with Peaches, who clambered into the minivan next to Buddy as I stepped on the gas and we sped away.
Now, as part of a relentless campaign to lift my spirits, Jane sent me pictures of a pair of elder ly basset hound sisters who needed a home. She suggested that we each take one, but I put her off, arguing that these good old girls should not be torn asunder. Cornelia weighed in by announcing that we should think about names for a new dog, and she regularly e-mailed me with ideas such as Cosmo, Sugar, and Pamplona. Will, not to be outdone, sent me links to impossibly cute pups on Petfinder.com.
But I remained unmoved. No, I said—no new puppy.
In the summer of 2008, Henry decided to take matters into his own hands. Despite my re sis tance, he was quietly adamant that it was time to get a new dog. And he wanted a bigger dog this time—“while we can still handle it,” he explained—but one that would calm down over time. When we took our beach walks in Connecticut after Buddy died, Henry looked longingly at big dogs that fetched and swam. And he preferred a female on the theory that they are easier to manage.
Unbeknownst to me, Henry had fallen in love with a gentle golden retriever who belongs to two close friends of ours in Connecticut, an older couple named Marian and Howard Spiro. Henry particularly admired the perfect manners that the Spiros’ dog—named Cyon, after Procyon, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor—exhibited in company.
Henry had become smitten during the ritual Sunday morning lawn bowling games when they were hosted by Dr. Spiro. (Most of the competitors were octogenarians, but Henry played to win and often did so.) During the games, Cyon would observe the bowlers placidly, never barking or chasing the ball. That September, at the Spiros’ traditional Labor Day party, Cyon never once overtly begged, jumped up to catch a piece of stray cheese, or knocked over a gin and tonic.
Cyon, who is certified as a hospital therapy dog, has a regal stance and is an unusual, almost white color. From the Spiros we learned that she is a special type of golden retriever bred along British standards. Goldens are the second most popular breed in the United States, but until meeting Cyon we hadn’t realized that they come in several hues, from deep red to the more common honey color, and finally to Cyon’s platinum. By early fall 2008, Henry had become all but fixated on the notion that we should get an English golden retriever puppy, and he then began a gently insistent effort to persuade me to agree to this plan. My heart still ached for Buddy and I still wasn’t sure I was ready for a new dog, but finally I consented.
After getting a referral from Marian Spiro, Henry contacted Donna Cutler, a breeder of English golden retrievers near Boston. Donna told him that she expected a new litter the following spring, and in December 2008, with my wary consent, he sent for an application and put down a deposit toward the price of one of the yet-unborn puppies.
I felt guilty. With millions of dogs in shelters across the country waiting to be adopted, and with local animal rescue groups actively looking for new homes for goldens who were given up or mistreated, I was aware that it would make more sense for us to adopt a dog rather than purchase a purebred puppy. Though far fewer dogs are euthanized in shelters than in past decades, about three to four million unwanted dogs are put down each year, according to the ASPCA. How could we justify getting a new puppy?
But Henry had his heart set. A puppy. A female. A blond golden retriever. By the following summer, I would be through with my physical rehabilitation, and Henry wanted a big water dog that we could train, play with at the beach and in the water, and settle down with as we cruised into our sixties. Because goldens need a great deal of exercise, Henry joked that he wanted to train her as a certified therapy dog—for us.
Once we had the application in hand, Henry suggested that we fill it out together. I still had a lot of concerns, including my big worry that I might never be able to love another dog as much as Buddy. I also worried that goldens have high rates of cancer and hip dysplasia, an inherited condition that sometimes shows up in X-rays of a puppy’s parents, but not always. Donna had certifications for any number of health issues regarding all her dogs, although these certifications are never definitive. We also appreciated her insistence we sign a spay/neuter contract, something most reputable breeders require.
Donna was obviously committed to breeding a healthy litter of puppies; meanwhile, we were certain that we did not want to buy a puppy from a local pet shop, even if we found one that offered the fairly rare English golden retriever. Most commercial pet stores get their puppies from puppy mills, many of which are located in the Midwest, especially Missouri. The dogs in these mills are kept in cramped cages, lack proper medical care and nutrition, and often develop serious health problems. Millions of puppies are churned out by these notorious mills, and although the Department of Agriculture is supposed to inspect the mills and enforce the Animal Welfare Act, the USDA has few inspectors.
Some of the questions on Donna’s application were a bit daunting; I felt almost as if we were applying to college. She asked how we rated ourselves on such things as the number of hours we would be leaving the dog alone during the day and the amount of time we would spend traveling. (In part because Henry works from home as a consultant, we were confident that we would be suitable owners.) We were asked to gauge our family’s activity level on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being a couch potato and 10 being a triathlete. (Especially since we both love the outdoors, we declared ourselves a solid 7.) Donna’s questions were valid because goldens thrive on lots of human company and need a great deal of exercise.
Her application also asked if we were prepared for constant digging and shedding. The digging wouldn’t be a problem, but the question about shedding gave me pause, because on dark clothing the white hairs of this breed of retriever stand out, magnificently. After thinking it over, I decided that I was willing to put most of my black work clothes—basically my entire wardrobe—in the back of the closet. Besides, Henry and I are not the fussy House Beautiful types; our house and apartment both have dorm-room levels of disarray, perhaps reflecting the fact that we met in college and sometimes think it’s still 1976. In the end only one question stumped me. Was our lawn “meticulously kept”? Well, it depended on your definition of meticulous.
As we completed Donna’s application, I could feel my worries about getting a new dog melting away.
English golden retrievers have so many good characteristics: not only are they gorgeous dogs that love the outdoors; they are loyal, smart, and sweet-tempered. I also told myself that after meeting Donna, we could always change our minds. Or at least we could right up to the moment when we actually made contact with a real puppy. One lick on the face and I knew we would instantly be past the point of no return.
Donna accepted our application, but she wanted to interview us in person. So in May 2009, seven weeks after the new litter of English goldens was born, Henry and I drove from our house in Connecticut to Thistledown Golden Retrievers.
During the drive, Henry cruelly informed me that he was replacing me as pack leader because I am neither calm nor assertive, the qualities required by Cesar Millan, the famous dog behavior specialist. (We had watched Millan’s television show, Dog Whisperer, on the eve of our journey.) There would be no human food prepared for our new dog (good-bye, grilled chicken). This dog, unlike the stubborn Buddy, was going to be well trained. “You are wonderful, but you don’t know how to be firm,” Henry said as we drove up I-95. “When Buddy would pull the leash so hard that your arm was on the verge of detaching, you’d giggle and say, ‘Buddy, no,’ and let him keep going.”
Henry’s assessment was harsh but fair. Although I could be tough and hold the line as a parent and as an editor at the Times, I was a pushover with Buddy. In my defense, we had both been so busy with the kids and work that we simply weren’t able to devote the time needed to train Buddy properly.
Two hours after setting out, we arrived at Thistledown. We had expected Donna Cutler to look like a Scottish noblewoman, or at least one of those tweedy, stout women who show their dogs at the annual West-minster Dog Show. Instead, the woman who met us at the door was trim, with medium-brown hair, sharp features, and a friendly but down-to-business demeanor. Donna told us that she had just returned from showing one of her dogs in a competition in Canada. She competed in many shows up north, where the English golden retriever—with its unusual color, chunky head, and thick torso—is much admired.
Donna, who was then in her late forties, was still dressed in the pants suit she’d worn during the competition. We, by contrast, were in shorts and sneakers, hoping to emphasize our vigor and sportiness. As Donna led us to the back of her house—which had big fenced-in pens for the adult dogs and another outside area for puppies—I was nervous and fearing rejection. (Later we learned that Donna had turned down a potential customer only twice. One was a gent who refused to commit to enclosing his yard so the puppy would be safe. The other was a woman in Donna’s town who kept brushing the hairs off her coat during the first puppy visit.)
No doubt to put us at ease, Donna told us a bit about herself. She had grown up in Dedham, Massachusetts, where her family had pets of every kind, including wild baby rabbits, stray cats, and a bantam rooster that lived in the house so it wouldn’t wake up the neighbors. But the family had only one dog, a pug that belonged to her grandmother. This pug, Donna told us, was simply “not fun.” Moreover, pugs are small, and Donna wanted a big dog. For weeks, she and her sister saved up their allowance, and then one day they biked into town and bought a dog collar and a leash. Several times that summer, they rounded up a big dog that had been wandering around town, as dogs did back then. The two girls would drag it home to the garage and remove the collar and leash so as not to give away their gambit. Then they would go into the house and exclaim to their parents that a dog had followed them home. But each time, as soon as the garage door was opened for an inspection, the pooch would bolt out of the yard and beat it back to town.
Donna had been breeding goldens for years, and the puppies’ parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and great-grandparents still lived on the premises. (This is one of the signs of a reputable breeder, and most experts advise checking out the parents of a puppy for temperament, looks, and health history.) After we’d chatted for a while, she showed us around her yard. On the right, there was an area cordoned off by knee-high portable fences where Tess, the mother of the new litter, was lying down surrounded by her progeny. The nine puppies were not yet completely weaned and were the cutest little fur balls I had ever seen.
Donna explained that the puppies were becoming socialized by romping with one another under their mother’s watchful eye. Once in a while, one pup would squeal when a brother or sister nipped an ear too hard. One of the most important things new puppies learn is how to moderate their bites. These pups already had their set of twenty-eight baby teeth, which were like sharp little razors.
There were four females in the litter, and I asked Donna if she had a particular one in mind for us. She said that because our life was split between the country and the city, she thought the smallest female
might be best. But her tone when she answered was noncommittal, probably because she hadn’t had a chance to observe us with the puppies. No seal of approval yet.
One of Donna’s favorites in the litter was a tiny female she called Cindy Lou, named after the smallest denizen of Dr. Seuss’s Whoville in How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The Seuss character had a yellow streak in her hair, and so did this puppy. We later learned that Donna also saw in this pup the kind of “attitude” that she believed was well suited for life in the big city.
I looked more closely at Cindy Lou. She was tiny, with sleepy eyes, and as some of her brothers and sisters nursed, she hovered under a green plastic chair. That worried me a little. Was this pup too shy?
“It’s okay to pick them up,” Donna told us. I cradled the little one in my lap. I was tempted to bring her up to my nose and take in the wonderful smell that all new puppies have; instead, since I knew that very young dogs absorb every new experience primarily through their noses, I let her get a good whiff of me.
Soon all the puppies, including this little one, perked up and wanted to play. Henry jumped into the pen and let them chase his heels. All of the pups had a different color ribbon around their necks so Donna could keep track of who was who.
Tess, the mother, watched all this from a few yards away. She was a blond beauty who when she was younger was a potential champion. But one day, while Donna was in Wyoming on a girls’ weekend, a stick had snapped back and sliced Tess’s eye, which couldn’t be saved by a veterinarian. Still, even with the closed, missing eye, she was a knockout.
Donna took us to the adult dog area to meet the father of the pups, a big boy named Patrick who had won a championship in Austria. Aside from his good looks and fluid movement—a sort of sashay that suggested powerful legs—Patrick was chosen to be this litter’s father for his even temperament, a trait we hoped all the puppies had inherited. Donna also provided us health certificates showing that Tess and Patrick had been checked repeatedly for hip and elbow dysplasia but exhibited no signs of it.
After visiting with Donna and her dogs for two hours, we felt that we were beginning to trespass on our hostess’s time. Before we left, Donna put tiny Cindy Lou and one other female pup in an indoor area so we (and, presumably, she) could be sure.
“So have you thought about a name?” Donna asked. (Clearly a hopeful sign!)
Yes, we had. Actually, Henry had been disqualified in the name-the-dog contest, because when I was pregnant the first time he had briefly considered giving Cornelia the name Jemima. Two years later, Will almost became Ichabod. (Henry likes the old-fashioned names from his Puritan family tree. “If we don’t use those names, who will?” he would ask, indirectly answering his own question.) But after frantic consultations with Cornelia and Will, we had decided on the name Scout after the spunky little girl in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.
“Well, Scout can’t come home with you for two weeks,” Donna said, giving us a date and time to come retrieve our retriever.
We still weren’t sure which puppy she meant. But as we walked back to the car, the shock of Donna’s last words sank in. We had passed.
On the ride home, I kept thinking about the tiny puppy with the slightly worried expression. And I was slightly worried myself. While watching Donna’s litter of puppies, memories of Buddy as a new puppy had flooded my mind. I still wasn’t sure whether my heart was ready to replace him.
Copyright © by Jill Abramson
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >