What a Difference a Dog Makes: Big Lessons on Life, Love and Healing from a Small Poochby Dana Jennings
Our dogs come into our lives as “just the family pet,” but before we know it they become drinking buddies and fuzzy shrinks, playmates and Cheerios-munching vacuum cleaners, alarm/b>
A must-read for every dog lover—a short, tender, and uplifting tale of a cancer survivor and the life lessons shared with him by his beloved family dog.
Our dogs come into our lives as “just the family pet,” but before we know it they become drinking buddies and fuzzy shrinks, playmates and Cheerios-munching vacuum cleaners, alarm clocks and sleeping partners. And, in their mysterious and muttish ways, our dogs become our teachers.
When Dana Jennings and his son were both seriously ill—Dana with prostate cancer and his son with liver failure—their twelve-year-old miniature poodle Bijou became even more than a pet and teacher. She became a healing presence in their lives. After all, when you’re recovering from radical surgery and your life is uncertain, there’s no better medicine than a twenty-three-pound pooch who lives by the motto that it’s always best to play, even when you’re old and creaky, even when you’re sick and frightened.
In telling Bijou’s tale in all of its funny, touching, and neurotic glory, Jennings is telling the story of every dog that has ever blessed our lives. The perfect gift for animal lovers, What a Difference a Dog Makes is a narrative ode to our canine guardian angels.
From the Hardcover edition.
—Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation and Animals Make us Human
"The setup is moving and Jennings is a charming writer... [his] wry sense of humor shines through... It's the rare reader who won't take some pleasure in Jennings's strength (and how smitten he is with the noble Bijou)."
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Read an Excerpt
Or, the Curious Incident of the Dead Bird in the Kitchen
Like James Brown, that late, great Godfather of Soul, dogs love the funk.
Given a choice between a gentle stroll through a dandelion-dappled field and a romp and roll through the muck and the mire, a dog will go for the mud bath every time--the more foul and oozy the better. Sometimes, I think, dogs believe that they are actually four-wheel-drive vehicles with fur and tails.
Dogs are connoisseurs of crunchy rabbit droppings and rank roast beef, of skanky, sweat-soaked socks and underwear, and the chance to give a deep snuff-snuffle to a dead possum, skunk, or woodchuck is heaven on earth.
Bijou is no exception. She might have that snooty little poodle pedigree, but her instincts are all mutt. And given that they're all nose, dogs have a clear advantage over us humans when it comes to detecting that delectable world of reek and skank.
So, it's a quiet Sunday morning, my two boys are still asleep, as boys often are, my wife, Deb, is rustling in the kitchen, and Bijou and I are shuffling toward the back door. I hook her to the leash, but when I open the door she pauses--"Come on, Bijou"--sniffs, then lurches at what looks like a small pile of leaves riffling on the deck.
When she dashes back into the house instead of rushing down the walk to relieve herself, I--being a shrewd dog owner--know that something's up.
"What've you got in your mouth, Bijou?" I hear Deb say.
"Oh, gross! Dana, she's got a bird! She's got a bird!"
At least it's dead . . . I hope.
Bijou retreats to the far corner of the kitchen, the bird still planted in her mouth, its wings and feathers sticking out from either side of her lathered jaws.
"Oh, cool, Bijou's caught a bird!"
"It was dead," I say.
Our sons, Drew and Owen, who are always pumped for a confrontation between Dad and dog, have stumbled and rumbled downstairs. Whenever Mom shrieks "Oh, gross!" that's a hard-and-fast signal to jump out of bed and scamper downstairs.
And, of course, there's nothing quite like the spectacle of watching Dad and Bijou go mano a doggo.
"Whatcha gonna do, Dad?" the boys ask, their eyes gleaming with glee. It's like having Animal Planet right there in the kitchen--except I'm no unflappable crocodile hunter.
I try the straightforward dog-master approach first (knowing full well that it won't work). I stride over to Bijou, look her in the eye, and firmly say: "Bijou. Drop it."
All right, so we raised our kids better than we raised our dog. One more time: "Bijou. Drop it."
No question, Bijou's brain has been short-circuited by bird lust. What she really wants to do is carry her prey off to some dark, feral cave, eviscerate it, and chow down on the choicest bits. Instead, she's cornered--how embarrassing--in a kitchen in suburban New Jersey. That never, ever happened to Cujo.
Deb tries next, still hopeful. "Bijou, want a treat?" She shakes the box of Milk-Bones at her like some kind of Native American shaman--talk about desperate housewives.
Bijou gives her a baleful glance: "Yeah, right."
I crouch in front of Bijou and slowly reach toward her--"Beeee-jouuuu, drooooop iiit"--and somehow simultaneously her jaws tighten on the bird (mercifully, it is dead) and her lips curl back in a snarl. To be honest, I don't like how she's glaring at my bared throat.
Deb: "Dana, be careful."
Boys: "She gonna bitecha, Dad?"
Me: "Boys, get me the gardening gloves."
Well, poodle wrestling isn't anywhere near as glamorous as alligator wrestling, but sometimes it just has to be done. And, of course, in my family I'm the designated poodle wrestler (not to mention poodle wrangler).
The boys secure their spots on the kitchen bleachers as I tug on my garden gauntlets and become Sir Dana the Mortified of Godfrey Road, unhorsed, if not unmanned, by a mini-poo. I swear that my sons are gorging on popcorn and Jujubes as they watch, but I'm probably mistaken.
I march over to Bijou--"Dana, be careful"--bend over her, and try diplomacy one last time: "Bijou. Drop it."
I reach down and start prising open Bijou's jaws with all the pride of a sneak thief pinching candy from a baby.
It's really, really amazing how hard a miniature poodle can keep her jaws clamped shut.
"Grrr," and "Dana, be careful," and "You're getting there, Dad."
I feel like Johnny Weissmuller in one of those old Tarzan movies where he kills the crocodile or lion by artfully avoiding the rows and rows of dagger teeth and wedging open the animal's jaws to the breaking point.
I don't want to hurt Bijou, of course. I just want to get that goddamned bird out of her mouth.
Firm yet gentle, I unlock Bijou's jaw--the poodle giving me the wolf eye--and unmesh her teeth. When I manage a gap in Bijou's mouth, I shout, "Now, Drew!" and he swipes the dead bird away, Deb expertly sweeps it out the door, and Bijou detonates into a one-dog riot.
She snakes her lip back to her forehead, bares her cute little white fangs, snaps a couple times so that her teeth clack and click, then dervishes around the kitchen, chasing her tail--Little Miss Psycho Poodle. It's all quite charming.
We let her cool off, then, fifteen minutes later, I call to her. "Bijou, let's go out."
I hear her head shake as if she's waking from a dream, she trots down the stairs, I hook her up, and we take our walk--all is forgiven, with no hard feelings on either side.
Bijou de Minuit, CANINE ZEN MASTER, SAYS:
When you feel threatened, throw a bad look and growl. It usually works. If it doesn't, run like hell and cower behind your owner.
Squealin' Pigs 'n' Leapin' Lizards: Starter Pets
Dogs don't arrive in our lives in a vacuum.
Like many parents, Deb and I tried out a range of starter pets on Drew and Owen when they were little boys before granting them the gift of a dog: guinea pigs and Russian dwarf hamsters, a clutch of lizards and penny goldfish.
(The goldfish, "won" at school fairs, always used to weird me out. Whenever I looked at them, treading water in their tiny bowls, they always seemed to be saying: "Why me? Why me? Why me?" This led me to one of my rules for leading the good life: Accept no pets that can be brought home in a plastic sandwich bag. Even a goldfish can teach a lesson.)
Without quite realizing it, we had turned our house into a manic menagerie of squealing (and randy) guinea pigs, leapin' (literally) lizards, and furtive hamsters. I did have to keep reminding the boys, though, that the field mice that liked to conga through our cellar in winter in search of warmth, crumbs, and hot apple cider didn't qualify as true pets.
Here are a few field notes.
Guinea Pigs Are Easy, Too Easy
Let's face it, guinea pigs are appallingly cute. While in the wild they might be most any predator's hors d'oeuvre of choice--no carnivore's dilemma there--in a mall pet shop they push that primal button that makes us go: "Ooohhh."
Meanwhile, the emerald green viper a couple cages down is sticking its skinny red tongue out at us because it intuitively knows that we're a bunch of naïve idiots.
Anyway, it seems as if we accelerated from owning two guinea pigs to being overrun by thirteen of the dainty varmints in about a week.
The pet store clerk, of course, had assured us that both of our guinea pigs were female. Apparently, though guinea pigs are notoriously hard to sex, they have no trouble at all having sex. It could also be that pet store clerks are just innately evil.
Before we knew it, we were guinea pig farmers: "Time to get up, boys. We've got to milk the pigs," or something like that. Our third-floor hall had become a suburban barnyard of four or five cages, bales of alfalfa, and sacks of chow. You know how some people give away their late-summer bounty of tomatoes and zucchini? We were giving away guinea pigs.
I was the one who slopped the wee hogs each morning. And the moment that my hand turned the doorknob to the third floor, the squeals started--"reent-reent-reent"--each and every one of those pigs sounding--"reent-reent-reent"--as if they were being skinned and dismembered--"reent-reent-reent"-- instead of just hungry.
Yeah, no shortage of guinea pigs. There was Butterscotch and Pepper, Oreo and Brownie, Cinnamon and Nutmeg. I felt like Miss Jean on the old Romper Room TV show, greeting the eager kids out in TV Land each morning.
The first time one of the boys shouted, "The guinea pig's having babies!" we all trundled upstairs, ready to play rodent midwife. By the fifth or sixth time, we'd just call back, "Uh-huh, just let us know when she's done."
But when the piglets started being born with extra toes, we realized that enough was enough.
There's no underestimating guinea pig lust, however. After we had separated the adult pigs, trying to halt the population explosion on the third floor, I watched one day as Brownie, flexing his little piggy knees, jumped and somehow managed to scramble up the cage wall like an army ranger and tumble into the adjacent cage, where his true love waited all a-tremble.
Brownie got scooped up, dropped back into his bachelor pad, and mesh covers were put in place. Guinea pigs also squeal--"reent-reent-reent"--when they're hungry for love.
Save for their talent to reproduce, guinea pigs are good starter pets. They purr. They like to nestle and nuzzle. And if you watch them long enough, you're bound to see one execute the Guinea Pig 180. This happens when the pig gets startled and leaps, managing to get four feet off the ground and spin its plump, pear-like carcass 180 degrees.
So, yeah, guinea pigs are really, really cute. But if you're not interested in the art of animal husbandry, only bring one home from the pet store.
Lizards Are Hard, Too Hard
When my oldest son, Drew, was a kid, he wanted lizards.
Lizards were cool (literally). Lizards were poker-faced. Lizards were like small, cold-blooded skateboards. That's how cool they were.
This was, of course, well before the brown-and-white tiger lizard--we didn't quite know what it was, we just called it a tiger lizard--vaulted from Deb's cupped hand to the top of Drew's head, where it triumphantly kneaded his hair as if preparing to make a nest.
"Get it off??! Get it off??!"
Obviously insulted, the tiger lizard long-jumped off Drew's skull and proceeded to dart, bound, and cartwheel around the room until exhausting itself. I didn't realize until that moment that lizards could pant. The pet-store clerk, of course, had assured us that tiger lizards were as docile as great-grandma on Valium and simply lived to have their scaly hides stroked.
Back we went to the lizard store, our ex-pet skittering in a shoebox. After steering Drew away from the snake department--I'm the kind of guy who has a recurring nightmare of Hydra-like serpents writhing on the light fixture above our bed--we arrived home with a couple of smallish green and generic (we thought) lizards. In fact, we called them the Generics.
"They're going to stay in their cage, right, Dad?"
"That's right, Drew."
"We're not going to take them out, right?"
"And they can't escape, right?"
"Nope," I said, but with slightly less conviction.
God, lizards are stupid. They fry themselves on the heat rock--"Ooohhh, that feels really good, Manny. Hey, wait a minute! My scales have melted!"--they let dinner (crickets) hike on their backs, and they eat each other. You'd think they were running for public office in New Jersey.
The lizards didn't do much for me. They'd mope around the cage. I'd stare at them. They'd stare at me. To be honest, the crickets had more personality.
Then came the day when we were witness to one of the true mysteries of nature.
A quiet, rainy afternoon, the boys playing upstairs. I'm reading a Stephen King novel . . . "Daaaad! The lizard's having babies!"
"The lizard's having babies!"
"Are you sure?"
"Oh, no! The dad just ate its tail!"
I sighed, set my book down, and trudged upstairs. Lizards don't have babies, I thought, they lay eggs. They're reptiles, fer cryin' out loud, and reptiles lay eggs.
The lizard was having babies.
Right there, in the cage, as Drew, Owen, the father lizard, and I watched. Two or three newborns were already flitting and scooting about the cage, including the one whose tail had been bitten off by the old man. We immediately named him Stumpy.
With the mom still in labor--it's true, it isn't easy being green--we plopped our new reptilian additions into their own terrarium, and flicked the dad away as mom finished up. As Owen said later, "It was like National Geographic, right there in Drew's room."
The pet store clerk, of course, had assured us . . . oh, just to hell with it.
As I've said, lizards are hard. Baby lizards are even harder. Without the warmth of the heat rock, they die. But if they bask too long, they sizzle. Because they were so small, we had to feed them tiny, tiny crickets--crickets so minuscule that they figured out how to sneak out of the terrarium, with the baby lizards not too far behind.
I got home one night at two in the morning, peeked into Owen's room, where we kept the babies, and saw that all four of them had creeped from the terrarium and were clinging to Owen's dresser all in a line, like a scaly freight train.
Despite our best efforts, all of the lizards died, with Stumpy hanging on until last, taking his final toasty rest on the heat rock.
The crickets, on the other hand, thrived. Months and months later, we'd open a dresser drawer or a closet door and hear the faint chirp-chirp of a cricket, reminding us all of the day that the lizard had babies.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
DANA JENNINGS is currently a feature writer at the New York Times and writes a popular weekly column about coping with prostate cancer and its aftermath for the Times’s “Well” blog. He is the author of five previous books, most recently Sing Me Back Home. He lives with his family in Upper Montclair, New Jersey.
From the Hardcover edition.
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