I Do Not Hate Dogs
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked why I don’t have a dog. It’s almost as annoying as being quizzed about why I’m not married.
I know gays love their dogs, but, seriously…. Sometimes I feel as if my membership in the gay club is being questioned because I’m not interested in spending my mornings chasing some pooch around with a plastic bag in other people’s yards or giving up happy hour because Fido needs a walk and can’t wait for dinner at eight.
Some of you are nodding because you know what I mean. Others of you are shaking your heads and thinking I’m just a dog-hating curmudgeon. I’ll accept the curmudgeon label, but I assure you I don’t hate dogs. So, to prove it I’m going to share a little story.
When I turned 15 years old, my mother presented me with an Old English sheepdog puppy. I named him Roosevelt, which was a bit grandiose for a dog in southwestern Virginia. But then he was a most unlikely dog for that part of the state—shaggy, with a bearish gait and white bangs covering his eyes.
Wytheville, where we moved to back in the late 70s, was the kind of town where boys chewed tobacco and skipped school for the first day of deer hunting season. They drove pickup trucks and gave their hounds and retrievers names like Beau and Skeeter. I played tennis, listened to soul music, and wrote for the high school yearbook. Needless to say, I was a bit of an odd duck myself in this new town I found myself in.
The runt of a litter, the puppy had bounded up to my mother on a beach in South Carolina. Please take him, the owner begged. He has a hernia and a hip problem and he’ll never be a show dog. So my mother did. He vomited all the way back to Virginia.
We’d had family dogs before, friendly strays overjoyed with a good meal and accommodations in the garage. Roosevelt, on the other hand, fancied himself a full-fledged member of the family. He learned to open the front door by using his paw to press down the iron latch to let himself in each evening when he was ready for his dinner. He insisted on sleeping in the tiled entrance foyer so he could keep a watchful eye and an alert ear on everyone’s comings and goings.
When my grandmother hosted her lady friends, Roosevelt would saunter in and perch on the living room sofa with the old gals. He’d sit quietly, as if interested in their conversation, never trying anything uncouth like snatching a tea sandwich or humping a leg. Oh, they’d cluck and pretend to be horrified by the hairy, 80-pound lap dog in their midst, but you could tell they secretly enjoyed the attention. Old Southern ladies have a soft spot for handsome, well-mannered boys.
Roosevelt regularly raided the neighbor’s vegetable garden for green peppers and tomatoes that he carried around in his mouth like other dogs did balls and bones. He had a propensity for cockleburs and fresh tar and asphalt. He enjoyed a nice bubble bath. What Roosevelt liked most, though, was to escort my mother on her errands. He only rode shotgun, shaggy head hanging out the station wagon window. Bank tellers gave him candy in the drive thru lane. Little kids waved at him.
Yes, he was not your average dog, but he was polite, funny, and friendly. Everyone in Wytheville liked him for that. It was a lesson I took to heart. I received my letterman’s jacket in my junior year of high school and the following year was elected head of the honor society and voted “Wittiest” of the senior class.
The winter my mother died of pancreatic cancer, I brought Roosevelt back with me to law school. Actually, he climbed into the front seat of my car when I was packing up after the funeral and refused to budge. I’m convinced he came to look over me.
I was living at the time in a drafty old house in Athens, Georgia, with virtually no heat and studying topics I had no interest in all the while chasing girls when I really wanted to chase boys. Roosevelt began sleeping on the foot of the bed, something he’d never done at home. I felt safe and not so depressed when I’d rub my cold feet against his thick warm fur.
Together we muddled through that cold sad winter and upon graduation high-tailed it back to Virginia. I finally mustered the courage to venture off to Washington, DC, to try and figure out whom I was and what I wanted to do with a law degree and no desire to practice law. Roosevelt didn’t insist on accompanying me this time. He knew I’d be okay.
Soon after I departed, however, our evil housekeeper gave him away without anyone’s consent. Before I could get him back, he died. Old English sheep dogs generally live about a decade, so Roosevelt was extremely old. I’m certain he died of a broken heart, away from his home and family.
While it’s true I have no desire to scoop pooch poop, I’m also not sure I want to relive the heartache that inevitably comes when a beloved dog dies. And besides, Roosevelt is still with me. No, I don’t mean as a creepy taxidermy specimen. He’s my password and the answer to my security question on almost every website. So in a way I do have a dog and he’s still casting a watchful eye upon me. No plastic bag required. ▼
Rich Barnett is the author of The Discreet Charms of a Bourgeois Beach Town, and Fun with Dick and James.