Richard Gilbert | Longreads | July 2016 | 18 minutes (4,584 words)
Belle Krendl, “our” dog but really mine, is a furtive, ragtag creature. She suffers in comparison to our prior dogs—and to most we’ve known. In fact, she suffers in comparison to any pet we’ve ever owned, including jumpy, escape-prone gerbils; a pert exotic lizard that refused to eat; cannibalistic chickens that stared with malice in their soulless green eyes; and a sweet, dumb, tailless black cat named Tao who spent his life staring into space with huge yellow eyes—but once, in a blur, grabbed and gulped down a gerbil our daughter dangled before him by way of introduction.
A Jack Russell terrier, or maybe a Jack cross, Belle Krendl is covered in whorls of stiff white hair. Bristly brows and white lashes accent her black eyes, as do her lower eyelids, a disconcerting garish pink. In the house, her movements are wary; outside, she streaks like a Greyhound after any creature unwise enough to enter our yard. Her long skinny legs with knobby joints—King crab legs, I call them—make her too gangly, at 16 inches tall, for a proper go-to-ground Jack. At 22 pounds, she’s too heavy for a lapdog. She’s ambivalent about cuddling anyway. We’re seldom inclined to offer much physical affection, given her peculiar odor, an intermittent acidic stink, especially pungent when she’s hot from running. A mouthful of missing, broken, and bad teeth partly explains her vile breath.
“She’s a rescue—6 years old when we got her!” we crow, cashing in where we can, harvesting meager props for having saved her from euthanasia. In reality, she’d been lodged at a no-kill shelter. It had placed her twice in good homes before we showed up.
Baiting my family, I say, “I’d return her, but now she’s 12. Belle may have to take a dirt nap.”
“You can’t have her killed!” everyone cries.
“I’m thinking about it.”
“But you can take her back! They have to take her back! And they can’t kill her!”
I’m certain it would be more humane to have her euthanized than to take her almost anywhere.
“Why do you call her Belle Krendl?” our nephew Christopher once asked me. “Krendl is Aunt Kathy’s last name. It seems like she should be Belle Gilbert.”
“She eats her own feces, Christopher. Don’t get me wrong, that’s not a Krendl characteristic. But I don’t want my name associated with it.”
The odd thing is how close I’ve grown to Belle. The odd thing is how much her anxious nature illuminates mine.
He nodded tolerantly, with a faint smile. Probably thinking, Uncle Richard is weird.
In retrospect, I regret inflicting my slur on Christopher, the sweet son of one of my wife’s younger sisters. See what Belle brings out in me? The worst. My sadistic streak. Dogs are supposed to do the opposite. Would a good dog occasion such darkness? I think not.
As an extension of human ego—an undeniable dog role: something that kindles pride in their owners—she’s a washout. The odd thing is how close I’ve grown to Belle. The odd thing is how much her anxious nature illuminates mine.
* * *
Now our previous dog, Jack—Jack Gilbert, as I now think of him—was a true Jack Russell, from a working pack. I bought him when he was about hamster-size for our daughter, for her eleventh birthday. He grew to 12 inches tall and a top weight of 18 pounds, all bone and muscle. His hair was white, too, but short, and pleasingly accented by brown ears and two tan oval spots, one atop his head and one atop his rump. He exuded a mellow doggy odor. With his Mighty Mouse chest, slightly bowed front legs, and perpetual swagger, he was inherently comic, a canine id unleashed upon an unsuspecting world. Once he used a chair to hop onto our dining table, where he consumed eight hamburgers and an unknown number of hot dogs, his stomach so tight afterwards that he’d moan if you barely touched it; a few years later, he repeated his trick and devoured a large triple-anchovy pizza I’d ordered for our son.
Until we moved to the city, when he was 12, Jack was locked in endless battle with varmints on our farm in the Appalachian foothills of southern Ohio. His ilk having been bred for 300 years to hate anything with fur, he pursued raccoons, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, mice, and rats. We lost him for hours down dark holes in the ground. He was, in his joie de vivre, a charismatic devil—hence his sexy-nerd secret name: Gomez.
Just before we moved off the farm, one night an embattled groundhog Jack was harrying in our barn bit his cheek, and his head swelled like a football. Soon afterward, he required suturing after his fight with a big possum; we didn’t see that encounter, just found a bedraggled corpse. Jack moved to the city sporting a staple above his left eye. He epitomized “grizzled.” He’d injured the bridge of his nose so often, getting it bitten and using it as a shovel, that it wouldn’t grow hair; his pink badge of proud flesh puzzled our new city vets.
Given his innate ferocity, I’m glad I did right by him in puppyhood, when it counted, and got him properly socialized. In other words, acting in the role of parental superego, I came down hard. This began with calling his breeder, a dairy farmer, when he growled at me. At the time, he was only guinea pig size. “Roll him over and grab his throat,” she said on the phone, her pack of Jacks barking in the background. “Kinda choke him out. He’s gotta think you’re going to kill him.”
No, I hadn’t researched the breed.
Now our previous dog, Jack—Jack Gilbert, as I now think of him—was a true Jack Russell…
And I’d only ever raised a genial Labrador from infancy. Realizing I’d made a terrible mistake, I put Jack and our daughter through two canine obedience classes. Jack became submissive to us, and obeyed our commandment to ignore our chickens and our daughter’s cats. And he liked other dogs—unless, of course, they wanted to rumble. Like any terrier, he enjoyed fighting. At the same time, our kids discovered that if they acted upset they could set him to howling. Soon they were competing to see who could keep him going longest, and eventually who could coax the roundest tones. Even I could elicit a choppy yodel by wailing, “Oh, Jack! I’m feeling so emotional! Jack, I’m so emooo-tion-aaaal!” (This doesn’t work on Belle, a tougher sell and fully occupied with her own drama.)
Despite my deepening bond with Jack after we relocated to an upscale suburb of Columbus, Ohio, he’d abandon me at night to sit beside my wife. Kathy smirked at my jealousy. Kids always share my angst about the family dog: even if he’s “theirs,” he seems to crave mama’s company. Kathy often fed him, and she never teased him, plus she was away a lot and he missed her. Since I supplied Jack’s dialogue, I voiced perhaps the greatest source of his admiration every time she returned from the grocery store: “She’s slow, but that bitch can hunt!”
I’m thankful we had a total love-in for Jack’s last year. We’d both been too busy for much affection when living on the farm. With both kids at college, and Kathy working 24/7 helping run a college, Jack became solely my day-buddy. Which gave rise to my usual greeting: “Hey, Bud.” Though an old dog, he bounced down the hall before me each dawn, wagging his docked tail. Each forenoon he lay at my feet as I graded student essays or wrote. Afternoons we took walks, deploring the insolent urban squirrels. At dinner, Kathy admonished me for baby-talking to him.
Occasionally in those days, Jack Gilbert looked at me with melting adoration in his olive-brown eyes—a queasy look on the keen face of a Jack Russell terrier, and one that stirred my unease. Did I deserve it? Certainly not, I felt.
* * *
So, yeah, Belle Krendl suffers in comparison. She’d be the first to tell you that’s never fair. And besides, she loves humans, or at least strangers. She capers around visitors with a delighted look, effortlessly masking her epic weirdness.
Belle came into my life because Kathy and our daughter, Claire, privately decided I needed a dog after Jack died. I “wasn’t doing well,” in Kathy’s estimation. So at Claire’s next visit, she introduced me to Pet Finder, which lets you search online for any dog breed or type you desire, within a specified radius from your home. Biographies and snapshots of the adorable candidates make resistance futile. Belle’s profile included a video of her springing from her bed, receiving a tidbit from someone—you saw only a hairy forearm and a meaty hand—and scampering back to her corner. Now this doesn’t sound very impressive, and isn’t, in retrospect—Belle is highly intelligent—but she was obeying a command. And looked so cutely pleased with herself. Her ardent expression and sprightly gait reminded me of Jack.
“Let’s go see this one,” I said.
“Do you really want another terrier?” Claire asked. She literally raised an eyebrow.
“Jack was a great dog.”
“Eventually. But don’t you want to check out a few more, dad? That’s only the third dog you’ve looked at.”
“This one’s special.”
I had no idea how special.
The first clue to Belle’s neurotic nature was that she refused to eat for over a week after we brought her home. Just nervous, I know now. But at the time I thought she hated the food we offered and would starve, so I bought four brands. I’ve since learned how much Belle dislikes and avoids other dogs, and that any hubbub upsets her, so I wonder why she didn’t die at the shelter.
There, at Pets Without Parents, they called her Dolly. “Do you like her name?” asked an upbeat young volunteer, a student from the college where my wife and I work.
“No,” I said. “Not really.”
“You can change it. It takes about a week. Dogs aren’t like us that way—they aren’t emotionally invested in their names at all.”
At the time, we still had our ancient soccer-parent van, and when I drove it I’d listen to our daughter’s beloved cassette of Beauty and the Beast I’d found inside. So Dolly became Belle, and she knew our new sound for her, as promised, within a week.
Coming home with us, however, was real change, which she hates. I’m with her there: a social worker once told me that any change, including winning the lottery, is “first experienced as loss.” I love that quote—it reassures me I’m normal—but she was talking about humans. Belle’s a dog, and her life got so much better. Who needs a dog with a psyche more dicey than his own?
For example, after she resumed eating, Belle began enacting a stir-crazy routine that still disturbs me: standing near her food, she places her nose against the floor and thrusts it toward the bowl, as if pushing something invisible toward it; she does this repeatedly and robotically, from various angles, like an obsessive with a broom aiming sweeps into a dustpan. This wretched pantomime makes me sad. And then angry about whatever happened to her.
Since her nose-pushing mimics food-burying behavior—like Jack when he’d jam a bone between our couch’s cushions—it strikes me as a response to past abandonment, even to real hunger. Yet having experienced for myself the tenacious, loathsome way Belle clings to the past, I’m not sure what to think. One day shortly after we got her—six years ago now—I accidentally pinched one of her ears as I replaced her Invisible Fence collar with one that accepts her leash, so now she cowers at my feet before every walk. Though she craves such outings, as I change her collars she grimaces, her ears stiffen into tense points, and she prances sideways to the door like a skittish parade horse, her neck arched.
Speaking of her neck, Belle lacks a nice loose ruff. Jack possessed elastic neck skin, handy to drag him toward you on the couch; sometimes the kids and I enjoyed trying to pull his extra hide, which easily stretched 12 inches, all the way over his eyes. But Belle yelped the instant I grabbed her tight nape. Ever since, she refuses to sit beside me. Most evenings, however, she leaves her bed in the TV room—she has two beds downstairs and two upstairs—and approaches me with a lowered head, as if summoned for a beating, to accept a backscratching. Eventually I learned she also enjoys having me fondle her throat. As I perform this awkward glottal massage, she assumes a meek, abashed expression, her attempt at a look of love, and stares at Kathy.
“Look, Kathy,” I said the other night. “Belle’s looking at you.”
“Hmm.” Kathy was seated nearby on a twin couch, clicking through email on her laptop.
“Really, look. You aren’t paying her any attention. Belle’s wondering why you don’t love her.”
Kathy’s eyes flicked upward: “I see . . .”
Belle always ends our odd ritual by wheeling and pushing off with her skinny legs, leaping from my clutches. And then, giving me a reproachful glance, she often snuggles beside Kathy.
* * *
The volunteer at Pets Without Parents had said Belle Krendl was adopted as a puppy at that very shelter by newlyweds. But about the time she turned 6, they had a baby and returned her. Quickly adopted again, she’d boomeranged back: “She didn’t get along with their other dog. She was very possessive of her stuff.”
Well I don’t blame her, the poor thing, I’d thought, and reached down to pet Belle’s head. As for the sweet young couple, it was clear they’d been overwhelmed by parenthood, and Belle, unfortunately, had paid the price.
There were clashing clues about her previous parents. In one afternoon, Claire “taught” Belle to speak, shake hands, play dead, and stand on her hind legs and twirl. Nimble and bright, Belle would’ve made a great circus dog. It dawned on me that someone had worked with her—all those tricks learned in a few hours? What dog is that smart? Maybe it was the guy in the video, who made Belle zip around like a robot for a biscuit. She was already 6 then, though—surely the young couple had played with her.
Anxiety, however, not aggression, most shapes her days.
A darker impression of them steadily emerged, however. We learned, seeing the way Belle chased cats crossing our yard, that she’d never been taught to tolerate felines. And then once, despite precautions, she almost killed a cat owned by friends I was visiting while on a road trip. When we got distracted, talking, Belle spotted their pet and squeezed past a barrier across their stairs. I ran upstairs after her and plunged into a dark closet, where the cat had taken refuge, groped in the clutter toward its yowling, and yanked Belle from atop it. My yelling failed to dent her conviction that cats should die.
Anxiety, however, not aggression, most shapes her days. She’s learned that when I shut my laptop I often rise, so at its soft click she awakes and dashes from the room, immediately turning and watching to see where I’ll go. As I walk, she trots ahead of me and, maddeningly, often guesses my destination. How does she know I’m switching from couch to recliner instead of going to the bathroom? Of course there’s the wider context: she spends her life fearing that I’m going to leave the house entirely. Because she catches the smallest cues, and because at some point I usually do go somewhere, such as to meet a class I’m teaching, she’s often correct about that, too. (She not only refuses to eat or drink when we’re away, she refuses the treats she adores when she suspects we might leave.) When she feels my departure is imminent, she runs and leaps into our bed, where she isn’t allowed.
I pretend I can’t see her crouched amidst our bedclothes, because she’s so ostentatiously suffering. Radiating tension, her head up and rigid, her face narrows, the taut line of her black lips forming a rictus of agony, much like the death grimace on the face of Jack’s possum; her paws grip our down comforter as if tornadic winds are clawing at her. She’s capable of spending an entire day like this, suffering an eventual human exit, especially when we vacation.
We used to strap her into a “Thunder Jacket,” which gives fearful dogs a reassuringly tight Velcro-enhanced hug. But though the device immobilizes her, we rarely use it because anxiety already immobilizes her, and she appears even more upset wearing it. Usually she bolts for the stairs, heading for our bedroom, when she anticipates one or both of us might leave, though sometimes she first barks madly at our retreating backs. She’s a real buzzkill for our rare dates.
Maybe medication is the answer. So far, I’ve dragged my feet at getting Belle on Prozac. Confessing that feels shameful, given her distress. But I’ve dragged my feet at getting myself on Prozac.
* * *
Other shelter dogs I’ve met have suffered from separation anxiety. Almost by definition, they hadn’t been well-loved in the first place, so maybe they already had the malady or were primed for it. This affliction trashes the common canine virtues—contagious joy, living in the now like proper Buddhists—and stokes Belle’s reactive temperament.
Doorbells, oven timers, and smoke alarms provoke her keening, which blends crying and yipping. This racket is intolerable—especially if I’m alone and ignoring the doorbell, hiding from random callers in daylight hours, as is my wont. And I’ve concluded that Belle’s grating vocalization is what caused the young couple to return her: a baby’s crying must’ve really set her off. Though part of her hysteria surely stems from Belle’s own nature and emotional connection to us, it keeps me wondering about what kind of owners raised such a beast.
In evolving with us for tens of thousands of years, maybe dogs became not just exemplars of happiness but, like humans, emotionally fragile creatures. Essentially Belle’s paying the price for her species’ close connection with ours.
Take the feces-eating. I’ve heard it’s not uncommon for dogs, though I’d never known one with the habit. (Cat scat is another matter.) In this case, I believe, it’s proof Belle was neglected as a puppy. From the condition of her teeth, I surmise that there weren’t many chewy toys laying about. Left alone for too long by the hard-partying young couple, Belle—bored and hungry and anxious—turned to her excrement for comfort.
I interrupt her when I can, which seems to do the trick—apparently she loses interest once her bowel movement cools. Annoyingly, she’s the only dog we’ve ever harbored that refuses to drink from toilets: Belle demands fresh water in a bowl beside her food dish. At first I witnessed her penchant for stool-eating in disbelief, inadvertently studying her technique. Let outside to do her business, soon she assumes the classic hunched stance. Having relieved herself, she ambles off—but then circles back as if she’s forgotten something. Shyly approaching her pile, she assumes a sly, low-key manner. Why look at that, she seems to think, glancing up after tentatively sniffing her poop.
This, her too-human lie, now vexes me as much as her vice.
Utterly nonchalant. Then, There’s another of those tasty snacks! Then, gobble gobble.
I realize—intellectually, at least—that whether Belle’s neuroses resulted from an unhappy puppyhood, or from her sudden later separations, or from her own hypersensitivity—or all three—she’s blameless. In evolving with us for tens of thousands of years, maybe dogs became not just exemplars of happiness but, like humans, emotionally fragile creatures. Essentially Belle’s paying the price for her species’ close connection with ours.
So I feel guilty when I worry that she’s going to be the longest-lived dog we’ve ever owned. I’m sure she’ll make it to 20—blind, deaf, and incontinent. I suppose she’ll clean up after her accidents. Thankfully for now, if we take our usual long morning walk, Belle’s disarmed for the day. If for some reason we miss that dawn excursion, chances are we’ll miss her subsequent event out back. The other day, for instance, Kathy had just gotten out of the shower and I heard her begin to slap her palm against the panes of our bathroom’s window, which overlooks our backyard. Hearing Kathy’s frantic sounds, I knew exactly what was happening as I lounged on our bed, reading. The only thing that might work at that remove, upstairs, standing naked in the bathroom, would be to stick your head out the window and yell. Except the house’s windows are painted shut, and I haven’t bothered to fix them. So you smack the panes as uselessly as a bug assaulting the sides of jar; to no effect on Belle, I’ve hit the glass so hard myself that I feared it would shatter. As Kathy’s desperate tympani reached its peak, I turned the page in my book.
“Richard!” Kathy yelled. “Belle pooped! She’s going to do it!”
“I know! But I’m upstairs too. It’s too late.”
“Oh, she did it.”
* * *
Our dogs have never just died. We’ve always had to put them down, a dreadful responsibility. With Jack Gilbert, we monitored him for over three months to gauge when his suffering seemed to exceed his enjoyment. What a hard call.
When our friend Gary heard Jack was making his last trip to the veterinarian, he came to say goodbye. Probably he came to comfort me. “The only thing I can say is what my vet told me,” Gary said. “He said, ‘You’re sad, but I’m not. Because I know this dog was loved. People bring me dogs all the time because they just don’t want them any more.’”
As he spoke we looked across the lawn. Jack had lain down facing us in the grass, in the shadow of a massive ginkgo tree. Everything had flowered at once that glorious spring, even the dogwoods and the redbuds together, and the breeze mingled the scents of sweet lilacs and spicy viburnums. An acquaintance had just told me, “I’m from New England and we’ve lived all over, even Hawaii. There’s nothing like Ohio in spring. You have to pay attention, because once it’s gone, that’s it.”
We buried Jack the next afternoon in the backyard between two aged crabapple trees, their limbs an airy bower of white blossoms. He was an old dog, at 13, but he was a little dog and we hoped we’d get a few more years. Especially since we’d moved to suburban safety. Just after Christmas, I’d noticed a swelling. Cancer it was, lymphoma. Dogs are like people this way: if they live long enough, cancer will take them. When the vet stopped Jack’s heart, with an injection into a vein at the top of his left foreleg, Kathy and I cried.
“He’s still warm,” Kathy said, as we tucked him, swaddled in a blanket, into his little grave beneath the crabapples. In quick flashes in my mind’s eye, I saw us and our children, younger, happy. He put his merry stamp on 13 lucky years, our Jack, now gone.
In the end, our dogs’ greatest gift to us is the saddest: they sprint ahead, pointing the way to our common fate.
The poignancy of a dog’s death is that it’s different only in degree, not in kind, from a human’s. Afterward, there’s that same resonant pause in which you watch and in which you observe how curious it is how the world rushes on. You come home and expect to see the beloved. You wonder where the years went. In the end, our dogs’ greatest gift to us is the saddest: they sprint ahead, pointing the way to our common fate.
* * *
Belle Krendl is out back, asking to come inside. Since I can’t abide a barking dog, I shelve my work and march to the door—knowing she’ll run as soon as she sees me. Sure enough, when she glimpses me through the glass slider, she wheels and flees across the lawn. She’d taken time from her busy schedule to make sure I hadn’t left, was still available to her, and, having interrupted me, returns to her batty pursuits. “Shithead,” I mutter, closing the door.
Yet just last night—actually in the wee hours of this morning, at the ungodly time of two o’clock—she again performed her lone, great, silent service: keeping me company. I’d come wide awake, twitchy with vague anxieties, which soon attached to recent fears and old regrets. When my feet hit the floor, Belle stood in her warm bed beside ours. She trotted downstairs with me. In the light of day, I can take for granted Belle’s shadowing me from room to room; her steady presence seems to reflect her own insecurity, and I can ignore or mock her. At night, stranded in the darkness, I can’t. So I had felt grateful to Belle. I worried that she’d climb the stairs, nestle into her cozy nest, abandon me. She didn’t; she never does.
Now, watching her streak toward the end of our property, I enjoy marveling at her idiocy. She barks straight ahead—at nothing—sometimes jerking her head upward to yelp at the tops of passing trees and sometimes throwing her head sideways, almost over a shoulder, to strafe the border fences. To see her leave after summoning me used to fill me with rage. I’m used to it, though sometimes my ears get hot.
In the light of day, I can take for granted Belle’s shadowing me from room to room; her steady presence seems to reflect her own insecurity, and I can ignore or mock her. At night, stranded in the darkness, I can’t.
Today, the mournful night forgotten, I’m in a fine mood, fairly immune to Belle’s shenanigans. So, when I finally get her inside, I decide to play with her. Though I give her about six treats a day—chewsticks for those bad teeth!—I order her only to sit for them. Her tricks have atrophied, but my games lessen my guilt for being a lazy master. Walking before her across our living room, I suddenly stop. I pivot fast to face her, and freeze in a half crouch, my hands tensely extended like claws. Belle drops into a play bow: King Crab front legs fully extended, rear legs cocked, butt in the air, tail stump wagging, mouth lolling open in a doggy grin, black eyes rapt. I avert my gaze ostentatiously, signaling a pretend intent to fool her, and then stare fiercely, hiss, and fake pump. She hops mock-aggressively toward me, exhaling at each landing with a sharp “Haw!”
We break off before contact, but I’ve got another surprise. After Belle plops with a sigh on the living room rug, I leave as if kitchen-bound—but reappear to spy on her, dramatically thrusting my upper body around the corner, ensuring she sees me. Instantly she charges, and I duck out of sight. I grab at her as soon as she appears in the doorway, and she dodges.
This sets up my final assault. Bending double, I lurch toward her, stiff-legged and swinging my arms from side to side, intoning, “I’m a monster who eats little dogs.” Belle takes one leap, lands with a loud chuff, and freezes in another play bow, her eyes glittering. She lets me approach until my hands begin to feint at her muzzle, at which point she snaps. Though I’m laughing, I’m careful to avoid her teeth—she doesn’t dampen her bite enough when playing with humans. Finally, as always, she falls on her side and then rolls belly-up. Again I’m the mighty victor in our Frankenstein drama she fully understands.
“How was your little day,” I’ll ask Kathy tonight when she comes through the door, her face gray with fatigue, and finds me throwing together something for dinner. She’ll set down her two bulging satchels and inquire about my day, which I’ve spent pleasantly reading, writing, grading on the couch while listening to the Beatles, and messing with Belle’s mind.
“We had another hard one,” I’ll say. “At one point, Belle and I held each other and just howled.”
* * *
Richard Gilbert is the author of Shepherd: A Memoir, about the decade he raised sheep in the remote hill country of Appalachian Ohio. Formerly the marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, he now teaches at Otterbein University. He explores storytelling on his blog, Draft No. 4.
Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands