Good Dog

How a Lab Made Peace with a Lovestruck Siamese

A hunting dog adjusts to life in the city with two rowdy felines

Illustration: John Cuneo

There’s no peace in a house full of animals. My wife and I have four, two dogs and two cats, who gallop through our town house like a herd of wildebeests. No conference call or movie night is safe from disturbance, which usually takes the form of a barking fit from our border collie rescue, Lyla. Not a week goes by when I don’t clean up cat puke or a bowl of chicken “pâté” knocked to the floor by a surly feline, or have to collect the remnants of a dog toy, the corner of a rug, or a shredded yogurt container stolen by one of the pups from the recycling bin. Just this morning I swept up pottery shards from another handmade coffee mug swiped off the counter by one of the cats.  

No, there’s no peace in a house full of animals. But there sure is a lot of love. In our case, most of it comes from Waffles, our pocket-size Siamese, whom we took in along with her sister Moose when the pair was nine weeks old. Waffles’s love is the smothering kind, a series of head rubs and side snuggles almost entirely directed at Magnolia, my fifty-five-pound English Lab. Magnolia was the animal I brought into the relationship, our only pet at first. She was my bachelor bud, the dog I picked up from an aristocratic kennel in Oxford, Mississippi, when I was thirty-two, living alone, and looking for a canine accomplice for hiking and fishing trips. 

Now ten, Nolie, as I call her, has proved herself the ultimate adventure companion. So far we’ve visited forty-six states, most of them two or three times. A trained hunting dog, she never wags her tail harder than when I break out the shotgun in preparation for a fall pheasant hunt in the Dakotas. She runs herself ragged in the field, with a bloody, chapped nose to prove it. Come winter, she’ll break trail in the snow while we backcountry ski in the mountains, an act she did religiously when she and I lived in Santa Fe, our first home together.   

Then things changed, as happens in life. Nolie and I moved to New York City, where she spent her days alone in an apartment. On weekends, for both of our benefit, I’d take her fly fishing for trout on the Delaware River, or we’d hike around a remote Catskills lake for a swim. But for the most part, Nolie had become a dread “city dog” who lived for mornings in Prospect Park, where we’d simulate hunting retrieves. Confused Brooklynites looked on as I practiced whistle stops with her, using the high-pitched blast to get Nolie to halt while running after a tennis ball at full speed. A hand signal would send her off in another direction for a blind retrieve. 

Once, a woman who’d been watching us from a distance walked over and told me, “You’re not letting her just be a dog.” Fair enough, but Nolie has never been just a dog. And, as I have come to understand, Waffles has never been just a cat. 

Had I known Waffles’s full character when we discovered her and Moose in a box beside a Brooklyn street, I may have left her there. Granted, she looks stunning, with piercing blue eyes and white socks on her paws. But she is, as my wife, Keren, says, the Naomi Campbell of felines: the world’s prettiest cat with the worst attitude. Half a dozen times per day, Waffles screams for seemingly no reason, loud enough to disturb both floors of the house. When she wants attention, she digs her claws into your leg or shoulder, or gets straight to the point, knocking the phone out of your hand, then drools uncontrollably when you do finally pet her. She has some sort of compulsion for pushing things off countertops and nightstands—pens, coins, vases, phones, and, her favorite, stemless wineglasses. She delights in the explosion below.

“Waaaaffles!” Keren yells when something shatters again.

“What do you expect?” I say. “She has a disease.”

Waffles, alas, loves Nolie with a similar pathosis. She saunters up to the sleeping dog and rubs her tiny head against Nolie, giving her kisses, as we call it. She eventually burrows her head into Nolie’s ear, the flap covering almost the entirety of the pip-squeak’s head. Waffles then flops down on her back to stretch out and paw at Nolie. This has been a daily ritual since she was nine weeks old and weighed less than two pounds.  

For a year or more, though, this was an unrequited love story, of Shakespearean proportions. The problem is that Waffles has no idea how to demonstrate her affection without “massaging” the dog with her claws. Nolie, able to take only so much, finally bares her teeth when the nails dig in. Waffles then slaps Nolie on the snout. Nolie slinks away. Waffles follows, and the dance begins anew. This happens a dozen times per day. 

I side with Nolie, for obvious reasons. I never really liked cats—or at least never thought I did. They were outdoor animals, good for managing mouse populations and not much else. But when you marry an Upper East Sider, you and your hunting Lab have to make certain conciliations for marital accord. On our first date, when I told Keren about Nolie, she swooned—then quickly outlined the only terms of our future prenup. 

“Cats,” she said. “It’s nonnegotiable.”

“Sure,” I said, “but only if we can have an equal number of dogs.” 

We shook on the spot. It was only a month after moving in together that we brought home Moose and Waffles. Then to balance the numbers came Lyla, whom I spotted in a shelter a year later, after we’d moved to Austin, Texas. I figured Lyla, a high-strung collie with natural herding instincts, would be great at keeping Waffles busy—or at least annoyed. It was only fair. I filled out the adoption papers that night.

As the years passed and the house-hold expanded, Nolie found herself the grande dame of a lawless menagerie. The life she once lived, full of campfire bacon and flushing birds, suddenly transformed into Saturday morning brunches and turquoise-studded dog collars. It’s not bad—just different. Nolie and Lyla now chase each other in Zilker Park, which helps keep Nolie young. Moose, whose love of fetching toys and response to commands make her more dog than cat, occasionally sleeps in Nolie’s bed, and the two seem to have an understanding. But then there’s Waffles, whose domineering love for the dog knows no boundaries.

My wife sides with Waffles, naturally. As an executive coach and motivational speaker, Keren is fond of setting goals, staying positive, and being pathologically social. Talking in superlatives—even verifiably false ones—is the way she expresses herself. “Aren’t you the world’s most wonderful cat,” she coos while lifting Waffles aloft like she’s announcing the birth of a new lion king. “Doesn’t everybody just adore you? Are you perfect in every way?!” (Short answers: No. Not her. And good God, haven’t you noticed we don’t have one complete set of wineglasses?)

Then, the impossible: Not long ago, I began to notice Nolie warming to Waffles.  Waffles would dance between Nolie’s legs, and Nolie would lick the top of her head. When the electricity went out for four days last winter, Waffles and Nolie slept together in the bed, cuddling next to each other for warmth. And just a few weeks ago, when we trimmed the cats’ nails, a process they revolt against with every ounce of energy in their lungs, Nolie hovered around the drama, sniffing the cats and licking them to make sure they were fine, especially Waffles. 

This is not to say that there’s any less mayhem in the house. It’s nearly constant, and Keren continually threatens to get another cat. Which means another dog, and then even less peace in a house already short on it. But I’ve learned there’s no such thing as domestic harmony without a little chaos, and a willingness to embrace the changes it brings. Also, that it’s nice to love, and be loved, especially if it upends the life you once imagined.