Good Dog

Puppy Dreams

Sometimes the hardest part is not getting the dog

Illustration: John Cuneo

Susan is seventy-two, I’m seventy. The Lady Sashay will be our last puppy. Over twenty-three years, we’ve buried six dogs and have four left: Sweetness, fourteen, with bad knees; Matthew, nine, a bastard out of Carolina we rescued; Nicholas, three; and his brother, Precious, two. Matthew is a retriever-spaniel mix, our designer dog, a Retraniel. All of our other dogs have been Shiba Inus, Japanese hunting dogs. For centuries, the Japanese used Shibas like pit bulls, to hunt bears and wild boar in packs, and in dogfighting. A dogfight between Shibas never ends in whimpering capitulation; it ends in death. Shibas are tough, smart, obstinate, primitive dogs, more like small wolves. Mark Doerr, a noted dog behaviorist, told us that Shibas “are the dogs impossible to train.” When you feed any other dog, he will look at you as if to say, “Oh, you’re feeding me! You must be God!” When you feed a Shiba, he looks at you as if to say, without exclamation points, “Oh, you’re feeding me. I must be God.”

Like most hunting dogs, Shibas are aggressive toward animals but see humans as their allies. Shibas love people, as long as they behave. If not, they turn their backs on them. It’s a humbling experience, the first time you’re condescended to by a thirty-five-pound red-and-white dog. (I am remiss here in not writing about Matthew. But he does not have the depth of personality, the range, the bite, you might say, of our Shibas. Our Shibas expect us to worship them. Matthew wants only to worship us. A simple creature close to God.)

Male Shibas are playful and loyal. Female Shibas are aloof, like cats. The Japanese call Shibas “the cat dog.” Our first breeder, Linda, told us, “They don’t call Shiba females bitches for nothing. In a pack of males, a lone Shiba female is the alpha. Shiba males always defer to the bitch.” Our first female of two, Kiri, was charming with people, like Perle Mesta at a soiree, but bossy with her older brother Hoshi. Our second, Stella, was yappy, foul-tempered, and belligerent, even as a puppy the day we picked her up in a cargo hangar at Delta DASH. A baggage handler carried the doggy crate toward us; the crate was rattling and the creature inside growling and snapping. He held the crate stiff-armed away from his body and said, “Whatcha got in here, a wolverine?”

Stella never stopped yapping, growling, and snapping for sixteen years. She was always pissed off because a human or a dog crossed her sight line, her food wasn’t delivered on time, or one of her brothers had the temerity to drink from the water while she was. She would snap at him. He would back off, sit, and wait. I think Stella’s pisstivity was a defense mechanism to hide her fears and insecurities (you tend to do this with Shibas, psychoanalyze their neuroses), because she never bit a dog or a person. She was most afraid the day she died. Susan sat on the floor, Stella climbed into her lap, the first time ever, and stared up at Susan, as if to say, “I feel strange. What’s happening to me? Make it go away.” But Susan couldn’t.

After Stella died, we swore off Shiba females and settled in with our four boys to a Stella-free life. But last summer, with our boys grown indolent, we decided to jump-start them out of their pastoral torpor with a bitch. So I called Fred, our new breeder in South Carolina, where we now live, and asked him to save us a bitch from his next litter. “Fine,” he said, a man of few words. He didn’t question our getting a puppy as our friends did: “At your age?” We’d already thought about that. If we didn’t live to bury all our dogs, we left those remaining in our will to Peter, our dearest friend in Miami. Peter’s a dog lover like all our friends. Susan and I have always loved dogs more than people—our curse, or blessing.

When Fred e-mailed that one of his champion Shibas had had a girl, we e-mailed him that I’d drive down from Abbeville to pick up “the Lady Sashay” in six weeks. We liked to get our Shibas at that age because they were still unformed puppies, a little wild, but malleable, their personality not yet hardened in stone. At six weeks, they were more easily enfolded into the pack because they only wanted to do what the pack did. At eight weeks, Shibas have already developed their arrogant Shiba attitude that could cause trouble in a pack of older Shibas set in their ways. Shibas can be aggressive toward other dogs, even those in their pack. We’d broken up our share of dogfights over the years, over dog food, a possum one of them killed and the others wanted, a perceived doggy slight, an insult, whatever. We got tuned to the telltale sound of low, throaty, threatening growls followed by a slashing of teeth and blood.

Every Monday, Fred sent a photo of the Lady Sashay. (It’s always “the Lady Sashay,” never “Lady Sashay” or “Sashay.”) At first she looked like a gerbil, then at four weeks a Shiba puppy: pointy nose, pricked triangular ears, tail curled over her back, a dusty reddish color, white muzzle, white chest, white paws. At eight weeks, she’d turn fiery reddish brown.

We showed our friends the photos. They asked, why the Lady Sashay? We said, “A fitting name for a Southern girl, no?” We talked about her as if we already knew her. She was a Shiba; we already did know her, up to a point. Each week we invested more of our emotions into her, knowing she would never betray that investment, as people had. We saw her in our mind’s eye, her haughty little ass-shaking walk; “I’m me, and you’re not!” hence Sashay. We anthropomorphized her as we had all our Shibas, a typical failing among Shiba owners. The Lady Sashay in her white stiletto pumps, flouncy miniskirt, little tube top, big white-framed sunglasses, her ponytail swishing as she licked a lollipop. We looked down at our sleeping boys and thought, “Life as you know it, boys, will soon be gone forever.”

The day before my three-hour trip south, I packed Susan’s knit purse with towels we’d rubbed over our boys’ fur so their scent would be the first thing TLS smelled in the car. I planned to put the purse straps around my neck so it would rest against my chest, with TLS inside and my hands free to drive. I put the purse, puppy toys, pink rhinestone collar, blue leash, ziplock bag of puppy food, and metal water dish with a bottle of Evian in the car. I e-mailed Fred that I’d arrive the next day before noon, then rechecked my route, to Paxville and Fred’s kennels, Frerose Shibas. Fred was the most famous Shiba breeder in the world, outside Japan.

Finally, I went to bed. We watched movies for a while, but I couldn’t concentrate, so I went outside to the porch and began to pace to calm myself. When I exhausted myself, I went back to bed. The next morning I saw Fred had e-mailed me. “Hi, Pat, we’re sorry to tell you but you can’t take Sashay home tomorrow. Her eyes are only half open, not uncommon in oriental breeds. Her head has to fill out for her eyelids to open completely.”

A week passed. Another. Susan and I began to imagine things: The Lady Sashay had an eye infection, her vision was bad, her head had not developed. When I e-mailed Fred about these fears, he wrote back, “It’s just her eyelids, she’ll be fine soon.” But soon was not soon enough for us. When TLS was eight weeks old, I e-mailed Fred, “I’m sorry, Fred, but we’re gonna have to pass on this puppy. It’s important to get one at six weeks. We’ll wait for a female from your next litter.” Fred understood.

We took down the Lady Sashay’s photos from the refrigerator. Susan put them in her desk drawer; she didn’t have the heart to throw them out. I put her leash, collar, bowl, toys, food, the purse, into a plastic tub in the attic.

We tried to rationalize our guilt for rejecting her. “At nine weeks she could have disrupted the pack,” I said. Susan nodded, fighting back tears. We tried not to talk about her. When we did, we called her “the puppy.” We struggled with something profoundly upsetting we could not define. It was not rational. We had read into that puppy what we read into all our dogs. They were objects that fulfilled our need to nurture, love, trust, protect, make happy. Now the Lady Sashay had betrayed us. Irrationally, insanely, I was furious with that poor, innocent puppy with the droopy eyelids. I had told Fred we didn’t care about the eyelids, we wanted her at six weeks, we’d care for her, we’d love her—but he said no.

Weeks passed. We no longer talked about the puppy we’d rejected or the one who would replace her. Then one day in October Fred e-mailed that he had a female puppy for us we could pick up, at six weeks, in late November, “if everything’s all right.”

“A Christmas puppy!” Susan said with feigned brightness. “We could call her Noelle.” But we didn’t talk about her much. When we did, we called her “the puppy.” Then one day, I said, “I was thinking, if Fred hasn’t been able to place the Lady Sashay with anyone, maybe I should take her home with the other puppy, too.”

Susan said, “Absolutely.”