My neighbours – virtually all of them, so let’s say a few hundred people – are passionate about dogs and cats. Many of those cats, and especially dogs, were taken from unfortunate situations and given a new home by these open-hearted people. One couple took in a basset hound with a rescued-stray’s tattoo on its belly, the sight of which brings uncomfortable thoughts of camps, not of the playful kind; and an older lady took in another older lady, a terrier of indeterminate vintage. The adoption route, however, was not what we chose. In my household, we took the easy route and the baby option: our puppy might as well have been a mail-order bride. She was put on a plane in Arizona, in a tiny crate, and we went to meet her in Texas, like claiming baggage. So unlike our generous neighbours, we’ve known our dog for most of her life. The question is, have they missed all that much? What do you get from puppyhood that you don’t get at any other time? How are puppies not like grown-up dogs? Here is what comes to mind:
1. Puppies have to learn that it hurts you when they bite, and they can’t tell which are your tender parts. So you get a friendly bite on the ear – drawing blood, and a playful poke in the eye (don’t worry, your lashes won’t stick to your eyeballs forever). You never want to be gnawed on by piranhas, Victorian dolls, or puppies a few weeks old. It’s not great for the furniture, either.
2. Puppies would seem to know what food is, but this is merely a stab in the dark. The fact that puppies are confused about what may be eaten becomes clear when they have ingested such items as rubber bands, yarn, wasps, acorns and other flora found around the neighbourhood. You may not know about the botanical collection until you find it, unmasticated and regurgitated, on your puppy’s blanket in the morning.
3. You know those dolls that soil themselves to be cute but also realistic? Very young puppies are just like that, only you’ve paid a lot more for the privilege. They might piddle at any moment, and they need to relieve their bowels five times a day. That’s a lot of relieving going on. I took to keeping a diary with ludicrously precise notes about when the puppy had weed and whoopsied – symbolised by W and W2 -- with predictions about future evacuations, and remarks on whether I’d been successful or not in whisking her out of the house. Very often, I was not. In fact, there is not a rug that we own that has not been ‘naturalised’ and rehabilitated at one time or another.
4. When you have a young puppy and you’re an inexperienced owner, you try to do everything by the book, until you realise you can’t be bothered or the effort is just unnecessary. Experts tell you to trim the nails in puppyhood so they’ll be used to it as adults, but the pavement is the only trimmer my dog ever needs, so that’s that. Her rubber brush was a waste of money except when I tossed it once or twice as a toy. I have a chamois I bought on a book’s advice to smooth her just-brushed coat and make it shiny. Needless to say, I’ve never used that either. The only thing I do that I’m glad she got used to in puppyhood is brush her teeth. Dogs don’t rinse, so they have their own toothpaste, in mint or other flavors that we naturally find revolting but the puppy of course quite likes: peanut butter or poultry. Thirty seconds of brushing may be all you can get in before the paste is off the brush and the puppy has had enough, thanks; but old pros (which is me now) can do about 50. The dog’s teeth shine like Donny Osmond’s and her breath is always sweet.
5. From a veterinary point of view, the puppy phase is anxious and expensive: all those check-ups, vaccinations, and breathless phone calls because you were too green to realize that healthy puppies twitch in their sleep. On the other hand, one quickly learns that a puppy is a cheap date: no real diamonds for this girl, she only wants the imitation paste. Having spent a hundred dollars on a toy-box full of posh colourful toys, devised by boffins with her development in mind, you soon realise that an empty milk jug with a string hanging off it is what puppy always likes best, anyway. You learn that it is not worth shelling out for a weird blue monkey or a sheep without legs when the puppy is more interested in the bag it came in. You start making your own toys, or you find that the puppy has made them for herself – but that’s all right: you didn’t like that bra, anyway. (Bras are excellent for tug-of-war, if your dog is that way inclined.)
6. The openness of a dog to new experiences – including people and other animals – is at its peak when the dog is a puppy. Young puppies have no firm opinions about other living beings, mostly because they know so little about them. Thus, whatever they may think of cats later in life, puppies are willing and able to conceive of them as housemates. But the type or breed of puppy matters, as does the disposition of the cat. As we found out with a cat we rescued, harmony is not easily achieved when the dog rightly thinks that she is princess of the household, is strongly territorial, and likes to chase whatever has a tail.
In practice, when cats and dogs are said to get along, what this really means is that the resident cat is Lord of the Perches, who has first dibs on the sofa or any other location. The dog is viewed by the cat in much the same manner as Matron views the junior interim assistant nurse: ‘acceptable in the circumstances but apron is slovenly and must do better’. Cats in the nature of things are Matrons; dogs however are unlike junior nurses in that they fail to see the cats’ superiority. They may acknowledge the cat as a fact, and get off the favourite chair when the cat approaches, but the cat’s inability to wag like a dog and play like a dog remains a life-long puzzle. However, dogs and cats often co-exist peaceably regardless of character, since they want different things in life: a cat wants pride of place, while a dog wants pride of place in your heart. As long as one is not seen to trespass too much on the other’s point of pride, they will be fine together.
So I’ve learned a lot about dogs by having a puppy, and I would hate to have missed the puppy stage of life.