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It's Nelly's World


alec vanderboom

One day fourteen years ago, I stepped from one world into another. At the time, I was not aware that I had done it. But I accomplished a very neat sci-fi trick: I stayed the same, physically, but I passed through an invisible wall separating one planet from its double. On this new planet, I would live as a Dog Person. (Previously, I had been a Person.)

This happened by walking into the Chester County, Maryland, humane society, at the culmination of a bed-and-breakfast weekend celebrating our first anniversary. All weekend long we had found ourselves engaged in a surrogate shall-we-have-a-baby discussion, though we wouldn't have known it. We were having the shall-we-get-a-dog discussion, because the other one was too blame scary. Our visit to the Eastern Shore had been literally haunted by dogs, which we took as a sign: the B&B had a resident labrador retriever; the farm where we went for a trail ride had just become home to a clutch of those Rolypoly Cute Puppies (TM), each a different color; when we went for a walk in an old graveyard, a beagle watched us from behind a stone. He was, I know now, an emissary from this other world.

As I am wont to do, I insisted upon carefully drawn up lists of pro and con. And then, because I already know what I want, I crumple up the opposing list and say the hell with it. If the humane society is open on our way home, I said, it'll be the final sign.

The black ball of puppy ferocity came home with us, and was named Mercedes for about two minutes, then became Mercy. Only she didn't have any. Our first "child" was about to become the product of a broken home. If we divorced because of her, though (she was not, ahem, a "husky/lab" mix as the shelter had said; she was almost pure border collie--does that explain it?), I was going to take her with me. I had already become her mother, even if I could barely stand her baby behavior, and would have demanded custody because I now could not stand the thought of living without her. I had started to put my foot through that invisible membrane, into the next world.

We had to hire a trainer, or a magician, or someone who could get this puppy from hell to stop chewing the electrical cords, the furniture legs, our shoes, our limbs; someone had to teach this dog that the hours between two and six a.m. were not intended for a command performance of her circus act. They were for sleep goddamn, goddamn it.

Nothing mystical was intended by the universe, I am sure, but it so happened that the friends we asked for advice helped change everything, in a spectacular way that is still, more than a decade later, changing everything for me. First, they lent us a video by someone named Dr. Ian Dunbar, and there was nary a rolled-up newspaper in it. It was, rather, kind of nice. We didn't have to hit our puppy, or show her who was boss; we had to give her treats, and we had to teach her that hands reaching into her food bowl presaged good things like the addition of a tasty tidbit and thus did not have to be shredded by little teeth.

The list of trainers these friends provided was sinply a list of names. And we simply, for no good reason, picked the third one. Polly.

A day later, an impish, pleasant woman was sitting on our kitchen floor while Mercy used her to practice one of her tightrope routines. Suddenly, Mercy yelped and backed away, looking surprised. What happened? I asked. Polly smiled beatifically. "Mercy nipped me, so I nipped her back." Holy cow. I hadn't seen a thing. Subtle, this was.

After talking with us for quite some time, Polly solemnly told us she had arrived at a diagnosis. We held our breath as she pronounced it: "Mercy needs the Park Cure." Oh my gosh. The Park Cure? Was it really that serious?

The next morning she picked us up in her Mazda and drove to Prospect Park, a few blocks from our Brooklyn apartment. I maybe had been there once or twice. Before we left the car, I started to afix Mercy's leash. "Oh, no," Polly said. "Let her out, and start walking." What? My little girl, whom I had never "taught" to come back to me? Wouldn't she Run Away? "Teach her that it's her job to know where you are, not the other way around." Polly knew things I did not know. Mercy followed me.

How can I tell you about how that park became our real home? How, when Polly became my friend, and her dog Smedley became Mercy's first great love, all I wanted to do was be with them? Every minute of the two hours we spent there each morning was like the great book of all knowledge being opened before me, and Polly reading bits of it out loud. She had gone to Wolf Park to observe wolf behavior. She had studied with Ian Dunbar. She had read everything serious written on dogs up to that point (which was nowhere near what it is now). She taught me about a new thing called clicker training, and it took Mercy three times to know the clicker was "charged up," and thereafter she learned new behaviors on the first trial. Soon I had about forty-five words or phrases she responded to. Polly showed me how to teach Mercy to "spell"--I'd say, "D-O-W-N," she'd do a down, and people would gasp. People are so silly. Her intelligence startled both of us: "Mercy is a Maserati," Polly said to me one day. "She is as fine-tuned as an Italian racing engine, and as easy to mess up." Thereafter it was engraved in my soul: Mercy is--was--a Maserati.

A couple of nights ago we went to see a movie, Paris Je t'aime, an indifferent and sentimental compilation. The best section in it was the monologue of a somewhat sad, middle-aged, Middle American woman visiting Paris for the first time and revisiting the what-ifs of her life. It was meant to be a tip-off to the sorrier aspects of her personality that she felt she could not leave her two dogs--clearly meant to be child surrogates--for more than a week. How pathetic, we are meant to think. At one time, I would have. When I was much younger, I remember thinking how yucky it was that some people seemed not to have relationships with people, but only with their dogs.

That was then. This is now.