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It's Nelly's World

Small Package >>> Big Things

alec vanderboom

A dog is a vehicle. And a vehicle takes you on an odyssey. Of course there's never any way of knowing where you're going. This strange fact about life sometimes hits me on the back of the head, and some days I wail David Byrne-like, "How did I get here?" How was it that I found myself yesterday not doing any of the million three hundred sixty-seven other things I could have been doing, but rather, sitting all day on a folding chair in a firehouse with fifty other people (mostly women; almost always mostly women in these things) who paid $100 to listen to Suzanne Clothier tell us about dog behavior?

There was another dog, long before Mercy, longer before Nelly. She was not a transformative event, however; instead, she was a Christmas present. A bichon frise--my mother insisted upon a dog who would not leave hair on the living room carpet, as well as one with the cachet of rarity (this was 1967)--who arrived from the breeder smelling of baby powder. She was the soul of sweetness. And how shockingly we repaid her for it. The paperback book on dog care we bought instructed us on training matters: a rolled-up newspaper to swat her for any infraction; accidents in the house required us to force her nose into it, no matter that it was after the fact, no matter that the only thing she learned thereby was that her people went inexplicably nuts sometimes and hurt her. She stayed sweet. This is the rebuke that returns, stinging, in my memory of her.

I don't know if it's any excuse that pretty much every dog training authority in those days gave the same advice. So it had to be correct. (We are always looking for someone whose voice carries the ringing tone of certainty. It is a sound that so fills the head it silences any squeaking sounds of protest that might arise there.) So we left her as a small puppy, crying awfully, down in the kitchen alone at night, with an alarm clock for company. I put my head under my pillow to drown out the sound. When I attained a defiant age, I would sometimes provoke my mother's ire by bringing her up to bed with me. Where she belonged all along.

I could tell you more about how we, assuredly fine people, treated this beautiful white creature. Only I can't quite bring myself to say some of it now. I have to wonder if every hour I now spend in seminars with famous trainers, people who have studied canine behavior and language, needs and modes of learning; if every dollar I spend on books and treats and clickers and toys and agility classes, is really an attempt to atone for the unintentional misery we brought to a small fluffy dog, dead now for years.