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Thursday, March 24, 2005

Licks instead of kicks

My little dog — a heartbeat at my feet. — Edith Wharton

I was lamenting yesterday with a fellow writer about how the business of being a writer can really bring you down. He agreed and mentioned how needy writers are, adding that if he doesn't receive immediate feedback on something he's turned in, he's convinced he's no good. Let me just add that this guy has won the George Polk Award, written a book and is working on his second, and worked on the Washington Post investigative team under Woodward and Bernstein.

He and his family recently became the proud owners of a chocolate lab so we were discussing the idiosyncracies of Labrador retrievers. He said that every writer should have a dog because in this business you get more kicks than licks. I'd have to agree and I've been feeling more of the kicks of late. Without my realizing it, my own pup is always here, a little comforting heartbeat at my feet, with oodles of affection to share.

Riley is by no means little. She’s a respectable 70 pounds, not huge for a Labrador retriever, but plenty large enough to keep my perpetually frozen toes warm. That was one of the reasons I looked forward to getting her. And now she has finally gotten to the point where she will spend her day in my office, mostly at my feet though I think she’d prefer my lap.

It’s been a long road. We picked her up the day after Christmas 2003 from a breeder in Norton. Her mom was very slender, but her dad was a boxy fellow. Riley, an English Lab, more closely resembles her dad. She’s a bit boxy, but beautifully muscular. She’s a yellow lab, but is more cream in color than golden. Objectively speaking, she’s a beautiful creature.

Life with Riley hasn’t been easy. If ever we get another dog, it will be a rescue of an older dog. No more puppies. While they are immensely adorable and cuddly, they quickly grow into canine Tasmanian devils, wholly unruly and wild. I don’t need any more unruliness or wildness in my house. Thank goodness for three things — the Gentle Leader leash (it’s not a muzzle and comes with an oversized button that says as much), crate training and Puppy Preschool.

In the beginning, we had many boundaries for Riley. She wouldn’t leave the kitchen or family room area, afraid to step over the threshold into the unknown of the dining room or living room. Steps terrified her, going up or down. My original intent was to keep her out of the living room. And we certainly did not want her on the furniture.

But a year after we laid those ground rules, it seems we’ve become lax at enforcement. It’s my fault mostly. When I’m lying on the couch reading or watching TV, she jumps up and curls herself into the elbow of my legs, sighing loudly and resting her head on my legs. We have this blasted vaulted ceiling in our family room and that room is freezing in the winter. Riley’s warm body keeps me from shivering. She is a bit of a fireplace hog. The spot in front of the fire has always and will always be claimed in the name of mom. She’s encroaching a bit, but so long as she lies on the opposite side of the fire, I’m okay with sharing the space.

She and I have started running together. It was a little harried at first. She took off at a slightly faster pace than I’m used to running. Actually, she nearly pulled my arm out of its socket. My arms were sore for days after those first runs. Amazingly, she and I have found our pacing. I still run faster when I take her with me, but I’m getting used to it. Besides, it’s good for training.

Dogs are smart and she knows when I put on my running jacket that we’re going out. She sits as close to me as possible, still as a statue save her tail, which is swooshing back and forth across the floor with lightning speed. She looks at me expectantly ready to pounce the moment I stand. I’ll pause when I’m putting on my shoes and say, “What?” Her tail stops swishing for a second as she ponders my question. And then it starts again as I tie my shoes.

One of her more annoying habits is following me everywhere. Upstairs, downstairs, inside, outside. I turn around and nearly tumble over her. As is the case in most households, the kitchen is the hub of activity after school and during the dinner hour. She has no problem sprawling out in the middle of the kitchen floor and sleeping soundly while the frenzy and commotion of life at the Hoke house revolves around her.

I’ve noticed some feline sensibilities in Riley. She’s fond of a spot of sunshine, a rather rare thing in these parts. When it does shine, typically in my bedroom in the morning, she army crawls her way to soak up the spot. I’m tempted to grab the sunscreen and join her.

We used to crate her at night, but now she’s free to roam. She’s been playing musical beds with the boys, but seems to favor Michael’s. He is the smallest and allows her the most stretching room. For all her time spent following me during the day, at night she doesn’t come into my room. I think Danny’s snoring keeps her away. There are times when he’s asleep on the couch snoring away and she’s on the floor next to him snoring. Can't even hear the TV. If I owned a video camera, I’d tape record for posterity.

Lately she’s been curling up in the spot of sunshine on my bed during the day. When I went to get the mail the other day, I heard a thump as she jumped down and did her downward dog stretch before following me to the door.

I find all this rather odd in a way. We’ve never been animal people. I’m still surprised that we got the dog at all. Spring is a nightmare what with mud on her paws, the boys and friends racing in and out of the house. On Tuesday she came in the house covered with mud and leaped up on my white couch. I nearly went ballistic. Danny has to constantly badger the boys about cleaning up the poop. And yet despite all the “work” of having a dog, we’re left with this creature that has managed to creep her way into our hearts. Now how’d that happen?

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