15: Making a Family

15: Making a Family

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Very Good, Very Bad Dog

Making a Family

Fun fact: The Bichon Frise actually has a double coat, with a soft, thick coat underneath its cottony-looking outside coat.

“Please?” “Please?” “Please?” Three sets of eyes looked up at Dad. During dinner, Mom announced that one of her English students at the college was a dog breeder and was offering the runt of her latest litter of Bichon Frise puppies at a special price.

“We’ll take care of him,” I promised.

“Please, Daddy, please!” my sister begged.

“I always grew up with dogs,” Mom added.

For years, Dad had avoided getting a dog. Whenever the topic came up, Dad put on his grumpiest face and uttered stock phrases: “Dogs are a pain. They’re a big responsibility. I don’t want to be bothered.” But he never refused outright. He’d hidden “Nos” behind “Somedays” and “Maybes.”

This was our “Someday.”

Dad barely made it through dinner before he caved. A few weeks later, Mom brought home a little ball of fluff named Chip. Dad watched from afar, muttering, “Don’t think for one second I’m going to feed, walk, or brush him.”

We were almost too in love to hear.

For me, at age thirteen, Chip offered a solid foundation, a way out of all the trouble I could get into as a teenager. While many of my friends were flirting in online chat rooms, sniffing permanent markers, sneaking their parents’ alcohol, or meeting for trysts in the woods, I was outside playing with our new puppy.

Instead of being a self-absorbed teenager, I had someone else to look out for: Chip. Before long, I had him waiting at crosswalks until it was safe, and responding to “shake,” “sit,” and “stand up.” I kept him out of the trash, filled his water bowl, groomed his coat and brushed his teeth. I had promised my parents that if we got a dog I’d be responsible, and I was. Chip taught me about actions and consequences. I learned that when we take care of what is important to us, we reap the benefits. For me, this meant a loyal companion, someone to greet me at the door when I returned from babysitting, someone to keep my lap warm on cold winter nights, and someone to kiss my face when I was sad. And this lesson stayed with me as I grew.

Chip brought out my responsible side and he helped my younger sister with her self-confidence. We’d had a dog once before — years earlier, and only for a few weeks. My mom had been allergic to his dense fur, and my sister, then only a small child, had been terrified of the Samoyed. She approached Chip with caution. As if Chip could sense her feelings, he remained extra gentle with her. He would crawl gently onto her lap and curl up with a contented sigh. She grew confident with him and was eventually able to walk him on her own. She even taught him his most unusual trick — “Look” — a command that caused him to run to the nearest sewer drain, push a pebble into it with his nose, and watch it plummet into the water below. This new confidence stayed with her as she grew, and she took on leadership roles in sports and at school.

But Chip’s magic didn’t stop with us kids. Mom had always been happiest when she had someone to just sit and listen — and our busy family didn’t sit still for that. Bichons are particularly adept at listening and discerning the nuances of language, so Chip would sit with mom, his head cocking from side to side as he tried to make out the meaning of her words. Before long, she had him discerning the difference between all his toys: “Christmas-bear,” “cat-bear,” “flat bone,” “squeaky toy,” and more.

Perhaps the most amazing transformation was Dad’s. From the start, Dad was adamant: “He’s your dog, not mine. No table scraps. No sitting on the furniture.” It was hardly a month before Chip’s adorable personality won him over. Dad was the first to feed Chip table scraps, and the first to allow him to sit on the couch. Chip even allowed Dad’s under-utilized (but amazing) creative side to blossom. Before long, Dad was making chew toys and obstacles for Chip to play with. In the deep winter snow, it was Dad who shoveled a path in the back yard from the patio door to Chip’s favorite tree. Chip had won over the heart of the sternest member of our family and softened him.

Chip brought us together as a family. It was a time when my friends were becoming more isolated from their parents and a time when teenagers thought it wasn’t “cool” to associate with younger siblings. After dinner, children would escape to their bedrooms, parents fled to their newspapers, and no one interacted. But Chip united us. After dinner, we all followed Chip into the family room. We’d teach him new tricks or reinforce his old ones. We’d recount stories of the cute things he’d done that day. We’d help Dad create a new chew toy with ropes from the garage or collaborate on an obstacle course of buckets, blankets, and toys. The important thing is that we’d do this together as a family.

When Chip passed away at seventeen, Dad suffered the most. “I never thought a pet could mean so much to me,” he admitted. He told us this together — grown-up kids coming home again from college and jobs as Chip brought us together one final time. And it was Dad who called from the road not too long afterward — letting us know he’d found a puppy on a pet-finder website and was on his way home with it.

People who are not dog lovers sometimes complain about those who treat their pets too much like humans. What they don’t understand is that it isn’t that dog lovers are abandoning humanity for their pets; rather, their pets are what elicit in them the best aspects of their humanity. In my family’s case, Chip strengthened our responsibility, confidence, companionship, love, creativity, and togetherness. It isn’t that we aspired to make Chip human; it’s that he succeeded in doing that for us.

~Val Muller

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