25: Best Friends

25: Best Friends

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

Best Friends

Fun fact: About ten percent of people may be allergic to dogs. Allergic people should choose breeds that don’t shed and produce less dander, the source of most allergens.

When my neighbor Ellen retired recently, one of the first things she did was to get her dog, Lucy. She had always wanted a dog, she told me, and now she had the time to care for one.

“I had a dog very briefly when I was a little girl,” she said, “but it turns out that my brother was allergic to it, and we had to give it away.”

She paused, gave a rueful little laugh, and then said, “I’ve never forgiven him.”

It was clear, though, that she was finding her time with Lucy well worth the wait. Lucy is a charming mix, with the velvet ears and sleek coat of a Labrador Retriever, the elegant posture and black-and-white markings of a Boston Terrier, and the endearing curved tail of a Spitz breed. The shelter from which Ellen adopted Lucy told her that Lucy had likely lived most of her life on the streets in the South. Lucy’s affection for Ellen is palpable, almost as if she can’t believe her good fortune in finding such a loving home. And Ellen’s delight in everything about Lucy is a joy to behold.

Seeing them so happy together, day after day, I couldn’t help but think of Kenny, my younger son, who has also wanted a dog his whole life, but couldn’t because of my husband’s allergies. One of Kenny’s first three words was “dog.” His favorite toy as a baby was a Labrador Retriever stuffed animal. (It went everywhere with him for years — I don’t think there is a photo of him as a toddler that doesn’t include it.) He long considered Jenny, my sister’s chocolate Lab, his favorite cousin. He would talk about visiting her with the same enthusiasm that most kids his age reserved for a trip to Disneyland.

He would ask for a dog for every Christmas and birthday, and my husband, Dan, and I would always gently turn him down. We’d explain that even if my husband could find a way to manage his allergies, Kenny would still have to wait until he was old enough to walk his puppy around the neighborhood by himself. When he was little, it seemed like the perfect solution. We didn’t need to break his precious heart by telling him “no” — we just had to encourage him to have patience.

Before we knew it we had a persistent eleven-year-old who insisted that we make good on our promise. Kenny was well prepared to combat the allergy argument, providing us with a long list of hypoallergenic breeds. He also sent me a long text with all of his reasons for wanting a canine companion, ending the message with the simple words: “A dog would make me happy.”

I received his message on a dreary morning after I saw Kenny off to school. As a fifth-grader on the cusp of entering middle school and adolescence, Kenny was chafing at any and all attempts to restrain his independence. It was a constant source of conflict between us.

I thought about all the arguments we had had in the past month. He was increasingly moody and full of pre-teen angst. I thought about my own childhood, and how hard the middle school years were. By the time I reached high school, I knew a bit about myself, but the awkwardness of early adolescence had been almost unbearable.

“A dog would make me happy.” The last line of his text haunted me for days while I pondered what to do. I was not sure that I wanted to add more tasks to my to-do list. But how could I deny Kenny the one thing that he had always wanted? Would he, like Ellen, have to wait until he was retired to have the dog of his dreams?

Dan and I discussed the pros and cons endlessly. In addition to Dan’s allergies and all the work involved in taking care of a dog in New York City, we worried about the expense and the fact that we would likely own the dog for a decade or so after Kenny left for college. Just as I was becoming convinced that after all those years of stalling, we would have to tell Kenny “no” after all, I experienced an incident that completely changed my mind.

One morning, I spotted Ellen and Lucy walking toward our apartment building about a half-block ahead of me. They leaned into each other as they strolled along. Every now and then, Lucy gently caressed Ellen’s leg with her Spitz tail. A bit of a breeze ruffled Lucy’s fur and she reacted with joy, leaping and jumping around. Even from the distance, I could see Ellen’s broad smile and hear her chuckle as she reached down to give Lucy a pat on the head. I knew then and there that I wanted that always-there, easygoing companionship for my son.

Kenny, of course, was ecstatic. Yes, he would agree to take total responsibility for the dog, to feed it, walk it, train it, bathe it, and clean up after it. Yes, he would agree to our house rules for the dog: It wouldn’t be allowed on furniture or in the master bedroom; it would sleep in Kenny’s room; it would have to be trained to listen, not jump up, etc. Yes, he’d prove he was responsible by walking the neighbor’s dog every morning before school and every night before bed for a week. Yes, he’d read a book about dog training. Yes, he’d talk with an experienced dog owner to help him consider everything involved in owning a dog. Yes, yes, yes — whatever we wanted — yes.

Dan did some online research about hypoallergenic breeds. He decided we should get a Goldendoodle and set about finding one. Within a few weeks, we had a new member of the family, whom Kenny named Jenkins.

The change in Kenny was dramatic. Everyone, from his teachers to the doormen in our apartment building, remarked that since we got Jenkins, Kenny seemed to stand taller, smile brighter and, yes, be happier. He worked hard to train Jenkins, patiently cleaning up when the puppy had an accident, and setting limits regarding what is okay to chew (dog toys) and what isn’t (Mom’s favorite high heels).

Toward the end of our first summer with Jenkins, I happened to catch a glimpse of Kenny and his dog walking side-by-side on their way home from the park. Jenkins loped along on still-too-big-for-him puppy paws, feathery tail straight up and wagging happily. Kenny beamed with pride as a passerby complimented him on his adorable, well-behaved buddy. Boy and dog exhibited exactly the kind of relationship that I had hoped they would have: loyal, faithful, best friends.

~Victoria Otto Franzese

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