People have conversations loud enough for me to hear, "No, that's not a Weimaraner; they are more grey; maybe it's a Ridgeback"
Sometimes I'll hear a subdued and confident,"Hungarian Pointer"
I hear a lot of comments as my dog and I trot by people; it's as if they assume that neither of us understands English. I still don't know how to pronounce the name, Vizsla, either. I chose names for my kids that were easy to pronounce because I find it pretentious when names aren't. I only have regrets about our third. Her name is Toby; the Philadelphia accent butchers it. My refusal to learn how to pronounce the word, "Vizsla" is akin to my inability to say the word, Granday at Starbucks. I always ask for a large and nod condescendingly when the cashier perkily asks, "Grande?"
I've been known to roll my eyes at people who have pure bred dogs. Now that I have this dog, am I a hypocrite? My mom taught at a posh private elementary school, so I got to go there for free. I coveted the Izod and Ralph Lauren shirts. I pined for Benetton and Esprit. I demanded Levi's. All of these desires were met with a terse, "I will not pay to turn my daughter into a billboard for some rapacious fashion designer. You can wear one of those shirts as soon as Mr. Lauren pays me to let you wear one." I like to think of myself as someone who has evolved from that grammar school girl with no need for labels, but my heart soars when I find a Lululemon hoodie or a Von Furstenberg top at the thrift store. Maybe I'm just cheap. Am I no better than Donald with his arm around Melania? Is poor Lincoln, my glamorous dog, a piece of arm candy?
The day my black lab, Julie, died was the worst day of my life; I was 12. My mother returned from the vet without her. Mom was wearing a tweed flat cap, a fitted wedgewood blue jacket, and slimming wool pants. I asked her, "Where's Julie?" and she said nothing and opened her arms to me. I've been a cat person ever since. Post kids, if something were to happen to my husband, I could see myself choosing a life path that involved too many cats. Perhaps my adoration of the cats who have haughtily and imperceptibly wagged the tips of their tails upon my return is aspirational. Cats are the heart-breaking, above-it-all divas that I will never be. My musician Aunt Mimi never had more than 8, but she was a borderline, crazy cat woman. My poor father would lose his appetite at every Thanksgiving she hosted. He'd scowl as he watched the cats gracefully wandering around the bowls of stuffing and mashed potatoes that vied for real estate on her counters amidst the various music books and plants in Mimi's disheveled kitchen. He was probably thinking about the clumps of urine and fossilized shit that those same dainty paws excavate in the litter box.
Dogs make me feel guilty. My stomach drops when I see how sad Lincoln is when I leave, but I'd be lying if I said I prefer feline aloofness to his tail-wagging glee when I return. The kitty I've loved the most chirps like a cricket when she sees me, so she's not a real cat. Maybe I'm not a real cat person. Had I googled what a Vizsla is all about would it have changed my mind? I never research anything. I wait for things to happen and then make up a convoluted story as to why that thing should have happened all along. This tendency is akin to my love of astrology. It gives a loose framework for my need to make sweeping generalizations about people. Below are some sweeping generalizations about Vizslas:
Vizslas are not good for novice owners, due to their stubborn personality. Vizslas have a higher than average tendency to nip, chew, play-bite, or herd people.Bored Vizslas are notorious chewers. Too much confinement and too little companionship can lead to neurotic behaviors such as hyperactivity and destructiveness.
At first glance one could say that ignorance and vanity played large parts in my decision to get this dog. One also has to examine that eerie tendency of people to choose dogs that they resemble. I have a large nose, deep-set eyes and big ears. I am lean and athletic. As I get older, I am becoming rather monochromatic. My hair is grey, my skin is sort of light and grey, and so are my eyes. Here is a description of the dog I adopted:
Vizslas are "nerd athletes." The Vizsla have lightweight and muscular bodies with a short, smooth rust-colored coat.The Vizsla can run and at very high speeds.The Vizsla has intelligent, curious eyes, a sculpted face, a large snout framed by large ears. Vizslas have a distinctive, monochromatic appearance, as their eyes and nose match their fur.
Lincoln came from the Smith family. Liz Smith arrived at my elementary school when we were both in second grade. Her youngest brother, Sam was in utero at the time. Liz was an artistic, athletic girl with an insane family. We share the same name, and I adored her from the moment I met her. I was intrigued that her mom was going to have a baby when the eldest of the 6 Smith kids was already in college. I spent a ton of time at their home. Her dad was strict and scary, but most dads seemed that way compared to my own, mirthful, Scott-Joplin-playing father. Her mother never prepared sit down meals. Popcorn, fruit, and candy was an exciting, irreverent change from my regimented world of 3 square meals a day-each with a vile, but compulsory 8-ounce glass of whole milk. Liz and I knew that we had at least an hour left of playing whenever her mom arrived to pick her up. Even my abrasive mom could not stem the tide of Linda Smith's loquacity. Linda is now a shocking testament to the power of mania. She is 83 years old, and she doesn't look a day over 60. She eats nothing but chocolate and rarely sleeps. She's burned down one house so far with the spontaneous combustion of the books and papers she hoards, but she is the most effusive, adoring person I've ever met.
Allegra was the blondest of the 6, gorgeous Smith kids; she was the 3rd in line; Liz was the 4th. Allegra always liked the finer things. She was an antiques dealer at one point. She adopted the Vizsla from a breeder and named him Lincoln. Lincoln arrived with all of the breeding paperwork which confused me as he no longer has testicles; though it's nice to know his birthday; he's a Taurus like my son. Allegra's daughter developed an allergy to Lincoln, so they gave him to Sam. Sam had always been kind and dreamy, almost to the point of other-worldly. He had run into some sort of drug-related trouble in high school and didn't go to college, but he was a good carpenter. Sam died of an opiate overdose last July 1 after he and Lincoln had been together for two years. Apparently Lincoln adored Sam and was his caretaker. He lay with Sam for hours on end whenever he was "sick." The night Sam died, Lincoln went so berserk that the police sent him to the pound. When a bereft Linda came to retrieve Lincoln, they didn't want to give him to her. Lincoln seemed too aggressive and rabid for her, a tiny, older woman to handle. It's impossible to say "No" to Linda, so the pound relented. Linda was convinced that Lincoln housed some of Sam's soul, so she couldn't bear to give him up.
Why had I offered to take Lincoln back in July? My husband did not want a dog which meant that were we to get a dog, I would be the one responsible. My daughters were desperate for a dog. Their brother had made a power point presentation to convince us to let him build his own computer. The girls followed suit and made a power point presentation about getting a dog. It bothered me that my son, a screen addict, got his wish, and my daughters, extremely responsible young ladies, were ignored. Another contributing factor: I was changing my work situation. When my new studio is finished, I will be alone in a building 3 blocks from our home. I've never been completely on my own in a studio. It seemed that getting a dog to accompany me would be a good idea. In taking him to work with me every day, I would also avoid the above-mentioned sad, you're-leaving-me? puppy face that has rendered me too conscious-stricken to own a dog in the first place. It helped that Lincoln had taken and immediate liking to me. He sat on my lap like some sort of over-sized Chihuahua for a half an hour the first time we met. The girls were utterly smitten.
I had no desire to pressure Linda, but I told Liz we'd take the dog whenever they needed me to. I'd check in every month or so with a "the offer still stands" text. They were usually met with an exasperated return text from Liz telling me she WISHED her mom would let us take Lincoln. Three months passed. I'd used the possibility of our getting Lincoln to put off the girls whenever they pleaded for a dog. In August the girls' best friends got a dog from the pound. That was cruel, but Tim and I stood fast with our "no dog" policy. In September, we were all in the fetid minivan driving to an art festival. Our friend, Jere, not a dog lover, was with us. Jere went into an unsolicited tirade about how much she hates dogs and dog people. Tim was like a Hallelujah chorus reiterating everything she said, with his usual passion. The girls lead a squealing pro-canine counter-attack. JP and I sat in the back, bystanders to the raucous debate. My phone pinged. It was a text from Liz telling me that Linda was ready for us to take the dog. I texted her back the "thumbs up" emoji and didn't say a word.
We've had a checkered past with pets. Steel was gifted a beta fish which was dead within a week. (Who comes to a 5 year old's birthday party with a live animal as a gift?) I was blamed because I cleaned its tank with prescription eczema cream on my hands. One of our hermit crabs dismembered another, and the third went on a walkabout. Months later, we were out playing in the snow in the yard, and JP ran up to me in his little snow suit hollering, "MOM! I FOUND SAPHY! She was like this...." He then stopped moving and mimed, with his hands frozen in front of him, a dead hermit crab's staring straight ahead, sphinx-like into the abyss. Goldfish came and went, and then we got ambitious and adopted Rocky, our first cat. We had a hideous rodent problem that I was complaining about at a little league game. Hearing my lamentations, a baseball dad stepped in. He said his girlfriend had an unaffectionate cat that was a great hunter. (Part of the problem is that all of us are allergic to animals) It seemed like the perfect remedy. We couldn't cuddle the cat, and he didn't want cuddles. The girlfriend showed up IMMEDIATELY with the cat. She was clearly enthusiastic about getting rid of him. One night soon after, Tim and I were sitting at the counter having a glass of wine. A wee, dumb mouse came out onto the stove. Tim scoffed, "That cat is USELESS! There's a mouse right....." "SLAM!!!!!" Rocky leapt from his hunting spot above the cupboards. We had no idea he was perched up there. He missed the mouse, but he sat in front of that stove for a week straight. He knew what his job was, and he took it seriously. We never saw another mouse. Of course the kids and I fell in love with Rocky. He started turning into a softie. He'd let me pick him up and rub his neck for a few seconds, and sometimes he'd humor the kids by letting them give him a few pets. I was convinced he understood every word I said, and he always looked so dapper in his tuxedo coat.
All of that came to an abrupt end when we got Nola. It was our 10th anniversary, so we left Tim's mom in charge and went to New Orleans for a getaway. I left 3 pages of instructions. Nowhere in those instructions did I mention that Nanny should not, under any circumstances, let Steel convince her to go to Petco. We returned a day before Steel's birthday. On her birthday, Tim was at Petco filling out the paperwork to get the kitten she'd fallen in love with on her unauthorized nanny Petco expedition. The prickly Petco cat lady was going through the instructions on how to take care of a cat when Tim stopped her,"I know. We already have a cat. He's a nasty cat, but he's a cat." The transaction came to an abrupt halt. Crotchety cat lady demurred, "There is no such thing as a nasty cat, only nasty owners!" Tim was blacklisted in the city of Philadelphia to adopt a cat, so he went to the black market, Craigslist.
He and the girls met someone with a trunk full of kittens in a parking lot. It seemed sordid to me and JP. Tim gave the person $80, and the girls picked the smallest tabby cat there. Nola was the runt. She was 11 ounces. She'd probably not eaten anything in her month of life. She gobbled up anything we fed her. Annoying kitty police, responding to Facebook posts of the kitten licking butter off of pancakes, told us we shouldn't be feeding her food and she really should be with her mother. We scoffed confidently, but they were all right. The kitten finally exploded from every orifice. I took Nola to the vet and paid $225 to hear that it would be at least another $1000, possibly $2000, to get her up and running. We'd had her for 3 days. I left the vet and had a consultation with the hippy lady across the street. Over the passing traffic, she shouted to me to syringe feed the kitten formula every 1.5 hours and to keep her warm. I spent the next two days with the kitten on my chest in the baby wrap shitting and puking down my front, but she abruptly stopped fighting my ministrations and came to life. She never got much bigger, but ironically, she tortured big, tough Rocky. He finally left. He gets fed by the gay guys next door. He'll occasionally pop in for wet food, but he snarls and hisses the entire time, resentful that he was just starting to feel at home when that little bitch of a kitten had to come along and ruin everything. We've lost Nola twice: once at a construction site and once in a drawer in JP's room-both times for 4 days. She emerged from both experiences unscathed. She hopped out of his t-shirt drawer having neither peed, pooped, eaten or cried in FOUR DAYS. It was as if she'd been planning on a sensory deprivation spa the whole time. I'd meanwhile covered the neighborhood with flyers and wept profusely assuming she'd been hit. None of these tales paints us as particularly successful pet owners.
Given that pet history, a high-maintenance dog was just what we needed. Lincoln had had a tough time in the three months after Sam had died before Linda agreed to part with him. There had been some vague talk of his biting people, but I'd assumed that he would soon stop given the proper exercise, diet, and love that our family would provide him. 3 days into his new life in Philadelphia, he'd bitten 12 people. A couple passers by had gotten nipped in the Wissahickon. The diminutive, Japanese piano teacher became his arch nemesis. The 6'6" Olympic crew dad who walked straight into our house without waiting for me to open the door got an impressive 3" wound. Three moms attempting to pick their kids up got bitten in the ass/thigh. Of course, the vet got her sweater ripped. The most developed, deep-voiced of JP's friends got nipped. One of my hiking friends got lunged at, and Toby has been nipped a few times as well. I've blocked out the rest of his casualties, but we're still counting. After the first one or two bites, you'd think I'd have had him on such a tight leash that the other 10 wouldn't have been possible, but somehow they happened. It's one of the situations when my ridiculous optimism lets me down. (The perfect way to define just how stupidly optimistic I can be is illustrated by the fact that I had 6 miscarriages after I turned 40. I just kept on trying.) Christmas was a disjointed affair in which Tim and I were staying at a friends' place with the dog. My mother in law did not want Lincoln at her family-filled home. Christmas decorations are one of his favorite snack foods, he sits on furniture, and my nephew's neurotic dog was going to be there as well, so I understand why Lincoln wasn't invited. Lincoln has, of course, improved, but just last week he removed a perfect rectangle from the back of a dad's trench coat. Steel had seen that one coming, but I did not.
The nadir of my 4-month Lincoln odyssey was introducing him to Nola. I had been keeping the two separated but was told that if she's a tough cat, and if she landed a stinging scratch to his nose, he'd probably leave her alone. It was a Friday night. I had a rye and ginger and let the cat in while the dog was there. She held her own for about 10 seconds. She was on a bar stool batting at him, but she made the mistake of hopping onto the stove. He was furiously barking and clawing at the stove while she flattened herself to the backsplash with her back arched and her fur at maximum levels of intimidating fluffage. It was amazing that she'd calculated his inability to reach her there, so she would be close enough to taunt him but far enough to be safe. In his frenzied attempts to lean up and grab her, though, he turned the stove on and singed her whiskers. She looked like Salvador Dali for 2 months after that. That kitty flambé incident has taken the fight right out of Nola. She spends her time in our bedroom or outside. She won't even come to the kitchen to eat a plate of her coveted Shreddies wet food even when the dog is crated in the basement. We have to take it to her upstairs.
I have now spent an insane amount of time talking to trainers, getting special leashes and tinctures and, above all, running/walking/hiking with this dog. I've yet to leave him alone for any amount of time. I'm the one responsible for most of it because the kids are not strong or vigilant enough to control him on walks. One could say the he has completely curtailed my freedom, and yet, I am now able to walk at any time of night. I can run off the beaten track in the park whenever I want. These are things that women cannot normally do, so in a huge way this dog has also given me freedom. I now have a posse of dog-owning friends that I've met at the dog park texting me to meet up. Lincoln can be a sought-after doggie playdate because he is so fast. He gets all of the dogs moving. Taking Lincoln to an empty beach at low tide is magical. He can run up to 40 mph when he's chasing the seaside birds. His rapture is infectious.
The subtext to all of my conversations with trainers is that I and the whole family are the ones who need to be trained. Lincoln needs to know, through our actions and body language that we are in control and can protect him. When we establish this, he will not feel the need to lash out or be fearful. There are certain people who naturally relax dogs. They are the alphas. My husband and my mother are ideal dog owners. I am still learning. The vet told me to shop around for dog trainers. I inwardly rolled my eyes and confidently called the first one on the list assuming that she would be fine. I have now talked to over ten dog trainers. With my first-month tales of carnage, most trainers were of the opinion that I should get rid of Lincoln. "You are being irresponsible in keeping this dog." I refused to accept that. With the encouragement of other dog owners who had turned around tricky dogs, I have steeled myself. The trainer who changed everything for us I have still never met.
My mother is named Susie. She smoked until I was 12. She yelled at me quite a bit as a kid. I was an athlete. My coaches yelled at me. I do not resent being yelled at. Quite the opposite...I respond quickly-not unlike a well-trained dog. I called a woman named, Sue. My vet had given me her number with the caveat that Sue might not be willing to come to Philadelphia. I gave Sue a brief summary of my short life as Lincoln's owner. Amidst long drags of her cigarette, Sue yelled at me for about 45 minutes:
I don't need to come to Philadelphia! You need to take control of that dog!!! You need to get a simple rope choke leash. You need to force that dog to walk at your side. You need to help that dog to relax when another dog on a leash passes by. You need to go into "the belly of the beast!" meaning walk into a Petco, and go through the aisles with that dog keeping him calm and quiet!
Her fervor was comical, and no, I have not taken Lincoln to Petco on his leash, but her yelling at me made me realize what I had needed all along. I needed someone to tell me, "You can do this!" There is a little girl in me who translates being yelled at as, "I'm exasperated because you're not doing this right because I KNOW YOU CAN!"
I got a lot of laughs at the dog park doing my "Sue routine" which catalyzed my getting the number of another trainer named Ellie. Ellie came over and gave me an hour or so of training for free. Ellie is a strawberry blond, broad-shouldered lesbian who is probably 3 inches shorter than I am but outweighs me by at least 30 pounds. She has a strong voice and she delivers her points confidently but will then follow up with a soulful, "Does that make sense to you?" Ellie gave me some exercises to do with Lincoln that have helped. Lincoln and I went on a hike with her and FOURTEEN dogs in the Wissahickon Park. It was astonishing. She had 3 to 5 of them on a leash depending on who behaved and who did not. The others would wander around together. It was humbling and inspiring to see her control 14 dogs when I was struggling to manage one. I would love someone to make a documentary film about Ellie and her white van fetching these dogs at their homes, hiking with them for 2 hours and returning them. At one point in the hike, she came across another dog walker with 3 dogs. Ellie told me that she knows that walker doesn't have good control of her dogs; however Ellie was not at all condescending to the other woman. She pointed to the hill above the trail telling her pack to climb it and wait. All 14 dogs dutifully went up and waited. Ellie called cheerfully to the woman telling her it was safe to proceed.
My attempts to schedule another hike with Ellie have not been fruitful. At one point she admitted via text that she was a little overwhelmed by a couple of the members of her pack and said we should reschedule for Friday. I texted her Friday morning to ask when she'd be at the trail head.
Ellie: hmmm. Somewhere between 12:15 and 12:30 is my hope.
Liz: Still up for company? If not, nbd
Ellie: Wow. You caught that. You're good. I had a rough healing session this morning and feel very internal. I really appreciate the sensitivity. Thank you.
The "hmmm." was my tip off, and yes, I am very sensitive. This woman can control 14 dogs, but she can't send a simple text saying, "Can we make it another day? I'm feeling fragile." We all have our strengths and our weaknesses. My most fierce child will not go around the corner by herself to pick up a pizza nor will she go inside at a gas station to buy a dough nut while I'm outside pumping gas and watching her. My son can barely stand up to his little sisters in an argument, but he can easily get onstage in front of 200 people and do a comedy routine. My other daughter will take on a bully or confront anyone with an issue, but she was utterly mortified when I was blasting Dolly Parton's "Why'd you come in here looking like that?" in the parking lot of her school.
I have goals for my dog that I may or may not be able to manifest. First and foremost, I want my dog to stop nipping people and/or their clothing. I'd love for him to not bark at people or animals at the door or outside of the house or go ballistic in Jersey when we are in the car and a gas station attendant is pumping our gas. I fantasize about returning home to my dog and cat basking together in a patch of sun. I would love to let him off his leash and know that he will come back to me the second I ask him to. I'd like for him to listen when I tell him to get off of the furniture in my mother in law's house. Perhaps the new dog trainer who is coming this weekend will be the key. (She had to cancel last weekend because she was at the ER all day with a dog bite.)
The pros of my dog are: he's beautiful, he's soft, and he adores me. The kids love him. He makes us all laugh. I'm in the best shape of my life because not running is not an option. He has an iron stomach, for the most part. He does not have "accidents." He chews pencils and Christmas ornaments, but leaves the furniture, shoes and other things alone. The requirement that I take him for a walk every few hours has rendered me more productive in some ways and far more present. Finally, my husband has, not once, wagged his finger at me and said, "I told you so." He's had so many opportunities to make me feel bad about taking on this dog, and he hasn't. Tim, you are a saint, but we knew that all along.
Steel told Tim the manicure was going to be clear polish and then refused to remove it for him. She was doing some sort of hair wrap. She thinks of very little beyond skin care and hair care.