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Through the tale of two dogs, one an exemplary Labrador guide dog, the other a volatile mutt, the authors instruct puppy-owners-to-be in choosing, raising, training, and humoring a puppy
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Jane and Michael Stern are contributing editors to Gourmet, where their column recently won a James Beard award, and have a regular feature on National Public Radio. They have written twenty-two books about many aspects of Americana and live in West Redding, Connecticut.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Clementine: Rosemary's Puppy
The first time we saw our new puppy Clementine she was two weeks old and half the size of her litter mates.
Runt is an ugly word, but political correctness has yet to make inroads in the dog world. The Bullmastiff puppy that lay before us on a tasteful slice of Berber carpet in the bedroom of a dog breeder's home in eastern Connecticut could not honestly be described as petite, downsized, compact, bantam, or weight-challenged. While her seven strapping siblings were each already fat double handfuls of robust puppy blubber, this Lilliputian oddball was hardly the size of a hamster. Not every litter of newborn puppies has a runt, but this one most certainly did, and she was it.
Her deficient size was not the only thing rodentlike about her. To the dismay of the dog breeder who planned this litter, the dark brindle girl also featured a big white stripe down the middle of her face: a calamity in a breed for which the standard specifies NO WHITE MARKINGS allowed anywhere other than on the chest.
"She looks like a little skunk," we exclaimed when we saw her, and from the slightly pained look on the breeder's face we knew our comment was not original. Clementine's small size and the white stripe on her face were anomalies to this breed; but paradoxically, the likelihood that these undesirable traits might get passed into the gene pool like a rampant virus were what brought us to look at this puppy in the first place.
We have great affection for Bullmastiffs, having owned four of them before we met Clementine. Each of our dogs was selected to serve no higher purpose than to be a beloved home companion, to sit quietly on the couch, look fondly at us, snuggle at our feet on a cold night, and wait patiently by the side of the bed for us to rise in the morning. This job description was a cushy one: no hunting, no guarding, no guiding, no finding lost children, no retrieving ducks, nothing required except being calm, gentle, and adorable.
And so we were easy-to-satisfy puppy shoppers. Our prerequisites were simple. The puppy of our dreams should look enough like a Bullmastiff to please us aesthetically, but be imperfect enough -- compared to the official breed standard -- that we would feel no pressure from the breeder to show or breed it. We were always clear on this subject -- we didn't want a show-ring champion -- and each of the dogs we had owned had been spayed or neutered routinely when it reached the proper age, usually before it was six months old. Our only other concern was that the dog we buy be reasonably sound. Although we know that good health is generally more common among mixed breeds that have the strength of biodiversity behind them, we were still confident that we could find a robust purebred with none of the common faults that muddy the purebred gene pool, which, in the case of Bullmastiffs means cancer, skeletal ills, and chronic skin problems.
Over the years we had come to adore the superficial imperfections of our nonshow dogs. Unlike the paragons of breed beauty that win blue ribbons, our pets were unique. Each was big and wrinkly and earnest enough to qualify as a Bullmastiff; but Minerva had a head as pointy as a dunce cap; Beulah's huge torso was perched on spindly legs; Gus's ears hung alongside his head like shriveled red peppers; and Edwina's muzzle was as long as a crocodile's. A Frenchman would call them "jolies-Laides": beautiful-ugly.
We were thrilled when our friend and Bullmastiff breeder Mimi Einstein told us about a recent litter sired by her magnificent stud Sam that featured a particularly goofy-looking puppy that might fit in nicely to our family of canine irregulars. Because of the white mark on her face, she would never be bred; nevertheless, she did come from a distinguished family of fine show dogs with personalities as beautiful as their buff exteriors.
Mimi's buoyant introduction brought us with high hopes to the home of the breeder in eastern Connecticut to look at the puppy when it was two weeks old. At first glance, the runt seemed perfect for us. She was kind of cute in a weird hamsterish way, and because of her deficient size and striped face, there would be no pressure to make her into anything but a happy couch potato. She was also less expensive then the fine fat fellows that shared her whelping box. She was a canine factory second.
Although she seemed to fill the bill perfectly when we saw her that first time, we now both can recall hearing a little voice whispering from our unconscious minds, a voice we then chose to ignore because we were blinded by desire for a new puppy. Even now it would be hard to tell exactly what it was about this little animal that made us uncomfortable, but in retrospect we believe that there was something almost eerie lurking behind her atypical features. In the months to come we would learn all too well just how strange a creature she really was. Still not yet ten pounds, she would soon plunge us headlong into the kind of confusion and frustration that, as smug veteran dog owners, we were certain we had left far behind in our past. When we went shopping for a cute little dog to love, we believed we knew just what we were doing.
So how is it that we found ourselves living with the devil disguised as a tiny round-eyed weanling, an animal that turned our lives into a living hell and finally taught us more about the strange and demanding affinity between dog and owner than we ever hoped to know?
Copyright © 1998 by Jane Stern and Michael Stern
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