Perry Brass on how a man’s first dog changes him forever.
Willy, a small, “apricot”-colored poodle-mix, was the first dog I ever owned as an adult; OK, he was my first dog. His father was a black, mongrel-type mostly poodle, and his mother was Mona, a pure bred silver blond owned by a lesbian couple, friends of my sister Nancy. From a marriage of the two dogs came six puppies. Camille and Amy decided to give four away and keep two, Willy and his brother Zeus. I had been staying temporarily with them in a large apartment in Washington Heights with an extra bedroom they rented to me.
This part of Washington Heights, close to the Cloisters, had been the home to several generations of upper-middle-class German Jews, and apartments were grand. My bedroom was bigger than many New York studio apartments; it had a view of the street and the tops of sycamore trees. During this period, east of Broadway you were in the hands of the Medellin drug cartel, and Washington Heights was a fairly iffy place, but my bedroom had the calm I needed to write.
I started to feel this tug toward Willy, the smaller of the two pups. After a month, Camille and Amy decided that three dogs were too much, and that Willy, a shyer and more stand-offish creature, was just not engaging enough for them.
“I’ll take him,” I said. They both smiled. Now Willy would be in the house, but they wouldn’t have to take care of him.
That night, I took him into my room and closed the door. He started to circle, looking for a way out to his brother Zeus and Mona. He jumped up clear to the doorknob, attempting to turn it with his teeth. His barking got crazier, and I thought maybe I’d made a mistake. I picked him up a couple of times, brought him back over to my bed, and petted him. No deal. He headed straight back for the door, barking.
Suddenly, I went over to him and smacked him on his rear once with the palm of my hand, firmly but not viciously. He stopped barking, looked up at me, and then followed me to my bed, a mattress on the floor. When I got in, he was on top of it and he never made another peep. The next morning, he looked at me with that expression dogs have that melts your heart.
Lesson Number One. Being able to set boundaries is important with dogs, and people. Not with anger, but decisively. Don’t smack someone in the rear, unless of course that someone is a puppy — but let them know that barking all night is no longer in the equation.
I decided to train Willy. I was not going to live with an untrained dog. To begin with, it’s not fair to the dog — an untrained dog is a danger to himself, if he runs into traffic for instance — and it was not fair to me. I didn’t want to live with a badly behaved dog. I had seen enough badly behaved children.
After consulting dog books and some people who had “good dogs,” I learned it was easy to train a dog if you understood certain rules — and if you start early enough — although it’s not true that you cannot teach “old dogs new tricks.” Dogs, like people, can learn at any age. It’s just not as easy. Willy was a very smart dog. Maybe being part poodle and part street-smart mutt was the key, but he picked up things almost as fast as I could teach him.
Lesson Number Two: Never call a dog to punish him. If you do, the dog will associate his name with punishment. If you are going to punish a dog — and punishment should be rare and mild, as in a verbal reprimand or a mild smack on the padded parts of his behind with your hand — use “Bad dog!” not his name. The best time is when you’ve caught him red-handed, for instance chewing up something he shouldn’t be. With humans, it means you don’t call someone up just to chew him out. You say, “I want to talk to you about something that’s bothering me.”
I decided from Willy’s example never to make my partner Hugh feel that he shouldn’t come through the door just because I’m pissed off at him. In other words, he should never associate coming home with my being angry. If I’m angry, I’ll make sure we have a time to talk about it, and not pounce on him as soon as he walks in. This is hard for a lot of people, and I certainly didn’t grow up in a home where it was practiced, but I did learn this directly from Willy.
Lesson Number Three: Dogs are possessive. They sense that this, your home, is my space, and therefore I will protect it, and that you, my human friend, are the person I am attached to. Sometimes they can transfer some of this attachment to another person (always good when kids or a romantic interest come into your life) but it will take them a while to do so.
Willy explained exactly how possessive he was after I moved in with Hugh. That first night, after Willy came running into the bedroom, Hugh threw him out. The next morning Hugh saw that Willy had deposited a very smelly calling card inside one of his shoes left outside the bedroom door. Hugh was furious. But after that, he decided to let Willy in, and although my dog didn’t sleep on the bed (at least not at first), he did have a place of his own in the bedroom. Usually, though, sometime in the middle of the night, Willy managed to get back on the bed.
Lesson Number Four: A dog has an innate sense of dignity, don’t ever try to destroy it. That old adage about rubbing a dog’s nose in it is garbage. He won’t learn anything and will resent you because all you’re doing is taking away his dignity. He’ll even hate you for it — at least for a while. Dogs are amazingly forgiving, unlike humans, which is another reason why their dignity needs to be respected; they deserve it.
Lesson Number Five: Don’t make fun of dogs, and never tease them. I caught Willy once with a complete “boner” trying to masturbate by rubbing it against the legs of a chair; I started laughing. He turned from me and hid his face. I felt really bad: I was denying Willy his dignity, and also his privacy — two things you should never deny any human being, including kids.
Lesson Number Six: Dogs have an extraordinary sense of logic. Logically you are their source of food and protection, love and affection, and they will return this to you in the form of loyalty and companionship. They know logically that pain is something you run from, and reward is something you go to. They have extremely sensitive hearing, and hate gunshots, backfiring cars, firecrackers, and angry people. They like soft reassuring voices—so I learned to talk to Willy in a soft reassuring tone. For this reason, dogs are usually more inclined to like female voices than male ones, something many men feel the same way about, especially if, logically, they associate the male voice with anger, abuse, retribution, stupid self-inflating machismo, and punishment of course.
If you give dogs — and people — credit for this kind of logic, you’ll go far in life.
Lesson Number Seven: A dog will stand his ground if you back him into a corner, even when you are feeding him. It’s important for dogs to feel they have a territory that is theirs, especially if it’s next to you. Give your dog (or important human relationship), some place that’s theirs. And let him have privacy, too. What makes dogs (and certain human relationships) so wonderful is what they don’t ask of you. They don’t argue and assert their opinions with you, once they feel protected and in their own territory. I wish we could extend that to our human friends, instead of asking from them things they cannot possibly give us.
Lesson Number Eight: Willy was not my child. He was my friend, albeit a very good one whom I loved a lot. In truth I’d lost so many of my friends from AIDS and other problems that when it came time to say good-bye to Willy and take him to that last trip to the vet, I was saddened but realized that in the way of dogs, this too had its own logic. And that keeping him alive was no longer fair to him. It violated his own beautiful sense of dignity: he was old, blind, incontinent, and could no longer walk. The vet told me that he was also suffering from several major internal organ failures; in other words, he had stopped functioning, and was existing way past a dog’s normal lifespan.
After he died, I was asked if I missed Willy very much. I told them yes, but that I could accept his death, just as I’d had to accept the deaths of my friends. I could even cry about it, and the crying felt good; but then it was over and life, which is what dogs are so crazy about, would begin again.
The most beautiful thing was that I had learned so much from Willy — he had taught me so much more than I had taught him. And that is really what a good friend, and even a good friendship, should be about. I really believe that.
Photo credit: Ronn aka “Blue” Aldaman/flickr