Friday, April 22, 2011


“THE HYPOCHONDRIAC’S GUIDE TO OVERPROTECTIVE DOG CARE” (More tales from my serial blog "Rex and the City")

Until I brought a dog into my life, I never considered myself a hypochondriac. And I swear I’m not—for myself that is. If I were, say, bleeding from the palms and the eyeballs, that wouldn't necessarily stop me from being first in line at the semi-annual Barney's sample sale (although whether they would let me into the dressing rooms, or allow me to manhandle the Prada bowling totes is another matter). And don't get me wrong—I like going to the doctor. I like being in the presence of someone who will listen to my problems and pretend he actually cares about them, but the thing is, in New York City, the doctors don’t listen to you. They schedule a new patient every twelve minutes, make you wait two hours in their lushly appointed reception area for your twelve o’clock appointment, then spend a total of ten minutes in your actual presence, during which they shine a light into your ears, tap you on the knees, and call you by the wrong name. (I am often addressed by my primary care specialist as “Irene”). For this you will be charged $600, with the optional consolation prize of a two-week trial sample of Prozac or Viagra (even though you came in to talk about the inexplicable stigmata on your ribs) and/or a referral to see a specialist, who will call you $900 and call you Aileen. At least when I was little I got to choose between a jeweled plastic ring or a lollypop.

So, needless to say, I didn’t go to the doctor much. But then Ted and I adopted Wallace from a New York City shelter. This was back in 1997, for those who are not familiar with my stories. Some of you have already read, in these columns, how we soon learned that Wallace had been abused, and that his spirit had been broken by his previous owner. Because of his behavioral problems, and general fear and mistrust of humans, Wallace was difficult to train and manage in those first few months, but despite the struggles this wonderful dog opened up our lives, and taught us how to be nurturers and lovers of nature, and taught us how to better love ourselves, etc. But now is the time to talk about the dark side of all this, the other, seamier emotions that attach themselves to love like demodectic parasites: worry, over-protectiveness, irrational paranoia, the fear of the loss of love.

All my friends who had birthed human children, who swore they’d never be worry-worts like their mothers, told me of their transformations into paranoid schizos who lay in bed at night obsessing over Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, child molestation, and whether the trees closest to the house should be sawed down, for fear that their branches would shatter the nursery windows during a freak New England storm. And I understood this to be a phase they went through, a Rite of Passage that every parent undergoes with their first born child. But I never imagined that I would undergo the same rites with my dog.

It all started with the instruction manual that came with Wallace when we brought him home from the shelter. It was called something simple, like “You and Your Shelter Dog” and it contained some basic advice—when to feed your dog, what to do if he or she is not housetrained—and recommended, at the end, a list of books for further reading. And because Ted and I were eager for knowledge and eager to be good caretakers, we acquired these books, but it seemed that for every one we ordered there was saying, If you like this book, you may like _____ and _____ and _____, listing at least 75 other books to read as well. So we acquired those additional 75 books, too. You just never knew which one would be the one, which book would explain your dog once and for all, and so, over and over again, we found ourselves clicking “add to cart,” and every night, for the next several years, Ted and I stayed up late in bed, reading side by side, pouring through countless training guides and veterinary manuals, comparing notes, hoping, praying in the meantime that the foreign four-legged creature who menacingly paced our floors would not murder us in our sleep (but who can sleep when you have one hundred and seventeen books to read?). With every book we finished, we would begin the next one, hoping, believing, that here would be the definitive one, the one that would solve the mystery of Wallace, and then we could get on with our lives. (Note: We’re still reading.) I felt like a hopeless smoker who announces he’s going to quit as he lights his next cigarette with the butt end of his current one.

And then there was the internet (which some say exists solely to pray on the paranoias of people like me). At my temp job, I would spend six of my eight hours visiting veterinary websites and recoiling at the graphic images of cocker spaniel with eyes bulging out of their sockets, of unidentified rectal prolapses and hyperestrinism (you don’t want to know), of dogs who had been hit by cars. I’d call Ted in tears, telling him to log on to such-and-such a website as proof as to why Wallace should not be allowed out of doors.

“You’re just upsetting yourself,” Ted would say. “And you’re upsetting me. Can’t you find something more constructive to do with your time?”

But Ted, too, worried about how to best care for our dog in those early days. How could we not? Our friends with human children could at least comfort themselves with the fact that someday their infants would be able speak to them and communicate their wants and needs. Our friends with human children passed through the worrywort phase smoothly, and told their second borns, who might be bleeding from the eyeballs, to “get over it” and leave them alone. But Ted and I, with our dog-child, would never have that advantage. Sure, Wallace was smarter than average—he knew 23 words in the English language (which is more than we could say for then-“President” Bush). But none of those words could be found in my Index of Signs in my Dog Owner’s Home Veterinary Handbook (which Ted soon dubbed the Hyponchondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care).

So in the beginning we always erred on the side of caution. In our first few weeks of having Wallace we very sincerely took him to the vet for panting, yawning, flatulence, and the weird black discolorations on the bottom of his paws. “Those are spots,” the nice, patient vet told us. “You have a spotted dog.”

“Oh,” I said, “I thought maybe it was tar. We crossed a street the other night that had some freshly filled pot holes and I thought—”

“They’re spots,” the vet said.

Early instances such as that did not dissuade me from always imagining the worst case scenario. In June I worried about heartworm and ringworm; in July it was fractures and fleas. My biggest paranoia, the thing that kept me up most at nights, became foxtails and burrs. Foxtails and other barbed seed-heads, I read, could easily penetrate the skin and travel down the ear canals or up the genital tract, causing irritation, abscesses, serious tissue damage and/or infection. “In extreme cases,” I read, “foxtails have been known to puncture the organs, including the brain.” This was not an image I could easily forget, and it didn’t help that the warning signs—excessive sneezing, scratching at the ears, pawing at the nose, shaking the head—were gestures Wallace made on a regular basis.

So every time my poor dog sneezed (which is a lot if you live in New York City in a ground floor apartment and like to keep your windows open, under the guise of “getting some fresh air”), I insisted that we rush him to the emergency clinic.

“Are you sure a foxtail hasn’t punctured your brain?” Ted began to say. His biggest paranoia was the rising costs of veterinary treatments, and after the seven or eighth office visit it was clear we had divided into two camps. There was sense and then there was nonsense, and in Ted’s opinion I resided in the latter.

When we had had our Wallace about 6 months, I noticed that, well, he was licking himself. A lot. Down there. Now, we have all heard the joke that starts with the question “Why does a dog lick his balls?” and ends with the punch line “Because he can!” but Wallace’s behavior seemed unusual to me. Like, kind of obsessive/compulsive. Plus, Wallace didn’t have balls. He was licking something far more, um, pointed.

I rushed to my Hypochondriac’s Guide to Overprotective Dog Care.

“If your dog begins to lick himself excessively,” I read, “and has a purulent, foul-smelling discharge coming from the prepuce, he may be suffering from balanoposthitis.” My eyes widened and I looked over at Wallace, who sure enough was licking himself again. I read this sentence a few more times, trying to figure out exactly what amount of licking constituted as “excessive.” It didn’t say. So then there was the matter of the discharge. I hadn’t noticed any per se; but then again I hadn’t looked.

Ted walked in the door as I was conducting my prepucal inspection.

“What are you doing?” he shouted, his voice screechy.

I was positioned much like an auto mechanic under a car. Wallace was busy with the task of cleaning out the insides of a Ben and Jerry’s carton that I have given him to keep him occupied, but all that ended when Ted walked in the door.

“I'm looking for a purulent, foul-smelling discharge. Come here, do you think it smells funny?”

“Stop it!" Ted said. "You're acting crazily.”

I sat up. “I think something’s wrong with him. He won’t stop licking himself.”

Ted folded his arms. “Nothing’s wrong with him.”

“What does purulent mean, anyway?" I asked. "Do you know?”

“I have no idea,” Ted said. “Wallace, come over here. Stay away from your mother.”

I stood and walked over to the bookshelves and reached for the dictionary.

“What are you doing?” Ted hugged the dog protectively.

“I’m going to find out what purulent means.”

“Would you stop it?”

“Why don’t you two go for a walk?” I said. This sent Wallace into a tizzy of barking and spinning, and Ted had no choice but to take him out. That or listen to me talk about purulence.

We had discovered a bright new way to end a discussion.

Over the next few days, Wallace kept up with his licking. And I kept up with my research. I discovered that a small amount of cloudy, yellowish discharge is not unusual in mature males, but “an excessive purulent discharge is associated with overt infection.”

“Well, there’s the word excessive again,” I said to Ted that night. “And purulent. What constitutes a normal amount of discharge?”

Wallace settled onto the sofa and began to lick himself again.

“Don’t look at me,” Ted said.

Then I read: “If the pus-like discharge is dripping directly from the penis opening, the condition is probably more serious. You should look for foreign material, such as foxtails, inside the prepuce of affected dogs.” I put the book down. “Foxtails!”

“He does not have a foxtail stuck up there,” Ted said.

“How do you know?”

“Because we haven’t been anywhere near foxtails. It’s November, for God’s sake. Foxtails are a spring occurrence.”

“Well, it could be something else.”

“But nothing is dripping. You’re overreacting here.”

At this moment, I swear, something green dripped from Wallace’s privates.

“Look!” I shouted to Ted, pointing. “Did you see that?”

Wallace ceased his licking for a moment and stared at me, a somewhat guilty look on his face. Then he looked over at Ted and, I swear, rolled his eyes, and lapped up the evidence. He buried his snout in his crouch and resumed with the licking, making a lewd snuffing sound.

“Something is wrong,” I said. “I know it.” I produced a diagram entitled “how to expose the penis” that illustrated how you were supposed to seize your dog’s privates with both hands and push one part forward (the penis) and pull another part back (the prepuce). Having been raised Catholic, I had a hard time even reading those words.

“Here,” I said to Ted, pushing the book toward him. “You do it.”

“Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s licking himself. He’s a dog.”

“But he has a discharge. And when the discharge is excessive, perhaps greenish or odorous, and the dog licks at his prepuce excessively, these are signs of balanoposthitis.” I was now waving the book in the air as if it were a Bible. “So someone is going to have to extract that prepuce and it’s not going to be me!” Wallace stood, belched, and then lumbered off to the other room.

For reasons we no longer understand or remember, it was Ted who had to take Wallace to the vet that day. This is what transpired, second hand:

DR. MARTER: “So, what seems to be the problem today?”

TED: “Well, my dog is licking himself a lot. On his penis?

DR. MARTER: “He's a male dog, right?”

TED: Yes

DR. MARTER: “Well, that's what male dogs do.”

TED: “Yes, but my wife says she saw—”

DR. MARTER: “Wives (DR PAUSES WEIGHTEDLY) know nothing about licking.”


It took several years for me to live down this story, and for Ted to get over the humiliation of having brought the dog in in the first place. He vowed never to listen to me again.

And they seemed to have the same idea at the veterinary clinic. I noticed that, after that, every time I brought Wallace in for an appointment we got The New Vet, the one who had graduated from Cornell like the week before. And this is not to say Wallace got inferior treatment; it’s just that I started to wonder: was I not being taken seriously? Did they see me as a crazy dog lady?

Or was it the dog? Early on in his career as the English Setter Patient at this particular vet, Wallace had received a written warning of sorts. Someone at the vet’s office had written caution in black magic markers at the top of Wallace’s chart. This is another story, which requires a lengthy explanation, but the point is, I started to wonder if that caution referred to me.

Soon it seemed even Wallace saw me as a Crazy Dog Lady. If I, say, admonished him if he ate his food too quickly, he’d eat even more quickly, attempting to finish off his breakfast before I had even placed the dish squarely on the floor.

Like many dogs, Wallace gulped down his food as if at any moment, six adolescent wolves were going to burst forth from the kitchen cabinets and try to steal it away. (Thus the verb “to wolf”.) But this, I had read, was not healthy. “Wallace, don’t eat so quickly,” I’d say. “You might get volvulus.” He ignored me and continued to wolf. Clearly, volvulus was not one of Wallace’s 23 words.

“If you eat too quickly,” I continued, “your stomach could bloat, and then distend, and then twist on its axis, and that’s life threatening, and we’d have to rush you to the vet. Do you want to have to go to the vet?”

In two more bites he finished his food off, lapped up some water, and then belched. He knew the word “vet” but pretended that he didn’t. The belch I took as an insult. And a secret signal that he sided with Ted.

By the end of the summer, I had pretty much given up on the idea that I would ever be able to properly care for Wallace. And I realized, again, that this is something parents of human children must go through. You must reach a stage of resignation, in which you vow to simply do your best. And pray that no tree branches crash through the windows.

That August, my sister had to go away for a week and she asked me to come look after her two young daughters and their Yellow Lab. (This in itself is another story, for after this visit my sister banished Wallace from both her properties for this and all future lifetimes, but let us not go there.) I was flattered that my sister would entrust her two children to me, and I looked forward to spending a week on the Cape. There would be bike rides to the beach in the morning, blueberry picking at dusk, ice cream and fried clams in the early evenings, and then leisurely walks around the cranberry bog with the dogs.

And it was a lovely week, despite the fact that I felt inadequate as a substitute parent. I had always thought that children loved chaos, loved to defy order, and loved to eat candy for lunch, but not my nieces. They, bless their hearts (and my sister’s) found true stability in the routines my sister had set up for them. So instead of taking delight in the fact that I was not a rule enforcer, that I was a Cool Aunt, they themselves enforced the rules. When I told them the first morning that they could get their own breakfasts (which would have been a thrill to me as a child, as I was not allowed to eat anything but what my father dictated, and that was usually unsweetened wheat squares) they just looked at me with perplexity. “Mom always makes us fruit salad,” they said.

“Mom always gives us lunch at twelve,” they would say at three o’clock with their stomachs rumbling. “Mom always brings sunscreen to the beach,” they would say at high noon, as the sun’s harmful UV rays beat down upon us. Egads.

“It’s a good thing I don’t have children of my own,” I said to my friend that night on the telephone. “Can you believe I forgot sunscreen? My poor nieces. It’s like my sister has left them with a chimpanzee.”

“It’s understandable,” my friend said.

“But how do people do it?” I said. “How do people have children? How many childrearing manuals did you have to read before your first son was born?”

“None,” she said. “It’s just a wisdom we all have within us. You’ll see. It’s there.”

But I didn’t believe her. Take my wisdom with Wallace for instance. He had already burst through a screen door, stolen all the rawhide from his Lab cousin Bailey, and shredded two of my niece’s favorite towels. He played tug-of-war not to win, it seemed, but to kill, as if he had watched one too many episodes of Gladiator, and poor Bailey took to hiding under the porch as soon as we let her out. I wasn’t the Cool Aunt, I realized; I was the Lame Aunt. Not even a houseplant could thrive under my care.

But then, on the final day of my visit, there, I was lying on the lawn, reading a book, and occasionally marveling (as city people will) at the smell and feel and the color of the grass. Nearby, my nieces played on the waterslide and Wallace and Bailey were down by the cranberry bog, traipsing around with a giant Wolfhound puppy (cutely named Chewbacca) who lived down the road. This pup’s goofy presence, or perhaps his size, had sedated Wallace somehow, and he no longer lunged at Bailey. So all was well for the moment, and I kept putting my book down to smile at my nieces and check up on the dogs. The air had a lazy, end-of-day quality to it: soft and supple, and in the distance lawn mowers hummed and the birds had started their evening song. Off and on, my nieces giggled, a musical, uplifting sound that spoke of purity and innocence. Intermittently, the dogs barked.

But then, suddenly my youngest niece ran up to me and said, “Aunt Lee, Wallace is limping.” And sure enough, there was Wallace, hobbling toward me on three legs from the bottom of the hill. His friend Chewbacca ran alongside him, like some bucktoothed neighbor; he had an “I didn’t do it” look on his face. Wallace came right over to me and presented me with his paw. Suddenly I was surrounded by two children and three dogs, all of them panting from the swift climb up the hill, all of them expecting me to somehow know what to do. Never had I been so aware that I was an adult, at least in theory. Never had I felt so inadequate. In the distance, a pair of seagulls cawed, and it sounded mocking. The salt air suddenly felt harsh and abrasive. I took Wallace’s paw in my hand to inspect it, thinking that I had to at least go through the motions of a competent person, and Wallace seemed willing to go with this. But when I turned Wallace’s foot over I saw very clearly that he had a thorn in one of his pads. A rosebush thorn stuck right smack into the center. And so I pulled it out. “There you go,” I said to Wallace. “You’re fine now.” Wallace gave me one wet kiss and then tore off down the hill again with his pals, to menace the seagulls who had dared laugh at me.

“You did it!” my younger niece said. “You fixed him.”

I smiled. “I did!”

I looked down at the thorn in my hand, feeling outlandishly proud and competent. My pride was disproportionate of course, but still I let myself feel it. Then I put the thorn in my pocket so that no one would ever step on it again.

I pulled my niece onto my lap and stroked her sun-warmed hair. Together we watched the Wallace and his pals frolic. Wallace, my formerly broken dog, had been fixed.