My Life as a Dog Owner

January 08, 1994|By PATRICK ERCOLANO

My relationship with Mary started badly. I think it was because she looks so much like a nun.

I guess you could blame my apprehension on the eight years I spent at a parochial school of hard knocks on the knuckles. Mary, like most Shetland sheepdogs, has a long face that seems nun-ish to me. And she has a head ringed by white and black fur that resembles a wimple.

Then there's her name. It was given to her by the kennel owner who sold us the dog last summer when Mary was already several months old. My wife and I decided to keep the name, though it reminded me of nearly every nun I have known -- as in Sister Mary Attila.

If that weren't enough, my 4-year-old daughter, in a weird coincidence, sometimes refers to Mary as her ''sister.'' What's more, the kennel owner insisted we make our dog wear a St. Francis of Assisi medal. You'd figure a dog with Scottish roots to be Presbyterian; somehow we wound up with one that's Catholic.

Religion wasn't the only source of tension between Mary and me. I had simply never been ''a dog person.'' The only pets in my house when I was growing up were the odd salamander, goldfish, Easter chick and canary. Not real pets, not like the all-American, fetch-my-slippers-and-pipe, man's-best-friend canine.

So while my wife and daughter were crazy about Mary from the beginning -- the puppy was a gift for our little girl -- I kept some distance. I wasn't too forgiving whenever the dog shed fur everywhere, brought fleas into the house, had accidents on the rug or dug holes in the garden. Call me uptight, but that wasn't my idea of proper behavior by a housemate, let alone ''a member of the family,'' as my wife calls her.

Still, I would try to make nice with Mary. Once in a while I walked her or sneaked her table scraps. I worked at teaching her to fetch a stick, but she would get bored after a few minutes. It didn't seem to suit her herding instincts. She probably would have been happier running laps around the woodpile in our yard.

Shetland sheepdogs, or ''shelties,'' are said to be highly intelligent animals. And I believe Mary used every bit of her doggy wiles to make me feel guilty during these early difficult days of our relationship. She'd follow me with sad eyes as if to say, J'accuse. The charge against me? Indifference to a cute puppy.

Well, I decided, so what if I'm not a dog person? I admit I was fighting the fear that I'd become one of those nuts who have nothing but dirt to dish about their fellow man yet are reduced to gibbering idiots at the mere mention of their precious mutts. I couldn't help recalling comedian Robert Klein's old routine about the snarling Nazi who turned all warm and fuzzy when presented with a dog.

I might well have gone on contentedly with this arrangement wherein my wife, my daughter and my dog formed a happy, loving triangle while I stood on the perimeter, shelling out for kibble and Liv-A-Snaps.

But one Saturday about a month ago, my wife and child went on a half-day's errand. Lacking any pressing chores, I thought I'd take Mary for a stroll and then rush back in time to catch a basketball game on the tube.

The outing didn't turn out quite that way, though. Maybe it was the bracing air, the beauty of the bare trees against the metal-colored sky, the crisp movement of Mary as she trotted smartly on my left. The stroll turned into a long ramble around the neighborhood.

When we reached a nearby park, I took Mary off her leash and let her romp with some other dogs. She was the smallest of the bunch but she more than held her own when they tussled, and she outran every one of them when they chased each other. She seemed very happy, getting the rare chance to do something approaching the herding chores she was bred to perform. I laughed as I watched her go.

Later, when I told my wife about it, I tried to keep my cool, non-dog-person edge. But I knew she sensed that something was different, that the ice had finally been broken. If anything betrayed me, it was the way Mary followed me around the house and looked at me like a new buddy. A best friend.

''It's kind of funny,'' I said. ''You just give 'em a little love and they think you're the greatest thing on Earth.''

''How about that,'' my wife said. ''There's a lesson in there somewhere, don't you think?''

I hate it when dog people get smug.

Patrick Ercolano writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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