may lament (along with legions of other parents), that my “adult” children are
growing up so slowly it’s like watching paint dry, at least there’s hope they
will one day be independent. Not so with
our dog, Sparky, who remains a perpetual child even at eleven years old—or 77
in dog years. A Norwich terrier with a
wiry coat of strawberry blond hair and a stumpy tail, Sparky has not “matured”
with age, except for a little gray around his ears. If anything, he has become more demanding,
territorial and mischievous with age, more like a raccoon or a bear than a
honest, I never wanted a dog. My ADHD
son and my autistic spectrum daughter were more than enough responsibility. But Max begged for a dog for years. Finally, when my son turned eleven—the same
age Sparky is now—I made a deal with him.
If he tried his best at school, turned in all his homework, and was
accepted to one of four middle schools, we’d get him a dog. Of course, there were a few conditions about
taking care of the dog. Max would have
to sign a contract—which I still have on file—stating that he would be
responsible for feeding, walking and cleaning up after the dog. Also, I had veto power over the breed. No dogs that were high maintenance. Large dogs like Labs and German Shepherds
were out, given the size of our Manhattan apartment. I also didn’t want headaches from a small,
yippy-yappy, high-strung dog. For Max,
the dog had to be sturdy and playful, not “a white fluff ball that just sits in
your lap.” For me, it had to be a dog
that the whole family could love, long after the novelty was gone and it stopped being a cute puppy.
you PROMISED.” Max complained, after
signing the contract. “Your list is
always keep my promises. It remains to
be seen whether you’ll keep yours.”
weeks before Max left for sleep away camp, we brought home a bright-eyed, red-haired
puppy, who miraculously met all our
criteria. Smart, playful, and
affectionate to all, Sparky was the name
my husband came up with. Our family
fell in love with Sparky, but I made it clear to Max that the dog would be his responsibility whenever
he was home. That meant Max had to walk
him late at night, whenever he finished his homework on school nights or came
home exhausted (or inebriated) from weekend parties.
idea was for Sparky to help Max grow up and become more responsible. Max might lose his keys or cell phone, forget
a homework assignment, or leave his room a mess, but he HAD to take care of
Sparky, no matter what. Max was mostly
compliant, if at times slow or reluctant.
Of course his idea of cleaning up dog poop is still not quite up to
snuff, but I’m happy to say he’s a lot better at it than he was at age eleven,
or even during high school. Although
Max still occasionally forgets to give Sparky water with his food (especially
in the morning when sleepwalking through the feeding), he has learned to honor
the spirit of the contract. Even more
important, he truly loves his dog.
During college, Max rarely asked how the rest of family was doing. But every phone call included the
question: “How’s Sparky?”
back, I can see there was a learning curve for Max, albeit long and spread out.
There are still those nights when Henry
and I are half asleep and Max is out with his friends and the phone rings. Neither of us wants to answer because we know
what’s coming. “Can you take Sparky down
for a quick pee walk, pleeease?” About half the time, I’ll hand Henry the phone
if he isn’t snoring.
As for Sparky’s learning curve,
either it doesn’t exist or I don’t understand it. When he was a young pup, Sparky ate an entire
jar of gray face cream and throughout his life has gone on to devour a disgusting
and toxic assortment of substances in alarming quantities. On the filthy streets of New York, he has
consumed dirty napkins, moldy bagels, pizza crusts, ancient apple cores,
chicken bones, and even his own vomit.
Although nearly choking or sick to his stomach on innumerable occasions,
he never learned from his mistakes.
In fact, over the years Sparky has become an
even more audacious eater. After
discovering several granola bars in a suitcase on the floor, he moved on to
knocking over a garbage can, pawing through handbags, brief cases and
backpacks. Many times he has eaten
several packages of diet bubble gum—paper included—along with Ricola cough
drops, a suppository and endless packages of Tums. However, his greatest culinary accomplishment
happened earlier this year. Somehow
Sparky managed to break into a low kitchen cabinet, gnaw through a triple bagged package of dog
kibble, drag all 8 pounds of it into our living room—despite an injured paw and
a plastic cone around his head—and consume
so much of it that he looked like he’d swallowed a bowling ball. Countless blobs of brown kibble had cascaded
from the bag all over the living room carpet. Cleaning up was a nightmare, as
the kibble blended in with our multi-colored rug, causing me step on the mess
and grind the kibble into brown powder.
a puppy, Sparky was universally friendly to all dogs and humans. While he continues to be sweet and gentle to
people of all ages, he has developed tremendous hostility to larger dogs and
has become a Lilliputian bully. He will
snarl and attempt to attack other dogs that are double or triple his weight and
size. I know dogs are territorial, but
sometimes I think Sparky has a death wish (or maybe he needs glasses).
Even more peculiar, he has a
mysterious hatred for a gentle, three-legged greyhound that lives down the
block and is always (literally) minding his own business. But the moment our dog sees the greyhound, Sparky
becomes a homicidal maniac pulling so hard against his leash he practically
strangles himself. Of course, there’s no
way to convince Sparky to stop or to explain to the greyhound owner why Sparky
turns into a werewolf, whenever he sees the handicapped dog. And forget about Sparky being persuaded to
“mind his own business.” It’s Mission
Impossible unless we scoop him up like a toddler having a tantrum and carry him
across the street.
Like a baby, Sparky cries when he’s
hungry, in pain or needs to relieve himself.
Unfortunately, he can’t articulate any intelligent information about an
injury. So the last time he jumped out
of Max’s arms and injured his paw, all we knew was that he was limping. Sparky looked so pathetic, we took him to the
vet immediately. After two visits, an x
ray and blood tests, the vet determined that our dog had a “soft tissue injury.” We were told to give him pain killers, keep
his walks to a minimum, and have him wear a plastic cone to prevent him from
licking the paw. Ten days later Sparky
was fine, and we had a $900 vet bill.
Last week Max took Sparky on a long
walk and when they returned Sparky was limping again.
“We need to take him to the vet.” Max informed me, his voice filled with the
same gravity and concern he expresses about his own physical ailments.
“Not so fast.” Henry and I are not anxious to incur another hefty
vet bill “Let’s see if he gets better in ten days the way he did last time. Is
it the same paw?” I ask, unable to
“I’m not sure.” Max picks up the dog and examines the
afflicted side. “I don’t think it’s his
paw this time. Maybe it’s his knee or
his hip. Are you sure we should wait?”
“Not if he cries or gets worse.”
My son is holding Sparky in his lap, scratching him
under his chin, cooing and trying to comfort him. “Maybe he’s got arthritis, and we should be
getting him painkillers.” Max is now
going into diagnostic speculation, or maybe even acting hypochondriacal on his
dog’s behalf. But there’s something sweet about his concern for the health and
well-being of another creature.
Although Sparky will remain a perpetual
child in our family, it’s gratifying for me to catch a glimpse of the caring man
and father Max will one day become.
Labels: ADHD, aging, autism, developmental delays, dogs, empathy, family issues, growing up, hypochondria, maturity, Norwich Terriers, parenting, teaching responsibility