Review Feature

Child's first pet can be trying experience


The facts have been hushed up for over 30 years due to a provision in Walt Disney's will. However, you are about to learn the real reason Dorothy McGuire made Tommy Kirk shoot Old Yeller. And rabies had nothing to do with it.

But first, let me present the shocking educational printumentary, "Selecting a Child's First Dog: One Parent's Nightmare."

As far as all-American pairings go, A Boy and His Dog is right up there with Love and Marriage, Soup and Sandwich, and Death and Taxes. So naturally, when my son began to appreciate the difference between pets and building blocks, I began drafting a list of the qualifications any canine would have to meet to become a member of our family unit.

1. He would have to be at least a year old. I'm too old to go through puppy-training again; too old to step, barefooted, into warm surprises; too old to find humor in the sight of my favorite belongings chewed to soggy smithereens.

Besides, it takes about one year for a dog's true personality to emerge. Ignore this fact and one day and there you'll be, fresh out of Jerky Treats and cornered in your own kitchen by Cujo, the Devil-Dog from Hell.

2. He must be lap-sized. My house is so small, cluttered, and yardless that the only free space we have is in our laps. If I ever have any more kids (which, I should add, is EXTREMELY UNLIKELY), they'd have to be lap-sized, too. And they'll have to stay that way until I can afford to move.

3. Mellow. Better yet, narcoleptic. Actually, what I really had in mind was all the symptoms of death except rigor mortis and decay.

My standards set, I immediately made my first mistake. I said and I still can't believe it "Say! Let's see what we can find at the animal shelter!"

As a very general rule, animal shelters are populated by four types of dogs: runaways, the abandoned, the psychotic, and the quarantined. None are ideal adoption material. Take home a runaway, for example, and he'll run away. Take home an abandoned dog, and you may well learn he was abandoned for good reason. Psychotic dogs are fine until you do something foolish, like make eye contact or try to pet them. At that point they become quarantined dogs.

A further problem is that any dog with only a few hours to live automatically takes on the most adorable characteristics of a puppy. It's astounding. I'm sure most convicted serial killers are no more adorable now than when they were reducing the population. But a pit bull who's set to die for eating a family of six? He's adorable.

So was the mutt we finally chose to rescue from Doggy Death Row ... the one my son named Buddy.

It wasn't until we got Buddy out to the car that I realized he was much bigger and younger than he'd seemed inside. And it wasn't until I read the paperwork that I realized we'd adopted a seven-month-old Border collie a breed with no use for a human lap. If you have 60 acres and a few hundred head of sheep in need of herding, you get yourself a Border collie.

But my son was ecstatic. He had a dog who looked just like Lassie ... if you stood back a few hundred yards and squinted real hard.

Once home, I opened the door, removed Buddy's leash, and said something gracious like, "Welcome to your new home!" Within 12 minutes, the dog soaked the couch, fouled my slippers, mistook a video cassette for a rawhide chew toy, howled whenever we left the room, and knocked my son down with an overly affectionate greeting whenever we returned.

It was around the 13th minute that my boy decided he didn't want a dog after all. So he took it very well when Buddy apparently a former runaway ran away.

Honest, I did not aid his escape. I simply opened the door to admit a visitor, and at a speed exceeding any ever attained by Chuck Yeager, Buddy was gone. Out of the house, neighborhood, and perhaps the state.

After a long, fruitless search, I took my son aside and broke the horrible news.

"Oh," he said, remarkably dry-eyed. Then panic struck. "Dad ... we're not gonna get another dog are we?"

Five days later, I was certain Buddy had become one with a Buick. Imagine my surprise when I came home and found him chained to the kitchen table which he'd upended and dragged into the living room, knocking over the stereo along the way.

Seems some well-meaning folks halfway across town had found him and run a lost-and-found ad ("Black/while Border collie, unhousebroken and energetic") that a friend happened to see.

Oooh, what luck.

I thought of borrowing Dorothy McGuire's rabies story, thinking my son would be happy to re-enact the Tommy Kirk role. But eventually I concluded that even the dumbest of God's animals has the right to live provided they do it at somebody else's house. Like my son's grandparents' house.

His grandparents possess many fine qualities, but the finest is that they continually make grand offers without seeming to worry you may accept. And when Buddy returned, they made their grandest offer yet: "We have a big yard. He can live with us."

If Dorothy McGuire had such big-hearted relatives, she wouldn't have had to invent her rabies cover-up story or fork out for a shotgun. And Old Yeller would have ended on the upbeat, like this story. Buddy's happy, I'm happy, even Grandma and Grandpa are happy.

Oh, yes. My son is happy, too. Except when we're at Grandma's house and someone tells him to go out back and play with his dog.

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