There’s a monster in my empty nest.
It has taken over the house, all the space my husband and I only recently reclaimed as our own. It is threatening to take over my life, dictating by its very presence when and how I cook, when and where I write, if I can leave the room to go to the bathroom, indeed, even if I dare get up at night to go to the bathroom, and last night, whether or not it was worth it to check on a strange noise that could have been a hot water heater’s last gasp because I might wake the dog
Yes, I said dog. The “monster” is our dog. Our puppy dog.
It seemed like a great idea a few months ago. For his birthday I gave my husband permission to get a dog of his choosing. I had failed at dogs multiple times when the kids were young; I never had any energy or attention left at the end of the day for anything with four legs after caring for four two-legged children. But once I had fewer responsibilities and was more mature, I thought I could do it. My husband needed a distraction, I thought, from his work; he absolutely had to stop bugging our one married daughter about grandchildren; and I hoped a dog would give him a reason to resume walking the neighborhood on a regular basis. He was incredulous – but thrilled.
He researched breeds prodigiously, rejecting several for genetic flaws far less onerous than my own, (causing me to wonder how he ever decided to marry me, much less roll the dice with children). Then, in a rare moment of spontaneous decisiveness, he fell in love with a dog he saw in an airport. He wanted an English setter, and he found a breeder who lived not far from a daughter we were visiting at Easter, and most of the litter happened to be left, even though the website said it wasn’t, and one thing led to another and we brought Maggie home.
Maggie is darling. He says she’s exquisitely beautiful. “Isn’t she gorgeous?” he asks multiple times a day – of me, of strangers he meets on the street, and of friends he drags in to see her. She has one black eye and a black ear and her body coat has grown in mottled in black and white. She prances – he says she “floats” – down the street when she’s feeling perky and she can run like the wind after squirrels and away from me if at any time I neglect to tether or leash her outside our fenced-in yard. With crate training by-the-book and only four different $50 and up pillows and pads worn out by excessive washing, she was house-broken with relative ease. She was even sleeping through the night. I thought the worst was over.
I was so wrong. We’d never had a dog long enough to gauge the duration of puppyhood. I didn’t know it could last 18 months to two years., and sometimes, I’m told, even longer. I had no idea she would dare chew the fringe on my Oriental rug, or destroy the carved arms of our reading chair when left alone for 15 minutes and then sink her teeth into the otherwise indestructible mesh of a favorite patio chair. I had no plans to repaint our French doors, but she has scratched them to bare wood insisting it’s time to let her inside. And on a recent road trip, she mauled the leather strip on the inside of my BMW’s back seat door. She even ate my homework one day, breaking loose of the crate while I was out and tearing up magazines and papers I was reading. All this in addition to $9 a piece “bullies,” or high-end chew sticks made from beefy private parts. And Kongs. And squeaky AKC approved squirrels and ducks.
She’s being trained. Professionally. (Nothing but the best for my husband’s dog.) And the trainer says she’s right on target.
Ouch. She’s normal; I must not be.
I’m not sure I can handle this much longer. Yes, she can sit like a pro. And if we’re practicing her skills, clickers and treats in hand, she can sit, come, lay down, stay, and go to her mat. But should she escape down our back alley, there’s not a command in the world she’ll obey. She jumps all over everyone who comes in the house, even my husband and me who come and go several times a day. And no matter how many times I catch her in the act and spray her, indeed douse her, with water, she cruises the kitchen counters, relentlessly, hoping against hope that I will leave a stick of butter, a chunk of cheese, or a slab of beef within reach.
So I plan my days around Maggie now, the way carpools, soccer practice and piano lessons used to dictate my schedule. Has she been exercised enough to let her into the kitchen for a bit while I make a pie? Shall I move my computer to the kitchen so we can keep each other company, or can I use my office and leave her outside with the squirrels? Have I not only locked all the exterior doors when I leave the house, but also closed off those few places (our bedroom, the dining room, the living room) saved (so far) from her destructives forces? And last night in bed, when I heard that water heater and imagined hot water seeping into our carpet and warping the floors and furniture, too, did I dare risk the rest of the night’s sleep by walking into “her” side of the house at 4 a.m.?
There’s more at stake here than the dog and the house I loved to keep “just-so” now that the clutter and chaos of kids have moved on. This is a challenge to my character, and I’m not going down (she writes while looking up furniture refinishers and restorers online). In this third third of my life I don’t intend to be inflexible and set in my ways. I don’t want to be more concerned about my possessions than my relationships. I want to be open to growth and change and to learning and trying new things. Besides, I can’t bear the thought of confessing I’ve failed at dog-parenting again.
And yet I wonder: What was I thinking?!!! Or: Is it heresy to send a dog away to boarding school to learn how to behave in my house (like, don’t come back until you’re three and civilized)? And, sometimes: Shouldn’t I save up all this patience and psychic energy for grandchildren or grandparents in diapers?
I’d like to be able to conclude by saying there are times that Maggie behaves as I envisioned, lying contentedly at my feet as I read or write, looking up at me, trusting and wide-eyed, for assurances that she is loved. But there are not. Not yet. My bike-riding with her on a lead for exercise doesn’t cut it, either, because I know I look like such a fool. So for now we simply muddle on, sweet Maggie and I -- (Yes, she is sweet – just very, very rambunctious) -- and I simply demur when friends looking forward to their own empty nests ask why in the world we ever introduced this monster – I mean, a puppy -- into ours.
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