Puppy lust — a tender urge becomes an obsession

By Michele Herman

I can trace our puppy dilemma back to a dog that used to be a nodding acquaintance of mine. This dog lived near Abingdon Sq. and was big and long and low to the ground, with ears far more impressively scaled than its legs, and a double coat of fur: lightish underneath and darker and wiry and rather randomly located on top, like someone’s old wool rug rolled up inside out for recycling. Its coat wasn’t lustrous like a retriever’s or sleek like a Weimaraner’s or curly like a poodle’s. In fact, this dog didn’t fit any definition of attractiveness that I could think of.

But that face! The long nose, the beard, the eyebrows and the concerned look under them melted me every time. I know it’s unseemly to anthropomorphize, but I don’t know how else to put it: this dog’s face was full of humanity, in the sense of being endearing and soulful and oddly familiar, as if maybe, if I were someone who subscribed to these ideas, I’d been this breed in a past life. When we chanced to be making our respective 12th St. rounds at the same time, I would try to put my finger on who the dog reminded me of, knowing only that it was someone Semitic and for whom I felt great affection. The closest I came was a cross between my great Aunt Gussie and Walter Matthau.

Later I learned that the dog was a standard wirehaired Dachshund, and that you could get the same basic idea in a smaller, apartment-sized package called a miniature. I like compact things, being one myself. Every now and then I’d see one in the neighborhood or in Central Park, and the same mysterious affinity would start humming inside me again. I had never even thought about getting a dog, but here I was longing for one.

The feeling also had something to do with my two boys, who’d been quite a handful as babies, growing bigger and more independent. This change had created a little available space inside me — not big enough for another human, but just right for a little dog. I pictured my long-nosed dog stationed on my lap, looking up at me now and again like a friend calling just to check in.

Meanwhile, the boys reached the predictable stage of childhood where they were agitating and raising funds and practically going door to door with petitions for us to get a pet. We bought a sensible lizard, and we like him just fine, but he turned out to be more of a prelude to a pet than a pet in his own right. I was still sneaking to the computer at odd hours and calling up miniature wirehaired Dachshund Web sites, and the boys, who’d caught my bug, were right there beside me.

Notice that my husband hasn’t featured yet in this story. He plays the role of the sensible one, which in this case is also the heavy. A dog is expensive, and messy, and endlessly demanding, he reminded us. And worst, a dog would tie us down. We don’t have a car. We don’t like to get up early and go out in the rain. We don’t much like poop. We do like to spend whole days out on our bikes. And though four separate dog walkers come to our building daily already, we’ve never really glommed on to the yuppie idea of paying people for their services when we can muddle through performing the service ourselves or live without it.

When you ask Village Dachshund owners where they got their dog, they usually say, offhandedly, “Oh, from a breeder in Connecticut.” So two summers ago, with the goal of getting wirehaired Dachshunds out of our three systems, we actually visited one. The visit did tamp down our desire for a while — the puppies were still a little embryonic and the breeder was skittish with the boys, fearing one of them would drop a puppy and break its neck.

But back home, we went right back to running after every wirehaired we saw and picking the brains of their owners. Research only gets you so far. I’ve learned that wirehaired Dachshund males may be aggressive with other males, or not. They may be stubborn about housetraining or not. I have learned definitively that they are smart and spirited, but on the downside that, being small, they come with small bladders. Ask an owner how often they take the puppy out, and the owner will chop up the day into these horrible little intervals: first thing in the morning, right after breakfast, midmorning, right before lunch and so on. And a serene neighborhood man with two equally serene Bernese mountain dogs, like a pair of sentient hot fudge-and-butterscotch sundaes, set me straight on this business of small dogs being sensible. It’s the big ones, he said, that are perfect for apartment life because they’re calm and lie around. The little energetic ones deserve a big place in the country.

My husband is right on all counts. A dog is illogical, impractical, particularly a full-bred one that can’t be rescued from a shelter. And I’m the one who’s home all day trying to concentrate on my work. What am I thinking, adding a dynamo of distraction and need and temptation to a life that already contains an unfinished novel?

On the other hand, there’s the Sandy and Ginger factor. They’re the two wheatens who live down the hall. When they come out for a walk, the boys and I run to the hall, and they run to us, in their smart and responsive and friendly and floppy and adorable way, and if you shrank them down and shifted the proportions a little, they would practically be blond wirehaired Dachshunds. And the Mitchell factor. Mitchell was a good-natured little Cairn terrier on the seventh floor who died a few months ago. Though his presence was unobtrusive, his absence from the lobby, where he begged treats from the doorman and accompanied his owner everywhere she went, is vast. Not that I want my boys to suffer broken hearts one day, but I do wish for them (and me) that kind of fierce but comfortable friendship particular to humans and dogs.

So when the boys ask, “When are we going to get a dog?” their voices heavy with desire and doubt and accusation, I answer that I don’t know, and I turn to my husband. The wise guy in him says, “Each time you whine about a dog it adds another three months.” But then the wise man, who likes dogs just fine and does understand that love is not always rational, says that if he were to consent it would have to be for the right reasons and not as a response to pressure. Don’t pester me, he advises, but let me reach the stage where I love the idea as much as you do.