Dachshunds and little boys

Some months back, we lost a dear member of the family. We adopted Rusty eleven years ago, and found him to be a gentle soul, full of affection and good manners. He was also short, hairy, smelled bad, and was a poor raconteur, but there was no better listener in the world. He was a good dog.

Rusty came down with some kind of shaking awfuls that reduced him to a near-skeleton, and when my wife couldn't stand it any more, she had me take him into the vet for that final injection. I was startled how fast it was; he didn't even have time to close his eyes. That's another day I'd like to toss down the memory hole.

About a month ago, we learned that some acquaintances had bred their dachshund and the puppies were for sale at a very fair price. My first dog was a dachshund. I remember that she was yappy and territorial, but also that she loved having her tummy rubbed and that she had the most endearing way of rearing up on her stubby little hind legs to beg for table scraps. Remarkably, she died, not of back trouble, but from simply wearing out. She was fifteen.

Curiously, Rusty never liked having his belly rubbed. There was no special spot that you could scratch that would make his leg twitch and his eyes glaze over and put that silly grin on his face. Perhaps terriers are wired differently from dachshunds.

Anyway, my wife suggested that I wanted a dachshund for my birthday, and I wasn't inclined to disagree. As a friend wisely pointed out, dogs will break your heart, and they don't last nearly long enough, but life is diminished without them. We brought home Lacey, a darling little black dachshund with brown points in all the right places. She has indeed magnified our lives, and we are very glad to have her.

When I am enjoying myself, I tend to make up alternate lyrics to favorite old songs, a process unencumbered by any talent. The following is sung to the tune of "I'm Just A Little Black Rain Cloud," from Disney's adaptation of Winnie-the-Poo:

I'm just a little black dachshund,
Running in circles around the yard.
I am a very fast dachshund,
Keeping up with me is very hard.
Everyone knows that young dachshunds
Don't come housebroken -- Oh what a trip!
I'm just circling around,
Nose to the ground,
Wondering where I will drip.

I'm pretty sure the technical term for poetry inspired by the family pet is doggerel.

One thing has that surprised me about all this is my family's response to the new dog. I had thought that I was the only dog lover in the family. My wife has always been a cat person, and we have a remarkably affectionate Siamese mix living in the basement. Mei-mei got tons of extra affection after Rusty passed on, and she must now be feeling neglected, because the whole family is ga-ga over the new puppy. Lacey obviously stirs my wife's maternal instincts, and even my youngest, who is generally terrified of anything with fur and four legs, takes great delight in poking his fingers through the baby barrier we are using to keep Lacey in the kitchen while we housebreak her. The little guy giggles with delight when doggie comes to lick his fingers, though he is still frightened of her if the barrier is not in place.

The most delightful thing to watch, though, is my six-year-old son playing with the dachshund. I did not expect this reaction. The boy and the dachshund seem to understand each other on a level that I must have forgotten sometime in my early teen years. They do a kind of waltz around each other that involves much flapping of hands and paws in which they somehow managing not to hurt each other -- remarkable given that the mass ratio is currently about 7:1 and the dog has teeth in one end. It almost makes me want to be a little boy again, except that nothing is worth repeating the teenage years.

It is also rather poignant. I married later in life than I had planned, and as a result I will be 54 when my boy graduates from high school. At that point both the new dog and I will be feeling some of the effects of age. However, she will probably wear out before I do, and in all likelihood so will her successor. That's the trouble with picking as best friend a species with less than one-fifth our lifespan.

My father was not much older than 54 when he wore out, a victim of poorly-controlled diabetes. I have been fortunate to have not yet shown any signs of diabetes, and I hope to last long enough to see my great-grandchildren. But there are no guarantees in life.

One wonders why we make the emotional investment in something as short-lived as a dog. It is much easier to understand the emotional investment in a boy. After all, he is a young man full of potential, who at age six can recite the names of every dinosaur ever unearthed, along with the era in which it lived, the taxonomic family to which it belonged, and the continents in which its remains have been found. He is also happy to correct my pronunciation of dinosaur names, which is ironic, given that he still cannot hear the difference between a "w" and an "r". According to family tradition, this is the young man who will pass my name and cultural patrimony along to another generation.

Losing him would kill me. But we are faced, for the first time in thirty years, with a war substantial enough to bring terrible news to more than a tiny fraction of our families. I would gladly go to war in his place, except that the military naturally prefers fit young men to overweight middle-aged men, and in any case there's no outsourcing your self-respect. It may seem silly to worry about this with a six-year-old, but wars have been known to last more than thirteen years, especially when they are as nasty and visceral as the one we seem to be into now. Our enemies are real, are not interested in compromise, and are perfectly willing to die for their cause. I hope my son will be as willing to die for his. But I also hope, most fervently, that his willingness will never face the ultimate test.