In the annals of great Southern experiments, there are many failures. There was an entire economy based upon slave labor. There were Jim Crow laws. There were the 1996 Atlanta Olympic games.
Add to that list the recent attempt of the Franklin family to get a new pet, a.k.a The Great Dog Experiment of 2011, a.k.a The Christmas of Disappointment.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a dog guy. I always had dogs growing up. And for the better part of my adult life, I had a Beagle-Collie mix named Bebes. I got him as a pup in 1994. In the great tradition of all Alabama fans, I wanted to name him after an Alabama head coach. Bear was too cliche. I could have named him for the succeeding Alabama coaches Ray Perkins and Bill Curry, but expletives never make good dog names. Seeing as how we were only two years removed from Gene Stallings leading Bama to a national championship in 1992, co-opting his nickname was a perfect choice.
Except for the first year of his life, Bebes was an outside dog. We never knew what type of collie his father was, but suffice to say any herding dog is better suited to life outdoors. Adding to that necessity was our second dog, Babe. The pig-dog. Unquestioningly the result of toxic waste or a secret experiment gone awry, Babe was the single dumbest, ugliest, meanest, uncoordinated and untrainable dog in the world. For example, while my wife spent six weeks in an obedience class with Bebes, teaching him all sorts of new skills, I spent those same six weeks trying to teach Babe to sit. She never learned it.
Babe had to leave us when we had children, because, in addition to all her other charming qualities, she hated kids. Bebes lived to a ripe old age of 14. His death gutted me – not so much because of the time we had together, but because of the time I didn’t spend with him but wished I had. I wept openly as I buried him on an October day a little over three years ago.
During the years that we had Bebes and Babe, a weird thing happened to me: I developed an allergy to dogs. Since they lived outside, it was never much of an issue. That allergy would be one of the key components of the failure of GDE2011.
The other component is named Pippin. Pippin is an eight-year-old, 19-pound Norwegian Forest Cat. And make no mistake; this is his house, and we are his people. He just allows us to work to support him. We didn’t check with Pippin first before bringing a puppy into the house. Mistake.
You might be wondering, if I have dog allergies and a cat that is very much accustomed to having his house and his people all to himself, why did I get a puppy? Besides the fact that it’s a Real Southern Rule? One word: children.
Our daughter was seven when Bebes died, our son almost three. For most of our daughter’s life, Bebes behaved as old dogs do: lying around and not doing much of anything. They had both been on us for a couple of years to get a puppy. Although we were skeptical, we wanted them to have the experience. Playing with a puppy and teaching it bad habits as your parents try to undo the damage you’ve caused – while also managing 4am walks, buying ridiculous amounts of toys and supplies, cleaning up after the little house eater, maintaining a job and also trying to raise and care for your ungrateful self – is one of the great privileges of childhood.
Every so often, we’d start researching hypoallergenic dog breeds, always coming back to the same little designer purse dogs with cutesy names that typically included an “oodle.” We could never bring ourselves to spend upwards of $300 on a dog that we didn’t know would last a week in our house.
Finally, we decided that Christmas 2011 would be the Christmas we got a dog. We kept searching and searching. Nothing seemed right. Breeders either came off seeming skeevy (I don’t care if it’s a word or not; that’s how they came off) or didn’t return our texts and emails. Then I went to get a haircut.
At the salon, one of the ladies had her puppy, a male Weimahoula. A Weimahoula is a rare hybrid (I could only find evidence of two litters in the U.S. over the last ten years) of a Weimaraner and a Catahoula Leopard. If you’ve never heard of a Catahoula, read this handy profile. The dog was the sweetest, most docile puppy I had ever been around. And, to my surprise, I didn’t have an allergic reaction to him. The dog’s owner showed me a picture on her phone of my son with the puppy at his last haircut. He looked so happy. Way to ratchet up the pressure, Kristi the shampooer.
Then a fateful call came. The breeder of the Weimahoulas called Kristi to let her know she had two more puppies available from the litter … for free … to recommended families only. By Friday the 23rd, we had a puppy.
We named her Merry, both as acknowledgement that she was a Christmas gift to the family and as an homage to The Lord of the Rings – the inspiration for Pippin’s name. Yep, we’re geeks.
For the first two days we had her, she was the most serene puppy I had ever seen. Sure there were the late-night walks and occasional stolen socks, but all in all, she was an awesome pup. Pippin would disagree. No sooner than the dog showed up, Pippin placed himself in self-imposed isolation upstairs in the kids’ rooms.
The dog arrived on the same day we had family drop in on their way to Mobile for the holiday. When they left the next morning, and the dog stayed, you didn’t have to be a cat whisperer to read the consternation on Pippin’s face. A few days later, my parents went back home. Then it was just our immediate family. Still the dog stayed. The reality of what we had done to him was really hitting Pippin now. And he was hitting the cat in return – often and with claws out.
On day four of the experiment, things took a more tragic – and expensive – turn. While walking Merry, my daughter decided to run with the dog. The pavement was wet. She was wearing Crocs. Bad combination.
Two hours later, we were sitting in the waiting room of a local clinic, surrounded by dozens of people who appeared to be dying and were incapable of covering their mouths when they coughed. Note to parents: remind your kids not to break a limb during cold & flu season. What had been painfully obvious by my daughter’s obvious pain was confirmed as fact by the x-rays … and the cringe-inducing bend a few inches above her wrist. She had broken both bones in her forearm.
Two days later, despite having had a flu shot and thanks to the cough zombies in the clinic, I spent the first of three days in bed with the flu. There’s a phrase business people like to throw around these days when weighing their priorities: opportunity cost. It refers to the potential income lost by forgoing one opportunity by applying limited resources to another. In my case, opportunity cost is purely a factor of my time. My three days in bed cost me at least $4,200 in lost jobs. And we still haven’t gotten the bill for the broken arm.
When I finally did return to work the next week, things went from bad to worse. First, Pippin had become so annoyed and stressed out by Merry’s presence that he had what could best be described as a nervous breakdown. (I suppose walking around with a dog’s nose constantly inserted in your anus will do that to you.) Then I got to my freelance gig only to realize that I was so light-headed I could hardly sit upright. My lungs were constricted with severe asthma. My body was aching. My throat was dry. The severe acute allergic reactions I was accustomed to had never shown up. Instead, they were the slow-burn, chronic type. Awesome. I wasn’t sneezing; I was simply dying … slowly.
Meanwhile, back at home, Merry refused to be contained in her outdoor enclosure. She was too smart for that. Did I mention Catahoulas are the only known dog breed that can climb trees? I don’t think she resorted to that, however. She didn’t have to. Her webbed Weimaraner feet are great for digging.
We debated all day whether we would return her to her breeder or not. When I got home that night, she crawled into my lap, rolled over onto her back and cradled herself in my arms like a baby. How could I send her back? I imagined what our life could be: taking her on hikes in the woods, letting her swim in mountain lakes to her web-footed content and teaching her to climb trees just to freak out the neighbors.
Then the severe reaction that had held itself at bay for 10 days finally came. My eyes itched and watered. My throat tightened and grew itchy.
She was sweet. She was smart. We were all in love with her. And she had to go.
By the following afternoon, almost every trace of Merry had been removed from our house. She was happily back home with her mother and siblings (and sharing all of her new toys with them.) Meanwhile, we were holding children as they cried themselves to sleep. They cried. My wife cried. I cried. The Great Dog Experiment of 2011 had failed.
And Pippin did a little cat dance of joy. Wait ’til he finds out we’re getting a kitten.