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The Oh-So-Perfect Pug...And the Mother Who Failed Her.

November 15, 1998|MARGO KAUFMAN | Margo Kaufman's new book is "Clara, the Early Years" (Villard). Her last piece for this magazine was an essay about baby products and services

You've got mail!" chirped America Online's computer voice. I clicked on my mailbox and found a message labeled Re: Sophie.

Oh, dear, I fretted, expecting a complaint that she was homesick or causing trouble. "Sophie is behaving herself just fine and is apparently undisturbed by the changes in her life," the message read. I couldn't help feeling depressed. Sophie, a handsome black pug, was my constant companion for seven years. She was a loving but exasperating beast. Unlike my younger pug, the tres engageante--oh, let's be frank--sluttish Clara, Sophie was a study in obstinacy. She regularly woke me at 5 a.m. just for the joy of depriving me of sleep. Despite hundreds of dollars in obedience school tuition, she defiantly bolted in the other direction when ordered to "Come" and thought "Heel!" meant to weave her leash around my legs until I fell on my face. She barked at anything: a cat meowing on another continent, a cell phone antenna going down. And once she got started, the metronomic yap! yap! continued for hours. Still, Sophie was slavishly devoted to me, and she'd still be snoring under my desk were it not for her less-than-courteous welcome of Nicholas, our human son.

After a period of mourning akin to Queen Victoria's after losing Prince Albert, Clara realized that Nick was a source of dropped cookies and graciously accepted him. But Sophie refused to share me. If Nick and I sat on the floor stacking blocks, she snowplowed him out of the way with her massive head. She forcefully confiscated his teething biscuits. Concerned, I called my friend Blanche, three-time Pug Breeder of the Year.

"As soon as he grows a bit and Sophie realizes that he is not another puppy, she'll be fine," she said. I wanted to believe her. But as Nicholas matured, so did Sophie's hostility. I exhausted myself trying to ensure that the pug was not shortchanged in the quality-time department. And what was my reward? I came home one day and Lupe, my son's baby-sitter, reported that Sophie had grabbed Nicholas by the T-shirt and shaken him. Or so I translated; Lupe doesn't speak much English and my audiocassette Spanish didn't include the verbs to debrief her.

Then, a few weeks ago, I was reading Nicholas a story. Sophie sat at my side, eyes glowing with hatred. Nick stroked her fur and she lunged. Had I not intervened, she would have bitten him. As it was, she nipped me. Living as we do in a pet-obsessed society, it is a truism that any time an animal misbehaves, it's the human's fault. So I wasn't surprised when Blanche chastised me. What I should have done, she said, was to instantly pick up Sophie by the scruff of the neck and fling her across the room. (Obviously, my maternal instinct to save the child was misguided.)

I opted for a timeout. I asked Blanche if she would keep the miscreant for a few days. It would give me a chance to judge the environmental impact of her absence.

My husband didn't miss Sophie's obsessive sniffing. Nicholas, who never even bothered to learn Sophie's name (though he said "Clara" before "Mama" and "Papa"), didn't even notice that she was gone. Clara called a locksmith and changed the locks. Only I felt the void, so I called my longtime vet--let's call him Dr. Shekel--for advice. "I'd hate to see you give up on Sophie after all these years," he said. I'd hate to see a toddler get bitten in the face, I thought. But when Shekel referred me to an animal psychologist he called "The Big Gun," I dutifully phoned.

Big Gun fired over by fax a seven-page press kit listing his media appearances and testimonials from the owners of former shoe-chewers and rug-soilers. "I can't promise anything," he warned, "but the dog and the child might benefit from couple's therapy." He declined to elaborate but I grasped that he would visit us once, come up with a strategy to save the relationship and charge me a few hundred dollars. I pointed out that Nicholas' attention span is limited unless a task involves Hot Wheels cars, which he worships like religious icons. "It's your job to keep him motivated," Big Gun said.

Just what every working mother needs. Another job.

I placed a frantic call to Anna Marie, the editor of Pug Talk magazine, where I am Hollywood Correspondent. She suggested that I call Charlotte, a Massachusetts behaviorist. "I've known her to work miracles over the phone," Anna Marie said.

It took the miracle worker three minutes to assess the situation. "Your little boy is in danger," Charlotte said. Sophie, she explained, is an alpha dog. And here's where it was my fault again. She needs a stern owner. Not a submissive beta bitch like me. Charlotte suggested that I find Sophie a home where she could be in charge. "I realize you'll miss her terribly," she said.

"Honestly," I confessed. "I don't think I will."


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