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A Special Pet Section | SANDY BANKS

A Burden They'd Never Forsake

In this special column about pets--her pets--the columnist answers the question "Why?"

May 03, 1999|SANDY BANKS

We must teach Puff about weekends.

He's been a quick learner so far, our puppy.

Figured out how to climb among the brick planters to reach our backyard flower beds. Realized that the dirty-clothes hamper is full of smelly socks that taste great.

And learned that with a running start, he can propel his small furry body onto the bed in my daughters' room.

So every day at the crack of dawn, he nudges aside our sleeping Dalmatian--who lies, appropriately doglike, at the foot of the bed--and bounds toward the pillows and onto my daughters' heads. And licks them, relentlessly, awake.

It's useful, this wake-up call, on school days. There's no snooze button on Puff's pink tongue. He can't be ignored or tuned out; there's no easy way to turn off a puppy bent on rousing someone to play.

But he doesn't realize that every sunrise doesn't herald a school morning. So every Saturday and Sunday I'm roused from sleep by the cries of unhappy children, awakened prematurely.

"Stop it, Puff. Go away! Get down!"

But, of course, he doesn't. So the girls stumble, grumbling, down the hall to my room and climb onto my bed, which is too tall for this Maltese-poodle puppy to reach.

They crowd in and grab for the covers, jostling for space, shoving me to the edge as they settle back into sleep.

And I get up bleary-eyed and head off to make coffee . . . with a bright-eyed puppy toddling after me.

*

We have two dogs. They scratch and shed, bark and whine, steal food from the counters, dig through the trash. Their medical problems have left me in debt, their maintenance needs cost me precious time.

And sometimes I cannot help but long for a petless life of leisure and ease.

Why do we have them? What good are they? I wonder when I contemplate the messes they make.

When they sniff out our hidden Easter baskets and devour them, leaving every room littered with candy wrappers and shredded cellophane grass.

When they slip out of the house when no one is looking and head off to roam the neighborhood, forcing me out in my nightgown to retrieve them, making us late for work and school.

When they track mud across the carpet, steal the meatloaf that was to be our meal, pee on the leg of a visitor . . . a prospective beau who has no pets and is not pleased.

But then, there are also moments when I wonder why I had children.

And I suppose the answers to both questions arise from the same set of needs.

I love them . . . and I love them loving me. And for all they cost in money, time and energy, they give back in tender lessons about love, devotion and selflessness.

I've never thought of myself as an animal person. I don't care for cats or birds or bunnies; I don't fall in love with every dog I see. I like to tell myself that our pets serve legitimate familial needs.

Domino's a watchdog--never mind that he barks whenever anyone in the neighborhood breathes. And Puff--well, his job is playmate, companion, comic relief.

The truth is, I can't imagine life without dogs. I've always had a pup or two, from the time I was a child. And I've got a real soft spot for certain dogs--some, my kids will tell you, just speak to me.

I'm devoted to them, as I am to my children. Yet, I don't have to nag them to do homework or make sure that their clothes are clean, to poll them on their dinner choices or worry about their bathroom needs.

We've made our lives with dogs as easy as could be--with a fenced-in yard, a doggy door in the kitchen, the run of the house, with no bed or chair off-limits. And compared with many pets we've seen, our dogs are fairly well-behaved.

Still, it sometimes feels as though they hold us hostage with their demands, their eccentricities, their needs. There can be no impromptu weekend vacations, no carefree leave-takings. We can't leave them alone in the house without locking the pantry and putting our shoes and toys away.

They are, at times, monumental burdens. Yet they bless our family in ways both grand and ordinary.

I'd like to say they teach my children responsibility. But the only one who feeds them, grooms them, tends to them is me.

But they give us all a chance to practice kindness, unselfishness and caring, as we make concessions to meet their needs.

And we learn valuable lessons from the way they love us--fiercely and unreservedly.

*

I asked my girls as I worked on this column, "Why do you like having dogs?"

"Because if we didn't, we'd feel deprived," the little one said. All her friends, it seems, have pets. "And they brag." And I realize the dogs are like her children, and she loves the notion of being Mommy.

They're fun, the oldest says, as she strokes Domino tenderly.

Because they always love you, adds her middle sister. "When you're sad, they just seem to know it and they'll curl up beside you and kiss you. And that makes you feel better."

She gathers Puff up in her arms, and the girls smother him with kisses, cooing his name in that kind of tiny voice that people use when they talk to babies.

And, like them, I forgive him everything. Even slobbery kisses on a morning made for sleep.

Sandy Banks' column normally runs on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com.

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