Obeying the Alpha Dog

One pooch was draped over his neck like a well-worn scarf.

When I bought Frankie on a whim from an overweight couple in the backwoods of East Texas, I hadn’t fully thought through the life-changing decision I was making. I was home for a long weekend after three months in New York, and had no prior intention of getting a dog. I wasn’t a “dog person.” Or a cat person, for that matter. I liked puppies and kittens, in that order, but didn’t like full-grown pets a lick.

Maybe it’s because we had a constant string of dogs growing up—they came in and out of our lives as often as new pairs of shoes. Some we got as adorable puppies, some as scraggly strays; the one thing they all had in common was that they didn’t last long. Most were killed by neighbors’ dogs or run over by cars. One was actually trampled by our own tractor-trailer, and another simply ran away on his own accord, perhaps in search of a better and longer life. It was a rough neighborhood for canines, out in the country where gangs of big dogs ran wild, before the laws were intact to fence or chain them. It was common for a dog to disappear into the woods for a day or two; no one would take notice or worry for a full week. It was truly survival of the fittest.

“The Stewarts’ dog CocoPuff is awfully cute but I’m afraid it’s never going to make it, with King and Bear back in town up the hill,” I’d say to my younger sister, Corie. “Its chances of living more than three months are about one in a million. Word of warning, go check it out, but do not let yourself get attached. Oh, by the way, Calico is dead; drowned in the swimming pool skimmer yesterday. Mom and Dad are trying to think how to break it to you. Thought you should know.”

It was almost cruel how we continued to get more pets knowing in advance what their destinies would be. The cats—Corie’s domain—would disappear more quickly than the last donut at a church prayer meeting. Poor little Niki, the pint-sized Cocker Spaniel we got for Christmas one year, passed away of puppy pneumonia at ten weeks old. At least that was a natural death.

I wish the same could be said for Benetton, a precious little Yorkshire terrier whose tiny skull was crushed in the Buick car door by my mother as we were loading up for school. Mom didn’t do it on purpose; in the process of gathering all four kids in the car, the poor pup had tried to jump in just as Mom closed the door. Benetton’s head imploded in the car door faster than his namesake’s annual sales. To this day I swear I saw his puppy soul float up as we watched him wobble in a slow circle and then collapse in the driveway. Like the same blurring affect of gasoline coming out of a plane, but smaller and slower. My mother cried and we didn’t get any more pets for a time.

So when Corie started trying to convince me to get a dog for companionship in New York, I was hesitant. “I don’t really like dogs,” I said.

“But none of our dogs were around long enough for you to know if you like dogs. This will be your very own and I’m sure it’s much safer in the city,” my sister pleaded. “Since you’re new to the city and freelancing from your apartment, it’s the perfect time to get a puppy, don’t do you think?”

She had a point. I had picked up and moved to Manhattan after growing bored with Dallas, looking to take my graphic design career to the next level. But my priorities were my work and settling in to a new city, and I wasn’t sure a dog fit into that equation. Although I felt right at home in New York instantly, I hadn’t really made any good friends, so I could use the company, I reasoned. But still. “Well, I’m just not sure if I can handle a dog. Some dogs frighten me.” I protested.

After a night of pondering pros and cons and getting no sleep at all, I came up with a practical plan. I decided to leave it completely to chance—to look in the paper, and if there were dachshund puppies for sale then it was fate that I was to have one. If there were none listed or if they were all sold, it was not meant to be. Simple as that. It gave me sort of a thrill. I was playing Russian roulette with dog-ownership. My logic might have been flawed due to the lack of sleep—of course there were dachshund puppies—it was spring and the paper was overflowing with every kind of puppy.

At least there was no question about the breed. I wanted a dachshund after meeting my friend Peter’s dog Oskie. I loved the way Oskie would sleep for hours in my lap, and when he wasn’t sleeping he would move objects—that Peter had placed just so—from one room to the other, creating little nests here and there of Peter’s socks and undies, leaving a book here, a stuffed animal there, an expensive vase dead center. I was intrigued; it was as if Oskie owned the house and was letting Peter sublet one small room.

Corie and I began our search with newspaper in hand. The first house we came to reeked of urine and something that smelled like formaldehyde or bleach. Since we weren’t in the nicest area of town my immediate thought was that they were possibly brewing crystal meth in their bathtub. I didn’t want a crack-puppy. Cats ran wild through the house. When we finally spotted the dachsie-mamma, Corie and I gave each other a look that said “No way in hell do we want anything related to this creature.” She was fat, old, and haggard. Anyone probably would be, after birthing twenty litters, but that’s no excuse. She clearly should have taken better care of herself. And she had some junk in her trunk, literally. As she turned around we winced as we noticed a dried-up dingleberry dangling from her backside. Her large, listless puppy had a tired look in his eye as if he had already seen too much of this world. It was already four months old and I wanted a little tiny creature that wasn’t yet jaded—a creature I could love and influence right from the start. We high-tailed it out of there.

The next neighborhood we entered wasn’t much better. I wondered if we were lost as we forged deeper and deeper into the heart of a trailer park. I checked the address again and we found ourselves in front of a double-wide. We spotted the “driveway” marked by dead grass and pulled in near a broken-down Big Wheel parked beside a beat up pick-up truck, but the flowerbeds were well-tended and the deck was decorated with a family of ceramic trolls. I didn’t see any dogs running up to greet us and began to wonder if we had made a wrong turn when a big lady appeared on the porch. Sporting an appliquéd sweatshirt covering a wide range of subjects and several pink barrettes that poked out of her beehive hairdo, she warmly invited us in.

There, we discovered the dogs—it was clear that the house was their domain. They rested comfortably in the air-conditioning and perched on footrests, the sofa, and armchairs, stretched out in different positions. The man of the house was covered in tattoos that seemed as thematically random as his wife’s appliqués. Tweety-bird peeked out at us from his chest over his low-cut tank top. A naked lady slithered down his arm while the other arm was painted—it almost looked airbrushed—with a beach scene, the sun setting over his shoulder. He was sitting on the floor leaning back on his easy chair, which was shared by two snuggling dachshunds. One pooch was draped over his neck like a well-worn scarf. He cooed and wrestled with as many as he could reach from his low spot on the ground. I realized right away who made the rules in this house, and it was not the man with the mullet.

This house reeked of love. It also smelled of the baked beans and black-eyed peas that simmered on the stove. Once we settled in, a young nephew brought in the tiny doe-eyed puppy from the back yard. She walked over to me, pensive and curious, but not bashful, and I knew she had to be mine. I felt a strong connection when she looked up at me and wiggled her stubby puppy snout and I stroked her velvety ears. Corie and I found her mother, Digger Dawg, charming. She had a great figure; solid but shapely. She was protective but open-minded and seemed to telepathically say to her little one: “Go, it’s time to fly away, it’s time to be free.” The father was out scavenging—but we were beyond convinced, and took the little pup in a to-go box.

She won over the whole family when I brought her home. But it was Julie, my youngest sister, who chose the name Frankie, short for Frankfurter, short for Franscesca P. Furter, which is the dignified-sounding name we scribbled on her registration papers.

Corie sent me away with a new dog and new book: The Readers’ Digest Care for Puppies, which I read on the plane trip back to New York. Frankie was so small she could ride with me in the cabin. The stewardess fell for her as immediately as I had. “Puppy coming through!” she shouted as she carried the two-pound puppy-loaf above her head, outside of its carrier case. “Make way.” People oohed and aahed. This pooch was going to get me plenty of attention back in New York. I was interrupted by fellow passengers so many times I could barely read my puppy-care book, which was crucial, me being a new mother and all.

I was deeply engrossed in a chapter titled “Being in Control of your Puppy” when I heard more ooooohhhs and aaaahhhs. Frankie had unzipped her home under the seat and run half way down the plane. By the time I unbuckled and jumped up she was scurrying under the seat of an older gentleman way back in 43F. I was impressed by her agility. “You’re a smart little whippersnapper,” I said as I gave her a Benadryl to sedate her. After all, I had more reading to do.

We arrived in New York and she settled in to our East Village apartment. The place was a fifth-story walk-up that I was subletting, and Frankie and I had the whole place to ourselves, complete with six windows facing a corner showering us with morning light. It was old and un-renovated but had a certain degree of charm. The tiny bathroom off the kitchen had a claw-foot bathtub barely big enough to stand in, and a Euro-style shower with a hand-held spigot. The holes in the floors were big enough for Frankie to lose a foot in. Many chewing bones were lost to those hardwoods.

In the meantime, I was putting the things I learned from the manual to the test. I wanted to do absolutely everything by the book: In order to establish dominance right from the start, always eat your meals before the dog, so it knows it’s lower down in the hierarchy. Walk through the front door before your puppy, because this shows who the pack leader is. We began racing each other to the door, from the third flight up, tripping over each other and the leash in the process as I fumbled for my keys, blocking each other at every angle in our bid for dominance.

I would reprimand my little tot for chewing up my new shoes in something close to a gentle whisper. “Oh, little pumpkin, please don’t do that. You cuuuutie-woooodie, pweaese don’t ever eat momma’s hundwed dollar shoes ever-wever again,” I would purr, while tickling her belly. I simply could never use my outdoor voice to yell at something so completely innocent. I consulted the book; it said if one were to be the alpha dog, as I so badly wanted to be, one had to talk in a sharp tone loudly enough to startle the pup into submission, even clapping or stomping one’s foot. “No!” I resolved to shout at an audible voice the next time she ruined a pair of Steve Maddens.

It took practice, but on my fifth pair of shoes, I was up to a dull roar. As my shoes, bras and books got ruined, I yelled louder and louder, sometimes surprising myself. But nothing would startle Frankie as she was chewing; she was oblivious. I would stomp a heavy-booted foot down, missing her head only by inches. But she would only dodge me and run into the other room, turning it into a game. My voice was rising in volume and dropping in octave, until I sounded like a pack-a-day pissed-off drag queen.

Despite the fact that half the time I went around the house screaming, stomping and clapping my hands, she’d just ignore me, or worse, give me a look that said, “You’re hysterical.” I’ll never forget the first time she let out a tiny bark. By the next week she had learned to growl, and if I took her bone away, she could growl quite ferociously. When this happened, I gently flipped her over on her back, as the guidebook dictated, and held her down, in order to show dominance. But she seemed to think of it as hard-earned R&R;time.

I had met my match.


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