I have always wanted a dog – always.
Given a choice, I would have gone with a career of veterinarian, because animals are, and always have been, my first and best love. But given my rampant allergies (an allergist recently told me that I’m “allergic to everything”), and given that I have no talent in math or science (which made my physicist father sad), being a veterinarian was never an option.
So when I was about ten I talked to my mother about my desire to have a dog. My mother replied that if I kept my room clean for a year, then I would have shown the necessary responsibility to have a dog. Being the tidiest member of my immediate family at the time (my mother, my father, and me, since my siblings were grown up and away at college), it was an easy thing for me to keep my room clean for a year. I thought it was a done deal, that I had earned my dream dog, a rough-coat collie just like Lassie, but my mother failed me on a technicality. I don’t remember what the technicality was, but clearly I had surprised her in my desire to have a dog – clearly she didn’t expect me to have met the criteria and kept to my clean behavior for a year. Long story short, I didn’t get a dog, and I consoled myself with time spent with our outdoor/indoor cat Tabby, a sweet but grumpy girl who refused to be picked up and who would only snuggle with me when I was wearing my mother’s pale blue fake fur bathrobe.
Fast forward to this year. It’s been a rough couple of years, and I’ve been fantasizing about better days. When my beloved feral project Mommy Cat perished in the cold spell of February of this year, most likely after having been shot by a BB gun, I started to allow myself to think about getting a dog. Mommy Cat would have never stood for a dog in her yard, and I would never have brought a dog into our lives as long as she was alive. But after I grieved her miserable and untimely passing I allowed myself to start thinking about what our lives would be like with a dog. I surfed various dog adoption websites. I talked to my dear father, who at this point was suffering from dementia, about the dogs I had applied for. I showed Dad photos of the dogs, and talked to him about his childhood dog, Tuffy. And after Dad’s death in April, I got really serious about getting a dog. I put in adoption applications for ten or so dogs, always missing out because I hesitated too long in applying and someone else who was quicker got the dog.
I knew exactly what kind of dog I wanted, and what kind of dog would work for our home: three to four years old, mellow, a dog that had lived with cats, and a dog who was good with children. My perfect dog would be trainable to be a reading therapy dog, and would snuggle happily with our three kitties at night.
And then I applied for a dog from a different adoption agency than the one I had been working with. The first agency collects adoption applications from many applicants, giving priority to first applications and then to applicants who best suit the dog. I had missed out on many dogs due to my response time, but had been told that we had a “lovely home.” So with this different agency (recommended to me by my dentist), when I saw Layla, I applied almost immediately. First I sent them an email asking if Layla was good with cats, and when the response was, “Yes! Layla has been cat-tested and done great!”, I applied.
This agency worked differently from the other – I was the first to apply for Layla, so I was given first priority, and Layla was immediately removed from their website. She was described as “a lovely Lab/Spaniel mix” who was two years old and “sweet, gentle, and quiet” and good with cats. In phone conversations with her Southern foster and foster supervisor, I was told how Layla was extremely mature for her age, exceptionally smart, had no prey drive, and was very good with cats. “Yay!” I thought, with tears in my eyes, “I’ve found the perfect dog for us!!!”
In no way do I fault this adoption agency – they are very good people doing very good things for very needy dogs – but after meeting “Layla” Jim and I learned that they hadn’t met the real dog. Clearly they had been in the so-called “honeymoon period” with this dog, and she hadn’t shown them her true personality.
Now named Clara by us, our sweet crazy pooch could best be described this way: sweet, gentle with kids, crazy, just over a year old (i.e., still a teenager), bonkers, spazzy, completely untrained, has a really high prey drive, and is a Lab/Hound mix with a very very big voice (when she uses it). She’s good with other dogs, but extremely excitable. When she sees anything that looks like prey (including our cats), she barks in her loud hound voice and goes after it with all guns blazing. She’s not mature – did I mention that she’s actually a teenager? – and can drive you nuts with her enthusiasm. By some miracle she passed the Basic Obedience Course we took with her; the course instructor said she was “very surprised,” as were we. But that night of good obedience was clearly a fluke, and our dear sweet Clara has shown time and again that she needs A Lot More Training.
And here is our problem: we have fallen in love with this crazy dog, and despite a recent email to the adoption agency detailing our worries about Clara and the cats, we are hard-pressed to give up on our silly Clara Kerfuffle.
But our three wonderful cats are terrified by Clara. Our cats, Moses, Millie, and Moxie, are feral-background cats who were born to feral Mommy Cat in our yard, and who we personally trapped and tamed (in the case of Moxie, against all odds). Our vet has told us that these cats can never live with other humans, that their feral background precludes them from accepting other two-legs. And these same cats have shown great signs of stress from being in the house with Crazy Clara, including a UTI for Moses and all three cats eating half what they normally do. I can’t blame them: Clara barks at them, chases them, and corners them when given the opportunity. Clara has a very high prey drive, and our scared kitties provide excellent potential prey for her, not housemates. If only they would stand up to her and give her a good scratchy swipe on her nose, then perhaps the dynamic would shift. But they’re not built that way, and they run in terror from the Great Black and White Loud Barking Thing with Really Big Teeth.
Currently, we live a life divided. Our small house, only 1,000 square feet, has a Cat Side and a Dog Side. We can either spend time with Clara, or we can spend time with the cats. When we are with Clara, the cats give us sad eyes through the French door. When we are with the cats, Clara has to go into That Stinking Crate because otherwise she will chew and destroy everything in her reach.
What are we to do? Clara has brought a lot of great things into our lives. As a childless couple, Clara provides us with a great intro to people we don’t know. She’s cute, she’s charming, everyone loves her and wants to meet her. She’s a dog in a million, truly, and we are very blessed to know her.
But we’re also very blessed by our sweet, loving kitties. And it doesn’t seem fair that we’ve brought such stress and strain into their otherwise charmed lives.
Life without our kitties is unimaginable. Life without Clara is a very sad thought indeed. Perhaps our dilemma is insignificant to some, but I take it very seriously. Four vulnerable lives are affected here, four lives of four beings who can’t speak for themselves. I wish I knew what the right answer was to our dilemma. And I sometimes (often?) wish that my selfish desire for a dog hadn’t put us into this position of having to choose one breed of animal over another.