Hurricane Rita Blows In

IMG_3102Don’t let the cuteness fool you. Our second dog, who arrived on Friday, is at eight weeks already an alpha female. The trainer arrives today, and not a moment too soon.

After a delightful 10 months with the very laid-back Gus, our first dog, we made the decision a few months ago to get another dog as a companion for him. Miniature dachshunds are very social creatures and a few people had advised us to get two dogs from the get-go. But as first-time dog owners, we did not want to tax ourselves.

Gus was an easy dog, docile and easily housebroken, loyal and affectionate…all hallmarks of the dachshund breed. In recent months, however, Gus has seemed lonely at times despite getting plenty of love, attention and furtively delivered morsels of people food. He began seeing us as his buddies constantly, often looking up at us with a tennis ball clutched in his jaws and whining sorrowfully. This was starting to happen late at night when Bob and I lay on the couch in our usual “Law and Order”-induced stupor. We felt we were ready for another dog at this point, and luckily the same breeder who gave us Gus had another litter on the way. They were the spawn of Gus’s older brother Kommodore Schutzhund, or “Schutz” for short. The puppies were born on May 5, Cinco de Mayo, and we claimed and named the only girl: Margarita.

From the moment she arrived, her astounding cuteness inspired awe and ahs, and she melted our hearts when she snuggled on our laps, which she loves to do.  However, Rita has another side:  the feisty and combative second child who refuses to play second fiddle. Unlike most females, she has no problem leaning in.

We had been warned that Gus, who has been treated like a prince since we brought him home, might have some trouble sharing his castle with another dog. Their breeder, Tiffany, advised us beforehand to let them share sleeping arrangements and food dishes and work out their conflicts themselves, an essential part of the bonding experience. She assured us that Gus and Rita (who is Gus’s niece) would share a special and playful relationship.

Yet the relationship has been more Punch and Judy than George and Gracie. It has been painful to watch the ritualistic one-upsdogship – which started soon after the initial butt-sniffing ritual, the canine world’s equivalent of a polite handshake. Since Rita arrived she has been hogging the food bowl, chomping down heartily while the more patient Gus waits his turn. If Gus tries to claim a spot at the bowl she nudges him out of the way. Despite being a quarter his size, she has remarkably sharp elbows when it comes to asserting first dibs on the doggie bed. Gus, unused to having to fight for anything, seems to not know what to do.

Rita has also been getting in Gus’s face and picking fights with him. She bares her teeth, assaults Gus’s side with both paws, climbs onto him when he is lying on his back. Her teeth have come dangerously close to Gus’s private parts a few times. Gus, who shows remarkable restraint, tries to turn the tables with a swipe of his stronger paw. Sometimes he just lays on top of Rita, a tired “can’t we get this over with?” look on his face, as she barks like an angered chipmunk.

This is like watching a middle child gleefully taunt the oldest; or a midget wrester trying to take down a Sumo; or the killer bunny attacking the knights in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Yesterday, while our son John was watching the dogs as I ran errands, he called me to tell me he had to put each of them “in solitary” in their crates. He was concerned enough to take action and keep them separated. But advised to do nothing, I merely watch with the morbid fascination reserved for car wrecks along the highway.

Along the perimeter of our back yard is a fence and a three-foot-wide gravel path, where Gus has always enjoyed walking with us. Gus is visibly peeved when Rita accompanies us now. He runs ahead of her, then turns his long dachshund body perpendicular to the path, as if to block her. He body-slams her to the edge of the path before running ahead again. Then the process repeats.

I thought raising more than one dog would be more laid-back than childrearing, which often requires parents to mediate scuffles between their offspring. I was ready to be the coolheaded dog owner who rolled with their punches. Still, it’s hard to see my adorable new pup go right for Gus’s balls in the attack. I asked Tiffany if this was something to be concerned about.

Her answer: “Not at all…Ladies know where it hurts a man.”

An Angel in Pet Heaven

John and Angel, 2006

John and Angel, 2006

After nearly seven years as our pet, our guinea pig Angel died two days ago.

We knew this day was coming. Angel was at the upper end of the actuarial tables for guinea pigs; we know of many fellow guinea pig owners who had far less time with them. Guinea pigs are in the same temporary-pet class as rats and hamsters, Eastertime baby chicks, most bunnies, and goldfish. It’s no wonder that “small pet care” has such a tiny stretch of shelf space in the local Target.

Even if they live to an old age, Guinea pigs don’t insist on a bond with their humans like dogs and cats do. They don’t climb into your lap and rub up against your leg. They come out of their plastic igloos just long enough to grab a proffered carrot, then scramble back into it to eat in solitary peace. I’ve heard of several people who’ve trained their guinea pigs – including our friend Bernie, whose guinea pig Elwood had as much free range as an indoor cat — but Angel was more private.

Yet we bonded with this little rodent and she became part of our lives, even though we never expected her to share our lives for so long. She was an eighth birthday gift to our son John, now 14, who had fallen in love with his friend Greg’s guinea pig. We found her at the local Petco, where we had a choice of just two guinea pigs since most pet stores now steer people towards adopting small pets. One was a docile brown one who kept to herself in the corner of the shared cage. The other was a calico-patterned, spikey-haired furball who careened around the cage and squealed like a middle-school girl with a crush. Streaks of brown fur around her left eye looked like smudged mascara on Courtney Love.

We brought this punk rocker home, along with $75 worth of guinea pig accessories, and presented her to John the evening before his eighth birthday. What do you want to name her?, Bob and I asked. The answer was immediate: “Angel Happy Face.” A Sandra Dee-type name for a head-banging hunk of fur, but she became Angel.

We had visions of John becoming an ever-loving, responsible pet owner but in truth this did not happen right away. Angel was the focus of much attention at first but in time he had to be reminded to clean her cage, check her bowl and water and do other maintenance. Eventually, after a few years of nagging, it became automatic. Bob and I were equally guilty of less than hands-on treatment; we held her constantly when she was new to our home but less as time went on. Still, she demanded little and gave us so much back. When we held her she’d make a low, slightly rough purring sound as we stroked her fur. Her eyes never blinked, a constant source of amazement.

In the early years we would let Angel run around our screened-in back porch on warm summer days, and often all three of us had to chase her down to put her back into her cage. Our furry fugitive would run away from us, squealing and dodging the whole way, until we chased her into a corner and dropped a small towel on her, stunning her just long enough to bundle her into her cage. Eventually, we discovered to our great delight that we could train her to return to her cage. We would let her run around; then place the cage in the middle of the porch, open the hinged drawbridge-styled door until it touched the floor, create a path with slices of strawberry, then get out of the way and out of sight. Angel would eventually nibble her way back home; we’d shut the door as soon as she let herself in. Eventually the strawberries were not necessary. We’d put the cage in the middle of the porch after letting Angel play for an hour; and our pet would approach her home, mysteriously circle three times around it, then ascend the drawbridge and enter.

After Angel began chewing our wicker porch furniture we had to consider other options. One Father’s Day John, Bob and Bob’s father Gene built a four-by-six-foot outdoor cage from wooden planks and chicken wire. Angel would spend many summer hours there, in the shade, happily nibbling on blades of grass.

Angel did not have a lot of contact with other animals – except for one wild afternoon romp on our back porch with T-Bone, my daughter’s friend’s chinchilla — but we had great friends who cared for her when we were on vacation, some of whom had pets. Our friend Darren, who raised bunnies, would include Angel as part of his menagerie; he and his children would hold Angel while they watched TV. Angel also stayed over Greg’s house and hung out with his guinea pig, Mocho, and his yellow parakeet, Twinkie. We took care of Twinkie recently when his family went on vacation. Angel helped us bond more deeply with our friends.

Several months ago, when we brought our dog Gus home, we introduced them to each other carefully. Gus was curious at first, then recoiled from Angel when she began squealing at him. He eventually started ignoring her. Since dachshunds were bred to hunt badgers, which remotely resemble guinea pigs, we watched them closely when they were together, but for the most part they left each other alone.

Gus is a more interactive pet. He climbs onto our laps, stares up at us appealingly, whines when he wants attention. He is impossible to ignore, unlike Angel, who was content to be by herself and whistled for us only when she was hungry. Angel taught us our limits as pet owners: we needed pets that talked to us more and gave us more love. At times, even before Gus came home, we worried that we were not giving Angel the attention she deserved, even though we lavished her with fresh carrots, parsley and lettuce until she grew so fat she waddled.

A few months ago I noticed gray streaks in her coarsening fur, some caked spots at the roots and more shedding than usual. And over the past year Angel changed from doing her business in one corner of her cage to being more indiscriminate. She developed a skin infection three months ago and we had to take her to a vet for the first time. Sometimes Angel would just peek her head out of her blue igloo long enough to grab the baby carrot we poked through her cage; then quickly retract back inside.

Over the past few days Angel was not herself. We were accustomed to hearing her squeal when we first entered the kitchen; she knew our footsteps meant a carrot was forthcoming. The past few days were silent and we had to remember to bring her something. Three nights ago John tried to pet her and she bit him, something she had never done before.

Two afternoons ago I found her dead. We told John when we picked him up from school. John does not cry that often and we wondered how he would react. His face crumpled in the car and he did not say much. When he got home, he and Bob dug a hole in a wooded area of our back yard, not far from where we stored the outdoor cage they had built for her, and buried our pet in her blue igloo. I moved a bunch of newly blooming crocuses there and we marked the grave with a rock.

Then we cried for the pet who had outlived the actuarial tables and our attention spans for her, who had given us so much and had asked for so little.