How Do I Love Puppies?
Sometime during the years 1845 and 1846, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” a collection of 44 love sonnets for her then future husband, poet Robert Browning.
These sonnets are some of the most famous love poems of the Victorian Age or, for that matter, any other age. As her relationship with Robert Browning deepened, the tone and content of the sonnets changed until, in Sonnet 43, the opening line reads, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,” which has become so embedded in our culture that even people who have never read the poem know it.
I feel the same way about puppies as Barrett Browning felt about Robert. So, it is with apologies to Madame Browning that I paraphrase her famous poetic line, but, in truth, a person would have to have a stone heart to not love puppies. Besides, dogs are the reason many of us hunt, herd or do dog sports, and puppies are the anticipation of all these things.
Just last summer, while waiting in my trainer’s kennel to pick up my Chesapeake after a hunt test, from the back kennel a six-week-old pup came pottering into the office, having made a successful escape from his littermates and the confinement of the puppy pen. Once he had ambled around the office and snuffled out virtually every object in it, he finally got to me.
After carefully checking out the shoelaces on my sneakers and giving them a tug to make certain they were firmly attached, which ruled out running off with them, he gave me the “please-pick-me-up-and pet-me” look with his blue-turning-yellow eyes, and I was a goner.
A second later, he was in my arms giving me puppy kisses, breathing puppy breath into my face and then snuggling down into the crook of my arm, safe once again from any Chesapeake-eating trolls that might be lurking in the area.
When he cuddled up to me, I was immediately jealous of whoever was going to eventually own him. He was soft as a morning in early June after a long, cold winter.
Certainly there are folks who would find it strange that I’d be jealous of a time that’s filled with puddles and piles that frequently decorate the living-room carpet since all my hunting dogs are also house dogs. Indeed, in the narrowest sense of the word, it would be ludicrous to be envious of having to clean up the byproducts of good living that lurk in the puppy pen and in all the carpeted rooms in the house since, for some reason, those rooms with tiled floors are unattractive to not-fully-housebroken pups.
But such events are a small part of a puppy’s presence. Those inconveniences vanish in the face of experiencing a baby dog’s first contacts with its new world, those first days of exploration and discovery, those little victories of a pup’s courage over dark corners, threatening shrubbery and brush piles that harbor who-knows-what kind of demons. You’d have to be awfully hard-hearted not to love it when puppies chases a leaf or a butterfly or when they come scurrying back to you for safety when a pine cone “attacks” them or when they demand that you leave your computer to play with them followed by total collapse into the kind of dead-to-the-world sleep known only to the very young.
What’s a little poop measured against everything else that is a puppy? All those accidents on the rug or the tiny tooth marks on the runner of the maple rocker or the shredded sofa pillows lose a lot of their significance when the guilty party snuggles up in your arms and murmurs sweet puppy noises.
I knew from his pedigree that this little guy had the potential to be a champion. Just looking at him, even as he poked around the office, it was clear that he came from a long line of winners. Whether he will live up to his genetic potential remained to be seen. A lot depends on how skilled and dedicated his new owner will be as a dog trainer. But, as I gazed down at this baby in my arms, I was reminded a line from John Dryden’s epic poem, Absalom and Achitophel, “Of ancient race by birth, but nobler yet in his own worth.”
Even without his impressive pedigree, I like the confidence he showed when he walked up to me and how he cocked his head from side to side when I spoke to him. I liked his little pink nose and how he sniffed every inch of the front of my T-shirt. But most of all, I loved his eyes. They were deep and full of questions but way too young to have any answers. Just below the surface, however, was the wisdom of his ancient ancestors, perhaps back even to the first wolves that came to share the cavemen’s caves and fires, but certainly to Canton and Sailor, the Saint John’s Newfoundlands that are the original canis lupus familiaris ancestors of the Chesapeake Bay Retriever breed.
Maybe most importantly, in the depths of his eyes was a trust that said he had never known anything but love and kindness from the human race, and it was my fervent hope that he never would know anything but that.
Because he wasn’t mine, one of the reasons I envied whoever his new owner would be was because I was going to miss the fun of seeing him experience a lot of “firsts.” I wouldn’t be there the first time he jumped back in terror after he saw his reflection in a rain puddle and then made the tentative slink forward almost on his belly to check once again on that strange pup that seemed to live in a puddle. Nor would I see that nervous, neck-stretched investigation of the first dark stump he encountered. I wouldn’t get to see him frisking along chasing butterflies, making songbirds scatter and sniffing mouse nests. But most of all, I’d miss the sudden awakening of all his retriever instincts when he met and fetched his first real bird, be it pigeon or perhaps a quail, pheasants and ducks being way too big and intimidating for even a Chesapeake puppy.
I hoped his new owners would give him a good name. I’ve never been one of those call-them-anything-because-they-don’t-care people. A dog should have a decent name, short and fitting but dignified – most definitely dignified. It’s a travesty to put a silly name on a serious dog. A fine dog of any breed, but particularly a fine gun dog, is something to be treasured and one of the ways they should be treasured is with a really good name. Of course, at his age, it was impossible to know if he would turn out to be a fine waterfowl and upland hunter, but all the same, one should never assume that he wouldn’t, and thus the need – no, the requirement – for a good name. I don’t know how anyone could look into the pup’s eyes and not think that he deserved the best that they could give him, including the right name.
Time was a meaningless concept to the pup as he snuggled in my arms. He was unaware of his past and had no anticipation of his future. At this point in his life, reality was the hands that held him securely, tickled his ears and stroked the soft fur beneath his chin. For the moment, at least, that was enough.
I also hoped that his new owners would treat this sweetheart of a puppy like a gentleman and train him properly, as he could become the finest hunting dog they’d ever owned. I hoped his new owners would appreciate his accomplishments, such as when he scales the Mount Everest of the recliner and that they gave him time to appreciate the view from the summit before they gently picked him up and put him down on the living-room carpet. I hoped they would let him sleep on the couch and wouldn’t fuss when he hauled his toys up there with him. I hoped his toy box was well stocked and his new owners took the time to play with him and his toys. I hoped they found a good spot for him on the foot of their bed and that he was a house dog treated like the canine royalty his pedigree says he will be. I hoped they got as excited as I do when he retrieved the duck dummy for the first time. I hoped he always got at least a “Good boy” and a pat or two when he brought something to his owners, even if it was only an old, slightly rotten stick.
I also hoped he turned out to be a good-humored dog with a talent for the ridiculous that created many of his new owner’s fondest, funniest memories just as all of my dogs throughout my lifetime have done. Whenever the weight of the world gets too heavy, all that’s needed is to remember some of the absolutely hysterically funny things my dogs have done and suddenly the world has the heft of a feather. For sure he was a brave little guy with the genes of champions bouncing around in him. He looked like a can’t-miss dog and on top of that, he was a charmer. If he was going to be mine, I wouldn’t ask for anything more in a new puppy.
All too soon, or maybe not soon enough since he had wormed his way into my heart in the few minutes he had snuggled in my arms, I had to surrender him to one of the trainer’s daughters. He had a long ways to go before he would be a wonderful hunting dog but in the right hands, I’ll bet he’d make it.
As for me, probably the best description was the opening lyric of a Frank Sinatra hit written by Jule Styne and Sammy Cahn, “I fall in love too easily, I fall in love too fast.” But where puppies are concerned, I wouldn’t have it any other way.