Last Thursday, my family woke up to a dog with three legs. Millie, our Pekingese-Beagle mix, resembling an American football in both shape and color, was favoring her rear left leg so drastically she would have been better off without it.
I don’t like Millie. I don’t derive much pleasure from owning and taking care of her. I don’t think she contributes much to family life. I especially don’t like the way she sounds when she whimpers, and it somehow echoes through the house. If you were forced to listen blindly, you would identify her strange vocalizations as those of cat, or a bird, or a grasshopper, maybe a cat eating a bird eating a grasshopper.
But it’s not just Millie. I’m ambivalent about most any pet that demands more attention than a fish, and I’m automatically suspicious of people who speak about their pets too affectionately. I recognize this as an unfair prejudice. I also make no promises to rid myself of it any time soon. In college I used to make fun of my friends’ romanticized dog ownership reveries: a terrier that somersaults on demand and sleeps at the foot of your bed (cuter than babies!), a labradoodle that saunters over to the couch and drapes itself over your bare feet (cozier than socks!), a border collie that will ride shotgun and nod and pant only lightly as you rail on against the world (better than talk radio!).
Millie turned twelve in April. We’ve had her for more than eleven years. In that time, she has done her best to confirm everything I’ve ever thought about owning a dog. There she is in the family room, pooping on the new rug. Now she’s in the backyard, perched two steps up the deck—as far as her leash will allow her—yapping smugly, indefinitely, immortally until she’s let inside. Once inside, it’s an exasperated dash to her empty doggy bowl, where she drops the smug act and yelps feebly, indefinitely until she’s fed.
In Animal Dreams, Barbara Kingsolver writes, “A dog can’t think that much about what he’s doing, he just does what feels right.” I might have once agreed. I once reduced dogs to the sum of their most basic instincts, void entirely of perceptive, inhibitive, and communicative powers. Millie has changed that. I now know that her endless whimpers aren’t the product of innate cravings, but dispatches from a living, breathing, thinking organism, one that relies on my action to fulfill her basic needs. Each rendition of our ritual three-step leaves me feeling more manipulated than the last. She yelps because she’s helpless to do most anything without me. And I respond because I’m helpless but to give her exactly what she wants. Poop, backyard, get fed, whimpering all the way.
What I lack in affection for Millie is doubly manifest in the 6’2” 230 pound frame of my younger brother, David. His love for her would be the stuff of a tear-jerking motion picture—think “Marley and Me,” but neurodiverse—were it even half reciprocated. When guests enter our house for the first time, Millie greets them by rolling over expectantly. When David comes home, she runs. The ASDA (Autism Service Dogs of America) website proudly says, “A child who connects to a dog connects to the world.” David might connect to Millie, but she does not connect with him.
Still, there are moments of inspiration, moments when I realize I’m completely wrong: the way David—all of him—descends to her, pets her with a heavy hand, raises his voice to the point of cracking and asks, “Ya wanna belly scratch?” He opens himself to her more than he does to anyone else, my parents, my sisters, me.
It’s been a week since Millie woke up with a torn ACL. Sometimes she puts a little more weight on that rear left leg, but mostly she just picks a spot on the floor and lies there, recumbent. Her whimpers used to echo. Now they tick. It’s been two weeks since she pooped on the rug. Yesterday, she was just lying there in the living room, groaning with her left leg in the air. David knelt down to pick her up. She growled and tried to run away, but he snatched her up and carried her outside like a football. Then he took her back in.