Breed Standard

When I was little, I used to play at Bobby’s house. We took turns holding on to his dog’s chain, hoping to ride him when Bobby’s mother wasn’t looking. Max was a Doberman Pinscher, taller than either of us. He growled and shook his head from side to side, choke chain jingling. His ears stuck up like the ears of a bat because Bobby’s parents had them cropped. His mom and dad told Bobby the cropping procedure wouldn’t hurt Max because Max was a puppy then and puppies didn’t feel pain. With his horns for ears and his pointed snout, Max terrified the mailman; he petrified the paperboy. If someone came near their house for any reason, Max was there at the wrought iron gate, head, neck and shoulders, poking between the skinny black bars, digging a trench in the dirt with his slender feet, snapping his long sharp teeth, foaming and barking.

Then, one day, Max wasn’t there. Evidently, he hung himself with his choke chain trying to get through the bars to bite a cub scout.

In Max’s place came a duo of Chow Chows—dogs that looked like overstuffed bears with purple tongues and curly tails. Big boxes of hair with legs. Nora (that’s Bobby’s mother) warned us that Chows didn’t like children. We should try not to invade their personal space. Still, we trailed after the Chow Chows, at a distance. And wherever they went, the Chows left enormous clumps of dense fur behind them, like the billowing exhaust from a diesel in a cartoon. It was a copper colored cotton candy fur—a quantity that hung on everything like a window dressing of cobwebs. His parents rubbed their clothing constantly with Scotch tape. Roll after roll. Day after day.

Later, I heard his parents discussing one of the dog’s unfortunate disqualifying traits. Whatever that was. I can’t recall which dog. Tyrone. That was the name of the male. He seemed to be attached to Bobby’s dad, following him everywhere. His dad even took the dog running with him. Then, one day, he died. Tyrone did. I guess he had a heart attack. I didn’t know a dog could have a heart attack. I don’t know what happened to the female.

Me and Bobby were in middle school when his parents got interested in cats. Otis, a metallic grey Persian joined the family. Bobby’s dad corrected me and said it was a blue cat. He said that what they really wanted was a blue chinchilla silver—Otis was all the pet shop had. I remember Bobby’s mother holding Otis; he growled and hissed at her. I was watching television with Bobby and we had to turn the TV up. Nora pushed down on the back of the cat’s neck, kneeling across from us, while she tried to pull an old hair brush through the cat’s matted fur, cursing and shoving discarded fuzz into a sack. Biting Bobby’s mother was the only way that Otis might have gotten her to leave him alone. He’d been declawed. When she stopped brushing him, Otis ran away and hid under Bobby’s bed for the rest of the day, hissing and batting at you with his soft clawless paws if you tried to pet him.

When Otis passed away—and the death of Bobby’s parent’s pets was always followed by a period of solemnity—a pair of Scottish Folds appeared, quietly investigating the rooms of the house and sleeping on the furniture. The intention was to breed them and sell the valuable kittens. Scottish Folds are the ones with the gene mutation that makes them look like owls. Their ears are folded down; their head looks quite round, and their eyes seem bigger than a normal cat’s. Even the perk-eared Scottish Fold that they had had silver dollars for eyes. You had to breed a ‘perk’ to a ‘fold’ if you didn’t want a deformed litter or cats with extra thick tails, his mother said.

Bobby’s parents had neutered Otis, but their new male, Woody with the long sleek orange body, white belly and folded ears, was meant for a type of fatherhood out of proportion with that of the domesticated feline population that already existed in our little town: he and the other cat were meant to be a kind of kitten-producing machinery. The names of potential kitten buyers were stored in a computer, and Bobby’s dad warned that the blood curdling screams of the two cats making love was to be ignored. I think Bobby and I were sophomores by then. We never heard anything.

After the cats died, his parents began to talk about getting a dog again: specifically, a wire hair fox terrier. This was a breed of dog with fur like steel wool; a dog that used to travel with the fox hunters in England and burrow into the ground in pursuit of a fugitive fox. They could be hauled up out of the tunnels by their tails.

Nora and Bobby’s dad grabbed a pair of them from a puppy mill, put them through obedience school and had microchips surgically implanted into the dogs in case anybody tried to steal them. The terriers, like Max the Doberman, had stubby tails, a little bit longer than a cigar butt—the rest of their tails had been docked, or cut off with surgical scissors. (They were puppies then.) The terriers were show dogs too: it was important to maintain what Bobby’s folks called a breed standard. And they paid a bundle to have them groomed to make them look like reindeer. Bobby told me that that was their ideal look.

I heard about the exciting lives they led as show-quality dogs: Nigel (the male) riding in the passenger seat of the car with his face poking out the window. I finally met Nigel when I was home on leave from the Army. He shook my hand, like a polite English dog.

Yeah, Bobby’s folks sure seemed to love that dog. So much so, that when Nigel died they put his ashes in a vase on top of the stereo. The other terrier was confused and upset and wouldn’t enter the room. But she died a couple of months later and I hear his parents have new pets now.

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