Saturday, April 08, 2006

Marley & Me: Life and Love with the World's Worst Dog

Marley & Me was a really enjoyable read. In some ways, I am envious that this guy wrote this book and is now making all kinds of money just because he journaled about his life in such a way that he was later able to put it all down together, cohesively and make a nice little story. I think to myself "I could do that." But I didn't keep a good journal of my time with Barkley, or even my time with Rachel, for that matter. On the other hand, I've not had nearly the interesting journey that this guy had. Nor can I write as well as he did. It was non-fiction but I wonder how much leeway there really is.

From the subtitle, you expect to really hear about an awful dog, but this really doesn't turn out to be the case. Marley is obviously far from the world's worst dog and I've heard enough stories second- and third-hand to know this. Even the author, when writing a farewell piece after the dog's death at the end of the book (hope I didn't spoil it for you) in his newspaper column admits as much in talking about the responses he got from others disputing the title of world's worst dog.

In addition to a nice read, I enjoyed the book because it was so relevant. Marley was a Golden Retriever and if you know me, I have a retriever of my own. Entirely black, she looks like a Black Lab, but in reality, as I always tell people, she's "half golden retriever, half great dane, half stupid." I've learned a lot more about the dog we share our lives with, I've become a lot more sympathetic to her way of being and I'm come to some realizations.

Moving down here, it's been my goal to walk with her regularly. If the average has been every-other-night, then she should have gotten to take a walk with me tonight. Sadly, it did not work out this way. But I'm realizing that a lot of her energy -- what we find so annoying when she always jumps on us -- is because she's not getting enough exercise, she's not getting it out of her system. It's also because she doesn't get to spend enough time with us, so each time she gets to see us, she's really excited. So, I need to get the fence done and make sure it's secure so she can spend more time outside. Our old neighbors told us that the only time she would bark was when we were home and ignoring her, that if we were gone, she was perfectly quiet while she was outside. This is a big concern for us, living in a homeowner's association with some pretty rigid standards.

I also realized that we've had it pretty lucky. On one hand, she's never been allowed free roam of the house, because she's so large. She's been crated or at least tethered when she was indoors, limiting her range of motion. So she hasn't eating all nature of toys, couch cusions, etc. But on the other hand, she can be pretty lonely and she will sometimes cry when left in her kennel. So we've been trying to spend more time downstairs with her out of her kennel. I'm not sure yet how much calmer she's getting, but I expect that she will over time as she's allowed to be out of her kennel more. She's being nicer to the cats and they seem to be getting less afraid of her, either simply moving to where she can't reach them, or fighting back if she gets too nosy.

In the early years after she had gotten larger, we were really frustrated over her excitement because of the force she could exert with her large size. On more than one occasion her happiness to see the baby resulted in the baby getting smacked down with a paw, whipped hard by the flurry of tail, even knocked by a shaking ear, or knocked over as the dog passed by her. Rachel's never taken it personally and handled it well, but we ended up having to limit how much time the baby could spend with the dog and in what context. Now more controlled visits are allowing the dog to experience the baby, but often with the cage between them. Over time they'll probably be able to once again share space, supervised, without too much fear for the toddler. One thing's for certain, Barkley would never do anything intentionally to hurt the child, that's pretty obvious in the way she acts around the baby, far gentler than she does with us. Even as adults, Barkley's paws, tail and ears are a force to be reconned with.

But Barkley's continued exuberence was really a source of stress for us. Our friends all said "By the time she's one, she'll have calmed down." One came and went with no discernable change and our friends swore to us "By the time she's two, she'll have calmed down." as if they had never told us about it coming the year before. We stopped telling them about the dog stress, but had we not, I'm sure they would have said "By the time she's three, she'll have calmed down." But the book told me something no one else had, golden retrievers have a long puppyhood, about three years. With that in mind, perhaps by August we can see a dramatic change, although we have seen smaller changes already.

For one, she really enjoys walking. Even more, she enjoys running, something I've been able to start doing a little more as my body has gotten used to walking regularly for exercise. For two, we can already see improvement in her behavior when she's out. For three, she's being less of a pinhead after she goes outside to do her business. She will still paw the window from time to time, but it's far less frenetic, far less frequent, and happily that leaves me with far fewer paw prints to clean off the back window.

Thanks to this book, which I would not have read if it were not for my little book club thing, I have more insight to my own pet, insight which will no doubt help both she and I to better enjoy each other's companionship and lead to a better life for her.

The book still tops the chart for this week, so my next book purchase is undecided. I will probably pick something up tomorrow at Barnes and Noble from their best-seller section. I'm really hoping the current #2 doesn't make it to #1.
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