Raised by dogs
Does anybody else other than me watch dog shows on TV?I don’t mean reruns of “Lassie” (although as a small child, I had a mad crush on Ranger Corey and told the world that I would marry him someday).No, to get back to dogs, I mean competitive dog shows – those big events at places like Madison Square Garden where owners dress up in tuxedos and sequins and show off some very pampered pooches, many of whom have been coifed until they resemble the inside of a sofa cushion.I suppose I have a genetic attraction for watching these shows. You see, my brother and I were raised by a pack of white miniature poodles.Well, OK, not really in actual fact. But in every existing baby and childhood photo of the two of us, there are no people, no parents. Our two little figures are huddled together, surrounded by white poodles, smiling, hovering over us protectively and daring anyone to come any closer – unless it was my mother.
My mother showed poodles in the ring. Not, as she would tell you proudly, the show ring, but the obedience ring. For those of you who don’t know dog show hierarchy, there’s a big difference. In the show ring, dogs just have to strut around and show that they’re physically perfect in every way. It’s a lot like a beauty contest for young women (sorry, but there it is).In obedience shows, the dogs have to actually DO things, like obey commands and go through certain drills. Obedience show trainers tend to look down on beauty show trainers. My mother had a poodle, Colette’s Michelle Jolie, who, simply put, won every show she was ever in – and she was in a lot of them. She was also a beauty. Michelle became so famous that Red Heart Dog Food wanted to buy her as their mascot. Lassie used to pose for them. Michelle would have followed Lassie as their cover girl on the dog food cans. But my Mom, to her credit, refused. Michelle had come into my mother’s life years before my brother and I appeared and was she ever after treated as her firstborn.After the Red Heart episode, Michelle had a TV career. She appeared on Atlanta’s version of the “Today Show,” wearing a graduation cap and gown and carrying a tiny obedience diploma in her mouth, which she held onto while she pranced in front of the cameras.
(Yes, I KNOW you think I’m making all of this up, but I’m not. I promise.)When my brother was born, Michelle was finally retired from the ring, with a case full of trophies and ribbons and photo albums of her posing with famous people. Among other achievements, she was the first dog in Atlanta to have her picture taken with a big department store Santa Claus, and this event was written up in the newspaper.In late 1950s Atlanta, everything that Michelle did was written up in the newspaper.It’s hard to grow up as the sibling of a famous dog. There were times when my brother Kevin and I confused dogs with people. We still do. Our poodles – Michelle and her offspring – became more real and vital – and human – to us than our parents. I think it had to do with their being the same size and crawling along on the floor with us for so many years. Even after Kevin and I grew out of the crawling stage and learned the difference between four legs and two legs, we still spent most of the time on the floor with our dogs. There weren’t any other kids in our neighborhood.
We played under tables with the dogs. We shared our food with them – even our blue and pink plastic cups of milk (one sip for us, one sip for Michelle). We shared licks of our ice cream cones with poodle tongues, which horrified my mother until our family doctor told her that dogs have fewer germs than people. After that bit of information, we were allowed to continue sharing.I think that, when I first started off to be a concert pianist when I was a child, I wanted to earn as many trophies as Michelle had. To this day, I still haven’t.It alters (some would say warps) your sense of reality for good. Why else do Kevin and I want to claim every dog we see as family? And the feeling seems to be mutual. It’s kind of like Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” – animals sense it when you’ve been raised by one of them. At any rate, sports enthusiasts, take heart. When the football playoffs are over and Superbowl XL is reduced to leftover film highlights on the NFL channel, just remember this: Dog show season is still alive and well.
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