recess radio program

4/15/04
Pets are Wonderful Month
    by Koren Stembridge

Two years before my husband and I had our son, we decided to test our nurturing skills by getting a dog. Of course, now that I am a parent, and I realize how impossible it is to think of the two experiences as being even remotely similar - but at the time, I assure you, the idea made perfect sense!

We researched dog breeds and decided on a Portuguese Water Dog - a hypoallergenic breed with curly black hair and a funny face. We located a breeder, were interviewed - our references were called. And one lovely April day we were summoned to pick up our new puppy. In some respects, at least at the beginning, the process of becoming dog parents was more rigorous than having our son!

As we petted and pampered our dear puppy, we felt certain that she was the most beautiful, best behaved, most majestic canines - and we felt confident that she would make an excellent "big sister dog" for our future child.

Now - I wasn't allowed to have a dog as a child, but I had dog fantasies. Mostly, they were fed by my mother's childhood recollections of a collie named Laddie who walked across the fields to meet her after school, and carried her books home in the knapsack that was attached to his back.

Well, a fact is a fact - my dog Riley, is no more like Lassie than my son J.J. is a stand-in for little Timmy.

When we brought the baby home from the hospital and presented him proudly to the dog, she sniffed him disinterestedly and collapsed into a heap, letting out a long, dramatic sigh.

As time passed, we'd receive photographs from our friends showing their toddlers playfully draped across the bodies of accommodating Golden Retrievers. Our dog, however, daintily side-stepped all of our son's attempts at forging a relationship - unless, of course the overture included a fist full of sticky goldfish crackers.

I was keenly disappointed. How could this dog, so lovingly selected and trained, by my husband and me, be such a disinterested opportunist? This was most certainly not my childhood dog fantasy!

Then suddenly, last fall, everything changed. We were playing in piles of leaves outside our house when the dog, in an effort to outrun our son, barreled right into him, sending him face-first onto the ground. J.J. stood up, staggered a little, pointed right at the dog (who had several leaves rather humorously stuck to her face) and started to laugh. His clear giggle sent Riley the dog into paroxisms of wiggling, licking and cavorting. She knocked him over again, and he just kept laughing.

In that moment, it dawned on me. Riley is, first and foremost a clown and a performer. Since our son arrived, she hadn't had much of an audience - and she knew he was the reason. It wasn't enough that my husband and I still adored her - it was his laugh and his applause she wanted.

Now they are virtually inseparable. She sleeps on the floor by his bed - he pulls her tail and laughs as she spins around to lick his face. He opens a book to read, and she sits down on top of it. And sometimes I even hear from down the hall, my son's joyous giggle followed by "Riley, you're so silllllly." And then I think, "It's like a dream come true."

Copyright 2004 Koren Stembridge

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"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."