Animals loomed large in my childhood imagination. When I wasn’t pretending to be one – cantering and jumping fences like a horse, wiggling my nose like a bunny as I nibbled carrots, or swimming underwater like a dolphin – I was apt to be reading animal stories, drawing animal pictures, or playing with toy animals. I grew up with dogs, and the Snoopy poster “Happiness is a warm puppy” hung on my bedroom wall.
So it may surprise you that I was not one of those children who longs for the day when she can have a dog of her own. (Are you listening, Daughter #1?) In fact, my first pet as an adult would be a cat, a pet I’d never had, or even wanted, as a child. In retrospect, I now realize that my ambivalence about owning a dog was, in large part, a reaction to the effect that Schnapps had on my mother – not the high-proof alcoholic beverage, but the family dog, a miniature Schnauzer named “Herr Siegfried von Schnapps.”
Schnapps was the last and longest-lived of my family’s three dogs. His predecessors, a gun-shy Golden retriever named Juno and a sickly Schnauzer puppy named Mitzie, died while I was still too young to form distinct memories of them. My parents had acquired Juno before I was born, when my two much-older brothers were young gunslingers in Davy Crockett hats. At the time, they lived outside Boston in a house with a white picket fence; a large, blond dog in the yard completed the Ozzie and Harriet picture.
In 1957 my family hit the Interstate highway in their Pontiac station wagon, leaving behind the harsh New England winters to homestead in the Sunshine State. (I don’t know how Juno traveled to Florida, but I’m pretty sure she didn’t ride on top of the car like Mitt Romney’s dog!) The first summer after they moved, my parents shaved Juno to help her cope with the heat and humidity – this was before central air-conditioning became the norm, back when you didn’t need a wear sweater in the A&P.
Family legend has it that Juno, who headed for the non-existent Florida hills every time a car backfired or my brothers set off firecrackers, never fully recovered from the humiliation of being shorn. With true Golden stoicism, poor Juno endured the heat and noise of six Independence Days in Florida. Soon after she died, my parents replaced her with the smaller, non-shedding Mitzie, who survived only a few months before succumbing to a mysterious – to a heartbroken, four-year-old me – illness.
I’ll never understand what prompted my parents to switch their allegiance from an all-American breed like a Golden retriever to a quintessentially German one like a Schnauzer. Having spent the first three years of their marriage apart while Dad served in World War II (including a year in Nuremberg), my parents struggled to overcome their lingering distrust of Germans long after the war ended. Blame the canine fashion cycle: AKC records show that Schnauzers first came into vogue in the early 1960s. If they had done their due diligence, Mom and Dad might have realized they were acquiring a canine Porsche – the antithesis of Juno, the station wagon of dogs.
By the time Schnapps came on the scene, in 1964, my brothers were both attending boarding school “up north” and I had become a virtual only child. If my parents were worried the house would be too quiet with only one child left at home, they picked the right breed because, much to their chagrin, Schnapps would prove to be an Olympic-caliber barker, an über-terrier.
Indoors, he would race in circles around the living room in feverish excitement, stopping as suddenly as he started to crouch panting and wild-eyed; the slightest motion would set him off on another frantic circuit. Standing sentry by the sliding doors that opened to the back yard, he would hurl himself at the plate glass, barking furiously if he spotted an animal interloper outside. The sound of the doorbell would send him into high alarm, and every time we opened the door we had to fend him off, or he would bolt between our legs like a racehorse leaving the starting gate. There were no leash laws in those days, but we never trusted Schnapps to find his own way home, so when he escaped we would trawl the neighborhood in our car, calling his name. He liked to chase cars, and we could trick him into chasing ours home.
With his nervous energy and barking, Schnapps was especially bothersome to my mother when she engaged in her chief domestic compulsion, vacuuming. To get Schnapps out from underfoot, Mom would tether him to a 30-foot chain in the yard, which, by circling the stake, he would eventually shorten to near-choking length before she noticed and unwound the chain. When not trying to strangle himself, Schnapps would dig holes so deep that when he lay down in the cool earth only his pert ears would be visible above ground. My father, who toiled like Sisyphus to keep our large yard country-club pristine, cursed Schnapps for waging trench warfare on the lawn. From my parents’ perspective, Schnapps was a nuisance wherever he was, and with canine canniness, poor Schnapps must have sensed his unwelcome, so he would constantly beg to go outdoors when he was indoors, and vice versa.
Of course, more vigorous exercise would have taken the edge off his anxiety, but no one was interested in taking Schnapps for runs or even long walks; he would tug so hard on the leash that it was simply too unpleasant. He didn’t care for car rides either because there were only three possible destinations: the vet, the groomer, or the kennel. Arrival at any of the three would trigger a backseat panic attack. Small enough to be a lap dog, Schnapps disappointed on that score, too, growling if anyone tried to pick him up. High-strung and headstrong, Herr Siegfried von Schnapps had enough hang-ups for a lifetime of Freudian analysis.
Too young to fully register or remedy his shortcomings as a pet, I accepted Schnapps on his own terms, like a temperamental younger sibling. In families, you play the hand you’re dealt. I needed a playmate, and he was always ready for a game of tug-of-war, eager to chase a tennis ball down the hallway (he seldom returned the ball, though). At dinnertime I would often ask my mother to cook an extra portion of “Schnapps Burger,” which is what we called the hamburger she crumbled over his kibble. The hamburger grease stained his whiskers yellow; I skipped the kibble and used a napkin, but liked the camaraderie of sharing a meal with my stand-in for a little brother. In rare moments of quiet, Schnapps would nap beneath a skirted armchair in the living room, and I would crawl under the chair and curl up beside him – until I grew too big to fit.
Later, when I was going through my pre-teen horse-crazy phase, I marveled at his ability to jump over a broomstick held well above his own height, clearing it from a standstill as if he had springs in his legs. If only we’d known about canine agility competitions, we might have had a champion on our hands. By the time I was teenager, I stopped riding horses and lost interest in pretending I had a show-jumping dog, and by then Schnapps was entering his twilight years, finally slowing down enough to be the lap dog we’d always wanted. But I already had one foot out the door and was too busy and self-involved to notice the change.
Schnapps died while I was away at college, and I can remember feeling guilty that I wasn’t more upset when Mom called to break the news. Or maybe I was just mirroring the relief I detected in her voice. In hindsight, who could blame her? After all, she’d borne the day-to-day burden of caring for a less-than-ideal pet for more than 15 years. She’d always loved dogs, she insisted, it was just Schnapps she wasn’t crazy about. Schnapps was the end of the line for my parents and dogs, and their evident relief to be free of the responsibilities of dog-ownership nearly put me off ever getting a dog myself. In the back of my mind, I may have feared becoming my mother if I got a dog.
And so, for better or worse, it was Schnapps and my mother’s ambivalence about him that would determine my attitude toward dogs for the next three decades, until I finally got a dog of my own and learned that Schnapps never really stood a chance of being a good dog. I now see that we failed Schnapps as much as he failed us; we got the dog we deserved.