In 2011, a Navy Seal’s Labrador retriever plodded past 1,500 mourners to lie down on the floor by his owner’s casket. He stayed there, too, his dark body stretched out on the gleaming tile beneath the flag-draped coffin as the funeral service went on. The picture went viral and you saw it on Facebook or Twitter or the evening news. There are lots of stories like this one, stories of young dogs that mature into their purpose, that settle into good and loyal service and save their family’s children from raging fires or embody a nation’s grief. This isn’t one of those stories. This is the story of Girlfriend.
She came into my life as a scratchy sound in a box on our kitchen counter. I remember thinking, Lord, no—please tell me my husband didn’t get me another guinea pig. The box was small, the right size for a small caged pet, and the sign on top of the box, written in my husband’s handwriting, said, “Happy Valentine’s Day and Happy Birthday.” My daughter was fifteen then and even though she must have already known what was inside the box, she waited silently while I opened it, eager I guess to see the thing freed. Or eager to see my reaction. A small black and white face peeked out when I pried open the flap of the box. Big black ears perked up above beady black eyes. It was a dog, the smallest dog I’d ever seen, and I think I smiled. I hope I smiled. When I took her out of the box, she fit in my cupped palms.
Rat terriers are supposed to be 10 pounds or more but Girlfriend topped out at less than 8. It’s small wonder she was such a bitch. The only time I ever saw her being peaceful and sweet was when she was curled up on my lap, the one place she felt protected and safe. Put her anywhere else and she was ready for battle. The neighbor’s dog, a terrier itself but still twice Girlfriend’s size, once ran barking and snarling into our yard. Girlfriend chased him right back to his own yard and gashed his neck for good measure, her way of saying, “and don’t come back.” Our friend’s Great Dane thought Girlfriend had to be a surprisingly lively squeaky toy, an assumption Girlfriend fought with every one of her 120 ounces. Here she was, barely as big as only one of the Dane’s paws, and she would come at the Dane leaping and snapping as if she had a prayer. And apparently she did have a prayer, because the Dane never killed her.
On my last birthday a good friend gave me a book on how to raise a very bad dog, a book I could have written. It was my fault Girlfriend was untrained. No, that’s not true. She was trained, only in all the wrong tricks. She learned to pee on the carpets and rugs because her dinky bits of wetness would go unnoticed there. She learned to poop in the unused bedrooms because it was cold outside and owls might find her if she did her business in the yard. We stocked up on urine deodorizer, but even wee bits of urine and tiny little poops add up. The living room rug was the first to go out in the trash. The bedroom rug was next. We replaced the bathroom mats and then replaced them again. And again. The carpet in my husband’s office was the last to go. Eventually Girlfriend grew old enough to lose some bladder control, not all the time but only at the worst of times. Twice, while she lay curled in my lap while I chatted with company, a warm wetness spread across my thighs. She had peed on me in her sleep.
Still, we kept her. The obvious reason was that nobody would have taken her if we’d posted an honest advertisement:
The less obvious reason is that she was ours and her existence gave us a sense of obligation. Life is like that, isn’t it? It hands us living creatures and we shrug our shoulders and just keep feeding them. What else are we supposed to do?
It’s hard being powerless. This is the lesson I learned from Girlfriend. When you’re so small and the world is so big, you have to get your bluff in. You have to convince the world that you’re in charge. Girlfriend did it by snarling first, by getting in the face of any dog bigger than her, which was every dog in her known world. She’d even growl at us when we tried to move her from a warm spot. As the years went by and our daughter turned into a mother and her daughter grew into an active preschooler, I worried that Girlfriend’s snarl would turn into a bite. You see, Abby adored Girlfriend. To four-year-old Abby, Girlfriend was a toy to be dressed up and tucked under an arm and made to watch Disney’s “Aladdin” over and over and over. Girlfriend would try to scramble away but Abby was quicker, and inevitably Girlfriend would be dangling from Abby’s grasp as Abby headed up the stairs to the princess room we kept for her at our house. Girlfriend barked and snarled, and sometimes she’d squeeze out a defensive poop right at Abby’s feet, but she never bit. Your options are few when you’re only seven pounds, particularly when your minuscule brain is still bit enough to calculate the odds of surviving a fight.
I think of Girlfriend when I remember this scene: four-year-old Abby stepping out onto the concrete walk in front of our porch and picking up a roly-poly bug. The bug curled tightly in her palm, its only defense, and as Abby poked at it, she soothingly said, “Don’t worry, little roly poly, it’s me—Abby.” As if a four-year-old isn’t the worst nightmare of a dime-sized bug. Or a tiny dog.
We’re all small in one way or another. Some of us curl up tight and hope the danger will put us down, and some of us snarl our way out of trouble. But the truth is the world is a safer place than we imagine. Monstrous four-year-olds do set us back into the vinca bed where we can wiggle down into the dirt. Giant humans do feed us and clean up our poops and give us a warm spot under the blankets. Kindness is more common than pain.
We kept Girlfriend until the list of things wrong with her was longer than the things that were right; she would have been thirteen next November. Even with two big dogs still here, it’s quieter in our home now. I guess we miss her. I know Abby does.