While I may lament (along with legions of other parents), that my “adult” children are growing up so slowly it’s like watching paint dry, at least there’s hope they will one day be independent.  Not so with our dog, Sparky, who remains a perpetual child even at eleven years old—or 77 in dog years.  A Norwich terrier with a wiry coat of strawberry blond hair and a stumpy tail, Sparky has not “matured” with age, except for a little gray around his ears.  If anything, he has become more demanding, territorial and mischievous with age, more like a raccoon or a bear than a canine.
     To be honest, I never wanted a dog.  My ADHD son and my autistic spectrum daughter were more than enough responsibility.  But Max begged for a dog for years.  Finally, when my son turned eleven—the same age Sparky is now—I made a deal with him.  If he tried his best at school, turned in all his homework, and was accepted to one of four middle schools, we’d get him a dog.   Of course, there were a few conditions about taking care of the dog.  Max would have to sign a contract—which I still have on file—stating that he would be responsible for feeding, walking and cleaning up after the dog.   Also, I had veto power over the breed.  No dogs that were high maintenance.  Large dogs like Labs and German Shepherds were out, given the size of our Manhattan apartment.  I also didn’t want headaches from a small, yippy-yappy, high-strung dog. For Max, the dog had to be sturdy and playful, not “a white fluff ball that just sits in your lap.” For me, it had to be a dog that the whole family could love, long after the novelty was gone and it stopped being a cute puppy. 

     “Mom, you PROMISED.”  Max complained, after signing the contract.  “Your list is impossible!”

     “I always keep my promises.  It remains to be seen whether you’ll keep yours.”

     Two weeks before Max left for sleep away camp, we brought home a bright-eyed, red-haired puppy, who miraculously met all our criteria.   Smart, playful, and affectionate to all,  Sparky was the name my husband came up with.   Our family fell in love with Sparky, but I made it clear to Max that the dog would be his responsibility whenever he was home.  That meant Max had to walk him late at night, whenever he finished his homework on school nights or came home exhausted (or inebriated) from weekend parties.

     The idea was for Sparky to help Max grow up and become more responsible.  Max might lose his keys or cell phone, forget a homework assignment, or leave his room a mess, but he HAD to take care of Sparky, no matter what.  Max was mostly compliant, if at times slow or reluctant.  Of course his idea of cleaning up dog poop is still not quite up to snuff, but I’m happy to say he’s a lot better at it than he was at age eleven, or even during high school.   Although Max still occasionally forgets to give Sparky water with his food (especially in the morning when sleepwalking through the feeding), he has learned to honor the spirit of the contract.  Even more important, he truly loves his dog.   During college, Max rarely asked how the rest of family was doing.  But every phone call included the question:  “How’s Sparky?” 

     Looking back, I can see there was a learning curve for Max, albeit long and spread out.   There are still those nights when Henry and I are half asleep and Max is out with his friends and the phone rings.  Neither of us wants to answer because we know what’s coming.  “Can you take Sparky down for a quick pee walk, pleeease?” About half the time, I’ll hand Henry the phone if he isn’t snoring.
     As for Sparky’s learning curve, either it doesn’t exist or I don’t understand it.  When he was a young pup, Sparky ate an entire jar of gray face cream and throughout his life has gone on to devour a disgusting and toxic assortment of substances in alarming quantities.  On the filthy streets of New York, he has consumed dirty napkins, moldy bagels, pizza crusts, ancient apple cores, chicken bones, and even his own vomit.  Although nearly choking or sick to his stomach on innumerable occasions, he never learned from his mistakes.

     In fact, over the years Sparky has become an even more audacious eater.  After discovering several granola bars in a suitcase on the floor, he moved on to knocking over a garbage can, pawing through handbags, brief cases and backpacks.  Many times he has eaten several packages of diet bubble gum—paper included—along with Ricola cough drops, a suppository and endless packages of Tums.  However, his greatest culinary accomplishment happened earlier this year.  Somehow Sparky managed to break into a low kitchen cabinet,  gnaw through a triple bagged package of dog kibble, drag all 8 pounds of it into our living room—despite an injured paw and a plastic cone around his head—and consume  so much of it that he looked like he’d swallowed a bowling ball.  Countless blobs of brown kibble had cascaded from the bag all over the living room carpet. Cleaning up was a nightmare, as the kibble blended in with our multi-colored rug, causing me step on the mess and grind the kibble into brown powder.

     As a puppy, Sparky was universally friendly to all dogs and humans.  While he continues to be sweet and gentle to people of all ages, he has developed tremendous hostility to larger dogs and has become a Lilliputian bully.  He will snarl and attempt to attack other dogs that are double or triple his weight and size.  I know dogs are territorial, but sometimes I think Sparky has a death wish (or maybe he needs glasses). 

     Even more peculiar, he has a mysterious hatred for a gentle, three-legged greyhound that lives down the block and is always (literally) minding his own business.  But the moment our dog sees the greyhound, Sparky becomes a homicidal maniac pulling so hard against his leash he practically strangles himself.  Of course, there’s no way to convince Sparky to stop or to explain to the greyhound owner why Sparky turns into a werewolf, whenever he sees the handicapped dog.  And forget about Sparky being persuaded to “mind his own business.”  It’s Mission Impossible unless we scoop him up like a toddler having a tantrum and carry him across the street. 

     Like a baby, Sparky cries when he’s hungry, in pain or needs to relieve himself.  Unfortunately, he can’t articulate any intelligent information about an injury.  So the last time he jumped out of Max’s arms and injured his paw, all we knew was that he was limping.  Sparky looked so pathetic, we took him to the vet immediately.  After two visits, an x ray and blood tests, the vet determined that our dog  had a “soft tissue injury.”  We were told to give him pain killers, keep his walks to a minimum, and have him wear a plastic cone to prevent him from licking the paw.   Ten days later Sparky was fine, and we had a $900 vet bill.

     Last week Max took Sparky on a long walk and when they returned Sparky was limping again.

     “We need to take him to the vet.”  Max informed me, his voice filled with the same gravity and concern he expresses about his own physical ailments.

     “Not so fast.”  Henry and I are not anxious to incur another hefty vet bill “Let’s see if he gets better in ten days the way he did last time. Is it the same paw?”  I ask, unable to remember.   

     “I’m not sure.”  Max picks up the dog and examines the afflicted side.  “I don’t think it’s his paw this time.  Maybe it’s his knee or his hip.  Are you sure we should wait?”

     “Not if he cries or gets worse.” 

     My son is holding Sparky in his lap, scratching him under his chin, cooing and trying to comfort him.  “Maybe he’s got arthritis, and we should be getting him painkillers.”  Max is now going into diagnostic speculation, or maybe even acting hypochondriacal on his dog’s behalf. But there’s something sweet about his concern for the health and well-being of another creature.

     Although Sparky will remain a perpetual child in our family, it’s gratifying for me to catch a glimpse of the caring man and father Max will one day become.














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