Ken, relieved to finally be back on home turf.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but our dog, Ken, has proven the old saw wrong. At a seasoned 12 years old, Ken achieved the unprecedented feat of staying in a kennel without having a nervous breakdown.
We had never boarded our beagle-lab mix since adopting him as a puppy, and took him with us on most family vacations, staying in pet-friendly cabins in the mountains. When taking Ken was impossible, he stayed with relatives who were familiar and loving, or we hired a friend to Ken-sit at our house. Yet despite the Very Important Pet treatment he received, including lavish petting, walking, lap-sitting, and hamburger dropped into his food, we often returned to find Ken sad and droopy, dejected, a mixed breed who had lost his mojo. The older he got, the more allergic he became to our absence. Last summer, Ken was so listless upon our return from a five-day trip that we feared he had dug one paw in the ground. I took him to the vet in alarm. She prescribed antibiotics and antidepressants for both of us.
Recently, disruptive home repairs forced us to board Ken for the first time. I rejected one kennel where I was shocked to see dogs standing in solitary, gray, cheerless concrete block little cells, barking at newcomers. If Charles Dickens had seen a “pet-itentiary” like this in London in the mid-1800s, English majors today would be reading “Bleak Kennel” instead of “Bleak House.” Down the street, I found The Loved Dog, a cage-free boarding facility whose staff “understands and celebrates the powerful bond between you and your dog.” This sounded over-the-top, but as Ken nears his doggy dotage, I needed a place that paid heed to the trendy obsession with pet care. Ken passed his two-hour trial visit with flying colors, impressing the staff with his ability to “socialize appropriately” with a passel of new four-legged companions.
I dropped him off for his stay with a bag of his food and plenty of treats, feeling guilty as I drove away. Would he survive our separation without having his heart broken? I am always amused by people—usually women—who treat their dogs like children, even referring to themselves as their dog’s “Mommy,” so I was chagrined to discover myself anxiously worrying about Ken the next day. I called to check on him. Without thinking, I heard myself ask, “How’s my little boy doing?” I was shocked and embarrassed. I had become one of them! What would be next? Buying Ken a rhinestone collar and taking him shopping with me at the mall in a doll stroller?
I was assured that “my boy” was doing great, playing and getting along well with others, “smiling” frequently, and eating heartily. I was encouraged to call as often as I wanted. Did I want pictures? If so, they would email me photos of him at play. I declined. My dignity was already compromised enough. But Ken’s pose as being a hopeless homebody were proving false through his thriving behavior at The Loved Dog.
I picked Ken up after four days, and he could hardly stop twirling and jumping with happiness when he saw me. I nearly twirled with happiness, too, and was proud that Ken had manned up to the experience. Ken’s visit at the kennel was good preparation for our last day before returning home. We were staying with friends who have an exuberant Labradoodle puppy named Waldo, who pounced on Ken the minute we were in the house, ready to party. Ken just wanted to chill out, a message he relayed by the baring of teeth and the bold theft of Waldo’s huge chew bone, which looked like a small tree trunk in Ken’s mouth.
After a disastrous first hour, with Waldo trying to force a good time on Ken, who responded with growls that translated as “Make my day, kiddo,” the two became friends, even bounding up the stairs together, eating, drinking and sleeping together. Ken never yielded Waldo the right to control the destiny of his own chew toys, but Waldo was an accommodating host.
Ken had clearly fooled us about his inability to cope with any extended absence, and it is a relief that we were wrong. I suppose I was also fooling myself to have considered Ken “just a dog,” and not part of the family. There are no rhinestone collars in his future, or calling myself his “Mommy,” but do I hope we have several more good years of furry family togetherness still to come.