Petey came into my life when I was 23 years old. About to leave my home town, Key West, Florida, for graduate school, I was rebelling like hell against cultural expectations to settle down. I did not yet want a husband or children. I did, however, want a dog. I knew I could give one a loving home. I’d read up on different breeds and decided on a Boston Terrier; I’d be living in an apartment for a while and felt I should get a dog who didn’t need a lot of space. I’d also read that Boston Terriers were known for their character, and in all the pictures I’d seen, I believed it. This was the kind of dog for me.
I walked into my local pet store on the morning of December 8, 1997. Before I go any further, let me say that, today, I am firmly against buying dogs from pet stores. But back then, I didn’t know about such atrocities as puppy mills. The Internet was not as big as it is today, so my research was limited. Now that I know more, I would only adopt when getting a new dog. My ignorance, however, did lead me to Petey.
When I got to the pet store, I walked to the back, where they kept the puppies, and there he lay, curled up in his top-row cage. A distinct white gap ran down the center of his black mask and around both sides of his pug nose. A perfect black oval sat at the top of his head. I tapped on the glass, and he looked up, his bulging black eyes staring right at me, his ears straight up but folded over at the tips. His black mouth turned downward into a sweet and sad expression. I giggled. The lady who worked at the store passed by, and I asked if I could meet the Boston Terrier. Impatiently, she told me that he was not for sale because he had a scratch on his leg that could be mange. I didn’t believe it. There couldn’t anything wrong with that perfect little guy. “Can I just hold him?” I asked.
She eventually brought him to me. At just four pounds, he nestled right into the crook of my arm and felt so warm and soft. I cradled him and told him he was going to make someone very happy. But I couldn’t imagine him going home with anyone but me. “I really want him,” I told the woman. I asked what I could do to get him. Could I put down a deposit and have her hold him for me? She said no because, if he had mange, he’d be sent back to the breeder. He was only 10 ½ weeks old and, I’d later learn through his paperwork, had already been transferred from his breeder in Missouri to two different pet stores. I’m so glad I persisted.
What if I signed some sort of release? I would take him to the vet. I would pay for the visit. When she finally realized I couldn’t leave without him, she agreed. She had me sign a waiver, which indicated I would assume responsibility for his healthcare, and she set up an appointment with a local vet. Racking up a $640 bill, I loaded up on puppy food, two metal bowls (which I still have today), a kennel, a fluffy cushion, and an armful of dog toys. I then set out with my puppy. As I pulled out of our parking space, I spoke to Petey through his kennel, which I’d set in my passenger seat. “We’re going to be very happy together,” I said, tears in my eyes.
It didn’t take long for Petey and me to bond. That night, I took him to meet my parents. I sat on the floor with him, and when he got tired, he climbed up to my shoulder and fell asleep, snoring in my ear. My dad laughed. “He knows his Mama!” he said. The next morning, I took Petey to the vet, who gave him a round of shots and diagnosed the scratch as just a scratch. By the end of our visit, he had curled up on the counter against my wrist and fallen asleep as the doctor talked to me. At home, when I’d lie down, he’d curl up in front of my stomach. He’d snort twice and sigh as soon as he got comfortable. I caught the flu three weeks after bringing him home, and he stayed in bed with me the entire time.
We moved to Orlando at the beginning of the new year. It was my first time in a new town by myself without any immediate family around. I became a lot sadder and lonelier than I expected, and I felt in over my head when it came to two of my graduate seminars, where the students spoke in a foreign language called literary theory. But having Petey by my side and watching him grow got me through. In the mornings, he woke me up by licking my face. He spoke to me with his eyes, sounds, and body language. He quickly learned to sit in a significant spot and stare at me whenever he wanted something. He’d do it by the front door when he had to go out, in front of my bedroom door when he wanted to sleep, and in front of his bowl when he got hungry or needed more water. He eventually added a voiceless whine to that routine if I didn’t see him or move quickly enough. Every night, we’d have a dance session. I’d sing, “Petey Wheatie Wheatie Wheatie Wheatie!” and clap my hands as he pranced back and forth across the couch, his corkscrew tail twitching, ears back against his head, eyes wide, a toy in his mouth. When he got super-happy, he’d “grodel”–a cross between growl and yodel.
Petey quickly became protective of me and, having not spent much time around others, became very rambunctious on our walks and around visitors. I decided, when he was he was close to a year old, to take him to obedience school. Petey immediately earned the class clown title. The teacher once tried to demonstrate the “sit” command with him, showing us where to hold the treat to keep the dog interested but still. Before she could finish explaining the process, Petey sprang from the ground and grabbed the treat out of her hand, making her laugh. Not a single dog owner could hold a straight face when, later, the trainer tried to demonstrate the “leave it” command on Petey. She put a treat on the ground and covered it with her hand, repeating, “Leave it.” Petey pawed her hands, tried to shove his nose between her fingers, lay on the floor, then finally gave up, panting a wild smile at all of us, his front legs splayed out to the side. After seven weeks of this, he ranked second place (among three dogs) on his final test. He also earned the “Most Improved” award because, by that time, he could sit-stay and down-stay for two minutes at a time, heel, and come to me when called; between activities, he would lie on the floor, his chin to the ground. He got marked down for some jumping and for barking at another dog, but the trainer noted, “Much better, though!” in her feedback. I still have his trophies on my entertainment center.
At some point, I got hired as a can-can dancer at one of the amusement establishments in Orlando (I still had these fantasies of working in the entertainment industry back then). I quit after the first night. There were many reasons why, but more than anything, I realized that on the nights I didn’t have class, I just wanted to spend time at home with my dog. When I studied, Petey would drop his toys on my notes or lie across my books so that I’d have to focus on him. Sometimes, after I’d immersed myself in one of my texts for a long period of time, I’d get up to find that he’d dropped a toy next to me, hoping I’d throw it. When I wrote at the computer, he’d wrestle with a big, white stuffed dog in a corner of my room; he’d eventually lie on his back as if the dog had pinned him down, then shoot all four legs up and bark.
Two years and two apartments later, when I started teaching and working on my thesis, Petey had learned how to get onto my lap as I worked. When I sat at the computer, he’d climb onto the bed, reach onto my desk, and drag his shaky, skinny paw across the back of my hand. He wouldn’t stop until I pulled him onto my lap. I finished my thesis–and graded hundreds of papers–while he snored in my arms.