Sunday, June 15, 2008

Little Jerry

Jerry, our elderly rat terrier, is the dignified veteran of our wild family of three dogs and three boys. Once spry and fast, he is now shamefully puffed with kibble and steak scraps, afflicted with stiff joints, and too genteel to poop in the rain. He seems to gauge the weather each morning. Pausing at the front door, he lifts his graying muzzle, sniffs the air suspiciously and if he detects a hint of moisture, refuses to venture out. I wheedle, demand, and then wearily carry him out and deposit him in the grass where, after a baleful glare in my direction, he resentfully does his business.

James, my 14 year old, purchased Jerry with his own, long saved money we he was very young. At age 7, James went to the Humane Society with his grandmother- his accomplice and advisor in all things pet related. I had no idea what they would bring home and steeled myself to accept anything from Great Dane to Poodle. When the two came home, thrilled with their small black and white choice and plunked the animal in front of me, my first startled thought was, “What is it?” The dog was terribly emaciated and resembled an oversized mouse. His head also appeared to be several sizes too small for his body. He was, in fact, a severely abused rat terrier of unknown age. He had been starved almost to death, thrown against a wall and his broken foreleg was wrapped in a bandage. Still convalescing from his long ordeal, he was understandably skittish and wild-eyed.

James, however, was beaming. He announced with barely contained pride, “He is Jerry. I’ve named him Little Jerry”. I was taken aback, but immediately squashed my misgivings regarding both dog and name and mustered enthusiasm.

Most parents know that giving a young child license in naming an animal can lead to some odd choices. In this case, our next door neighbor was also “Jerry” and this commonality led to some awkward moments. In the early days of attempted dog training in the yard, I would often shout, “Jerry, stop that right now! Or “Jerry, NO!” or “Jerry, DROP IT!” in a commanding or more often, frantic, shrill tone. Each sudden outburst caused Jerry, my human neighbor, peacefully waxing his car or raking his yard a few feet away to either freeze or induced a powerful startle reflex resulting in dropped rakes, botched wax job and strained neighborly relations. My howls and demands invariably had no effect on Jerry the dog.

I suppose I should feel good that James’ naming abilities were only mildly quirky. My mom once allowed my brother at age 5 to name his cat and we all regretted his choice, but faithfully referred to the cat by the name Nick chose, “Pizza Hut”.

Pets contribute so much to our lives. Children learn invaluable lessons about life, compassion, illness, bereavement throughout their pet’s lifetime. Pets help children learn empathy, responsibility, connection to nature and unconditional love. Sadly, with today’s hurried lifestyle many families simply do not have time for pets. Interestingly, a decrease in pet ownership is being noticed in several countries. A recent Australian study blamed their decline in pet ownership was due in part to children choosing video games over pets. The president of the Australian Veterinary Association, Kersti Seksel, said “These days children interact more by playing computer games and less by going out there and throwing the ball to a dog. We need to learn people skills, physical skills, and sitting with a computer doesn't teach you that."

Pets demand time and unconditional love. They teach us that life can be messy, come with unpleasant aromas, and that you don’t stop loving someone even though they are flawed. Jerry, despite his many deviant behaviors has become a much beloved member of our family. James has created a wonderful semi-fictitious persona for his dog and insists that Jerry is the Chuck Norris of dogs. Despite obvious evidence of Jerry’s propensity for overindulgence (his physique can best be described as spherical), and a head that never grew to match his now bulbous body, James swears that his dog is “ripped”. We can’t remember our life before he came to us. There has been occasional destruction of much of our boy-worn property, foul excretions, expenses and time spent in exasperated frustration as Jerry leisurely strolled the yard looking for the perfect spot while crucial deadlines and appointments loomed. It has been worth every second. He is and ever shall be ‘Little Jerry.”

Children and families need these experiences. Everyone should of sit side by side with a good dog. As the writer Milan Kundera said, “To sit with a dog on a hillside on a glorious afternoon is to be back in Eden, where doing nothing was not boring - it was peace.




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