After I retired I went searching for a dog. I knew just what I wanted: female, two to five years old, around thirty-five pounds, short-haired, good with cats and kids. I read the classifieds, and went to two adoption fairs, but most of the dogs were too big for me, or too tiny for Joe.
Then I went to PetsMart, where rescue groups display adoptable pets on Saturdays. The cages were lined up in a wide aisle by the beds and blankets. The dogs were standing and wagging, pacing and whining, lying with heads on paws and ears twitching. Most of the dogs were very big or very old, and then I came to Dixie. She was sitting up straight with eager ears and cocked head, her eyes looking right into mine. She had a glossy black coat with a crooked white blaze down her chest, and her left front leg was missing.
I went straight to the adoption table. Laurie, from Puppy Hill Farm, told me Dixie had arrived just that morning, and they didn’t know much about her. She was a lab cross, seven months old. Her leg had been amputated after a car accident, and the owners had surrendered her to the vet. The vet’s staff described her as “very sweet.”
They gave me a leash, and Dixie and I went for a walk. She didn’t pull very much or very hard, except in the dog food aisle, and she was remarkably calm. Her tail wagged at cats and children, and when people stopped to talk to her, she didn’t jump up on them. When I sat outside on a planter she sat right in front of me and gave me her enthusiastic attention. I told myself that the trauma of the accident and surgery and the month at the vet had matured her, so it wasn’t really like adopting a puppy. I weighed her in the vet’s waiting room, and she was thirty six pounds. Already seven months old - I was sure she wouldn’t grow much bigger. And with only three legs, she would probably be comfortable with my slow walking.
I told Laurie that I did have to check with my husband before bringing home a three-legged dog, but I was sure it would be alright with him. Since I couldn’t reach him on the phone, I hurried home. It was alright with him, though he might have been happy to forego my imitation of the puppy’s eager expression and posture. I raced back to the store.
Suddenly I had the pre-adoption jitters. Life was simple with only a cat. What was I getting myself into? Though I’d been planning this for so long, it still felt like my usual impulsive decision, guided by passion rather than reason.
But those yearning puppy eyes had me yearning right back. So I filled out the forms, and signed the papers. I promised that if it didn’t work out, I would return Dixie to Puppy Hill Farm rather than take her to the pound. And Laurie helped me pick out what I needed: a crate, leash, food, a chew bone.
I snapped on the new leash and Dixie and I walked to the car. I boosted her up into the front seat, where I had put our old beach quilt. I petted her and talked to her all the way home, and she was very well-behaved. We went for a walk around the neighborhood. I let her explore as she pleased, and for an untrained dog and owner, we did very well, with no pulling or yanking. That night, as she lay on the floor between our recliners, Joe acknowledged that Dixie was a very fine dog.
I have no allegiance to the old Confederacy, and I didn’t want a dog named Dixie, especially a dog who looked a lot like a lab in profile, and a lot like a pitbull from the front, a dog who lunged and barked at pick-up trucks. We tried out a dozen names. Joe rejected Callie; I refused to name her Stumpy. I’ve named my previous dogs after food - Tuna, Oyster, Chilidog - and so I finally settled on Trisket, changing the spelling so I wouldn’t feel like a commercial.
A week after I got Trisket, we began obedience classes. I had three particular goals for her: to walk on a leash without pulling, to go to her bed (one in each room) when told, and not to jump up on people. She also learned to sit, wait, lie down, and stay. She learned to turn in a circle when told to dance, and ring a bell when she wants to go out. At the command ‘Leave It,’ she will reluctantly refrain from eating food or more disgusting things left by the side of the road, or keep walking at a steady pace, only her head turning, when another dog challenges her.
The training made her a wonderful companion, and though she grew to fifty pounds, I was happy with my choice. Still, there is one behavior we haven’t been able to train away. All my dogs have been good eaters, gobbling breakfast and dinner the minute the bowl hit the floor. But Trisket is more than a mere enthusiast. She steals food every chance she gets - from the pantry, the table, the trash.
We try to keep Trisket out of the kitchen when we’re not there. We close her in the two front rooms, shutting the sliding door. But her friend Ouzel, like all cats, always wants to be on the other side of a closed door, and with a persistent paw she can inch it open enough to slip through. Trisket follows. Joe finally put a hook and eye on the door. As long as we remember to latch it, the food is safe.
Still, there are three humans in the house. If we are each inattentive once every three weeks, Trisket has unsupervised access to the kitchen once a week. It’s not that we’re stupid, it’s a question of focus. When Amanda was little I would ask her, 'What is Trisket thinking about?' and she would answer, ‘Food’. Although I am quite fond of food myself, I occasionally allow my mind to be distracted by other things, such as my afternoon nap or world peace.
When Trisket gets into the pantry she has a great time. She has torn open bags of flour and cornmeal and dragged them to her bed in the living room. We find granola bar wrappers in her crate. Once she ate a huge box of raisins.
Raisins are allegedly toxic, but the things that are supposed to poison dogs don’t seem to affect Trisket. When she was new to our family, she stole a giant chocolate bar from the pantry, and ate the whole thing. I called the vet and told her Trisket had eaten seven ounces of chocolate. The vet advised me to squirt hydrogen peroxide down her throat with a medicine dropper. Trisket was amenable, and after two doses she vomited copious amounts of slimy chocolate foam. In the middle of the pool was an entire stick of butter, unchewed. I’m so sorry I don’t have a photo to share with you.
To keep her out of the garbage, we tried a dog discouragement device with a red plastic flap on a spring, which we would set on top of the trash can. If she tried to get into the trash, it would fly open in her face with a loud snap. But it would also fall off the trash can, leaving it unguarded.
Even more than trash, or ingredients from the pantry, Trisket likes real food from the table. Bob and Arupa came over one night for dinner. Arupa is a vegetarian. I prepared a delicious cheesy vegetable casserole in a big pyrex pan, and set it on the kitchen table to cool. When I returned to the kitchen, Trisket had eaten a third of the dish. We ordered a pizza.
In obedience classes I learned to use rewards to train Trisket - a clicker, a cheery ‘Good dog!’, a kibble. But stealing food provides its own instant reward. Even if I believed punishment worked and were willing to use it, I would have to catch her in the act, and of course I never do. When I come in the room, there is the mess or the empty wrapper, and Trisket runs off to her cage.
Trisket is eight years old now, and sometimes I speculate about what kind of dog we will get when she is gone. Joe has an easy answer: our next dog will be a cat.
NEXT WEEK: WOMEN IN BOLD
Do you know how to turn a food-obsessed into a food-indifferent dog? I'd love to hear from you! Click "comments," below.