Dog Versus Baby

penny is cool

I have owned a dog for my entire adult life — more properly, a Chihuahua. First, there was Sal. Then, for a brief period, there was Sal and Penny. Since 2007, it’s just been Penny. (RIP Sal.) Both Sal and Penny, despite their temperamental differences, have always been treated like actual family members. We rarely leave Penny at home while we vacation or visit family. And, like family, we have made great allowances, and often, excuses, for her misbehavior.

Anyone who knows Chihuahuas will be unsurprised to hear that Penny is abnormal for a dog but fairly standard for a Chihuahua. She is sweet and cuddly and playful. She doesn’t even mind strangers, once it’s clear they are staying for a while. She easily adapts to hotels and new houses and new people. But, her list of dislikes, or, more properly, things she cannot tolerate, is long: other dogs, birds, squirrels, loud noises, strollers of any sort, doorbells, delivery people of any sort, and of course, babies and small children.

Now, Josh and I would both admit, I think, that some of Penny’s failings are our fault: We never taught her much. She doesn’t know many tricks, though she is very intelligent. She isn’t obedient in any way at all, and we never successfully learned how to deal with her nerves. Which, was, in hindsight, a grave oversight.

We worried a bit, when I was pregnant, about what it would be like for Penny. “The dog is just as important to us as the baby,” we told ourselves, because we LOVE this dog and didn’t have a baby yet, so we didn’t realize how silly it is to say or think that. We felt confident that the dog and the baby would get along just fine. And at first, they did. We were so proud of Penny. Zelda, who didn’t seem to be aware of the dog’s existence for several months, was an object that Penny seemed instinctually to want to protect. She would lie on the threshold of Zelda’s room, as if waiting for intruders. When the baby cried, Penny’s ears perked up and she ran to whatever container the baby happened to be currently contained in. Whenever we let her near the baby, she sniffed her quickly, stealing a whiff, before backing away, head cocked, trying to make sense of the being now living with her.

Of course, Zelda wasn’t really living yet. Sure, she was a huge draw on my personal resources, but it was probably better than ever for Penny, at first: Zelda wasn’t much of a crier, she slept a lot, and so suddenly, I was at home twenty-four hours a day, quietly sitting in one place while Penny slept nearby. This is, as far as I can tell, Penny’s most desirable life scenario: to just chill at home with one of her owners, silently snoozing all day.

Then, Penny started stealing items of Zelda’s clothing. She’s always had a fondness for my dirty laundry, so it was cute to watch her suddenly make off with little socks and bibs, a little hat patiently hidden under our pillows. We started to see her creep off into corners, digging imaginary holes, burying her treasures nervously. Then, a few months ago, things started to go south for old Penny. Zelda started sitting up and reaching for Penny’s tail. Penny didn’t like this development, and she didn’t hide her feelings well. The entire family — all four of us — were sitting on the floor of Zelda’s room the first time Penny sort of snapped at her. Zelda had grabbed the fur on her back and, before one of us could stop her, she tugged. Penny has snapped at us before, usually while in bed, but in her nearly eight years of life, she has never managed anything resembling a bite. Her “snap” is more of a warning, delivered with her mouth, rather than an intention to harm.

The baby doesn’t walk yet, but she’s working on it, and Penny knows it, so the relationship has deteriorated progressively, on Penny’s end, to this: A few mornings ago, I walked downstairs to the living room, where Penny was asleep. Zelda was in my arms, and laughed when she spied the dog. Penny perked up, unsure for a split second, then emitted a low, slow, almost lazy growl. We walked into the kitchen and I set the baby down. The growl continued. It wasn’t a growl that required work, but it was consistent. Zelda was probably twelve feet away from her, and crawling in the opposite direction. But still, Penny needed to do this. To express something. Zelda laughs at the growl, determined, as in all things, to make the joyful best of it.

What is she telling us? Zelda is a threat to her, clearly. She moves quickly and unpredictably these days. She doesn’t understand boundaries. Penny is a nervous mess: big sister doesn’t quite “get” little sister these days. We’ve explored behavioral therapy. We make jokes about sending her to live with my father. But we’d never do that, and I believe that the situation is temporary. Long term, I know, they will learn to love and appreciate one another, as we love and appreciate both of them, despite their annoying little habits. Until then, we have decided that Penny might benefit a bit from a Prozac prescription. Our veterinarian assures me that this will make life more enjoyable for her and for us.

Because if Penny isn’t exactly quite as important to us as Zelda is, she is still, bad ‘tude included, part of the family. And it is hard to watch her enjoyment of life wane as Zelda’s increases, as she works hard at learning to walk and talk. Penny’s worries have seemingly grown to a point where life feels unbearable to her, and they wear on us, too. Once, years and years ago, a little help from some low-grade antidepressants helped get me out of a rut. My hope is that they’ll do the same for Penny, and that they’ll get her back to where I know she wants to be: snuggling with Zelda like she’s a new toy.

THE PARENT RAP is an endearing new column about the fucked up and cruel world of parenting.