Becoming a dog person

From: Sean
Subject: Uh oh

I sort of fell in love with Mikka today…

So began the email from my partner Sean, who had been volunteering at the local Humane Society for less than a week.

Up until that point, I’d never been much of a dog person. I’ve always enjoyed the company of friends’ dogs, of course, but taking care of one seemed like far too much to handle. But with Sean’s new-found interest in dog behaviour and training (also the reason for his volunteering), as well as his freelance schedule, it seemed like we might be able to make it work.

Mikka in the park

And so, a few days later we brought home Mikka, the energetic young Karelian Bear Dog. (It’s a Finnish breed, and strictly speaking, his name should probably be Mika, roughly equivalent to Mike. I’m guessing the extra K is there to make it look “more Finnish”.) He was about a year and a half old, so I’m considering today, his six-month anniversary at our house, his birthday.

Karelians are known for being aloof, sometimes even aggressive to other dogs. Mikka’s quite good-natured, though a bit socially awkward: he tends to stare a little too much for some other dogs to handle, and I don’t think he reads their signals very well. Likewise, he really isn’t what you’d call chummy or cuddly with humans.

He’s pretty sharp, though he’d likely score low on most of those purported doggy IQ tests. We’ve taught him a few tricks, and even tried him in a canine agility course, but he’s got better things to do with his time than learn to climb on step-stools and touch targets with his nose. Simply put, he’s an introvert who lives to hunt – i.e. bark at squirrels and ducks, and scrounge for chicken bones on garbage day.

He also has epilepsy, most likely the reason he was given up for adoption. His seizures range from brief loss of muscle tone, to confusion and panic, to full-on tonic-clonic convulsions. It’s hard to watch, but you get used to it out of necessity. I can only hope that he’s not in pain when it happens, but we’ll never know for certain.

So he gets pills twice a day, which keep the seizures at bay for the most part. If he has a couple of bad ones in a row, we have a syringe and a bottle of diazepam (yes, Valium) to administer rectally, and a whole lot of enzyme-based deodorizer to clean up any involuntary mess he may make. I’m actually not sure which is more gross: the poop or the solidifying drool he ends up covered in.

Yes, dogs are gross. As a mild germophobe, I now wash my hands an average of 48 times a day, up from 10. And even if we weren’t vegetarians, I think the faint, pervasive smell of dried meat would put us off. And let’s not discuss the time he ate a Ziploc bag.

The cats, needless to say, were not pleased with the new situation, but they’re slowly adapting. Tarquin, the ostensible big bad tomcat of the house, has been too chicken to have a proper faceoff with Mikka, while Gomiya, our little old lady cat – our toothless, seven-pound, nearly twenty-year-old lady cat – can send Mikka scrambling out of the room with a look.

A lot of work, yes, but definitely rewarding. Having a dog is eye-opening and at the same time very grounding: on our hour-long walks I’ve gotten to know our neighbours and neighbourhood, noticed the colours of the stars for the first time, and kept fairly fit over the winter months.

And then there’s joy.

Cats entertain themselves in a quiet sort of way. They’re fascinated by things they can chase. And they know about bliss – a nice spot in the sun is all they need.

Dogs, on the other hand, know pure, lunatic, balls-out* joy. I’ll never forget watching Mikka bounding madly through the snow for the first time in his adult life – it must have been like the canine equivalent of the Wonka factory: the ground is all soft and crunchy, and you can eat it! Perhaps it’s because dogs are more social creatures and broadcast their emotions to the world. Whatever the reason, there’s nothing quite so cheering as a happy dog.

So happy birthday, buddy. We’re glad you’re here to spend it with us.

Mikka in the snow, with his favourite ball
UNG UNG UNG. Photo by Sean.

* Hmm. I’m not sure if that choice of phrase is appropriate or not.

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