Before Stella, there was Neumann, and Neumann was perfect. In all of his eleven years, he never chewed a shoe, never woke the neighbors with his barking, never pounced on anyone from across the room. Neumann knew how to be at my feet without being under them; he knew his place on the bed was at the foot, not the pillow. Living with Neumann was less like having a dog and more like sharing a home with a gentlemanly old uncle who insists on wearing his suit coat and tie even though he hasn’t been gainfully employed for at least twenty years. He came into rooms and onto couches only when expressly invited and vacated them with the slightest gesture. His greatest fault was that he suffered malodorous problems when he ate spicy foods.
Neumann was my dog. I couldn’t take more than three steps without him right at my side–silent and unassuming. My husband, Mike, and I hadn’t been looking for a dog at all; he simply showed up on our doorstep–fully grown, ate a piece of cheese, and never left. When Neumann was young, he could jump so high, a specific command would bring his front paws to my shoulders. When I was pregnant with my twin sons, I was terrified that he might jump up as I held one of the babies, so I dressed a teddy bear in a onesie I’d received as a shower gift, held it in my arms, and told Neumann, “Don’t jump!”
He never jumped to my shoulders again.
Neumann, with his penchant for short walks and long naps, was the ideal dog for me, but he wasn’t really a fun family dog. He wasn’t about to chase a Frisbee or wear a bandana. As they grew up, my sons longed for some sort of beautiful romping dog–a golden retriever, a lab, a German shepherd– anything that could run across a field with its fur billowing in slow motion. They begged for a new puppy.
“No way,” I’d tell them. “Neumann could never adjust to life with another dog. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”
“Maybe we could get another dog as soon as Neumann ‘goes away,’” they’d say, curling their little fingers in the requisite quotation marks.
“Listen,” I told them, “I’ve had Neumann a lot longer than I’ve had you, and you’d just better hope the house doesn’t ever burn down so I won’t have to choose which one I’d save.”
As it turned out, Neumann did “go away” long before he actually died. Toxins released from his aging, diseased liver induced a kind of canine dementia, and for the last year of his life, he roamed the house, unaware of his surroundings, to the extent of not even knowing if he was in the living room or out in the yard. He stopped making eye contact, and the unnerving way that he stared past me broke my heart. Our vet confirmed that he was in quite a bit of gastric pain, and the stiff movement of his joints served as further evidence of his constant suffering. Just before the Thanksgiving holiday during his eleventh year as part of our family, Neumann was allowed to find quiet peace.
And I fell apart. For months afterward, I would come home from work, open the door to my empty house and say, “Hey, Neumy-neum!” just as I had for over a decade. Not every day, of course, like I did when he was alive, but on those really good days when I was full of fun stories and happy to be home to share them.
After a suitable period of mourning, my sons came up with the same old questions. Could we get a new dog? I reminded them that Neumann was so special because he had come to us. I said that if God wanted us to have a new dog, He would drop one right in our yard.
“Just be patient,” I told them, “and pray.”
Meanwhile, I was praying too. Something about wanting a canine hedge of protection.
A year passed, and while visiting my in-laws at Christmas time, my niece walked in with a tiny, shiny puppy of indefinable breed(s). Onyx-black, save for an ermine-like breast and a freshly docked tail, the pup had been abandoned in an apartment complex parking lot. Searches and posters had failed to produce an owner, and a shelter loomed if the little thing didn’t find a home.
I took the puppy in my hand and held her, nose-to-nose, up to my face. She had a single star of white fur in the middle of her forehead.
“I’m going to name her Stella,” I said.
So the boys had an answer to their prayer, just as I’d hoped they would. With a divine puppy drop straight into our family. One would think that the result would be a wash of great joy. And I guess it was, in a James 1:2 kind of way–you know, all the joy that’s supposed to come in the midst of trials–because it seemed straight away that our enjoyment of Stella would be a test of faith and a development of perseverance.
She wasn’t a bad dog–no worse than any puppy, I assume. Yes, she chewed things, and yes, she dug holes, and yes, she yapped incessantly at times, and finally, yes, she was prone to piddle on the floor. It was this last bit of misbehavior that threatened to rip our family to pieces.
We did everything right in housebreaking Stella, and by “we” I include all members of my family and Stella herself. We were consistent. We offered rewards and praise; Stella accepted them. She scratched on the door; we opened it. We opened the door; she ran out. With all matters of urinary business successfully settled in the yard, it seemed the constant carpet-prone indiscretions had little to do with any pressing potty need. A checkup with our veterinarian diagnosed the problem: submissive urination.
Apparently there are two extremes when it comes to canine behavior: dangerous aggression and overt submission. Most dogs–the easiest dogs–find their place in the family pack somewhere in the middle, recognizing the authority of the master of the house while feeling secure enough in their position to protect it when necessary. In a pack, urinating is a sign of submission, and Stella was suffering from a debilitating case of insecurity. She was constantly trying to reassure us of her loyalty, desperately trying to please us with her acquiescence, and we were ever the more frustrated because of it.
When she went to the door to go outside, we would praise her for her initiative, and she would urinate–just a little–before running through the door. When she came in after doing her bit, we would congratulate the effort, and she would release just a tad more in recognition of our praise.
Then followed a muddled, hollering mass of confusion as the same mouths that had offered such praise now brought forth ugly sounds of rebuke. Stella would look up at us, her brown eyes pleading, “What do you people want from me?” Because, bless her heart, she was trying. After all, if we told her to get off the couch, she would “submit” immediately, then hop down. Same if she was on our bed. Whenever we walked through the front door, she would “submit” in greeting–right there in the hardwood entryway. If we had an armful of groceries, we might just slip on her “submission,” as we did in the kitchen when she expressed her gratitude for any tasty treat.
Our vet told us the solution was to have complete and utter tranquility in the household to avoid aggravating her already nervous nature. We were instructed never to look her in the eye and never to speak to her in anything but a calm, soothing voice. She should never be praised in a high-pitched tone and never be reprimanded with anything but an unruffled, half-whispered, “No.” For a time, any casual observer would think that every member of our household was under the influence of heavy medication as we slowly maneuvered through the rooms, inviting Stella to go outside, come inside, and, “Please, if you wouldn’t mind terribly, drop that slipper. Thank you so much.” We all spoke as if auditioning to be the voice of OnStar, and it worked.
For a while.
But then, in a moment of weakness, overcome by the illogical love I had for this dog, I hunkered down, looked Stella straight in the eye, and told her she was such a good, pretty girl. Simultaneously, my husband viewed the scene, and like something from a cheesy action film yelled, “Stooooooop!”
Torn between appreciation for my praise and apology for my husband’s anger, Stella ping-ponged between the two of us, leaving a little trail of submission on the formerly beige Berber carpet. I spent the rest of the day trying to force the vein back under the skin of my husband’s neck. I never knew you could actually hear the sound of a heart hardening.
Stella was on shaky ground, and it was up to me to defend her.
“Don’t you see?” I pleaded, seeing her through the eyes of grace. “She’s actually giving us a gift!”
But Mike only saw her through eyes bulged out by the growing blood pressure behind them. “We can’t live like this.”
Deep down I knew he was right.
The answer came days later when, without any conscious plan to do so, I walked into our local pet store and saw the sign that would change our lives.
Intermediate (for dogs six months old or older)
There was one slot left in the Intermediate Obedience class that would meet for the first time the following Saturday, and I didn’t think twice about signing up. After all, I loved Stella with all my heart, and even though our finances were shaky at best, no sacrifice seemed too great. I wrote out the check, already excited about the changes that would come about, envisioning our new life together as she would learn to come to me, to walk with me, to follow me.
And yet, by the time the six Saturdays were through, it was I who learned what it meant to truly follow my Master.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from Saturdays with Stella by Allison Pittman Copyright © 2008 by Allison Pittman. Excerpted by permission of Multnomah Books, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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