Bowie, my dog, will turn 1 on the 13th of June this year.

Bowie 2020-05-22
Bowie 2020-05-22

His name was Bowie before we got him. All his littermates were named after musicians that a rebellious tween might list as bands they like: Mötley (as in Crüe), KISS, Zepplin (as in Led). Bowie (as in David) was both a conspicuous name and dog.

The first David Bowie song I ever heard was Ziggy Stardust and it was sung in Portuguese by not David Bowie. After listening to the Life Aquatic Studio Sessions on repeat for many weeks, I learned who David Bowie was and started to collect his catalog. Hunky Dory is one of my favorite albums. I bought Blackstar (his 25th album) a few weeks after his death of liver cancer in 2016. I’ve seen his most acclaimed and infamous movies: The Hunger with Cathrine Deneuve; The Man Who Fell to Earth where he plays a space alien; Labyrinth.

None of this was a deciding factor for getting a dog named Bowie, or for keeping his name “Bowie” after we got him. I kept his name Bowie because he has 2 different colored eyes: one blue, one brown. “Two different colored eyes! Just like David Bowie!” I thought, ignorantly. I subsequently learned that, although David Bowie’s pupils were different sizes, his eyes were the same color.

All this is to say: bringing home a dog has been a learning experience.

Rationale

Blazey has wanted a dog forever. At least part of her motivation for getting a dog was to get me out of the house. I’ve worked from home for 5½ years now and I have a tendency to sit at my computer an alarming amount (for those who care about my health and well-being anyway) – her theory was that I would have to get out, if only to walk the dog in my afternoon. Honestly, I also found this idea appealing and, having never had a dog, totally plausible.

4 week old Bowie
4 week old Bowie

How to get a dog

After deciding to get a dog, the next step to dog companionship is actually getting a dog. I, naively, assumed this would be the easy part. Shelters are filled with dogs and cats that people have surrendered because they can no longer care for them, I reasoned. Surely, a grateful world will be glad to have a responsible adult such as myself relieve them of the burden of care for one of these animals.

It was time for us to rescue a dog! …Or so I thought.

Adopting a dog from a rescue is – for good reason – difficult. Many rescues refuse to consider people who rent, people who don’t have a fully enclosed backyard, or people who have never cared for a dog (we tick all of those boxes). The rescues that are flexible want to have an interview and a home inspection. They want references. One rescue insisted on an egregious web form that asked for all of my personal information on a non-https page.

As much as I’d have liked to rescue a dog, it was much simpler to find a reputable breeder. We found a breeder that was a short drive from our house. We were able to visit all the puppies several times. We met the parents. The breeder kept excellent records going back several generations and was very knowledgable. We signed a contract to the effect that if we were ever to surrender the dog it would be into the breeder’s care: and that was that.

We were selective when we met the puppies: carefully observing their demeanor. Being new dog caregivers, we felt that a low-key, even-tempered dog would be best for us and our new canine companion. Bowie seemed like the calmest puppy of the whole litter – he adorably fell asleep in our laps – twice. The day we were going to pick Bowie up and take him home, we were greeted by a Bowie I’d not seen in our visits to that point – running around the house at full speed! Shaking his toys with no small amount of faux puppy violence! Prancing! It never occurred to me until that moment that a puppy’s demeanor could vary so drastically from one hour of the day to the next.

What. A. Monster.

Training

Puppies are assholes.

A puppy’s cuteness is directly proportional to its propensity for assholishness; survival would be impossible were it otherwise. Bowie was the cutest puppy I’ve ever seen, his temperament was proportionally assholish – he once pulled my pajama bottoms down in the front yard during an early morning potty break while two elderly neighbor women strolled passed us.

Socializing a puppy is critical to their success. There is a “critical socialization period” between 8-weeks and 16-weeks (give or take) during which you need to start to introduce them to the world they are expected to navigate: other humans, other dogs, cars, bikes, skateboards, rain, side-walks, gravel, car-rides, cats, etc. Strangely, this is also the time in a puppy’s life where they’re not fully vaccinated: there is a risk of them contracting parvo just from going to places that other perfectly healthy adult dogs have been. Fortunately, there are many places that offer “puppy kindergarten” to help socialize dogs whose immune systems are not fully formed.

Bowie is what is known as a “reactive” dog. That is: he reacts. From a behaviorist point of view it is incorrect to say he’s “excited” or “fearful” all you can say with certainty is that he is reacting. Bowie is reactive to other dogs. I can incorrectly say that he’s excited about other dogs. He’s been that way since early on in puppy kindergarten. He would strain and bark and jump to get to other dogs.

He’s also what the woman who ran our kindergarten called a “big player” which means, really, he’s a scary player. He plays too rough for a lot of puppies.

Outside of puppy kindergarten, Bowie was similarly hard to handle. Before they lose their baby teeth, puppy’s teeth are incredibly sharp. A favorite Bowie maneuver was running to you and jumping up to nip your hands, or grabbing onto your ankle – not letting you walk through the house. On a walk once he bit a guy on the nose. Made him bleed.

I think that Bowie, in particular, may have special needs. A woman at the dog training place once told us that Bowie is lucky to have us. Lucky that we have the patience to work with him. Lucky that we have the money and resources to pay for training and treats. She told us this on his last day of puppy kindergarten when he was too out-of-control to go inside – he was getting too big and he was too excited.

This was a hard time for me: it’s hard to have a poorly behaved dog. It feels like a personal failing – it’s frustrating – it’s embarrassing. My work suffered. My relationships suffered. I understand why shelters don’t let the uninitiated take home dogs – it’s nothing like my idealized version of living with a dog. All those Air Bud movies are a fucking lie.

5 Month old Bowie
5 Month old Bowie

I read a bunch of books about dog training. I watched youtube videos. I learned about animal behavior; dog body signals. I found more classes beyond puppy kindergarten. I took him to obedience class. Agility class. We paid for 1-on-1 training to address his leash reactivity on walks. I bought special pouches to carry treats. I bought training aids, “pet professional workshops”, a feeder with a bluetooth remote.

If it were not in Bowie’s nature to bite my ankles I probably wouldn’t have bothered with all of his training. Also, the training didn’t even make him stop biting my ankles – at some point he just stopped.

I worked with him. I trained with him. I learned with him. He’s still got a long way to go. He still mouths at my hands and arms – not hard – just because, well, how else do you get my attention away from the computer? I’ve taken to calling these bites “mouth hugs”.

Training, as I subsequently learned, is not about having a well-behaved dog. Maybe that’s the end game – time will tell – but the real purpose of training is to help you and your dog communicate.

Now

Now he’s a year old.

All this training has paid dividends. He’s not perfect – he probably won’t be – but we can communicate now. I know how he’s feeling before he reacts. I’ve probably become a better dog companion more than he’s become a better dog.

Every morning, at 6:30am, he bounds onto the bed where I’m sleeping. Hurling himself at top speeds – 50 lbs of fur and enthusiasm – excited to see me after 8 hours of only seeing the backs of his eyelids. We take a nice long walk around the park every morning after my coffee and before my breakfast. He still barks at dogs sometimes – he’s very into squirrels. When we get back, he sleeps by my desk or in the living room until around noon. We’ll go play frisbee in the backyard for a bit. We’ll come back inside and he’ll eat a stuffed kong and hang out. He’ll wonder around, chew on his chew toys, and play by himself until 3pm or 4pm – then it’s time for more time in the backyard. More time to play.

I think that I would have been completely awed by his behavior if I’d have somehow been able to glimpse my life today during the struggles of the past year. He’s a real dog. I’m a real dog owner. It’s just taken a good while to establish these basic facts.

Bowie the real dog
Bowie the real dog