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Dogged pursuits
Forget that chocolate Lab. Everything I know, I learned from a basset hound.

My dog had a glass eye. He was a basset hound named Farful, and he was my parentsí first child. It seems a lot of couples use dogs as a kind of starter kid. Which makes sense. Why not work out your parenting styles on something a little less psychologically delicate than a child? Yes, fine, dogs are psychologically delicate as well, but I think we can all agree that dogs never end up collecting human body parts in their freezers while working at a meth lab in the Nevada desert because Mommy and Daddy gave them mixed messages about discipline.

So I think starting out with a dog is a good idea. Plus, for me, it got the name "Farful" out of my parentsí system. That alone probably saved me 12 playground beatings and shaved 36 years off the date I lost my virginity.

Farful really was a first child, too, not a pet. My parents even tried to take him to the zoo once, back in his two-eyed days. In Olifson family lore, this event marked the moment my parents decided it was time for real children. Because, first of all, you canít take animals to the zoo. Second, why would you want to? Thatís like taking your kid to a refugee camp for some light Sunday-afternoon entertainment. "Look, Billy, these people are just like you, but have been stripped of their dignity and freedom. Want some more popcorn? How about some juice in a container shaped like a man pleading for his life?"

Determined to take something to the zoo, my parents went on to have two actual, human children (regardless of my older sisterís conviction that I was just a doll). The problem with being born into a family that already has a dog is that, by the time youíre old enough to want a dog, that dog is old. And in my case, not just old, but basset-hound old. Even in its prime, this breed is not known for its spunk. French in origin, according to the Basset Hound Club of America, the basset hound has a "deliberate, unhurried manner ... relatively low activity level, prone to obesity ... and is content to snooze away the afternoon in a patch of warm sun." In other words, there was not a lot of fetch going on in my childhood. On the plus side, there werenít a lot of wet tennis balls, either.

When I was born, Farful was three. By the time I was in elementary school, he was 70 in dog years. And dog years was a concept Farful really brought to life. With him, it wasnít just some abstract mathematical trick ó it was a physical reality. Farful actually doddered. When he moved, it was as if forward motion was a side effect. Picture the way you move a heavy cabinet ó thatís the way my dog greeted me when I came home from school. Actually, thatís not true. He usually greeted me by raising an eyebrow ó more taxing movement was reserved for occasions that ended with him getting food.

When my elementary-school friends started getting their own puppies ó frolicking jumbles of ball-slobbering frenetic energy ó Farful got his glass eye. The eye situation wasnít an isolated health incident, but more of a step in a series of medical problems for poor Farf, starting with glaucoma. How you know your dog has glaucoma is unclear. Given my parentsí track record with the zoo, maybe they were just taking him for his yearly eye exam, followed by a big ice-cream cone. But however the diagnosis came down, there was only one option: remove the infected eye. This left my parents with two choices: an eye patch or a glass eye. In the end, I guess the idea of having a dog with an eye patch seemed just as ridiculous as a dog with a glass eye, and had the added downside of weekly eye-socket cleanings. Since my sister and I could barely manage to use the pooper-scooper, it was clear whom the socket-wiping duty would fall to, so Mom opted for the glass.

And so when I was a sprightly seven years old, my dog not only didnít fetch or frolic ó he had no depth perception. I donít remember if I was hoping more for the eye patch and all the cachet that particular fashion accessory seems to have for young boys. But I also donít remember finding the glass eye all that weird. It just seemed kind of par for the Farful course.

A lot of kids probably would have been frustrated by Farfulís lack of spunk and major organs. The same kids that picked me last for soccer, stuck me in right field, and, on more than one occasion, made me cry. They all had Labs or collies or spirited little mutts. But those dogs were always chasing things up trees or running into the water at the beach, oblivious to the dangers of heights and rip tides. I wouldnít even climb a chain-link fence, for Godís sake. How would I keep up with a dog running willy-nilly all over the place, without the good sense to fear and respect its environment?

No, Farful and I were actually a perfect match. Preteen literature is littered with A Boy and His Dog stories. From what I can remember, these usually involve tickle fights, dashing through the woods, and an inordinate amount of ícoon hunting ó the bond between boy and dog rooted in the physical exuberance of youth, both running themselves ragged until they collapse joyously into a mound of spent energy at the end of each day. That is, until the dog is shot, gets rabies, or is mauled by a wolf ó sudden, painful death being the other inextricable theme of this genre.

But ours was a different Boy and His Dog story. Farful and I werenít buddies or pals. He was my big brother ó the wise, mellow 1970s-era big brother with black-light posters and a hookah pipe in his room. And he taught me about life, about living through adversity, about never giving up, and that the real joy of a good nap is when youíve done absolutely nothing to deserve it.

So for all you young couples out there shopping around for your starter kid, hereís one thing to keep in mind: youíre not just buying a dog, youíre buying a role model. And while I think I turned out okay, Iím not going to lie: you may want to look into a collie.

Alan Olifson, who doesnít currently have a dog or a child, can be reached at alan@olifson.com

Issue Date: April 23 - 29, 2004
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