Headmaster’s Thoughts – July 2010

June 12th was a very big day in the life of the Stewart family. We acquired a puppy.


Lest you think this really is no big deal, I should say that neither my wife nor I had been without a pet since we became conscious beings. We have had dogs, cats, horses, cows, snakes, gerbils, chinchillas (which our daughters bred for a profit of $15 per, no less), hedgehogs (adorable!), rabbit, fish and tropical tank stuff (it is all alive, if you know what I mean), ferrets (five), and a monkey. It was not an accident of life that our son became a veterinarian. Most families need one child to become a doctor to look after them; in our family we felt that a vet would be more valuable.


Our dog of fifteen and cat of twenty passed away at the beginning of the year. I miss them still. As older New Yorkers, we grieved and then made some comments to each other and our friends that without pets, our lives would be freer and we could travel without the guilt we felt when we left them at home (albeit with an army of feeders, walkers, and caretakers). Our knowledgeable friends said it was just a question of time. They knew far better than we did that six months without a pet was an eternity for us. No one was surprised when Jayme announced we were getting a puppy. The only side betting had been on whether it would be a dog or a cat, with dogs heavily favored by the cognoscenti.


A month before the puppy arrived, Jayme started reading every book written in English on puppy training. I only say “written in English” because the Germans have a slightly different approach to the subject (more authoritarian, you will not be surprised to learn) and, fortunately for the puppy, Jayme doesn’t read German. Nonetheless, armed with her information, we took our daughter and son-in-law (you know him as our school principal, Chris Durnford) to Petco to buy the necessary “essentials” before the puppy came.


If you have ever been to a Petco, you will know that slightly awed experience one feels when one walks into a single purpose store (pet products) so vast, with so many products for sale, that you feel as though the pet business has quietly become the major factor in our Gross Domestic Product. There are rows and rows of different pet foods. Four rows for dogs, three for cats, and four for assorted other animals. And there are many different products, particularly foods, for puppies, small dogs, medium dogs, and older dogs—each one claiming to be recommended by veterinarians, to be scientifically based, and to be very tasty. I wondered how the vets knew that last quality. Who tastes for a dog or cat? There is dry food and wet food, food in bags and food in cans. Then there are rows of bowls in which you feed the aforementioned food. And water dispensers that Rube Goldberg (that was for the older readers) must have thought up.


The Petco we went to covered several acres (at least it seemed to me at the time). They have an interesting marketing theory. There are no salespeople. You have to choose the products by yourself and then take your over-laden carts to the check-out stands where lines of other people are waiting to check out their over-laden carts. I think Petco has a policy of one employee per acre of selling space. They must make a fortune. Why did my son go into the veterinarian business? Selling pet stuff is surely easier and more profitable than treating pets. He went to fancy schools (I have the bills to prove it), and all he sells are immunizations. But I digress.


Jayme came with a list. (Anyone who has had the privilege of working with her in college guidance knows that she is the most organized person there is). But even her list was not very specific. Apparently you “crate train” a puppy nowadays. But which crate? There are more options than types of donuts at Dunkin Donuts. Actually, there are more options in every category of purchase than types of donuts and, as I mentioned, no one to suggest or help.


Chris found a clicker. This wonderful metal device makes, you may have guessed, a clicking noise. I was quite irritated that he found it first because I wanted to click it and he (in my opinion) hogged it. He went all over the store (and that means something, if you were in that store) clicking happily away, something I would have been equally interested in doing. I was thinking of getting another clicker so that I could compete, but I knew that my wife and daughter would have looked at each other and mentioned the phrase that women do at such times: “Men and their toys!” So I refrained.


I contributed to the entire affair by coming up with items that I had never seen before in my life. I never knew the ways you could hide food from a dog so that it would have to figure out how to eat from the object. You inject (I am not kidding) the food paste into a hollow “thing” (it could be a stone, a book, a small clockwork mouse) and then the animal has to figure out how to get the paste out. I found dog tutus that would make prima ballerinas proud, overalls that looked as though they came straight from the Amish country (assuming that the Amish weighed twenty pounds and had four legs), and raincoats far smarter than my 30-year-old Burberry. None of my suggestions of purchase were taken seriously by the ladies. They seemed to have lost their sense of humor in their discussion whether you needed a soft carrier or a hard carrier, and whether the super-saver-size miracle organic odor remover was worth buying by the five-gallon size.


A great deal of discussion between my wife and daughter (the serious ones, as I shall now refer to them) was about waste product from the puppy. There is a lot of money to be made on urine. I never knew. Even more on solid product, but young people may be reading this piece and I do not want to offend their sensibilities (as Jane Austen would say). Needless to say, we are now well covered in all areas of excretion.


At the end of the expedition, it was time for us to gather together. This is not so easy in a giant store where the aisles act like barriers in a very complicated maze. Chris was the easiest to find because he was still happily clicking away, but I understand there was some concern that I was lost to the group. Of course, I knew where I was; I was in the area that catered to guinea pigs (I like to watch them train for their marathons), but apparently this was not the mission of the day and no one thought to look for me in the guinea pig section.


Gathering up our purchases, I wish I could use that time honored cliché: tired but happy. However, when presented with the bill, I could only think of the fact that the cheapest thing about getting a puppy (by far) is the cost of the puppy itself.


We are about to pick up the puppy and Jayme has a list of puppy-friendly restaurants, camps, (puppy camp?), airlines, veterinarians divided by specialties, and stores. Soon we will have a puppy trainer, acupuncturist, chiropodist, groomer, walker, and psychiatrist.


As I said, June 12th was a big day for the Stewarts.



Ronald P. Stewart, Headmaster

E-mail: rstewart@yorkprep.org



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