The Magazine

Bo's Burden

Can a dog pierce the Obama reserve? Of course he can.

Apr 27, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 30 • By RACHEL ABRAMS
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The arrival of six-month-old Portuguese Water Dog Bo at the White House--and especially the first photograph that was making the rounds of the Obama family, which has never had a dog, greeting him in a rather strained-looking pose--has put me in mind of my own checkered history with dogs, and that of many other Jews.

My husband grew up with one. This is notable because his mother was the child of Eastern European immigrants--Jews who, like most of their cohort, had come here to escape dogs (among other things) and generally took a very, very dim view of them: They were filthy, they carried disease, they were a pogrom. Later they became Nazi sympathizers. (Cats? Don't even ask.) My mother-in-law shared this view of dogs until the moment she acquired one.

As an adult with two children of her own--middle-class American boys, devotees of Rin Tin Tin and Lassie--she was blackmailed into taking a dog off her next-door neighbors' hands when they threatened to have him "put to sleep" if she refused. At first it was down to the basement with Frisky. (Yes, that really was his name, a genuine '50s moniker.) She was terrified of him. But her natural sympathy, and guilt, and probably his wild joy every time she appeared, sent her down there to visit him a hundred times a day. And slowly he grew on her.

She wasn't one for self-analysis, didn't waste time on absurd questions about how she felt about the dog, or why. Frisky got under her skin, and that was that. He slept on my husband to-be's feet at night, was chauffeured to the local McDonald's drive-through for lunch, lived a happy life, and, at 14, was nursed by my mother-in-law to his last breath. Even my husband's grandmother relented somewhat, though to her he always remained that "fershtinkeneh hindt."

My own grandmother, another immigrant, held a similarly uncompromising position on dogs: evil. To illustrate, she would tell the story of the dog who tried to kill my cousin Ira (not his real name) in his baby carriage: "A dog, big-like, came right up to the perambulator, and looked Ira in the eye! Ooy, ooy, ooy! And what should I tell you? Ira let out such a schrei, you could hear it for miles. And then he went catatonic. For a year!"

Did he? Who knows? There was no arguing with my grandmother about it, nor any gainsaying her claim that only his mother's screams and her own--heard through all of Brooklyn--had kept little Ira from being shredded like so much catatonic cabbage.

So my father, like my mother-in-law, inherited the Jewish dog aversion, and did his best to pass it on to his children. Thus, my childhood experience with dogs consisted of (a) two huge German Shepherds who lived upstairs and, for years, terrorized me on the elevator, barking and lunging rabidly at me while their owner struggled to hold them back and I cowered in the corner, praying the elevator would crash so I could die; and (b) the time a friend's dog vomited on my feet at the beginning of a long, hot, miserable car ride.

Later on, if I noticed dogs at all, it was because they were relieving themselves on my lawn or trying to hump my leg. I was unmoved by the importuning of my three children, who loved dogs and, like Sasha and Malia Obama with their parents, took turns trying to talk me into one. I was impervious to the charms of my sister's puppy and insisted that my kids wash their hands after playing with her. The thought of dog hairs near food killed my appetite.

Until one day I woke up and needed to have a puppy, and just like that, became a wild, passionate, crazy lover of dogs. Not just my own dog, though she is my favorite dog (she's a music lover and dancer--comes bounding as soon as Martha and the Vandellas start to sing, and jumps and jives with me until I stop), but all dogs: huge slobbering Newfoundlands, tiny neurotic Chihuahuas, hideous Chinese Hairless dogs, Mastiffs, Cairns, Pointers, Boxers, Beagles, Bichons, Great Danes, Pit Bulls--I'm mad for them all.

I love the way they smell, the way they drool when food's nearby, the way they run in their sleep, the way you can feel their heartbeats just by touching their flanks, the way they lick your face, the way they never forget a scent, the way they suddenly come to alertness, and just as suddenly fall asleep, their jaunty gaits, their wagging tails.

In short, I love the utter dogness of them, and the sense of living in harmony with another of God's creatures makes me happy. If I got on the elevator with those two German Shepherds now, I'd be down on the floor with them, delighting in their nearness.