It is among my earliest memories, yet it still eludes me. I was a mere pup, yawning from a morning of wrestling my brethren in the idyllic proving grounds of the viewing yard on puppy picking day, when I noticed the wide-eyed faces of the happy folks wielding children and checkbooks with equal aplomb. I watched as puppies were lifted, cuddled, challenged to chase tennis balls, held aloft, and cuddled some more. Eventually, it happened to me, and I admit I chased the tennis ball, followed the activity with focused eyes, and snuggled cozily with the little girls and boys as they carried me from spot to spot with heightened levels of enthusiasm. I did these things mostly from instinct, certainly, but I also cop to the peer pressure charge. It seemed like that was what we were all supposed to do.
The entire affair was exhausting, but it marked the beginning of a great voyage, an epic adventure that has enveloped my life in unexpected ways. I see my great fortune with the clarity of experience, but I can’t even fathom the wellspring of that moment, on puppy picking day, when my fate was sealed with the humans who ushered me away and gave me every chance to be the dog I am today. What made me different than my siblings, for better or worse? I mean, there were seven of us that day. At the risk of waxing existential, I look around the kennel these days and ask, “Why Me? Why here? Why now?”
On reflection, after years of striving to understand human expressions and expectations, I recall the curious determination on the faces looking down into the picking pen years ago. They were looking for something that somebody told them was an important attribute in a puppy, that elusive characteristic that allows nurture to leverage nature in predictable ways to achieve some desired end. We are working dogs, after all, and the better suited we are to our tasks, the more likely we are to perform at or above expected levels, am I right? And that curious determination from years ago has potentially morphed into either comfortable satisfaction or prolonged frustration as you and your puppy have grown together over time. Or two roads diverged in the wood, and the dog took the one less traveled by, in hopes of finding work elsewhere. But back in the day, when you were holding the gaze of those young puppies and they were struggling mightily to do the same, there was something you were looking for. What was it?
For some, it’s that new puppy smell. I haven’t the patience I once did for the impetuous youth of my species, but there’s something about a puppy. Cute to a fault, I say. I don’t know how anybody can look at a puppy and not be completely smitten. Even when you roll the tape forward through the house training and the accidents and the whimpering from the kennel and the accidents and the seemingly incessant chewing and the accidents, the victory usually justifies the agony. And when that little bugger cocks his head sideways and throws you the puppy dog eyes and unconditional love, you either melt or you have no soul. If you are shaking your head in doubt, fix another drink and wait for the truth to wash over you. You may be human, but you’re not superhuman.
Others are looking for the telltale signs of the instincts of a mature hunting companion, and they’re hoping to see them more vividly in one puppy than in the others. Chasing a feather on a string is always a good game. And gauging a puppy’s sense of water is often an important indicator for duck hunters. But even if these activities offer a glimpse of what the future holds, can you ever really see the full dog in the eyes of a puppy? Had my humans known that I would evolve into the loquacious social critic that I’ve become, would they still have picked me? I mean, sure, I can point, flush, and retrieve like I’m supposed to, but I can also string sentences together like nobody’s business. And I have a discerning eye for details, with equal clarity afield and afoot, so I connect human dots in strange ways. I see dead people. Nah. That’s only in the movies. But you thought about it, didn’t you?
Here’s another thing to think about as you’re holding the gazes of puppies on picking day. We’re checking you out as well, and we have an equally imprecise manner of choosing humans. You’ve got a smell, too, and don’t think we don’t notice. That afterthought of Polo Splash ain’t fooling anybody, and if somebody offers you a breath mint, accept it every time. They’re not just being nice. But we also see through those Ray-Bans and Wayfarers, all the way into that noggin of yours. We know who’s been naughty and nice and who’s likely to spare the rod and spoil the child.
We may appear to be simple beings, but don’t let the gentle naïveté and eagerness to please fool you. We’re doing some of the picking as well. Sure, you’re larger, you have the money and the car keys, and we may be leaving the kennel with you, but you’re not the only one making the decisions today. If there’s any doubt, remember that we control our bodily functions from a relatively young age. They’re not all accidents. Let’s remember to play nice with the other kids.