ON the farm where I grew up, we never had to worry about how to acquire dogs. There they came with the territory. Usually we got them free, from people in town whose dogs had outgrown their backyards or had too many puppies. Sometimes they paid us to board their dogs; other times anonymous donors dumped the dogs out of their cars and sped away into the night. Today my territory is the suburbs and we have no dog. We do have a boy, however; and I understand that to raise a boy successfully you need -- besides the standard assortment of jeans, baseballs, and comic books -- a dog. I'm not entirely happy about this, since I've spent the last years teaching this boy and his sister to be reasonably self-sufficient, and I'm not ready to add another dependent to the family, especially one that may not be housebroken.
For several years we tried sundry smaller pets, in hopes they would suffice. Some came from expensive pet shops; some the boy won, usually at school fairs. Some were sneaked home from the pond in a nearby park. A turtle once lived at the bottom of the basement steps for days before I discovered why all the lettuce was missing. None of these substitutes worked very well. After all, who really can get attached to a creature like a hermit crab?
But the truth of the matter is, I'm not especially fond of dogs. (It's a character defect, I know, probably of the same variety that causes people to turn up their noses at artichokes or fail to appreciate the genius of Bart'ok.) But all the dogs I've known have had bad breath and were fond of flinging themselves into the nearest dirty pond. The minute you acquire one, your house is doomed to smell like a wet dog forever.
Nevertheless, I know when I am beaten, and the day my husband and son drove up and deposited $300 worth of backyard fence on the patio, I knew a dog was inevitable.
Then came the great family debate over what kind of dog we would have. The boy wanted a BIG dog -- a Doberman, an Alaskan husky, an English sheepdog. My husband wanted a bulldog. My mother suggested a cute-floppy-eared type -- a cocker spaniel or a dachshund. My mother-in-law recommended an Irish terrier, like one my husband had when he was young. My daughter and I voted for a cat.
Everybody but the boy agreed the dog shouldn't be very big; to the boy all dogs much smaller than a Shetland pony were dismissed as wimps.
At lunch the next day, I cornered a colleague who breeds dogs to ask him for advice.
``Labradors are good,'' he suggested, ``but they do get big, so your son will have to exercise him a lot.''
``Or you will,'' chimed in another friend.
``How about terriers?'' I asked, remembering Mrs. MacTavish, a cute wire-haired terrier who wandered onto the farm when I was young.
``Terriers are hyperactive,'' my friend said. ``They have to be, since they are designed to catch rats.''
I pushed memories -- not so pleasant anymore -- of Mrs. MacTavish to the recesses of my mind, since the resident pet in our household is a hamster named Buddy. While he does not exactly light up my life (he has chewed up a substantial part of the hall carpet), he does fulfill my basic requirements for a pet -- small, cute, and furry -- and he was here first.
``Setters are good,'' my friend continued, ``the kind I breed.''
``But don't they require a lot of grooming?''
He eyed me suspiciously. ``If you don't like to take care of dogs, maybe you shouldn't get one.''
That had been my position all along, you recall. ``Aren't there any dogs,'' I asked, ``that are the canine equivalent of the self-cleaning oven or frost-free refrigerator?''
``A cat,'' all my friends chorused.
Weeks went by and the fence stayed stacked on the patio. I was beginning to think I was home free until the day my husband announced he planned to pick up the boy after school, drive to a city 200 miles away, and see about a dog.
``Maybe an English sheepdog isn't such a bad idea after all,'' I said. ``We could fly over to London and pick one right up.''
``This is a special dog,'' he assured me. ``See you later.''
Later came around midnight, when I heard the car pull into the garage. In the back, grinning broadly, sat the boy. Beside him, looking pretty pleased himself, sat a Labrador retriever. Big. Black. And, since it had been raining, smelly.
``Look at him,'' said the boy. ``We got him free!''
``I told you he was a special dog,'' my husband said. ``His owners tried to train him to be a police dog, but -- ''
``He flunked,'' the boy interrupted proudly. ``Whenever he was supposed to chase something, he'd lie down and go to sleep instead.''
Most people who own dogs brag about their pedigrees and championship lines, or about how good-natured the dog is, or how expensive it was. Not us. We have a dog whose claim to fame rests in the fact that he flunked out of police school.
Despite this checkered past, however, the dog has quickly adjusted to us, and we to him. We have failed some courses in our time, too.
Now the dog lies in our backyard and gets up occasionally to chase a bee hovering over the snapdragons. He and the boy roll in the grass and terrorize the rabbits in the park. Sometimes, as if he recalls an ancient command from his police-dog-trained past, the dog cocks his head, looks around, and paws the air. Then he settles back in the grass, yawns, and closes his eyes.
``Look at him,'' says the boy. ``Isn't he an awesome dog?''
``The ultimate,'' we all agree.