Toby Takes Over

IN ``Wuggie Norple,'' a children's book by Daniel Pinkwater, a family gets a kitten that grows to be larger than a barn. Seven months ago, our family acquired the canine Wuggie Norple.

Not that Toby has become physically monstrous - though he did change from a cuddly pup into a muscular, 60-pound dog in what seemed the blink of an eye. It's in his impact on our home and our lives that Toby has assumed gargantuan dimensions, so that the walls of our house fairly bulge from the force of his exuberant presence.

We're not a pet-oriented family. For 13 years, including the nine years since the first of Becky's and my three children arrived, not so much as a gold fish or gerbil lived under our roof. The absence of biodiversity in our home created no void that we were impelled to fill.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when or why our attitude shifted. As they grew, our kids started to voice interest in a pet. But their importunings didn't reach even the level of intensity that my wife and I handily rebuff in the aisles of the local toy store.

SO, while Becky and I told ourselves that we should get an animal ``for the kids,'' some other mysterious dynamic was also at work. After some deliberations, the outcome of which was foreordained, we decided to get a dog.

Consumer Reports doesn't cover dogs, but the local public library yielded several books that discussed dog ownership and described the various breeds.

We also had to decide between a new and used dog. That choice seemed easy: For first-time dog owners with young children, the only sensible course was to get a mature, docile, well-trained pooch that would slip into the household with barely a ripple. In our family, such irrefutable logic made it virtually inevitable that we would get a puppy as innocent of learning and of waste management as a newborn babe, but that's another story.

We studied dutifully, but, as with many consumer choices, our selection of a breed was only partly rational.

I had long been enamored of springer spaniels. I'd never owned or even known one, but I liked their looks: white and either brown (``liver'') or black, with intelligent, freckled faces and bodies that look both strong and agile. I liked even their little shaving-brush tails and their floppy, shaggy ears. I usually pictured them lying, ears splayed, at the booted feet of a beloved master before a blaze in an English country manor. The fact that we don't live in an English country manor surrounded by acres of forest and rolling pasture hardly entered my thinking.

It helped that one of the books we pored over at the kitchen table described springers as ``easily trained'' and ``a perfect family pet.'' It also said something like ``this breed loves exercise,'' but we missed the warning.

WE began to follow the classified ads, and within a few weeks, there it was: A litter of springers in a nearby town. Becky made an appointment to see the puppies. The next day I got a call at work: ``We can pick him up on Thursday.''

On the appointed day, the whole family drove over to collect our new member, whom we agreed to name Toby. It was immediately clear why Becky, in her words, ``fell in love with his face.'' The brown markings on his nose are asymmetrical, giving him a slightly comical air. Payment made and papers passed, we piled back into the car and headed home, giggling as Toby - about the length of a football and weighing in at nine pounds - padded curiously from lap to lap.

That night, Toby's first away from his mother and siblings in the seven weeks of his life, I spent on a cot in the kitchen where he could nuzzle me periodically and I could sleepily stroke him. By the second night, though, he seemed comfortable in his new surroundings, including his small rug on the laundry room's newspaper-covered floor. I returned to my bed, and life settled into a different but manageable routine.

Scenes from those early weeks click by like a slide show in my mind: Toby curled around the base of the toilet in his room (he had a thing for porcelain); struggling to climb his first stairs; bounding through backyard grass nearly as tall as he was.

He required a lot of cleaning up after, and occasionally he mangled a crayon or a sock snitched from a laundry basket. But generally he was - as Becky and I used to say of our kids in their crib and playpen days - easily ``containable.'' How long ago that seems.

Not only do dogs grow quickly, but their physical growth outraces their mental and social development much faster than in humans. By the time Toby was five months old, it was as though our four-year-old son had the size and strength of a linebacker.

That's when Toby became Wuggie Norple.

The first problem was containment. Although he was house-broken fairly quickly, Toby is still confined to our dog-proofed kitchen and family room because of his penchant for gnawing just about every doll, toy, writing implement, shoe, garment, or stick of furniture he can reach.

For a while, this confinement was achieved with a child's gate installed in the doorway that leads into the rest of the house, but then he learned to climb over it. Now two gates are stacked in the doorway, and we come and go by unfastening the lower gate, ducking under the upper one, and hastily reclasping the first gate before Toby can bolt through the opening. (Sometimes we aren't quick enough, and then ensues a Keystone Kops chase around the living room or up the stairs and through the bedrooms.)

Then there's walking Toby. What had been a pleasant activity in the fall turned into a winter nightmare. Perhaps inspired by Boston's hardest winter in decades, Toby fancied himself a sled dog, and he would drag Becky or me - he's much too strong for the kids, now - around the neighborhood while our arms ached and our tempers frayed. Fortunately, this tendency has been curbed by a collar that looks like a medieval instrument of torture but actually is more humane than it appears.

OH, the litany of grievances I could recite: about the woodwork Toby's claws have permanently scarred; about the food he has snatched from beneath our noses; about the way he leaps, in outpourings of friendship, on every person who enters his domain; about the way he has introduced a new, high-decibel refrain into our home - ``Toby, no!''

Sometimes, when Toby has stretched our patience to the limits of human endurance, Becky and I wonder if we did the right thing in buying him. But we would never give him up (a rather common occurrence among disenchanted puppy owners, we've learned); for better or worse, he's a fixture in the family. We'll just have to exercise a lot of ``tough love.''

And he is a sweetheart. For all his overabundance of energy (he's a glutton for play), Toby's a genial soul - the kids can roughhouse with him without any fear of being nipped or snarled at. As a learner, he's no Rin Tin Tin, but he's coming along: He graduated from a puppy-training course with a sturdy gentleman's C, and no doubt he'll make more disciplinary progress in another course we're about to begin.

In the evening, when Toby has finally wound down and he lies by my chair as I read or watch TV, I actually realize something close to my English-manor vision, and I sense what he has brought into our family circle.

After all, the point of ``Wuggie Norple'' is that a pet can fill not only a house, but also hearts.

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