Americans love their dogs. Recent years have seen an abundance of books, movies, television commercials and social media focused on the antics and hijinks of our beloved pups. We simply can’t resist their innocence, as well as the loyalty and unconditional love they offer us. With the benefit of hindsight, it appears I missed a grand opportunity to cash in on my own pet and America’s love affair with their dogs. Here’s my story.
In the summer of 1997, my wife Lisa and I undertook a major decision for our family. With our two children Daniel and Emily, aged thirteen and nine, we thought it was time to complete our family with a dog. We felt the timing was right, since the kids were now old enough to share in the responsibility of taking care of a pet, so we moved forward in our search, though we sort of already knew the breed we wanted. The family who took care of Emily before she went to school had a Labrador Retriever named Abby that we were all in love with. What wasn’t to love? Abby was gentle, sweet, and great with kids. She was also an adult dog who had outgrown the naughty behavior of a puppy. We were in for an education.
Once Lisa had her mind made up about a brand, a type, or in this case, a breed, there was no turning back. A few years earlier, she had insisted on us getting a Ford Explorer, which within two years we were calling the “Exploder” due to the nonstop repairs we were making to this money pit of a vehicle. Now that it was time for a family dog, she wanted to get a Lab, so that’s what we were going to do – the decision was made. In truth, we all wanted a Lab, so there was no real need for further discussion. Lisa, however, was driving the bus.
After a good deal of searching and investigating, we made the drive to St. Johnsbury, Vermont on a Sunday afternoon in late September to pick up our new puppy. She was this little gold fluff ball of energy and cuteness that was simply irresistible. We all just wanted to hold and cuddle her; we were enamored, though we hadn’t yet decided on a name.
In our excitement, we couldn’t wait to let all our friends know about our new family member. This included a letter I fired off to my Aunt Isabelle to tell her about our newest addition. I knew that Isabelle, who lived in Torrington, Connecticut, would be very interested to know our news. I carried on a correspondence with my aunt, partly because she was my father’s sister, but also because we had some mutual interests. Aunt Isabelle was an Italian language scholar, well-versed in the humanities, and was full of advice and opinions for me in my teaching and writing pursuits. In addition, I knew that Aunt Isabelle was a great lover of animals. She and my Uncle Pat never had their own children, so their cats filled a void for them; they loved their cats as many parents love their children.
Isabelle replied with a long letter extolling the joys of a pet, adding “As for a name – I’m reminded and amused – perhaps we should look it up in a book of suggested names for children? If your Lab is yellow in color, how about Ginger or Amber?” We knew that Amber was right, and we had a name. Of course, my aunt was delighted we had taken her suggestion. This would not be her last bit of advice.
Amber grew quickly, until that dreaded time all puppy owners fear: the teething time. One sunny Saturday morning in December, I finished a run and sat down at the kitchen table to relax with the newspaper and a bagel. My wife was in the shower, and all was quiet and serene. I should have known that ‘quiet’ was not necessarily ‘good.’
When Lisa came out of the bathroom after her shower, she went to get her shoes. A sound that can only be described as a cross between crying and a blood curdling shriek emanated from the family room. “No, no, no, no, no!” Our teething Amber had decided that Lisa’s new leather shoes were the perfect antidote for her aching gums and teeth. The shoes in tatters and unwearable, we learned the hard way that we needed to know where Amber was at all times, and she would need to be crated while we were at work until the teething period had passed. And we also learned that silence was not golden.
As Amber grew, new issues came to light. Again on a Saturday morning, I was in the exact same spot, again reading the paper when my wife came into the kitchen. “Did you move the two sticks of butter I had on the counter? I had them out to soften for the cookies I’m making.” “What sticks of butter?” I replied. Amber had struck again. We looked for her, and found her hiding in a corner of the family room licking her chops. We learned that nothing was safe on the counter, and again had to adjust.
One of Amber’s favorite “games” was to find one of my kids’ socks or one of my daughter’s “hair scrunchies,” and stand in the door of the family room looking at us in her “race car position”: front paws extended, head down, rear end raised up and her tail wagging wildly behind her. She was taunting us, just daring us to come after her, which of course we did. She knew this would result in a chase around the dining room table, great fun for her but aggravating for us. With just one of us chasing her, she would win, since she was very smart and able to avoid capture. She learned very quickly how to use the dining room table to play keep away. With two of us chasing her, we could close in on her and capture our prey.
This was all relatively harmless, until one day Lisa was standing in the dining room putting on her gold chain. Amber stood directly beneath her, waiting for any kind of slip up by Lisa. And then it happened; the gold chain slipped from her hand onto the floor and Amber was there to quickly scoop it up. To Amber, a gold chain was no different than a sock or hair scrunchy – the chase was on. With the ends of the gold chain hanging out of each side of her mouth, Amber raced around the dining room table with Lisa in hot pursuit. She pleaded with Amber to drop the chain, but to no avail. Since she was by herself, it was no contest -- Lisa had no chance. And unlike the socks she was used to carrying, the gold chain was a bit more slippery for Amber to handle in her mouth. Yes, down the hatch it went. This wasn’t like the time Amber scooped up a quarter off the floor and my wife asked me “how’s a quarter gonna’ come out of her ass?” and I replied “two dimes and a nickel.” This was her beautiful gold chain (a gift from yours truly), gone into the abyss of Amber’s stomach. I spent the next three days checking her stools to try and find it (lucky me), but without success. It was gone.
For anybody who read the book Marley & Me by John Grogan, or saw the movie of several years later, this episode with the gold chain might sound familiar. The subject of the book was Marley, a yellow Lab (who looked remarkably similar to our Amber) who snatched a gold chain from the coffee table, and with the devil in his eye, dared his owners (Owen Wilson and Jennifer Aniston in the movie) to chase him around the house for it. Of course, the outcome was the same for them as it was for us – the chain was swallowed, except in their case, they actually found it three days later in the waste deposited by Marley on their lawn.
I mention this because the shenanigans with our Amber happened several years before Marley was ever written about by John Grogan. Instead, I was writing about these episodes in my snappy letters to my Aunt Isabelle, who on several occasions replied that I ought to consider writing about these hilarious (in her eyes at least) events in a book! Writes Aunt Isabelle on May 5, 1998, “I howled at the Amber Report (another good book title?). I chuckled at her attempts to make up when mom cooled down. No question about it, put as much as you can under lock and key to weather the attacks of puppy terrorism!”
Much as I enjoyed my aunt’s witticisms and opinions, I quickly dismissed her suggestion that I write about these events, much less write a book about them. I thought, “Who could write an entire book about their dog? What an absurd thing to imagine!” As Marley & Me rose in the rankings of the New York Times best seller list, I realized that not only was it very possible to write an entire book about a pet, but that millions of people would read it! My aunt, who was gone by 2005 when Marley & Me was published, could have said “Billy, I told you so!” and I would have listened a little closer.