The Messy Joy of Babies and Dogs

Like my dog, I like eating. Unlike my dog, I don't like eating diapers. I don't know how it is with other dogs, but having a Labrador is like having a wood chipper that wears a fur coat and bounces around the house like a giant super ball.
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Like my dog, I like eating. Unlike my dog, I don't like eating diapers.

I don't know how it is with other dogs, but having a Labrador is like having a wood chipper that wears a fur coat and bounces around the house like a giant super ball. The energy on that animal -- I mean, my god. That dog hears me get up in the morning and it's like somebody's just split the atom.

Combine that with the fact that the moment our Labrador hears the door click closed as we leave the house, she develops the eating habits of a Kodiak bear, and well, I don't know what to compare it to. Owning a gremlin, maybe. You don't know what you're coming home to.

There is a kind of Labrador Code of Consumption that goes like this:

"I, the Labrador, pledge to let nothing keep me from this scent that I am picking up. It matters not whether it is actual food -- I can smell it, and therefore I shall eat it. I shall chew through wood and steel to get to it. I shall spring from my suddenly powerful hind legs like some terrified, bionic wallaby to reach upper shelves. My dog brain will expand rapidly to figure out how this paltry dog-proof trash can opens. And then, I, the Labrador, shall take my reward. Which hopefully is diapers."

Our Labrador, in fairness, is my wife Liz's dog, and the dog was here before me. The dog's name is Emma. Liz didn't name the dog Emma -- that was her father. It was, in retrospect, a somewhat tricky choice of names, in that it led to a rather dramatic scene when Emma got lost in the woods in our neighborhood in New Canaan, Connecticut, and I'm out at dusk calling for my lost dog -- a.k.a. the Most Popular Girl's Name in America.

In about ten minutes, half the town was frantically combing the woods for the lost Emma. We did find her, playing fetch with a random family a half mile away, though when the search party discovered Emma was a fetch-obsessed hound, there was less celebration and more annoyance.

Before we had children, though, Emma was our baby. We took her everywhere, even though she's the worst dog to walk ever, because if she sees a ball, or even something that's sort of ball-shaped (a human head, for example) she'll tear off toward it at the speed a knight in full armor might travel toward a neodymium magnet.

At Christmas time, before our kids arrived, under the tree were presents for Liz and me and our dog, Emma. Emma's were mostly food-based, large boxes of bacon-cheese-burger-flavored whatevers.

No surprise, then, that in our New York City shoebox apartment, Emma's weight went up.

At Emma's first check-up in the city, the vet put Emma on the scale, frowned, took Emma off the scale and appeared to examine the scale for defect, then tried again. It seemed impossible to her that we had allowed our dog to go from 67 pounds to 98 pounds in a year. Alas, that's exactly what we had done. And a serious diet and exercise regime began.

I was concerned. Not for the dog, whom I knew would be fine (and she was). No, I was concerned because I always assumed that my relationship with my dog would ultimately predict and define my relationship with my future child.

"Having a dog is good practice for having a baby!" my friends would tell me.

And if that was the case, my son Finn was in trouble. He would be getting me as a dad, and he would be getting Emma as a dog -- Emma, the insane, rambunctious pooch who had a tail that would whip back and forth with the force of a swung baseball bat. All in that tiny apartment. The first day we brought Finn home from New York Presbyterian, this wee little lad, I was, I admit, more than a little worried about how this relationship would go.

But then a funny thing happened.

Emma, that crazed dog that once literally dragged me along the sidewalk in full view of a girl's school (seriously -- it must have looked like a cartoon), understood, somehow and instinctively, that this little infant needed to be cared for.

She understood that Finn, our baby, needed to be loved and tiptoed around. That he needed protection.

And Emma gave it to him.

Finn and Emma became best friends, even at just a few months old. He would lie on a blanket on the ground, and Emma would come over and nestle up against him to keep him warm. Finn first learned to crawl -- and I have this on video -- because he was trying to get over Emma (or rather, to her ears, which he loved to grab). Emma seemed to understand this, and waited patiently for him. She's never waited patiently for anything in her life, but she did for Finn, learning to crawl.

Finn, as a result, isn't afraid of dogs -- unlike his dad, who at his age, totally was.

Finn's little sister, Lucy, who is a year and a half old, is also not afraid of dogs -- quite the contrary. Emma lies down so that Lucy can ride her, and you wouldn't know that a smile could get that wide or eyes that bright, and she rewards her dog (and Emma is most certainly her dog) with a big hug around the neck.

Emma is still a terribly annoying dog. But we embrace it. As the family is about to walk in the front door, Liz will say to Finn and Lucy "I wonder if Emma's made a trash casserole again!" and Finn will jump up and down and Lucy will say "Tass cassrol!" and we'll open the door to the sound of Emma's tail wapping against the wall and a cereal box and wrappers and egg shells scattered around the kitchen.

Then Liz and I will get the broom, and the kids shout with glee and the three of them, dog and boy and girl, will barrel out the door into the back yard, where they chase each other around, knocking each other over and playing so giddily that you'd think the backyard was heaven itself.

lucy riding emma