Brother's Bite-- When Sibling Rivalry Is Man Versus Dog

My new little brother Griffin is a Welsh Terrier. I figured my father's obsession with the dog would pass in time, but when I went home for the holidays recently, it was a Griffin Christmas.
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I was an only child for 33 years, until five months ago when my father adopted Griffin. He goes to a posh daycare and eats home-cooked meals every night. He drinks filtered water and wears expensive little sweaters. His baby picture was published in a national magazine.

My little brother Griffin is a Welsh Terrier. His name means "Little Lord," in Welsh, according to my father's research. So his full name is "Lord Griffin."

When Griffin came home from the breeder, my father learned new words, talked obedience theory and bladder behavior. He comparison-shopped dog toys, leashes and handbooks. He even enrolled Griffin in agility training. Because dogs have had problems with that for thousands of years.

My father grew up on a cattle farm in Louisiana, a place where dogs materialized out of the piney woods, hung around for a while, then died on the highway or the train tracks before you'd given them a name. You didn't cook them lamb and beef dinners to show them love, you just chose not to kick them when they dug through your garbage. They got all the agility training they needed trying to stay alive in rural Louisiana. And their nametags were just their scars and memories; not a sterling silver thing ordered from Tiffany's. If I went back a year ago and told my father a story like this, he would've snickered and spouted off some biting judgment of "dog people." But this isn't a year ago. This is the father who wasn't supposed to be a dog person and the little brother I never saw coming.

I figured the obsession would pass in time and the usual family dynamic would eventually return. Five months passed before I went back home for Christmas. That's toddler to teenager in dog years--long enough to settle into a routine, I'd hoped.

It was not the family Christmas I expected. It was a Griffin Christmas. We have a "no presents" truce in our family but Griffin gets an exemption. Santa Claus brought him a six-foot antique toboggan, two sweaters, a Tartan plaid collar and a sterling monogram leash. Not to mention a stocking full of rawhides. We weren't a family sitting by the fire this Christmas, we were a family sitting by a fire talking about how much Griffin liked sitting by the fire. Whenever life threatened a return to normalcy, my father would realize Griffin had wandered out of sight and he'd urgently ask, "Where's Griffin?" Then one of us would say, "he's right over there," and ten minutes would pass before he'd ask again with the same urgency. During the hours when Griffin would go off to his daycare, things began to feel normal. But then I'd catch my father on his laptop, watching a live webcam of Griffin at daycare.

As ex-pat Southerners, my father and I have always bonded in the kitchen, and Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without making cheese straws--a cheese shortbread cracker synonymous with Christmas in the South. But this Christmas, while I tried to bond with my father over the stovetop, Griffin snarled and nipped at my heels every few minutes to let me know the kitchen was his turf now.

As I was snacking on some warm cheese straws, Griffin raised his right paw to beg one from me--he's used to getting a treat whenever he does that "shake" trick he learned at daycare, or obedience school or agility training or somewhere. But I wasn't having any of it.

"No. I'm going to be the ONE person in your life who doesn't give you everything you want." I said.

"You're not even going to pet him?" my father asked.

He had a point. So I reached out my hand to pet Griffin, and with all of his agility-trained... agility, he leapt up in the air and sank those purebred ratter's teeth into my petting hand. Little dots of blood soon showed. And somewhere in my cussing tirade that followed, I told my father it was "impossible to exist around the dog." He had ceased to be Griffin to me. He became just "the dog." Which doesn't mean anything in Welsh.

Our family vacation of 2011 will be a rented beach house in Key West. Griffin is too large to fly under the seat, and, well, there was that time when those dogs died on a flight in the cargo compartment. So my father will be driving from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida--the longest road trip in the contiguous United States--BOTH WAYS. And we all know rest areas aren't spaced for the bladders of Welsh Terriers. I passed on the road trip, but that still leaves ten days with me and... the dog.

Some part of me is afraid that I might just be learning late in life what sibling rivalry feels like. The other part of me believes that this dog really is just a spoiled menace that anyone with any sense would disown. But the fact is, we're family now. I'll have to make peace with him one way or another. And if he bites me again? A friend of mine told me I should just bite him back. That's what a bigger dog would do. But what would a big brother do? Give him a wedgie? There will have to be some compromise reached, but I'm hoping we can get through this sibling rivalry in dog years. In a few months, I'll show him my old stash of Playboys and teach him how to shave the fuzz on his upper lip. By summer, I'll give him his first beer. And in a few years time, we'll just be a couple of middle-aged men who pee in their back yard and wonder how the hell our youth slipped away so fast.