The Dog Who Ate Christmas

By Theresa Willingham

Our dog recently ate 7 ounces of Baker's chocolate and a half-ounce of
gourmet ground coffee and swallowed a marble, to boot. None of these
things is part of recommended canine diet. Chocolate is toxic to
dogs -- a 1-ounce square of Baker's chocolate can kill a 10-pound
dog -- and it's a wonder 7 ounces didn't do in our 15-pound dachshund.
Coffee holds the same dangers.

The whys and wherefores of this accident are irrelevant. Everyone
feels badly enough already. The upshot of the whole thing is that the
vet bills totaled more than $1,200. Coming on the heels of a rough
year and a recent layoff, our little dog effectively ate Christmas.

On the way home from the vet with our pooch, groggy and sore after
surgery to remove the offending blue marble, we joked gently about
all the things that $1,200 could buy.

"Dexter ate a 24-inch flat screen LCD TV," my husband said, laughing.
"He ate a lot of video games," my son chimed in.
"He ate a used car," one of my daughters added.
"A very old and very used one," her father started to correct her. But
then we remembered we'd sold our old car for $300 and agreed that
Dexter had eaten the equivalent of four old minivans.

Once home, everyone fawned over our sick little dog without reproach,
glad he was home and on the mend, the $1,200 and abandoned Christmas
gift ideas irrelevant.

Because, truth be told, we're still in debt to Dexter for all he's
done for us in the last couple of years.

We adopted him as something of immersion therapy for our then-10-year-
old son, who was suffering from an increasingly unreasonable and
debilitating fear of dogs. Like many phobias, cynaphobia, the medical
term for fear of dogs, d oesn't require any negative experiences to
exist. Our son's fears had grown to such proportions he couldn't walk
down the street or ride his bike without heart-racing anxiety on
just seeing a dog.

When we adopted Dexter from a breed rescue group, he was a year and a
half old, weighed 13 pounds and stood a foot high at the shoulders.
Our daughters were delighted. Our son wouldn't come out of his room
for three days. He crawled across the tops of chairs to get to the
table to eat and then crawled back across them to return to his room.

On the fourth day, he sat on a stool and observed the dog, who looked
back questioningly with those irresistible dark brown eyes of his.
At the end of a week, our son was carrying the dog around the house.
After a few weeks, he was more comfortable with other dogs. Now, two
years later, he still doesn't care for large dogs, but he's not
fearful and he roams the neighborhood with a confidence that's
carried over to other areas of his life. He's playing piano, riding
horses, doing well in his studies and generally a happy-go-lucky kid
with a dog.

And that's just what Dexter did for our son.

Each person in the family has a special and unique relationship with
the dog. He plays gently and obligingly with our son. With my
rambunctious, outgoing daughter, he races and wrestles. He leans
against my quiet daughter like a cat, savoring her strokes. And
while originally suspicious of men, Dexter adores my husband. They
play wild games of chase and spend warm devoted moments snoozing.

I had never owned a dog before and was concerned about how long I
could be away from home; picking up after the dog in addition to the
rest of the family, who at least could flush; annual shots; tags and
whatever other dog ownership issues were bound to occur.

But I found that walks took on new meaning with a little dog trotting
at my side. An occasionally bizarre meaning, as we sometimes stopped
every few feet so Dexter could check what the girls called his "pee
mail" at every post and trunk. But I walk more briskly and more often

And coming home has never been so rewarding! No one else in the family
greets me so ecstatically and with such genuine joy. Whether I've been
gone 15 minutes or a day, Dexter is enormously and unapologetically
glad to see me. He's a cuddler, shamelessly squeezing between the
desk and my lap while I work, cruising from lap to lap while we
watch TV at night. He won't crawl into his bed until the last family
member is in his or hers, and he lies curled up beside us until
morning, when he starts his equal opportunity doting all over again.

He has taught us patience, charity and the value of forgiveness. He
never holds grudges, whether his tail is accidentally stepped upon,
or he's ordered out of the kitchen for being underfoot. He certainly
didn't like the vet's office during the chocolate Incident. But when
we came to take him home, he clearly didn't associate us with his
aches and pains. Through the haze of drugs after his surgery, he
wagged his tail vigorously when he saw us.

Dogs aren't for the shallow and self-absorbed. They're childlike but
without the growing cognizance and independence of children. We are
always their heroes; they're always our friends. Even with three
children and a quarter-century marriage, I didn't fully understand
unconditional love until Dexter came into our lives. The obligation
to live up to such devotio n and loyalty can be a daunting task and a
humbling experience.

Yes, our dog ate Christmas. But the gifts he's given us are priceless
and more enduring than anything we could ever put under the tree and
more than we could ever repay.