Dog days

You always hear people say their pet is "one of the family." At our house, the question is which one?

We have three boys at our house. The biggest one -- around 70 pounds now -- is a year-old puppy.

All three have more or less human names. The dog's name is Elvis.

How come, when I go to shout for a boy, I call the dog's name? I've even caught myself calling Elvis by the boy's names occasionally. Am I slipping?

I think it's because the three of them act about the same -- rambunctious, loud, needy and prone to spurts of intense energy. And they're all roughly the same size, though Elvis has a lot more hair. When I address them, my tone of voice is often the same -- a weary, scolding, I-caught-you-and-I-can't-believe-you-did-that baritone. It's the principal's voice. It works on dogs. Not so well on boys.

Now that he's been around a while, the boys can't remember Life Without Elvis. I remember, and they're fond memories. I remember a day when I never worried about someone eating my sprinkler heads. I remember being able to walk around barefoot. I remember when dust bunnies weren't fed by dog hair until they were the size of tumbleweeds.

But I admit Elvis has become part of the family, just as everyone predicted. And I spoil him as bad as the others do. Because I work at home, I spend more time with him than with anyone else. No wonder his name is the first to come to my lips.

I'm also responsible for much of the day-to-day training for him and the boys. Sometimes it feels as if I'm talking, talking, talking all the time, trying to teach the three of them, trying to make them understand how the world works, trying to get them to stop spilling everywhere.

The instruction of Elvis is going well. A lot of the hardships -- disappearing sprinkler heads, for instance -- was puppy misbehavior. Elvis is outgrowing them now, just in time to save himself from finding "a good home." He's gotten smarter as he's aged, something you can't always say for humans.

He's learned all the basic tricks (except "roll over," which makes him laugh) and shows an amazing grasp of English. Ask him what he wants, and he'll make you follow him to the back door or to an empty water dish. Give him a complex command -- "Go get your bone and bring it in the house" -- and he'll figure it out. It's like having Lassie around. I spend a lot of time saying, "What is it? What is it, boy?" I fully expect him to inform me that little Timmy has fallen down the well.

My wife has even taught him to do a chore. It was about time he started pulling his weight around here. He can't spend all his time sleeping, sniffing and licking, can he?

She taught him to fetch the newspaper from the yard. Now this was a bold concept because it involved the potential freedom of the unfenced front yard. There was a good chance Elvis would zoom out the door and never come back, too busy sniffing other dogs and licking joggers. But within a couple of days, she had him fetching like a champ.

My wife usually handles Elvis' wake-up call because she's the first one out of bed. My own experiences in the milky dawn have been mixed. The first time I tried it, the fat Sunday paper was in one of those slippery condoms to keep it dry. Elvis grabbed the plastic bag in his teeth and sprinted back to the front door. Unfortunately, he had the bag by the wrong end. Inserts and travel sections and Parade magazine were strewn behind him all the way across the yard.

The other day, I sent him on his mission again. The newspaper wasn't immediately visible (a car was in the way), so Elvis dashed across the street and brought me the neighbor's paper.

Inventive, but larceny nonetheless. I had to tiptoe across the street in my pajamas and put it back.

Just the kind of thing I'd expect my boys to do, if I'd ever taught them to fetch.

(Editor's note: This column first appeared in 2000. Elvis is now eight years old, and still just the best dog ever. My sons are bigger than him now, and their hair is longer. They still don't fetch worth a damn.)

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