Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lifestyle: Weekend FT, Me and Julio Down By the Dog Run

By Julie Earle-Levine
Financial Times; Dec 31, 2004

I was a little teary handing him over, but Julio's therapist had suggested a personal trainer might help. Having Julio hasn't been easy. But then babies aren't, especially when they are hairy and have four legs.

Julio is, of course, our dog, and child substitute.

Like any New York child might, he has a behavioural therapist, a trainer, a sitter, a groomer and, after a Financial Times story on him staying in luxury hotels, an offer for an agent for television commercials and photo shoots. My husband says absolutely no to the agent, but agreed on the personal trainer.

In New York, where getting married later seems to be the norm (why marry when you can date Sex and the City style?) people are obsessed with their pooches. Dogs are child substitutes with their very own set of problems. True, getting your child into the right school here is nightmarish. But try getting your dog into the favoured dog runs where he can play with the right, well-behaved canine sort and lie poolside at the weekends? It's not easy.

For his part, Julio is an uncomplaining participant.
All he needs to do is wag his tail and cock his head in an interesting way (to us only) to be the perfect child. "Good boy!" I exclaim at least a dozen times a day. "Wait till I tell your father."

Our very favourite family activity is to lie on the bed together, Julio between us, on his back, legs spread, snout in the air snorting and snuffling. If he's really lucky, head on a pillow, jowls drooping, his cold, black nose resting on my husband's cheek, and then mine, and then my husband's. I know, it's gross.

After adding up Julio's bills recently, I wondered if it might actually be me who needs a therapist, not him. Is all this dog stuff getting too much? Quite possibly. Julio's therapist ruled out all "love fests" after witnessing a particularly smoochy nose-rubbing, belly-scratching episode between Julio and me. I had no idea, even though my husband warned me. "Did you just call him 'Julio Iglesias lover boy?' "

Friends have politely changed the subject when I have recalled, in detail, how Julio's day is going. Recently, Julio met the artist Chuck Close and jumped on him in his wheelchair (Chuck said "woof"). Surely that is as interesting as hearing how one friend's child likes to put his toys in the fridge?

My parents in Australia always ask about their "grandson", whom they have not met but have seen in dozens of photos; perhaps they have even seen more snaps of this red-coloured dog than of their own child. His mysterious past is a favourite topic. Julio was formerly homeless in the Bronx. Our son had a rough beginning for sure.

He has a large red body, stumpy legs, Labrador waddle and a spotted - could it be Chow - tongue. Or is he a Redbone coon hound from Georgia? Perhaps we should take him hunting and see what happens. We are, undeniably, treating this dog like a child, desperate to know its past. "You realise he has a real mother and father. Incredible, isn't it?" I said recently. My husband agreed and then added, "Er, not really, because he is a dog."

I have friends in New York whose attachment to their "babies" is far worse.
One friend is married, but she and her "son" Oscar live in a separate apartment because her husband's flat isn't good enough for Oscar. It has too many stairs and is too far from his favourite dog park.

"Balazs" a wiry French hound and his sister, Collette, command all their parents' attention, waking at 5am for tummy scratches and a snooze, and again for breakfast. Rico, a lovely Chihuahua, goes everywhere - to the movies, shopping, on the subway and restaurants because "he really needs to be with us".

Another young single friend has a private chef for her dog Nikki, who likes stir-fries, pasta and steak. "I wouldn't eat dog food, why would Nikki want to?"
Other friends, also childless and under the apprehension that their dog is an infant, only holiday where they can take their dog.
Lesley Ann Skillen, a Manhattan lawyer who recently vacationed with Max and husband Larry at a resort in Belize, says "Leave him at home? Never. Max is my son. We go on family holidays together."

A lovely German pointer at Julio's dog run recently arrived in New York from England after a break-up and custody battle. Her owner, a blonde model, says her baby is clearly happier being in America, where she is from.

Friends will continue to be bored with stories of drool, dog food (organic only, of course) and cute clothes (he has a wardrobe of collars, coats and boots to die for).

The only obvious upside with this madness, is that dog lovers might actually meet someone, get married and have real children.
© Copyright The Financial Times Ltd