Most of my life I've been impervious to the charms of dogs. Once when I was 4, I recall being utterly covered in the roiling joy of a pack of black Lab puppies, but I've mostly kept my distance.
Almost catastrophically allergic — to the point that an hour inside an animal-friendly house might lead to an emergency room visit for asthma — I've always felt that dogs were potential killers, not best friends.
My "boy-in-the-bubble" allergies meant that the only pets I had growing up were a pair of introverted chameleons and my sister's very nervous gerbil, who had the propensity to try to leap outside of her cage — even when the lid was on. She must have had more concussions than an NFL lineman before she mercifully went to rodent heaven (a place, no doubt, full of human crumbs and utterly free of cats).
When I went to college, my parents succumbed to my younger brother's long-standing wish for a dog. A rambunctious beagle named B.J. (after the spastic frontman of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong) thus colonized the family house.
My memories of B.J. are clouded by my first return home. Exhausted from college, all I wanted to do was revert to my habit of lying in front of the family room television and exult in Michael Jordan dominating the basketball court.
Almost as soon as I laid down, I found myself getting humped, repeatedly.
The next day, shutting the door to watch TV, I sauntered to my usual spot, having avoided being the target of this interloper's amorous-slash-domination fantasy, only to be met by a ripe puppy "present" — precisely where I would lie down.
I'm an introvert who values solitude, and this dog was horning in on my alone time.
As the years passed, B.J. grew on me. I saw how much my parents loved him and how he got them to walk a couple times a day. Dogs, it turns out, walk humans as much as humans walk dogs. Of course, B.J. insisted on sniffing every square inch like a manic detective.
When he died, my mother grieved as if she'd lost a child. For months afterward, she'd get overwhelmed with emotion, recounting how he was always there when she came home, how he knew when she was suffering and needed someone close.
I felt a little guilty for feeling a kind of relief — now I could lie worry-free on the floor again.
There's a photo in my parents' house of our youngest daughter, Leila, on the floor next to B.J., like two sweet loaves of bread. As soon as she could talk, Leila began asking for a dog. She loved the book My Father the Dog, temporarily adopted a stray black cat and would borrow the neighbor's pooch. But it wasn't enough.
Her will-to-pet-ownership proved stronger than my selfishness.
Since the most hypoallergenic breed of dog was a poodle, we hunted online for months, hoping a small poodle would appear in Northeast Ohio.
Finally, our friend posted a photo of a black mini-poodle who needed a home. If the picture wasn't enough to tug the hardest of hearts, the backstory did the trick: His owner had a terminal disease and could no longer care for him.
When we met up with the folks from Muttley Crue, a nonprofit rescue and foster service in Berea, there he was — pressing himself against the legs of his caregiver — a meek, sweet 4-year-old poodle we'd name Flash.
The first weeks were rough.
I was done having to change diapers, but now every few hours we had to take this little beast out to urinate and poop — and then, in a weird civilizational reversal, had to pick up the poop and carry it around like some precious treasure.
Flash must think we have some sort of crap fetish. Not that he judges: He loves to rub his back in it, a sort of fecal cologne. The stinkier, the better.
Every morning, first thing, Flash trots from bed to bed, awag, delicately greeting each of us with a wet-nose kiss. It's as if each morning is not just OK, but THE GREATEST DAY EVER. Whenever we return from being out — even for 10 minutes — we're greeted like Odysseus after his 20-year absence. To see his pack together is always a beautiful occasion, worth celebrating with doggy high-fives (paws raised).
His emotional intelligence amazes me, how he picks up on sadness, anger and loneliness with a tilted head and rushes to console. My wife, Amy, and I have wondered if he carries the sadness of losing his former owner, when we see a soulful melancholy in his dark eyes. I've thought a lot about that person who trained our Flash so well. We inherit the love of others in everyone we meet.
As someone who secretly wondered whether I was destined to be a lone wolf, I've felt a new awe for the warmth and welcome of this little creature, for being creatures devoted to each other.
I'm happy to have arrived, at last, in a pack.