This is the story of Mr. Beebs, the dog who inspired a middle-aged woman to go back to college, run for state legislature, and start a non-profit organization for pet owners. Read Mr. Beebs.
Huey Lewis said, “That’s the power of love.” I say, That’s the power of a dog.
I was a desperate thirty-nine-year-old woman when I met Sal. Menopause (the grim reaper of my childbearing years) stalked me like a hungry lion. It followed me to the gynecologist. It pointed out all the pregnant women in the waiting room. It forced me to look at baby magazines and breast-feeding guidelines. Every time I set foot in the place I felt like an imposter. The girl dressed up for the prom who didn’t have a date. I was the racing car with a high-performance engine that had never done a lap. I beat the hell out of myself. But my fixation didn’t stop there. It extended to the feminine protection aisle of the grocery store. Every item on the shelf was a big one-way arrow that said, “You Are Here.” I was on a conveyer belt, pushing me past Tampax and pregnancy tests and toward lubricants and Depends. That realization made me sweat. Which struck a bit too close to home since the sweat reminded me of night flashes, and I panicked. That fear drove me into his unlikely arms.
Sal owned a family car dealership. They sold Saturns. I was a world-traveled keyboard player. I sold songs for a living. Sal owned a formula speed boat. I raced on sailboats. He pumped iron. I owned an iron skillet. My family liked him. His family hated me. We were a perfect match. Given my state of mind, it made sense to me to date a man who’d gotten divorced the day before yesterday. How conveniently I’d thrust aside the advice of relationship experts far and wide, all of whom said that dating a recently divorced man was a bad idea. What did they know?
One evening, Sal and I invited my parents over to his house for dinner. Sal made a good tomato sauce. Halfway through the meal someone banged on the back door. Not banging so much as pounding, actually. Sal looked confused. He no sooner opened the door when a tall, intoxicated blonde woman strode through the door. “Where is she? Where’s the fucking douche bag? Where’s your new little whore Sal?”
She hadn’t seen me sitting in the breakfast nook ten feet away. The saying “blinded by rage” came to mind. My parents were horrified because they realized she was referring to me. My father, who wouldn’t stay in the room for a feminine hygiene commercial, had turned scarlet. I wanted to ask her, “What’s the big deal? You divorced him?” But then it occurred to me that there’d already been one homicide in that house. (Sal’s sister was murdered by a crazy ex-lover in that very dining room. The guy then shot himself in the head.) I didn’t wish to add to the list of fatalities. My parents and I examined our eggplant like it was the most fascinating specimen on earth. Sal ushered his ex-wife outside, her fighting him like a bob cat the whole way. Through the muffled door we heard a shrill voice shouting obscenities. There was a thud against the house. A car door slammed, an engine revved, and Sal re-entered the kitchen. He had a large swatch of red across his face. We did what most families do in that situation. We continued eating, marveling at the lack of grease in Sal’s eggplant parmesan.
The signs were all there, but I refused to notice. My maternal clock was a time bomb. The gentle tick of my twenties had turned into a jack hammer by my thirties. Being single had clouded my judgment. As I approached forty, my clarity about my own decisions had gone from the fuzziness of a cataract to a detached retina.
That summer we decided to get a dog. Enter an adorable eight-week-old boxer. He was fawn, with a black mask and a white blaze down the middle of his face. Our first meeting was supernatural. He sat back on his wrinkly haunches full of excess skin and stared at me with his beady little eyes. I was caught in the grips of a puppy spell. I tried to look away, but it was no use, my heart felt soft and mushy. When I turned my attention toward his litter mates, he made pitiful whining sounds. The urge to comfort him was overwhelming. The next thing I knew I was reaching for my checkbook. Before I could grasp my purse, the puppy snatched the handle and ran down the hallway. It was another sign of things to come. But I paid no heed, because his onion breath and neck nuzzlings were too endearing.
Naming a dog isn’t a simple matter, unless of course you’re Sal. I watched this clownish creature shake his little hips like a hula dancer, and wrinkle his brow as if in deep thought. The puppy seemed a complex creature. Sal, in a bolt of displaced creativity, said, “Let’s call ’em Boss.” It didn’t take long for Boss to assert his twelve pounds of will over our lives. If he wasn’t whining in his crate, he was using anything or anyone as a teething ring, including me. It was like owning a piranha. It was a battle of the wills and at times I was barely in the lead.
One day my boyfriend’s fascination with me and the dog came to an abrupt end. Actually, more of a screeching halt. Sal had met “someone” at a party. I should’ve known when he’d bought himself a new package of underwear. His mother must have been hugely relieved. She’d always said I was the “wrong bloodline.” I had no idea that owning a Saturn dealership was so prestigious. At first I was shocked and hurt, but then realized I’d gotten the better end of the deal. With Sal gone, I could concentrate on a decent name for the dog. Boss sounded like a dog that slept in a cardboard box, next to a pile of used tires. This dog was both regal and goofy. Soon after Sal left I looked at Boss with his head held high, elegant gait and mischief dancing in his eyes and said, “Mr. Beebs.” I’d no idea where it came from. It just popped out of my mouth. He wiggled over to show his appreciation. And so it was, Mr. Beebs and I started our new life together.
Boxers are born athletes. I realized early on that if Mr. Beebs didn’t get a lot of exercise, he became a canine wrecking ball. He threw his toys high enough to hit the ceiling fan and then pounced on them like a cat. I’d never seen a dog act like that. One afternoon he spied my Lands’ End snow boot near the front door. It was designed to withstand temperatures on Pluto and weighed as much as a spiral ham. I could barely lift my feet with them on, let alone hike in them. Happily, the dog picked up the boot and tossed it into the TV set. The TV—along with a pile of wires, the stereo, a stack of books, and a handful of framed pictures fell to the floor. The landlady called wanting to know what was going on. Spring cleaning, I told her. Another day he helped himself to shampoo, but only after swallowing half the bottle. The rest he squirted all over the floor. We were up all night because soap is a wonderful laxative. That’s why I say, “A good dog is a tired dog.” This also applies to children.
I’d been around dogs my whole life, so I knew that the best way to handle a big dog is to command their respect, when they are little dogs. As a puppy, Mr. Beebs was a terrible biter, grabbing onto socks and shoes, pant legs and gloves. All occupied by a person. My mantra was always the same. “Who’s the big dog, Mr. Beebs?” Then I’d answer for him. “I’m the big dog.” If I wasn’t the pack leader when he weighed fifteen pounds, I certainly wouldn’t be, when he hit eighty pounds. Boxers were initially bred as bull baiters. They are strong enough to take down big game and have powerful jaws that enable them to hold on to prey. Even though there are no actual studies on their jaw power, it is estimated that the boxer has a bite pressure similar to a German shepherd. While the boxer may not be ill tempered, they are powerful animals. That’s why, Mr. Beebs training started immediately.
The key to training is consistency. I’d say, “Come here!” And he’d give me a look that said, “I’m not deaf and I can understand you, but dear lady, you are sadly mistaken if you think I’ll follow your orders.” If you look up the word “willful” in the dictionary, there’s a secondary definition which says: see Boxer/Canine. I took to rolling him on his back like a mother wolf. Animals are more inclined to understand animal behavior over human babbling. I’d pin him to the ground until he stopped squirming. This was my way of dominating him. His stubbornness was one thing, but the real incentive to train him came from an incident at a family picnic.
Three-month-old Mr. Beebs was a jumper. In one fluid motion, he could jump twice his own height or about three feet. During the BBQ, he was behaving extremely well until the next-door neighbor came strolling across the lawn. The man wore loose-fitting nylon shorts. Something (I can only suspect what) caught the puppy’s eye, and before I could stop him, Mr. Beebs jumped up and grabbed the man in the crotch. His razor-sharp puppy teeth made contact, and the man howled as he massaged his wounded appendage. I had never seen anything like it, nor did I wish to see it again. The only reason the man (who happened to be a lawyer) forgave us was due to Mr. Beebs age. I wanted a dog with good manners. A dog with good manners is similar to a child with good manners. Both are a pleasure to be around.
Mr. Beebs saw me as the big dog, but beyond respect I needed him to trust me. When a dog trusts you, you can trust the dog. Years later, that trust would allow Mr. Beebs visitation rights to dozens of nursing homes and health care facilities in Connecticut and New York where I performed my music gigs. That is to say, the training paid off, but that first year was a constant battle. We were neck and neck for the pack leader position.
One day a friend came over and met Mr. Beebs for the first time. The puppy was eleven months old and had grown taller and heavier. Wrestling forty-five pounds of squirming muscle to the ground had left me with black and blue marks from head to toe. Mr. Beebs thought it was funny but I didn’t. That spring, a clerk at the fabric store saw my bruised arms and leaned across the counter to whisper, “You should leave him.” At first I just stared at her, but then I realized, “Oh dear God she thinks I’m a victim of domestic violence. “No, these marks are from training my puppy.” “I understand dear; I had a husband just like that.” I hoped there wasn’t a social worker behind me.
Jimmy asked how the training was going. I just shook my head from side to side. The dog had worn me down. “Let me test him.”
Instantly, I felt protective. What do you mean test him? What kind of test? Jimmy had done Schutzhund training with his German shepherds and wanted to see if Mr. Beebs was law enforcement material. Schutzhund training requires obedience, tracking, and protection. Many police dogs are trained this way. Dogs have to be fearless to become guard dogs, or canine cops. Not all dogs are fearless. Years later, Beebs would sire a puppy, who was the incarnation of Chicken Little. A paper bag on the floor made him quiver; shiny floor tiles sent him skittering. The neighbor’s cat attacked him and he ran away. While camping in Maine, he jumped in my lap—all eighty pounds of him—because a chipmunk ran at him. Mr. Beebs, on the other hand, was a gladiator.
I let Jimmy give it a go, and I watched my then forty-five-pound dog face off with a man over six feet tall, with a shaved head, and 220-plus pounds of meat on his bones. Jimmy went to the tree line, and found a big thick stick with a pointed end. He told me to stay back. Then he ran towards Mr. Beebs screaming in German. Jimmy’s stocky arm held the stick high over his head. He punched the air with the stick, his mouth a loud wide hole. He acted like a felon, who’d escaped from a German asylum for the criminally insane. Mr. Beebs didn’t flinch. Instead he ran toward him. The dog was airborne in seconds, using his spring-loaded haunches to leap as high as Jimmy’s chest. He used the man’s chest as a springboard pushing off with his back legs so he could grab the stick above Jimmy’s head. I was damn impressed. “Yup, He’s guard dog material,” Jimmy said. I didn’t want a guard dog. I wanted a dog that would stop using me as a pin cushion. I saw something special in that young dog. I knew, even early on, that he would always have my back.