Ernie, a fluffy, 10-week-old golden retriever with
heart-melting eyes, was
originally a birthday present. The lucky recipient was Danielle, a
pony-tailed 11-year-old living in an affluent Westchester, N.Y., suburb.
Danielle's passions for some time had been soccer, Justin Timberlake, and
instant messaging, but her parents wanted to give her a different kind of
birthday gift, "something that you didn't plug in or watch, something that
would give her a sense of responsibility." She'd often said she'd love a
puppy and vowed to take care of it.
Girl and dog, growing up together-what parent hasn't pictured it? Her folks
envisioned long family walks around the neighborhood, Ernie frolicking on
the lawn while they gardened. They could see him riding along to soccer
Acquiring a dog completed the portrait that had been taking shape for
several years, beginning with the family's move to the suburbs from
Brooklyn. The package included a four-bedroom colonial, a lawn edged with
flowering shrubs, a busy sports schedule, a Volvo wagon and a Subaru Outback
to ferry the kids around. A dog-a big, beautiful hunting breed-came with the
rest of it, increasingly as much a part of the American dream as the picket
fence or the car with high safety ratings.
So Danielle's parents found a breeder online with lots of awards, cooed over
the adorable pictures, and mailed off a deposit on a pup. They drove to
Connecticut and returned to surprise Danielle on her birthday, just hours
before her friends were due for a celebratory sleepover.
It was love at first sight. Danielle and her friends spent hours passing the
adorable puppy from one lap to another. Ernie slept with her that night.
Over the next two or three weeks, she spent hours cuddling with him, playing
tug of war, and tossing balls while her parents took photos.
But the dog did not spark greater love of the outdoors or diminish her
interest in television, iPod, computer, and cell phone. Nor did his arrival
slow down Danielle's demanding athletic schedule; with practices, games, and
victory celebrations, soccer season took up three or four afternoons a week.
Anyway, she didn't find the shedding, slobbering, chewing, and maturing
Ernie quite as cute as the new-puppy version.
Both of Danielle's parents worked in the city and rarely got home before 7
p.m. on weekdays. The household relied on a nanny/housekeeper from Nicaragua
who wasn't especially drawn to dogs and viewed Ernie as stupid, messy, and,
as he grew larger and more restive, mildly frightening.
Because nobody was home during the day, he wasn't housebroken for nearly two
months and even then, not completely. No single person was responsible for
him; nobody had the time, will, or skill to train him.
As he went through the normal stages of retriever development-teething,
mouthing, racing frantically around the house, peeing when excited, offering
items the family didn't want retrieved, eating strange objects and then
vomiting them up-the casualties mounted. Rugs got stained, shoes chewed,
mail devoured, table legs gnawed. The family rejected the use of a crate or
kennel-a valuable calming tool for young and energetic dogs-as cruel.
Instead, they let the puppy get into all sorts of trouble, then scolded and
resented him for it. He was "hyper," they complained, "wild,"
"rambunctious." The notion of him as annoying and difficult became fixed in
their minds; perhaps in his as well.
A practiced trainer would have seen, instead, a golden retriever that was
confused, under-exercised, and untrained-an ironic fate for a dog bred for
centuries to be calm and responsive to humans.
Ernie did not attach to anybody in particular-an essential element in
training a dog. Because he never quite understood the rules, he became
increasingly anxious. He was reprimanded constantly for jumping on residents
and visitors, for pulling and jerking on the leash when walked.
Increasingly, he was isolated when company came or the family was gathered.
He was big enough to drag Danielle into the street by now, so her parents
and the housekeeper reluctantly took over. His walks grew brief: outside,
down the block until he did his business, then home. He never got to run
Complaining that he was out of control, the family tried fencing the back
yard and putting Ernie outside during meals to keep him from bothering them.
The nanny stuck him there most of the day as well, because he messed up the
house. Allowed inside at night, he was largely confined to the kitchen,
sealed off by child gates.
The abandonment and abuse of dogs is an enormous issue in the animal rights
movement, and quite properly. There are, by U.S. Humane Society estimates,
as many as 10 million dogs languishing in shelters; the majority will be
euthanized. But Ernie is an abused dog, too.
Nobody is likely to talk much about Ernie, the kind of dog I saw frequently
while researching several books. His abusers aren't lowlifes who mercilessly
beat, starve, or tether animals. Quite the opposite: His owners are
affluent, educated people who consider themselves humanistic and moral. But
they've been cruel nonetheless, through their lack of responsibility, their
neglect, their poor training, and their inattention.
I've seen Ernie numerous times over the past two years. I've watched him
become more detached, neurotic, and unresponsive. I've seen the soul drain
from the dog's eyes.
He's affectionate and unthreatening, but he doesn't really know how to
behave-not around his family or other people, not around other animals, not
around me or my dogs. He lunges and barks almost continuously when anyone
comes near, so few of us do. Increasingly, he gets confined to his back
yard, out of sight and mind.
This family was shocked and outraged when I suggested that the dog was
suffering from a kind of abuse and might be better off in a different home.
"Nobody hits that dog," sputtered Danielle's father. "He gets the best dog
food, he gets all his shots." All true.
But he lacks what is perhaps the most essential ingredient in a dog's life:
a human who will take emotional responsibility for him.
Sadly, I see dogs like Ernie all the time, victims of a new, uniquely
American kind of abuse, animals without advocates. Dogs like Flash, a
Westchester border collie who spent her days chasing invisible sheep beyond
a chain link fence, and Reg, an enormous black Lab in Atlanta who, like
Ernie, was untrained, grew neurotic and rambunctious, and eventually was
confined to the family playroom day and night. He leaves that room for
several brief walks each day.
Who knows how many Ernie's and Regs there are in urban apartments and
suburban backyards? Few media outlets or animals rights groups would
classify a $1,200 purebred as a candidate for rescue. In fact, I've
contacted rescue groups to see if they could help; they were sympathetic,
but they felt more comfortable with traditional kinds of abuse. A situation
like this-emotional mistreatment is not illegal-was beyond their purview.
I understand, but Ernie haunts me. He may be the most abused dog I know.
Jon Katz's current book is "The Dogs of Bedlam Farm: An adventure with three
sixteen sheep, two donkeys".