Our family pet is a retired racing greyhound named Zane. Like so many dogs, he is a goofy fellow, enamored of odors, unashamed of bodily functions, but unlike many of his peers, he is no garbage hound. His appetite alternates between ravenous, lick-the-bowl-until-it-rattles-across-the-floor and peckish, burrow-through-the-kibble-pushing-it-out-of-the-bowl-in-search-of-buried-human-food-delicacies. He makes his preferences well known, spitting out what he doesn’t like, turning up his extremely long snout at the insufficiently appetizing.
I realize he sounds spoiled, but he has been this way since the day we got him. In the beginning, we tried the tough love approach. When he gets hungry enough, we told ourselves, he will eat whatever is in his bowl. And true enough, he did, although usually not until the dead of night, when he would trudge upstairs and reluctantly devour his cold, congealed glop, unseen by human eyes. Not without punishing us first, going periodically to his feeding bowl, sniffing it, even picking through it, then gazing at us dolefully and walking away, leaving it uneaten. So what, a tougher pack leader would say. Stay consistent and he will submit.
The thing is, he is a near perfect pet in all other ways. And consistency is not our family’s strong suit. Having a dog with a refined palate suited us, we rationalized. He always relished what I cooked, so he was fine by me. Some days, he feasted on glorious table scraps mixed into his kibble base, others he went hungry until his baser appetites kicked in. The balance seemed to work. He kept his svelte racing physique, never acquiring the extra girth common to retired athletes and indulged house pets.
Then a really bad thing happened. At the cruelly young age of five, he was diagnosed with a rare, inoperable malignant tumor. The experts advised us that he would enjoy at most another year in reasonable comfort and then the pain would no longer be manageable to maintain his quality of life. It’s been four months, and you’d never know it to look at him. He’s still the best looking dog in town, fast as a thoroughbred, always up for an adventure, a walk, a belly rub.
But he has to take his medicine. And it has to be taken with food. We are no longer inconsistent about his eating habits. He must like his food to eat it. Suddenly, we are living with a four-legged culinary tyrant.
I have not yet reached the level of complete submission; I do not cook for our dog. But I admit to thinking about him when I decide what to cook. Will the leftovers appeal to him? And for how long? Some things he tires of quickly. Others are eternal favorites. Also, his tastes are not as predictable as you might imagine. While my mother had a greyhound that refused to eat fat, liked plain pasta and never met a raw vegetable he didn’t love, Zane is both more omnivorous and more selective. Fatty bits are fine by him, just as they are with the rest of the family, but vegetables must be well cooked, and further (as with pasta) seasoned and sauced. He has been known to suck the puttanesca off penne and spit out the naked tubes. Proteins, oddly enough, are not always sure-fire winners either. I once witnessed a dog get loose in a sushi restaurant and run wild, leaping onto tables and snatching hundreds of dollars worth of Toro within seconds. But our guy doesn’t much care for fish.
There are days when nothing in the kitchen will do, and on those occasions I open a can of dog food. Allegedly “natural” brands only, of course. The first time I did this, I confess to feeling a sense of failure as a caretaker, then relief as I watched him devour it with relish. What a fool I had been trying to pander to his fickle taste, when all he wanted was available in a can. Life would be so much simpler now.
It took less than twenty-four hours to disabuse me of my na√Øve fantasy. I will never forget the look of chagrin directed my way after Zane desultorily sniffed at the contents of his bowl – a soupy mixture of kibble, hot water and the remaining half can of dog food leftover from the night before. Needless to say, it remained a leftover, untouched until I grudgingly scraped it into the trash the following morning. Whereupon, I stubbornly repeated the process with a new can, thus discovering another of our pet’s peeves. He will eat a freshly opened can of dog food, but perish the thought that it’s been refrigerated for a few hours. I experimented with a variety of brands, but it made no difference. On our personal animal farm: New Can Good, Open Can Bad.
It was on a road trip that I finally unearthed the simplest way to our beloved despot’s stomach… his heart. Desperate at finding ourselves in a motel room late at night, with nothing to camouflage Zane’s horse pills but an already rejected half can of Newman’s Own Chicken Formula for Dogs (no fault of the brand, he wolfed down the first half), and necessity being the mother of invention, I enacted an elaborate ruse. Making sure he was watching, I picked up the unwanted bowl and lavished it with attention, stirring, adding a little more warm water, mixing some more, smelling it and smacking my lips. Zane was riveted to my charade. Finally, I set down the bowl with a flourish worthy of the rodent chef in Ratatouille and called out that dinner was served.
In a flash he was on his feet, racing to taste Mom’s homemade meal. He sniffed curiously, looked up at me appreciatively, then dug in. In minutes the dish was polished clean.
I’ve tried countless variations on the experiment, and it never fails. All my poor boy wants is what everyone wants… someone to put love into his food. Everyone knows that the tastiest purchased chicken soup has vastly diminished curative powers than even the blandest homemade version. A home-cooked meal is much more than the sum of its parts. Can anything beat a piece of toast, buttered just for you by someone who cares?
Do we still spoil our dog? In a thousand ways, but no more than he spoils us.