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 games.
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.