Tigers are always tense and like to be in a hurry. They are very confident, perhaps too confident sometimes. They like being obeyed and not the other way around. Suitable careers for Tigers include advertising agent, office manager, travel agent, actor, writer, pilot, flight attendant, musician, comedian, and chauffeur.
Coco is our dog, my first pet ever. She’s not Jed’s first pet. He had a mutt called Frisky when he was a boy. Frisky, who barked a lot, was abducted and put to death by evil neighbors while Jed’s family was on vacation. At least that’s what Jed has always suspected. It’s possible that Frisky just got lost, and was picked up by a loving Washington, D.C., family.
Technically, Coco was not Sophia and Lulu’s first pet either. We had an earlier ordeal that was thankfully short-lived. When the girls were very young, Jed got them a pair of pet rabbits named Whiggy and Tory. I disliked them from the moment I saw them and would have nothing to do with them. They were unintelligent and not at all what they claimed to be. The pet-store person told Jed they were dwarf rabbits that would stay small and cute. That was a lie. Within weeks they had grown huge and fat. They moved with the gait of sumo wrestlers—they looked like sumo wrestlers—and could barely fit into their 2’ x 3’ cage. They also kept trying to mate with each other even though they were both males, making things very awkward for Jed. “What are they doing, Daddy?” the girls kept asking. Eventually, the rabbits mysteriously escaped.
Coco is a Samoyed, a white, fluffy dog about the size of a Siberian husky, with dark almond eyes. Samoyeds are famous for their smiling faces and lush tails that curl up over their backs. Coco has the Samoyed smile, and the dazzling pure-white Samoyed fur.
For some reason Coco’s tail is a little short and looks more like a pom-pom than a plume, but she’s still stunningly beautiful. Although it hasn’t been scientifically proven, Samoyeds are said to have descended from wolves, but in personality they are the opposite of wolves. They are sweet, gentle, friendly, loving animals, and for that reason very poor guard dogs. Originally from Siberia, they pulled sleds during the day and at night kept their owners warm by sleeping on top of them. During the winter, Coco keeps us warm in the same way. Another nice thing about Samoyeds is that they don’t have dog odor. Coco smells like clean, fresh straw.
Coco was born on January 26, 2006. The runt of the litter, she has always been unusually timid. When we picked her up at the age of three months, she was a quivering white puffball. (Baby Samoyeds look like baby polar bears, and there’s nothing cuter.) On the car ride back, she huddled in the corner of her crate, shaking. At home, she was too scared to eat anything. To this day, she is about 10% smaller than most Samoyeds. She is also terrified of thunder, angry voices, cats, and small vicious dogs. She still won’t go down our narrow back stairs. In other words, Coco is the opposite of the leader of the pack.
Nevertheless, not knowing a thing about raising dogs, my first instinct was to apply Chinese parenting to Coco. I had heard of dogs who can count and do the Heimlich maneuver, and the breeder told us that Samoyeds are very intelligent. I had also heard of many famous Samoyeds. Kaifas and Suggen were the lead dogs for the explorer Fridtjof Nansen’s famous 1895 attempt to reach the North Pole. In 1911, a Samoyed named Etah was the lead dog for the first expedition to successfully reach the South Pole. Coco was incredibly fast and agile, and I could tell that she had real potential. The more Jed gently pointed out that she did not have an overachieving personality, and that the point of a pet is not necessarily to take them to the highest level, the more I was convinced that Coco had hidden talent.
I began to do extensive research. I bought many books and especially liked The Art of Raising a Puppy by the Monks of New Skete. I befriended other dog owners in my neighborhood and got helpful tips about dog parks and dog activities. I found a place that offered a Doggy Kindergarten class, a prerequisite for more advanced courses, and signed us up.
But first, there were the basics, like housebreaking. This proved more difficult than I expected. In fact, it took several months. But when we finally achieved success—Coco would run to the door and signal whenever she needed to go—it was like a miracle.
Around this time, unbelievably, an exhaustion factor started to set in with the other members of my family. Jed, Sophia, and Lulu seemed to feel that Coco had had enough training— even though the only skill she’d mastered was not going to the bathroom anymore on our rugs. They just wanted to hug and pet Coco, and play around with her in our yard. When I looked flabbergasted, Jed pointed out that Coco could also sit and fetch and that she excelled at Frisbee.
Unfortunately, that was all Coco could do. She didn’t respond to the command “Come.” Worse, unless it came from Jed—who had early on demonstrated his dominance as the alpha male in the household—Coco didn’t respond to the command “No,” which meant that she ate pencils, DVDs, and all my nicest shoes. Whenever we had a dinner party, she’d pretend to be asleep in the kitchen until the appetizers were brought out. Then she’d dart to the living room, grab a whole pâté, and gallop around in circles, the pâté flapping and getting progressively smaller as she chomped away. Because she was so fast, we couldn’t catch her.
Coco also wouldn’t walk; she only sprinted at top speed. This was a problem for me, because I did all the dog walking, which in our case meant being dragged at fifty miles per hour, often straight into a tree trunk (when she was chasing a squirrel) or someone else’s garage (when she was chasing a squirrel). I pointed all this out to my family, but none of them seemed concerned. “I don’t have time.... I need to practice piano,” Sophia mumbled. “Why does she need to walk?” Lulu asked.
Once, when I came back from a “walk” with my elbows scraped and my knees grass stained, Jed said, “It’s her Samoyed nature. She thinks you’re a sled, and she wants to pull you. Let’s forget about teaching her to walk. Why don’t we just get a cart that you can sit in and have Coco pull you around?”
But I didn’t want to be the neighborhood charioteer. And I didn’t want to give up. If everyone else’s dog could walk, why couldn’t ours? So I alone took on the challenge. Following my books, I led Coco around in circles in my driveway, rewarding her with pieces of chopped steak if she didn’t pull. I made ominous low sounds when she didn’t obey, and high reaffirming sounds when she did. I took her for walks down half a block that lasted forever because I had to stop short and count to thirty every time the leash went taut. And finally, after all else failed, I took a tip from a fellow Samoyed owner and bought an elaborate harness that pressed against Coco’s chest when she pulled.
Around that time, my glamorous friends Alexis and Jordan came to visit from Boston with their elegant sable-colored dogs, Millie and Bascha. Sisters and Australian shepherds, Millie and Bascha were the same age as Coco but smaller and sleek. Millie and Bascha were amazingly on the ball. Obviously herding dogs, they worked as a team and kept trying to herd Coco, who looks a bit like a sheep—and around Millie and Bascha, acted like a sheep. Millie and Bascha are always looking for an angle. They can do things like unlock doors and open spaghetti boxes—things that would never even occur to Coco.
“Wow,” I said to Alexis that evening over drinks. “I can’t believe Millie and Bascha got themselves water by turning on our garden hose. That’s impressive.”
“Australian shepherds are like Border collies,” Alexis said. “Maybe because of their herding background, they’re supposed to be really smart, at least according to the rankings on those Web sites, which I’m not sure I buy.”
“Rankings? What rankings?” I poured myself another glass of wine. “How do Samoyeds rank?”
“Oh . . . I can’t remember,” Alexis said uncomfortably. “I think the whole idea of rating dogs by intelligence is silly anyway. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
The moment Alexis and Jordan left, I rushed to my computer and did an Internet search for “dog intelligence rankings.” The most hits were for a list of the “10 Brightest Dogs,” produced by Dr. Stanley Coren, a neuropsychologist at the University of British Columbia. I scrolled down the list, frantically looking for “Samoyed” to appear. It didn’t. I found an expanded list. Samoyeds were ranked #33 out of 79—not the dumbest dog (that honor went to the Afghan hound) but definitely average.
I felt nauseated. I did further research, more targeted. To my enormous relief, I discovered it was all a mistake. According to every Web site about Samoyeds by Samoyed experts, they were extremely intelligent. The reason they didn’t tend to do well on dog IQ tests is because those tests were all based on trainability, and Samoyeds are notoriously difficult to train. Why? Precisely because they are exceptionally bright and therefore can be obstinate. Here’s a very clarifying explanation by Michael D. Jones: Their intelligence and strong independent nature make them a challenge to train; where a Golden Retriever, for instance, may work for his master, a Samoyed works with his master or not at all. Holding the dog’s respect is a prerequisite to training. They learn quickly; the trick is teaching the dog to behave reliably without hitting his boredom threshold. It is these characteristics that have earned Samoyeds . . . the appellation “nontraditional obedience dogs.”
I discovered something else. Fridtjof Nansen, the famous Norwegian explorer—and Nobel Peace Prize winner—who almost made it to the North Pole, had conducted extensive comparative dog research before his 1895 expedition. His findings showed that “the Samoyed surpassed other breeds in determination, focus, endurance, and the instinctive drive to work in any condition.”
In other words, contrary to “Dr.” Stanley Coren’s “study,” Samoyeds were in fact unusually intelligent and hardworking, with more focus and determination than other breeds. My spirits soared. For me, this was the perfect combination of qualities. If the only issue was a stubborn, disobedient streak, that was nothing I couldn’t handle.
One evening, after another shouting match with the girls over music, I had an argument with Jed. While he’s always supported me in every way, he was worried that I was pushing too hard and that there was too much tension and no breathing space in the house. In return, I accused him of being selfish and thinking only of himself. “All you think about is writing your own books and your own future,” I attacked. “What dreams do you have for Sophia, or for Lulu? Do you ever even think about that? What are your dreams for Coco?”
A funny look came over Jed’s face, and a second later he burst into laughter. He came over and kissed the top of my head. “Dreams for Coco—that’s really funny, Amy,” he said affectionately. “Don’t worry. We’ll work things out.”
I didn’t understand what was so funny, but I was glad our fight was over.