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Why Don’t Dogs Have Gynecologists?

“What’s she talking about?”

 

I’m supposed to go for a mammogram this month. I went for my baseline last year, and the doctor wants me to go every year now, despite recommendations to the contrary out in the world. I almost fell down halfway through the test last year as they pressed each breast into the squeeze machine three times. How can this be the state of the art? Is someone under the impression that breasts can’t feel pain?

I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to push myself to go to the appointment, and my doctor will be mad at me for not doing it, and I will inevitably develop breast cancer and die and it will be my fault because I didn’t want to faint in the radiology office.

Like this.

Like this.

I’ve never heard of a gynecologist for dogs, though you never know what’s out there, somewhere. My dogs haven’t had to get mammograms. I can’t even imagine how that would work. Cricket thinks that having the goop removed from her eyes is the worst humiliation; can you imagine trying to squeeze some sensitive part of her anatomy until it is flat?

“What?”

I wish I could be more like Cricket, and feel like I have the right to refuse these humiliating tests, or at least to bite the person who tries to perform them on me. I feel like women need to rise up.

“Fight!!!!!!”

The thing is, veterinarians go into veterinary medicine almost always because they love animals and have compassion for them. Whereas doctors for humans often go into medicine because of the steady income, the prestige, or an interest in science. And gynecology? I don’t think too many kids grow up dreaming of becoming gynecologists.

I went to my first gynecologist when I was in my late twenties. I had been putting it off to avoid the inevitable panic attack and having to talk to a stranger about my sexual abuse history. I told the doctor my story as quickly as possible, and she seemed sympathetic for a minute, but then she told me to get on with my life. She said that my health would be better once I had babies, because that’s what the female body is meant to do. And then she complained that my body made the internal exam “difficult.”

“Grr.”

The next gynecologist seemed more down to earth. She listened to my spiel about sexual abuse, and promised to be careful with me, and asked questions. True to her word, she did her best to avoid hurting me during the internal exam itself, but as soon as I sat up, in my cloth gown, on the edge of the metal table, I started crying uncontrollably, and she said, “Are you sad that the exam is over?”

She meant to be funny, but her cluelessness for how that would sound to a sexual abuse survivor was bizarre. I don’t understand why female gynecologists are not more sensitive to this, given that the conservative estimate is that 1 out of 4 women were sexually abused before the age of 18. But, even if I had no abuse history, it would be normal for a woman on a table, being poked internally with a piece of metal, to be uncomfortable and self-conscious. And yet the doctors seem impatient with this.

My current gynecologist is pretty matter of fact. At the first exam, after a discussion, fully clothed, in her office, and changing into paper clothes and having to shimmy down the table, she tried the regular speculum and then said no, let me go get the one we use for the nuns.

She works in a large office, next door to a plastic surgeon, and around the corner from a cancer treatment center. It’s not comforting. It’s like a one stop shop for women: get birth control, have a baby, get cancer, get your breasts redone, get cancer again, go into remission, and then celebrate living a long life by getting a facelift.

I go to the gynecologist because I have to go, but I dread it all year. I’m not saying I’d rather be a female dog, but sometimes I wish I felt free to act like one.

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Cricket and the Brown Mouse

 

            A few years ago, I walked into the kitchen and saw a tiny brown mouse eating from Cricket’s food bowl. Cricket had left half of her breakfast scattered on the floor around her bowl, trusting that she could come back to it later if nothing better came up in the mean time. But there was this tiny brown mouse, holding a twig of her dry food in its hands and getting ready to nibble. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing at first, because I’d never seen a mouse stand still like that, not with a human and a dog nearby.          Finally, Cricket stepped forward and gave a low growl. Not the bark she’d have handed the mail man, but a warning none the less. And the little mouse backed up, dropped the food, and ran away. Clearly it was a baby mouse, just learning the run and hide rules of the tribe.

There may have been mice over the years, but I hadn’t seen them again, until I recently noticed mouse droppings in the corner of my bedroom, near the stairs. Then mom heard scritch scratching overnight in her room. And then we saw a brown mouse scamper behind the plant table in the kitchen. So Mom went to the store to buy mousetraps.

Once, when I was a kid, we had a glue trap. The guy at the store had recommended it as more humane than the regular mousetrap, but then I saw a mouse caught on the glue. It was still alive, but struggling to get free, and with each movement it became more trapped. I almost threw up, and then I cried inconsolably. Mom promised me she’d never use a glue trap again, but she made no promises about regular traps. Because you’re just not supposed to accept having mice in your house. It’s not clean, or healthy, or polite.

Mom put out the new traps, but because we hadn’t used them in years, she’d forgotten how to set them correctly. She placed one on a paper towel and shoved it under the plant table, and the next thing we knew, Cricket had pulled the paper towel out and eaten the cheese, leaving the trap unsprung.

The way Cricket barks at humans and chases squirrels outside of the house, you’d think she’d notice, and mind, the presence of tiny interlopers, especially near her food or by her bed. But she hasn’t been barking at them. They must have been around for months before we noticed, and she never told us.

I wonder if she’s friends with the mice behind our backs, bringing them food, tossing them a ball every once in a while, acting as guard dog for them when humans come near.

But maybe they’re just too small to seem like a threat to her. She doesn’t bark at ants either.

The Story of Sticks

 

            Sticks was an awkwardly built, wiry haired white dog. She was about sixty pounds, with all of her weight in her sizeable trunk and nothing in her spindly legs – ergo her name, her legs were like sticks.

She lived in the house across the street from us when we first moved into the top half of a house on a hill. We’d found an apartment that would accept our dog and had a lawn for mom’s garden. There were signs that we would be happy there, with the smell of honey in the air, and the flowers starting to bloom in April. There was the librarian at the local library who smiled at me for no reason other than that she was a nice person. And there was Sticks, the calmest dog I’d ever met. I was used to black haired dogs, depressed dogs, angry dogs with psycho-social disorders.

            Sticks wandered down her driveway towards me and she looked like a ball of white steel wool. She wobbled a bit, but she never barked, and she almost purred when I scratched her head. She was sunshine. Not the bright hot sun that burns your skin and wears you out, but like the soft rays of early spring on your face.

            Sticks’ mom was in her late eighties or early nineties, medium height, white hair, and a little cushioned. She spoke with a German accent that made me unsure what she was saying. She lived alone in her house with Sticks and wasn’t up to taking her out for walks, and picking up poop, but Sticks was so well loved that neighbors pitched in, including me.

            A few years later, I noticed that I hadn’t seen Sticks in a while. And then we heard from her owner’s daughter, that Sticks’ owner was in the hospital with end stage cancer. When we asked about Sticks and where she would go, we were told that Sticks had been put down, because she couldn’t live on without her person.

            I couldn’t speak. I was so angry that no one had asked us if we would take Sticks in for her final years. I could have found a way to lift her up the stairs into our apartment if her arthritis made it too hard for her to climb. But no one had asked me, or warned me, and now Sticks was gone.

            I never knew how old Sticks was, or what her health problems might have been. It’s possible that she was on her last legs, just like her owner, but that’s not how the story was told. I’ve never heard of a veterinarian euthanizing a dog because her owner was dying. And Sticks was so sweet, and loving to strangers, could it really be true that her life wouldn’t have been worth living without her person? I don’t know. But the story haunts me.

Cricket’s First Training Class

 

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Mom and I took Cricket to a puppy class at the local pet store when Cricket was three or four months old. I wanted Cricket to stop biting me; that was my most pressing goal.

All of the books said that it would be easier to train her as a puppy, rather than later on, and that I would be a terrible person if I didn’t teach her to heel, come when called, and pee on command. But for me, the thing I wanted most was for her to be able to make friends with other dogs, and people. I wanted her to be a safe companion for her young human cousins, and to not be as isolated as my previous dog had been, with her antisocial behavior and anxiety disorder.

I also had dreams of getting Cricket to do tricks, like ride a skateboard, or surf, or dance with me.

I loved meeting all of the other puppies in the class. There was a baby bloodhound named Baxter, and a pair of miniature Pinschers, and miniature Poodles, and a black Lab or two, and an older Maltese. But Cricket was not as enamored of them as I was, and she didn’t think the treats were worth working for. She ignored the commands and smiled at me and sniffed the shelves at the store and peed in the corners, and then we went home and she chewed through an entire wicker garbage can.

What I remember most about the teacher was that nothing she said made sense to me. I felt like I was listening to a foreign language I’d never studied, or trying to make sense of NASA’s instruction book for how to launch a space shuttle. I can’t tell you even now if that was because she actually didn’t make sense or if it’s because obedience training kills my circuitry.

The teacher had a way of taking my nervous, meant-to-be-funny comments and using them as lessons for the class. Like, I asked her, after a particularly grueling lesson, when do we get the magic pill that makes training just kick in, and she said, in all seriousness and pointing me out to the class, that there is no magic pill and training takes a lot of hard work.

The teacher was impatient with all of us, but especially with Cricket. She told us to flip Cricket onto her back and hold her down, as an intervention. We were supposed to show Cricket that we were in charge and resistance wasn’t going to get her anywhere. But all that did was to make Cricket more frightened and more resistant to the training.

I should have listened more carefully when the teacher told us that her mother used to hit her to keep her in line, and, instead of saying that her mother did the wrong thing, she said, mothers hit us because they love us.

I finally gave up on the class after the fourth week. The teacher had done her “intervention” one time too many and Cricket had learned to hide behind my legs whenever the teacher came by.

It all felt like a way to crush her spirit and mine. I resented the idea that Cricket was supposed to be a pod puppy, with no unique or rebellious characteristics left. And I was exhausted. So we left, and replaced training class with episodes of Dancing with the Stars. Cricket is great at the Tango.

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A Dog Named Rachel

 

            Before I was born, my parents had a dog named Rachel. She was a stray they’d picked up along the way, a black dog of unspecific origin. She was old by the time I came around, but there’s a story that when I was six months old, my mom called for “Rachel,” and the dog hobbled over to Mom thinking she was the one being asked for, and I crawled.

            I like my name, it’s a good name. There are a lot of biblical names with negative connotations, but mine is pretty clean and positive. So I should be happy.

            Except, my brother wasn’t named after a family pet.

            My father said the names were a coincidence. I was named after a great grandmother named Rachel, and Rachel dog was maybe named after Rabbi Ralph or one of the rabbits my parents kept in the backyard before I was born.

            There’s a Jewish custom, or superstition, against naming a child after a living relative. I’m sure there’s a long tractate somewhere explaining the reasons, but I remember being told that it was wrong to take a name from someone who was still busy using it. As if you’d steal some of their years along with their name. And Rachel dog was still alive when I stole her name. She didn’t live much longer after that, either.

            I feel like my father was sending me a message by giving me the same name as the family dog. He made a point of not talking about it, just leaving the truth in the background, for me to discover on my own and guess at the significance. It was a message he could hide from the outside world, who would only see the loveliness of the biblical Rachel, and never see the humiliation.

Cricket’s Vocalizations

 

 

            When Cricket sings, she sounds like she’s arguing her case before the court as she gurgles and growls and rolls her R’s and squeaks and skips along the notes. I believe all of these intonations mean something to her. It’s like an aria, with slow pleading sections, and heart wrenching sections at the top of her voice, and trills just to show off.

            When I was a teenager, I thought I might become a singer, so I took voice lessons. But singing actual songs left me frustrated; I couldn’t feel the songs the way I wanted to. I wanted to be expressing the deep clanging in my body and instead I felt like I was a hollow imitation of someone else.

            Vocal exercises, on the other hand, reached me. There were no words, just sounds: mee, may, mah, moh, moo, on different notes, changing the shape of my mouth to round, straight, tensed, loose. Without words, the sounds seemed to be able to express something deep inside of me.

            Dina, my previous dog, used to sing. It was as if she had a button in her brain and if you sang high enough for long enough, she had to sing with you. She’d lift her nose in the air as if the note was over her head and she could only reach it if she could see it. She didn’t growl and roll her R’s like Cricket, she didn’t change pitch or jazz it up; she just aimed at that high note, and howled.

            The circumstances have to be just right for Cricket to start her monologue. Something deeper than food and poop issues, something about being left behind or ignored.

            “Why must you sit at the computer instead of giving me scratchies and a lap to sleep on?” she’ll cry. “Why must you ignore me when I clearly want you to throw this toy for me, so I can catch it and taunt you with it?”

            I listen to Cricket growling and crying and rolling her R’s and I feel like “ain’t that the truth.” It’s not that I always know what she means or what story she’s trying to tell, but whatever she’s feeling, I can feel it vibrating in my bones.

Cricket gets Fixed

 

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            When Cricket was six months old, it was time for her to go to the vet to get spayed. She’d had all of her shots and reached the required weight and the earlier we got it done the less traumatic it would be for her, or so they said.

            My previous dog, Dina, didn’t get spayed until she was eight years old, because my father forbade it. We had to wait until my parents split up and Dina came with me and mom before we could take her to the vet and even find out if the operation would be safe, or helpful at her age. She’d spent years having false pregnancies and hormonal mood swings that left her half crazed and hiding under beds. Finally having the operation meant that her second eight years were much calmer, and happier than her first eight.

            I wanted to do everything right with Cricket and we had no plans to breed her, so the surgery was in her best interest, health and mood wise, but it still seemed wrong to make such a big life decision without her input. It seemed wrong to call such a surgery “being fixed,” as if humans would feel like they were improved by becoming sterile.

            I was conflicted, but we decided to get the operation done anyway.

            The long day started for me the night before the surgery, when we had to search out all of her treats and rawhides and put them away so she couldn’t sneak food after nine o’clock – because having food in her belly would make anesthesia dangerous. No one said she could die, but that’s how it reverberated in my head. I trusted the vet, and the girls who worked in his office, but I was still afraid. They might lose her special squeaky toy, or cut the wrong things out. Or they could return the wrong dog to me and I wouldn’t know the difference.

As soon as we’d dropped her off at the vet the next morning, I went home and started cleaning the apartment; the floors in particular, because Cricket liked to participate too much, chewing on my hands, fighting the broom, destroying the mop, and barking at the vacuum cleaner. This was my one chance to get the work done, unobstructed.

            But with each passing hour, I felt younger and more anxious in the silence of no puppy. I didn’t feel like a warrior mother, ready to break down the walls of the animal hospital if they hurt my baby. I felt inexplicably helpless. Cricket was my fluffy, happy girl, full of life and full of piss and vinegar, and I was afraid that the surgery would change that about her, depress her, make her too much like me.

            We called the vet at One thirty in the afternoon, to see how the surgery went, and they said she was fine and sitting up in her cage, but would need a few hours to recover before we could take her home. I should have felt relieved, but I didn’t. I couldn’t relax, or focus on much of anything. I grated sweet potatoes for a new latke recipe, walked to the library for knitting books, vacuumed again, but I kept thinking: I want puppy. Where is puppy?

            We had to wait a while when we reached the vet’s office, because they’d found her chewing on her stitches and had to clean her up all over again, and add the plastic Elizabethan collar to stop her from reaching the stitches. When they brought her out, she pawed the collar off her head onto the floor. So that was a few more minutes of figuring out how to loop the plastic collar through her own collar to make it stay on and, finally, she was ready to come home.

            I examined her in the backseat of the car while mom drove: her scar was raw, like meat, as if her skin was on inside out. The stitches were black.

            She struggled walking into the house because she couldn’t see past the collar to figure out where the walls were. And she was exhausted. I carried her to her puppy bed, but even then, she couldn’t get comfortable.

            But once the drugs wore off and her stitches started to heal, she was puppy all over again. She didn’t roll her eyes at me and point at her scar and say, Bad Mommy, the way I expected her to. She only hated me a little, and she milked it for a few weeks, asking for extra treats and scratchies and curling up with grandma whenever possible. And of course she healed. I’m just not sure I did.

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