My Life As A Parent

Father Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J.

I was in doctoral studies at Michigan State when I received a phone call from my veterinarian-friend. Without much of a greeting, he blurted out: "How'd you like to have a boxer puppy?" Delighted a the thought (because my family had one when I was a child), but aware that my life as a Catholic priest would pose many obstacles to owning one, I responded: "Oh, Alex, I could never take care of a dog with my lifestyle being what it is. Why do you ask?"

He told me that one of his clients had brought in the sickliest puppy of a large litter, and had requested that it be euthanized. Prior to administering the injection, he hesitated, and thought the little fellow really didn't deserve such a fate. After all, it might survive if it was with someone willing to devote the time to its care. That's when he called me.

Hearing my response, he said, 'Okay, just thought I'd ask." His earlier, enthusiastic tone of voice had turned coldly professional. Before he could hang up, I said: "Does this mean you're going to put him to sleep?" He answered in a dead monotone: "yes." Not wanting to hang up, I asked: "What's he doing right now, Alex, and what does he look like?"

I heard my friend move from the phone as if turning away. Back at the receiver, he said: "Well, a boxer puppy who weighs about seven pounds is sitting on a table about ten feet from me. In fact, he's looking at me with that furrowed brow all boxers have. They have such a serious-looking face you'd think he knew what we were talking about."

Throwing caution to the wind, I volunteered to try and get the dog healthy until a proper home could be found for it. Two hours later, the carrying-cage arrived. I opened the swinging door, and out tripped a little boxer puppy whose quivering legs and forlorn look prompted me simply to say: "You pathetic little thing!"

As if to understand what I said, and perhaps resentful of my judgment, he immediately emptied his bladder on my new carpet.

What had I done? My only previous experience of caring for creatures was limited to goldfish and turtles. l had a dissertation to write, church services to conduct, and appointments that required time and travel! How could I possibly attend to the needs of this emaciated puppy?

After sniffing every nook and cranny of my quarters (while I simply watched and wondered why I ever agreed to taking him), this orphan pup returned in front of me, scratched himself, and sat down to look up at my bewildered expression. Although silent, he seemed to be asking with his peculiarly serious face: "well, what are we going to do now?"

"Okay, little dog, you need a name you can grow into, a name that will give you a better self-image than the one you probably have. You seem to do a lot of sniffing around, so maybe you should be Mr. Sniff sniff. On the other I and, when you trip over your paws, it seems your name should be Wimpy.' I think you need a name that sounds more boxer-ish, or a name that will give you self-confidence. Okay, I'll name you 'Spike'."

As time passed, my little friend ended up sporting several names. Because I thought he needed ego boosting, I started calling him "Mr. Best," and after his ego eventually surpassed that of most humans, he barked as if to tell me this name was his favorite. In low-sounding utterances, he seemed to echo my call: "Moofta . . . Booft."

Eventually, I called him a variety of names--"Good One," "Mr. So Good," "Mr. Excitement," or "Mr. Wiggly-waggly." He also responded with great interest to my saying the "do you want a cookie?" (this reference was to an edible treat of some kind). It was a powerful word--able to bring him to me in lightening speed, and sit in front of me--attentive, and tensely alert. His expression seemed to say: "I am the best dog in the world, and I very much deserve that cookie you hold. P-le-a-s-e, may I have it?"

The ritual was always the same, and it's probably one that all dog owners know well. I'd hand him the treat. and it would disappear behind crunching sounds that emanated from a face that was lost in a dreamland of taste. After finding every crumb that might have fallen from his mouth, he'd obediently sit and silently plead with me for another one.

It was quite a sight to see those first months. I walked across campus every day, accompanied by the most patetic-looking, "wimpiest" boxer that one could imagine. A string was leash enough for this little creature of God's who, I gradually learned, had more "spunk" than his appearance first suggested.

Mr. Sniff-sniff relished every day. In fact, two years after giving him to me, my vet friend watched Spike take his afternoon spin around a large, campus meadow and remarked: "He sure turned out to be a marvelous specimen. I'm sorry I neutered him."

I had taken good care of him, yes, but it was Spike who made of me a doting parent. I was a priest whose only family was this young dog-"child." My home was his, and the pitter-patter of little paws was a nightly serenade I valued deep in my heart.

Wherever I went, Spike was with me. He would sit vigilant behind the steering-wheel when I stopped at a store. He would remain patiently in the car if whomever I visited did not appreciate his presence inside their house. His expression (so characteristic of boxer faces) was always that of being attentively concerned about whatever I "discussed" with him in private.

I lived in a one-story building which served as a day care center for children between the ages of three and six--all of whom received their fair share of "kisses" from their boxer-friend whose play-space was next to theirs in the field outside.

On numerous occasions, one of the little people at the daycare center would notice me walking through their playroom and announce to everyone: "there's the daddy of the doggie!" Just as their fathers would do, so would I (at the end of a day), come to get Spike and bring him inside.

Unfortunately, some parents would make the mistake of cutting across the field to join their child at the playground. They would be stopped by the children's self-appointed protector, the ever gentle, but now fiercely defensive, alert and intimidating Spike. He would strain on his chain--ready to bolt at whoever tried to violate the playground of his little companions.

The scenario would always be the same. A day care worker would rush to get me, and anxiously explain that "Spike has stopped another parent and won't let them get their child." I would hurry outside to see a mom or dad "frozen" in the field, a few feet away from their child's playground, with Spike blocking their passage. As irritated as the parents were with my pup's paralyzing appearance from out of nowhere, I would like to think that upon reflection, they were consoled to know the children would never have to contend with an unwanted intruder.

By the grace of a God whose heaven I know includes dogs, my assignment after studies was to serve as counselor at a high school. My apartment was right in the school, and few objected to "the priest's dog" thrown into the bargain. As a result, Spike was (for five years) a fixture in the hallways and classrooms.

The fears of new students were allayed by "veterans" who would drag them to the now-imposing boxer. The older student would say: "Don't be scared. This is Spike. He won't hurt you. He just wants to sniff you, and he'll protect you." A hand would slowly move toward my pup, and receive his black, wet, sniffing nose, along with kisses from a pink tongue. His fast-wagging stub of a tail signaled boxer happiness. Eventually, a high school student's voice would be heard saying: "I think he likes me and wants to play with me." How often I wished I could communicate such instant friendliness to people.

Indeed, it was curious that Spike inevitably stopped anyone in the hallway who was not a "regular" in the school. He would frequently walk with 500 students during exchange of classes, but any visitor he would detect and halt--dead in their tracks! Sometimes, of course, this made moments a bit tense--like the evening in darkened corridor he ripped the pant-leg of a substitute security guard. Thankfully, the man dismissed the incident saying: "I raise dogs myself and should have known better. He did what he was supposed to do."

When I first acquired Spike, my vet friend's dad (also a vet) said: "He'll have a lot of energy for about eight years and then he'll go downhill real quickly." His words rang ever so true when only two months after his eighth birthday, my little friend faded. I needn't recount the progression of his illness, but the memory of my last "nose-to-nose" with him before he died (in his sleep) is etched in my heart. I did not want to let him go, but his eyes told me it was time.

My vet friend arranged for Spike's committal under a spruce tree (one I know he would have liked), and the two of us stood there at the grave as I tearfully choked out a prayer: "Bye, puppy. Be there to greet me when God calls me I know I'll be in heaven if you're there ready to play, and run, and give me a welcome lick."

My little pup, and constant companion of eight years, had made me a better person, and better priest, than I was before that day my friend asked: "How'd you like to have a boxer puppy?"

Read other thoughtful articles by Father Michael F. Steltenkamp, S.J.