I’ve done more dog sitting than I can remember over the past twenty-some years in homes across New York City. I’ve also covered cats. The rest of the time I spend walking, which is what I was doing when called into service.
Giving a daily constitutional down Hudson Street to a sweet little guy whose tribal trail extended to points canine and feline - billed as “the hairless lion dog” until a century ago - I got a call from a friend asking if I could please foster this pug while his dad went to the hospital. Of course I could. It would be an honor to receive a direct male heir to ancient court pets of Chinese emperors (or so the breeders claim in their sales pitches), not purchased but recently given to this elderly man, one of the few long-term HIV survivors left in Greenwich Village. D. the pug, along with four close cousins, was no longer wanted by a local bartender who, despite their blue blood, dispersed them all in one moment of reckless abandon. The fate of the others remains a mystery, but D. was a lucky dog to land in this nice man’s arms where he’s been loved and cared for ever since - as any dog, regardless of social background, deserves.
D.’s dad checked into the hospital for tests and I brought his best friend home with me after picking up a bag of his favorite kibble and some treats along the way. For all anyone knew, we could be in this relationship for the long haul, or maybe just a night or two. D. sniffed around my apartment and lifted the obligatory leg on a chair leg as a sort of housewarming gift, a not unusual gesture from male dogs. I helped break the ice with an organic dog biscuit and a bowl of imported water. Round and roly-poly with his inflated, rippled, Michelin-Man body, D. was bursting at the seams that night to discover he even had bed privileges. Though he probably would have preferred cuddling with his dad, he slowly summoned the courage, and energy, to catapult his dwarfed, athletically-challenged hulk onto the bed with a grunt. “Don’t worry,” I tried to assure the poor wanderling by my side, already orphaned at least twice since birth and understandably concerned. “He’ll be coming home real soon,” I said in an upbeat tone that kept D. bouncing happily on the mattress without a care in the world.
Being designed less for living than looks, D. was assuming the best position he could to open an air passage and aid his breathing, a practical matter of his own survival
I’d ‘been with’ dogs of just about brand of flesh and fur fashionable in the last twenty-some years, but this was the first time I’d had a pug in close quarters. D. rolled a few more times across the bed, then tried digging into one corner of the comforter while making those abrasive gurgling noises so unsettling to novices but normal for the breed, we’re told by veteran puggists. His energy waning, perhaps to save breath he sat, titling his truncated towhead oddly upward as though watching a plane blink across my skylight twenty feet up.
Had I not been lying by D.’s side but standing in a more conventional human-with-dog pose, I might have been flattered to believe this tyke was gazing up at me loyally with admiration, as slaves to the exotic charms of this breed are quick to misinterpret a very puggish posture. Being designed less for living than looks, D. was assuming the best position he could to open an air passage and aid his breathing, a practical matter of his own survival and no reflection on humans, at least not positive. Pugs are even known to fall asleep sitting up in this awkward and unnatural state with heads balanced precariously - normal for the breed, vets agree with veteran puggists.
What with D.’s endless coughing and wheezing, sleep for both of us came in slim, labored rations that night, scraps tossed by some butcher in a back alley. The eventual snoring meant that D. was finally under but I was wide awake again. D.’s dives into dreamland were cut short each time he rose abruptly, not for a drink of water but to come up for air. He soon grew tired of sitting up and laid down, then sat up again, head tilted tropistically at the moon shining through my roof’s aperture like a doctor’s flashlight. Never finding peace or comfort, my pug in passing spent the night in these lunar cycles, plopping down exhausted, then bobbing up again, still tired and in search of relief, only to fall again and try sleeping normally until too little oxygen became too much for him - again, normal for the breed.
D. didn’t look at all like the court paintings I’d seen. A cross between a gremlin and Jabba the Hutt, every feature exaggerated to an extreme, here was the crowd-pleasing Hollywood remake of the pug of historical fame
I’d slept with cats before. Two furballs curled up on each side of my head purring their hearts out gave me the best night’s sleep I’d ever had. The loud rumbling from this dog’s misleadingly small frame was different, a noise inspired not by feelings of trust or tranquility but issued from some obstruction. Exhales smelled rancid like rotting carrion - once again, normal for the breed, due to the flatness of the face that fans find cute. A source of quirky behaviors and cartoon effects, a deficiency of face means not only trouble breathing but insufficient room in the mouth to house a pug’s teeth, the same number of them as a wolf’s but without the ample, snipy snout nature intended. Teeth overcrowded, they loosen and decay from a tender age if not constantly maintained, and often even if - normal for the breed.
I myself finally sat up, frazzled without sleep, as the sun peeked over the Manhattan skyline. D. was already sitting, humming like a buzz saw with each unpromising gasp for air. I couldn’t tell if he was asleep or awake so reached over and scratched behind one of his black, velveteen ears. He started abruptly again, then turned and looked up at me with big, bloodshot bug-eyes full of pus in the full morning light. D. didn’t look at all like the court paintings I’d seen. A cross between a gremlin and Jabba the Hutt, every feature exaggerated to an extreme, here was the crowd-pleasing Hollywood remake of the pug of historical fame. Somewhere behind those opulent folds of luxuriant drapery, those deep canyons of excess skin that, like his eyes, must be constantly maintained or infected, somewhere inside that crushed-in cranium, under that freakishly-flat face, beyond that contorted torso, the mangled spine, the twisted bonsai legs and tail - I awakened to see what others can’t or don’t want to imagine.
Pay no attention to that dog behind the curtain.
Michael Brandow is a dog walker in Greenwich Village. His latest book is A Matter of Breeding: A Biting History of Pedigree Dogs and How the Quest for Status Has Harmed Man’s Best Friend (Gerald Duckworth and Company Ltd, 2016).