What to Do About Wilson

by Geoff Williams

What to Do About Wilson

We’ll do anything for love. I think that’s why I listened to my girlfriend and future wife, Susan, when she urged me to buy the brown-and-white Shetland sheepdog fluffball in the pet store on a rainy summer day. I wanted to make Susan happy, and as I held the bundle of fur that panted and wagged his tail and hoped so much that I’d take him home, well, I lost all sense of reason. We named him Wilson. As with so many couples, the dog became our first baby: “Look, he’s rolling on his back  — isn’t he cute?” “Look, he’s pooping outside for the first time!” Wilson was helping to bring Susan and me closer together. We took him to dog parks. We played Frisbee with him. We all went on picnics next to babbling brooks under shady trees. Susan and I still lived separately, so Wilson stayed with me. When I worked at my computer, he would lie down on my lap or, when he was a little bigger, under my feet. He barked and jumped up and down, practically doing back flips, whenever I came home; he whined miserably when I left. He had a stuffed carrot  — inexplicably named Gary  — that he used to chew on and carry everywhere, even after all the stuffing had fallen out. He slept at the foot of my bed. I’d pretend to fight with him over the TV remote, occasionally giving in and turning on Animal Planet. Even though he ravaged my apartment, chewing the drapes and soiling the carpet beyond repair, costing me a small fortune when I moved out, he was still a good dog and a good friend. I loved him.

After Susan and I were married, though, and expecting our first child, I found myself worrying about Wilson. As sweet as he was, I had begun to notice a dark side.

In the early days, when Wilson and I lived alone in my apartment, he would bark at anyone who walked down the alley behind my back patio door. Sure, all dogs do that, but Wilson’s teeth were always bared, and there was something a little sinister about him, as if he were the Hannibal Lecter of the canine set. He almost seemed to take the presence of passersby personally. And then there was the hat. If I wore a baseball cap, Wilson would start to growl. Once, my brother was clowning around and put on a big sombrero, and Wilson barked and chased him onto the kitchen table. It was then that we decided that perhaps, in his puppy days, Wilson had been abused by some terrible person in a hat.

After Susan and I bought our first house (with a large fenced-in yard that Wilson could play in), I thought his mental health would improve. But if anything, he became more suspicious of strangers  — and even of people he knew. One day, Wilson was barking and snarling through the fence at a neighbor’s dog, and to my horror, my very educated adult neighbor took leave of her senses and reached through the fence to try to pet him. He bit her. The wound was small but the experience was extremely unsettling. We took Wilson to our veterinarian, who prescribed him an antidepressant.

In addition to medication, we thought that perhaps having a doggie friend would help soften Wilson, which is how Nellie, a big, black mutt, came into our lives. But as Susan’s pregnancy progressed and Wilson remained unchanged, we began taking him to a trainer, an expensive one who taught us how to give our pet massages. Slowly and surely, it was happening: I was begrudging Wilson. I barely had enough money to buy myself new socks, but our dog was on Prozac and had his own personal masseuse. It didn’t seem fair. But he was our Wilson.

Geoff Williams is a Babytalk contributing editor.

“What happened?”

Not long after our little girl, Isabelle, was born, while she and Susan were still in the hospital, I brought the baby’s blanket to the house and let Wilson and Nellie sniff it. When Susan and Isabelle came home, we introduced everyone very slowly, allowing the dogs to smell the baby carrier, with Isabelle inside, and gave them treats when they responded nicely. Everybody seemed to get along.

But there was a strange dynamic in the house. Wilson seemed wary but respectful of Isabelle, while Nellie acted like she was the baby’s mother. Whenever Wilson would go near Isabelle, Nellie would block his way and bark, as if she knew something about his intentions that we didn’t. Susan and I became more and more uncomfortable with Wilson, each of us half-wondering if maybe one of our friends might want to adopt a cute, shaggy Shetland sheepdog. But we cringed at the thought of him possibly biting someone else, especially a child. Without anything other than a gut feeling to go on, sending Wilson off to a shelter didn’t seem like the right thing to do. He might be adopted by a family with young kids. And putting Wilson down seemed unthinkable. After all, he had been fine around Isabelle. Perhaps the training, the Prozac, and other measures we took made a difference.

And so we plodded on, cautiously watching Wilson whenever he was near Isabelle. Everything was harmonious until a few weeks before our second daughter, Lorelei, was born, about two years later: Wilson and Nellie got into a nasty brawl over some food just a few feet away from Isabelle. Blood was shed between the dogs, and we knew that Wilson had started it. Suddenly, I felt like we had real evidence that Wilson was a threat to our child’s and our future baby’s safety.

Immediately, I insisted that Wilson had to go. “If that means they have to put him down, so be it,” I said, wincing at the idea. But I meant it. Even more surprising, Susan agreed with me. She had been Wilson’s most fervent defender  — Perry Mason would have given up on the dog long before Susan did  — but she felt that we had had a close call and couldn’t ignore our uneasy feelings any longer. She took Wilson to the vet the next morning. I hugged him goodbye, wiped away a tear, and wished things had worked out differently. Still, after Susan drove off with Wilson, all I felt was utter relief. We were safe.

Three days later, Wilson was back.

Since he had bitten a dog, not a person, the vets were reluctant to end his life. They said they’d look for another home for him, but instead called us daily to ask if we wanted him back. Susan crumbled and brought him home, along with a “lodging” bill for $200.

I forgave Wilson, and even decided things had worked out for the best. All was quiet for several more months, and Wilson was mostly the perfect dog, sedate and sweet and happy to lie at my feet as I worked. Lorelei was born, and we introduced the dogs to her without any problems.

Until one day. Wilson was curled up on my wife’s lap on the couch when Isabelle decided she wanted to snuggle with Susan, too. As our daughter climbed closer to her mom, Wilson, apparently feeling cornered, lunged at her and bit her tiny hand. I didn’t see much  — just a flash of teeth  — but I heard the snarl. It was all over in half a second. Susan hugged Isabelle, and I glared at Wilson, infuriated. I hated Wilson, but I also hated myself for hating him. I knew that in his little dog brain, he thought he was doing the right thing, maybe defending Susan or defending his turf. He actually seemed repentant afterward.

“What happened?” Isabelle kept asking. All through the night, I heard her repeat those words. The injury wasn’t bad, just a small red scratch, but that was enough. We knew immediately that Wilson’s days  — make that hours  — in our house were numbered. Saying goodbye the next day was much worse than the previous time. Before Wilson got into the car, I picked up my little friend and buried my face in his fur, hoping that that would make everything feel better. It didn’t. I put him in the passenger seat, filled with guilt. Panting, Wilson stared at me with his big eyes. He knows, I kept thinking. He may not know what’s going to happen, but he still knows he did something wrong, and he knows he’s not coming back. I held Lorelei, with Isabelle standing beside me, and we watched Susan drive away with Wilson. Inside the house, Nellie was quiet, apparently puzzled by the absence of her furry pal. Isabelle started playing with blocks. I just held Lorelei, thinking how quiet the house suddenly felt and realizing there were memories of Wilson everywhere: his dog bowl in the kitchen, photos of him on the fireplace mantel, and on the living room floor, near one of Isabelle’s dolls, was an orange rag, the only thing left of Gary, the beloved shredded and once-stuffed carrot.

It was over quickly, Susan told me afterward, on the cell phone, through tears. She had held Wilson, apologizing over and over, as the vet’s needle injected poison into his bloodstream. But I found that I had no apologies to make when I heard through the grapevine that one of our relatives, an avid animal lover, disapproved of our decision. She isn’t a parent yet, and I know that in the end, we had to put our kids first, even if it meant saying farewell to an old friend. We will, after all, do anything for love. But, yes, I wish things could have been different, and when my eyes fall on one of the many photos we have of Wilson, it’s difficult to look for too long. I feel like we failed him, and I sure felt that way when my wife took him away in the car. As they backed out of the driveway, I didn’t take my eyes off Wilson, remembering him as that little fluffball at the pet store. I kept thinking of Isabelle’s question and agreeing with her: What happened?