By Robert Stahl
Growing up, my family kept our dogs outdoors, which is too bad. Because now that I’m older, I know there’s nothing like the bond that develops with a dog kept indoors. Jim and I brought Nelson home at six-weeks old, a spunky bulldog with foggy blue eyes and a wrinkled muzzle that smelled faintly of sour milk. Over time, his eyes would deepen into a warm chestnut brown, and his role would evolve, from a mischievous scamp into a ferocious protector and beloved family member. Sharing close quarters with another living being like this, one grows acutely attuned to the other’s moods, irritations and habits. For the most part, our days with the dog follow a set of routines, but one is dearer to our hearts than all the others. It’s our suppertime ritual. Probably it’s his favorite as well.
You see, we sing to Nelson to at feeding time.
Like, every single time.
Yep, once in the morning and then again in the evening, like we’re living in a freaking Broadway musical or something. We started when he was a puppy, and somehow eleven years later, we just never stopped. The song, which we’ve affectionately titled “Suppertime, Suppertime,” is one we’ve passed off to Nelson as an original, but in truth, is a complete rip-off. The real song, titled “Summertime, Summertime,” was recorded back in the late ‘50s and has been used in TV commercials to sell everything from Buicks to mattresses. Our version has different words. Most importantly, it is sung loudly and with complete abandon, and, since neither my partner nor I happen to be particularly talented vocalists, probably comes off as an assault to the ears of anyone within range. We feel sorry for our neighbors, and particularly for the mailman, who has had the misfortune of showing up at our door at the wrong time on certain evenings.
No matter what others think, Nelson is powerless to resist. Our singing always brings him galloping down the hallway, mouth gaping and tongue flapping, a silvery rope of drool dangling from his lips. He’s been taught to sit at his dish as the requisite scoops are dispersed, one of the few he commands he’s successfully learned over the years. And though he has every right to be bored with his food—having eaten the same brand all these years—he can hardly contain his excitement: His body weight shifts eagerly from paw to paw while he watches with hungry eyes, and his ginger-colored fur seemingly quivers with anticipation.
It’s nice, that moment of control.
Enjoy it, because it never lasts.
At the word “Go!” Nelson lunges forward, shoves his head down into the dish, and begins dragging his jaw across the bottom. The purpose of this technique is to introduce as much kibble into his mouth as possible, and it always brings to mind an image of those mechanical excavators at construction sites. The muscles in his shoulders bulge as he works his neck back and forth, clumsily knocking stray pieces onto the floor in the process. Once his cheeks are full, he lifts his snout, gulps it all down, and then drops down into the dish to continue his feeding.
Such a display of gluttony might be completely disgusting if not for the snuffling sound he makes while he’s eating. It’s the cutest thing ever, like a pig rooting for truffles, or so one imagines. Plus, there’s the amusing look on his face about sixty seconds later when the dish turns up empty. At this point, he shifts his attention to the floor, where he starts hunting down the knocked-out pieces. This includes nudging nearby objects if he suspects them to be harboring a stray morsel. Like, say, a table leg. Or your foot. He can sniff out the tiniest piece even if you can’t see it, like maybe one that’s become lodged under his water bowl. If this happens, it’s best to lift the bowl to let him check, else you’re going to find it empty later in the middle of the kitchen, a trail of water spilled along the way.
As entertaining as the ritual is, it always brings a degree of tension. One imagines any number of bad things that might happen when a dog inhales his food in such a manner. For example, he could choke. Or get stomach bloat, an often-fatal condition that’s caused by too much unchewed food. We obsessed on these fears for several weeks before investing in a slow-feed dish. The dish has an inverted dome in the middle that limits the feeding space to a donut-shaped area. (Imagine a Bundt pan.) At twice the price of a regular dish, it slows his feedings down by maybe a third, which isn’t much, but better than nothing.
Anyway, it’s not like we want to change him too much, because his appetite is one of his more endearing qualities. He’s an “Eat-first-ask-questions-later,” kind of dog. Plus, we’re guilty of being his enablers. He’ll scarf down just about anything we hand him: gummi worms, sushi, almonds. He loves fruit, everything from apples to watermelons, and even chomps down on vegetables. Thank God, he’s got the sense to chew the table food we give him, and often he does so with an intensity that’s almost scary. (I’m happy I’m not a carrot.)
No, feeding times are never dull around our house.
As repetitive as these habits are, they’re easy to take for granted. Now that Nelson is in his golden years, he doesn’t bound down the hallway like he used to. He’s much slower, and moves with a stiffness in his joints from arthritis. In the past, his post-suppertime activities might include finding a Frisbee to entice us to play with him, but now he’s as likely to plop down for a good, long nap. There are other signs that he’s aging, like a haziness in his eyes, a sullying of temperament, and frost-colored hairs along his chin—all signs that the years are taking their toll. It’s not unimaginable that one day, he’ll sprawl out in front of his dish and give us that look that says, Thanks, but I’m just not hungry today. On that day, and only on that day, will we stop singing—if only to avoid putting undue pressure on this loving animal whose only desire has been to please us.
Until then, you can expect to hear the suppertime song anytime you’re close to our house.