It was a balmy Saturday afternoon in late-August, and I had saddled up to the bar at Chelby’s Pizza to catch the Red Sox game and knock back a couple of cold ones. I was enjoying my last days of summer before school began and I returned to the classroom.
My phone rang, and it was my teenage daughter, Paige. It seemed strange that she would call; usually anything she needs to communicate to me is done through a text message or a sardonic meme. I answered right away. “Is everything okay, honey?”
“Daaaaaaaad.” Uh-oh. She wanted something. “We’re at the pet store, and there’s this puppy. He’s a pug and —”
“We’re not getting a dog,” I said and ended the call.
It’s not that I was some ogre who hated animals; however, I knew nothing about training dogs and all I could picture were dog-crap landmines planted throughout the house, dog urine soaking the carpets upstairs. Besides, they were at a pet store, meaning the puppy wasn’t going to be cheap.
A minute later, my phone rang again. “The answer is no,” I said.
Now, Paige was in tears, really laying it on. “But Dad, I love him already. I promise, I’ll take full responsibility for training him and taking him out in the mornings.”
(I’m willing to bet any parents reading that line just rolled their eyes.)
“We’re not getting a dog.”
“But Mom said it was up to you,” Paige cried.
So that’s what we were dealing with: my wife Liz had thrown me squarely under the bus, positioning me as the villain. “We’re not getting a dog,” I said, standing firm, then hung up and turned off my phone, enjoying the rest of the ballgame from my stoop on the barstool.
Later that afternoon, when I arrived home, there was a scrum of bodies on the front lawn, circling around a diminutive flat-faced beige and black pug with a red collar two sizes too big for his neck. I made my way up the driveway onto the fringes of the scrum in complete anonymity. So enamored by the puppy, no one in my family — my wife, my daughter, my stepdaughter or my son — seemed to notice my arrival.
“Whose dog is that?” I asked the group, silently seething.
They all froze in unison. “Dad, don’t be mad,” Paige said and held the tiny animal for me to see. “Isn’t he adorable? We named him Buster.”
I looked at the dog, and the dog looked back at me with these droopy, watery eyes. Listen, I’m not a complete curmudgeon — of course he was cute. Puppies are cute. But it was beside the point that my wishes had been blatantly ignored, and now this tiny pug would live in my house and undermine my authority.
I turned to Liz, who wouldn’t meet my eyes. “I thought we weren’t getting a dog,” I said to her.
“I know, but he’s so cute,” she said and leaned in to kiss Buster on the head.
I threw up my hands then went inside to sulk.
I’m not going to lie. The fact that I was now, by default, a “pug owner” put a dent in my fragile masculinity. Pugs are small dogs known for their unconditional devotion and love, but not exactly the type of dog a man brings on a fishing trip or proudly marches through his neighborhood.
I could already imagine the ridicule I’d receive from my Labrador/pitbull/German Shepard owning guy friends. The words of Ron Swanson from “Parks and Recreation” played like a Greek chorus in the back of my head: “Any dog under 50 lbs. is a cat, and cats are pointless.”
Therefore, for the first few months, I kept Buster’s addition to the household on the down-low, telling few people that we’d purchased a dog.
The other thing about the pug breed is that they are not exactly the brightest creatures on the planet. Sweet and loving? Yes. Intelligent? Not by a long shot. Therefore, one might imagine how potty training Buster went, especially in a house where no one had any real experience training dogs. This only exacerbated my frustrations.
Additionally, Liz — who quickly began to like the dog more than she liked me — insisted that Buster sleep in the bed with us. While he didn’t take up a prodigious amount of space, he still found ways to hog the blankets, and due to their flat faces, pugs are notorious for nasal problems, and Buster snored like a 70-year-old man with sleep apnea.
He also moved positions throughout the night, so on any given morning, I might also awake with a pug ass square in my face.
Then something unexpected happened.
A little under a year after we got him, my family went to stay with some of my wife’s relatives in Canada for a week, a trip I couldn’t make, which left Buster and me home alone, together. In the course of those seven days, I really started to warm up to the little guy.
I learned a lot about Buster that week — not that he’s an overly complex animal — but we shared many of the same interests. For example, both Buster and I like to sleep, and we both really like cheese. And at night in the empty house, I enjoyed having Buster beside me on the couch while I watched the baseball games and shared cheese slices with him.
As I get older, I’m learning to say to hell with the prefabricated and suffocating concepts of manliness, and I can now unabashedly say the following: I’m a pug owner. His name is Buster. And I’ve come to really like the little guy.
The other morning, I awoke with pug ass in my face, Liz’s arm draped around the dog. During the night, the air conditioner in our bedroom had stopped, and the room was stuffy and uncomfortable.
“Buster, move,” I said, tired and irascible, getting up to restart the AC.
Liz stirred from sleep. “Don’t yell at him,” she said. “He does nothing but love. Don’t you love him?”
I chuckled and sat on the edge of the bed, rubbing the pug’s head. “Buster,” I said and he looked up to me. “Do you want some cheese?”
You can view more pictures of Buster on his Instagram: @bbusterthepug