Rocky Balboa’s Guide to Puppy Love

I was delighted to see Sylvester Stallone accept his well-deserved Golden Globe Award for Creed earlier this month. But he missed a golden opportunity to give a “Yo Adrian, I did it!” shout out to the heart and soul of the Rocky franchise. Even though she’s been absent from the last 2 films, and wasn’t verbally present in the first one, there’s no denying that Rocky I-VII could never have gone the distance without Yo Adrian’s love.

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My shy, animal-loving daughter Melanie reminds me of Adrian. If you recall, Adrian was just a shy pet-store lady working at J & M Tropical Fish when she first met Rocky. It was Rocky’s love for his pet turtles–Cuff and Link–that brought him to the pet store. But it was his affection toward the store’s resident bullmastiff, Butkus, that really endeared Adrian to the future heavyweight champ and star of Stop or My Mom Will Shoot! I think Adrian fell in love with Rocky because she loved the way he loved Butkus.

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Maybe Paul McCartney was on to something when he said “You can judge a man’s true character by the way he treats his fellow animals.” In the process, you just might fall in love like Adrian did.

Before I get back to why this all reminds me of my daughter Melanie, I need to first defend myself against an oft-repeated claim that’s dogged me for years. While it’s true I’m not a card-carrying “animal lover”, I’m certainly not an animal hater’s gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate. Yes, it’s true I didn’t own my first pet ’til I was 35. Also true, an errant bird did spring to life in the back seat of my Nissan Sentra. And I did bolt from the car, in the middle of an intersection, arms flailing about while screaming “Take that, you winged spawn of Satan!”

However, that doesn’t make me an animal hater. In fact, I have 3 very reasonable explanations for why it took me so long to own a pet. First, my mom never let us own a dog or cat growing up. Second, the pets we did own were more accident-prone than the lawyers in John Grisham’s The Firm. And third, I seriously thought there was a serial pet killer in my family. Like the time when…..

  • I watched in horror as my sister’s rabbit, Charky, got mauled to death by an escaped German shepherd. Sure it was the dog’s fault. But it was my father who built the rabbit coup, so I guess I always felt like it was an inside job.
  • Our tropical fish aquarium was deep-fried like a Long John Silver pub bucket. Mom claimed to have “accidentally” turned up the tank’s temperature while cleaning it. I contend that she “hit puree”.
  • My Daisy-Red-Rider-owning brother repeatedly fired bee bees at our neighbor’s donkey, Peanut. You’ve never heard a “HEEEE-HAAAAWWWW” until it comes from the mouth of a jackass who’s just been shot in his peanuts.
  • My sister’s parakeet, Tweety, died shortly after my parents purchased low-priced bird food at the Chester Flea Market. It turns out the box of bird food in question had expired 8 years before Tweety did.

Remarkably, my siblings were unscathed by memories of our “sometimes-dead-is-better” pet cemetery. In fact, they all welcomed their own pets as soon as they left home…

My sister Cindy:
Her love for animals knows no bounds. Like Ace Ventura: Pet Rescuer, she’s owned countless rabbits, a one-eyed pug named Pugsley, a Syberian Husky named Lakota, a turtle named Topanga, a parakeet named PJ, and Smokey: a cat with feline AIDS.

My sister Sherry:
She owned a black lab named Jake who wasn’t just the “family dog”, he was the “neighborhood dog.” When Jake passed, the whole neighborhood cried. Jake was quickly replaced by another dog named Kitty who, understandably, deals with identity issues. Ironically, I think she might also have a cat named Dog.

My brother Brett:
He owned a dog named Buford and it was Buford who taught me that dogs can catch ADHD from their owners. Technically, Buford was a boxer, but I say he was the reincarnation of Mike Myer’s “Phillip-the Hyper-Hypo Boy”. 

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When Brett was in acting school, I used to walk Buford…which is to say Buford used to walk ME. Instead of a leash, I used one of those back-brace harnesses that deep-sea fishermen use to haul in blue marlin. And even after 2 hernias, I grew to enjoy Buford…and the day that Brett put Buford down, I cried.

Today I still cry when I go to Brett’s home because his American bulldog Memphis rapes me. Don’t get me wrong, Memphis is a wonderful family dog. He’s also a projectile slobberer. And not in a Turner and Hooch shoelace slobber way. It’s more like: if you enter Brett’s home wearing dark pants, you exit wearing Ross Gellar’s leather “paste pants.”

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All kidding aside, I learned a lot about pet-loving from my siblings. I learned how they become a part of your family and how there’s a major void when they leave your family. But I didn’t truly know what “puppy love” was until I watched my daughter Melanie fall in love with our dog Scruffy.

“Once you have had a wonderful dog, a life without one is a life diminished.”
—Dean Koontz

As a pre-tonsillectomy gift to my oldest son, Scruffy joined our clan in August of 2007. Scruffy is a Cavachon, which is a mix between a King Charles Cavalier and a hamster.

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While my son will always be our dog’s “owner” and protector, Scruffy is officially “Mel’s best friend”. It was love at first sight for Melanie, and our shy little girl is never happier or chattier than when she’s with Scruffy or telling a silly Scruffy story.

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Which brings me back to why I brought up Adrian and Rocky in the first place.

Just as I believe Adrian fell in love with Rocky because of how much he loved Butkus, I fell in love with Scruffy because I loved the way Melanie loved Scruffy. Her love for Scruffy is that “first thing I want to see when I wake up/last thing before I go to bed” kind of love.

Melanie’s love for dogs extends beyond our home and even influences her social life. From an early age, it was clear that Melanie was down with OPP (Other People’s Pets). In fact, Melanie has a long list of BFFs who happen to be dogs. When she asks for playdates with friends, they’re actually playdates with dogs who happen to have human owners. “Mom, can I go to Marnee’s house to play?” translates into “Mom, can I have a playdate with Jessica’s dog?”

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My love for the way Melanie loves dogs is the only reasonable explanation for why I said “Yes” when she asked if grandpa’s Portuguese hunting dog could come live with us. The dog’s name is Niko, and he’s the reincarnation of Brett’s Hyper-Hypo dog. He actually hunts and kills rabbit for sport, yet I watch him transform into a lap dog on Xanax every time Mel is near.

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Charles Schultz once said that “Happiness is a warm puppy.” For me, happiness is the warm smile of a shy girl who loves her dogs.

I’m proud to say that after so many pet-less years, I can finally call myself a “dog lover.” And unlike Stallone at the Golden Globes, I’ll give a shout out where a shout out is due:

“Yo Melanie, I did it!”

 

 

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