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The Oh-So-Perfect Pug...And the Mother Who Failed Her.

Margo Kaufman's new book is "Clara, the Early Years" (Villard). Her last piece for this magazine was an essay about baby products and services

You’ve got mail!” chirped America Online’s computer voice. I clicked on my mailbox and found a message labeled Re: Sophie.

Oh, dear, I fretted, expecting a complaint that she was homesick or causing trouble. “Sophie is behaving herself just fine and is apparently undisturbed by the changes in her life,” the message read. I couldn’t help feeling depressed. Sophie, a handsome black pug, was my constant companion for seven years. She was a loving but exasperating beast. Unlike my younger pug, the tres engageante--oh, let’s be frank--sluttish Clara, Sophie was a study in obstinacy. She regularly woke me at 5 a.m. just for the joy of depriving me of sleep. Despite hundreds of dollars in obedience school tuition, she defiantly bolted in the other direction when ordered to “Come” and thought “Heel!” meant to weave her leash around my legs until I fell on my face. She barked at anything: a cat meowing on another continent, a cell phone antenna going down. And once she got started, the metronomic yap! yap! continued for hours. Still, Sophie was slavishly devoted to me, and she’d still be snoring under my desk were it not for her less-than-courteous welcome of Nicholas, our human son.

After a period of mourning akin to Queen Victoria’s after losing Prince Albert, Clara realized that Nick was a source of dropped cookies and graciously accepted him. But Sophie refused to share me. If Nick and I sat on the floor stacking blocks, she snowplowed him out of the way with her massive head. She forcefully confiscated his teething biscuits. Concerned, I called my friend Blanche, three-time Pug Breeder of the Year.

“As soon as he grows a bit and Sophie realizes that he is not another puppy, she’ll be fine,” she said. I wanted to believe her. But as Nicholas matured, so did Sophie’s hostility. I exhausted myself trying to ensure that the pug was not shortchanged in the quality-time department. And what was my reward? I came home one day and Lupe, my son’s baby-sitter, reported that Sophie had grabbed Nicholas by the T-shirt and shaken him. Or so I translated; Lupe doesn’t speak much English and my audiocassette Spanish didn’t include the verbs to debrief her.

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Then, a few weeks ago, I was reading Nicholas a story. Sophie sat at my side, eyes glowing with hatred. Nick stroked her fur and she lunged. Had I not intervened, she would have bitten him. As it was, she nipped me. Living as we do in a pet-obsessed society, it is a truism that any time an animal misbehaves, it’s the human’s fault. So I wasn’t surprised when Blanche chastised me. What I should have done, she said, was to instantly pick up Sophie by the scruff of the neck and fling her across the room. (Obviously, my maternal instinct to save the child was misguided.)

I opted for a timeout. I asked Blanche if she would keep the miscreant for a few days. It would give me a chance to judge the environmental impact of her absence.

My husband didn’t miss Sophie’s obsessive sniffing. Nicholas, who never even bothered to learn Sophie’s name (though he said “Clara” before “Mama” and “Papa”), didn’t even notice that she was gone. Clara called a locksmith and changed the locks. Only I felt the void, so I called my longtime vet--let’s call him Dr. Shekel--for advice. “I’d hate to see you give up on Sophie after all these years,” he said. I’d hate to see a toddler get bitten in the face, I thought. But when Shekel referred me to an animal psychologist he called “The Big Gun,” I dutifully phoned.

Big Gun fired over by fax a seven-page press kit listing his media appearances and testimonials from the owners of former shoe-chewers and rug-soilers. “I can’t promise anything,” he warned, “but the dog and the child might benefit from couple’s therapy.” He declined to elaborate but I grasped that he would visit us once, come up with a strategy to save the relationship and charge me a few hundred dollars. I pointed out that Nicholas’ attention span is limited unless a task involves Hot Wheels cars, which he worships like religious icons. “It’s your job to keep him motivated,” Big Gun said.

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Just what every working mother needs. Another job.

I placed a frantic call to Anna Marie, the editor of Pug Talk magazine, where I am Hollywood Correspondent. She suggested that I call Charlotte, a Massachusetts behaviorist. “I’ve known her to work miracles over the phone,” Anna Marie said.

It took the miracle worker three minutes to assess the situation. “Your little boy is in danger,” Charlotte said. Sophie, she explained, is an alpha dog. And here’s where it was my fault again. She needs a stern owner. Not a submissive beta bitch like me. Charlotte suggested that I find Sophie a home where she could be in charge. “I realize you’ll miss her terribly,” she said.

“Honestly,” I confessed. “I don’t think I will.”

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*

Once I was given permission to place Sophie up for adoption, things fell into place even though I was fussier than when I was dating. I ruled out prospective parents in the neighborhood (I didn’t want to run into her) and families with small children. I was not averse to relocating Sophie, but I vetoed people who didn’t live near major airports (God forbid if the pug should have to switch planes). And, of course, with Sophie being a writer’s dog, I eliminated anyone who worked outside the home. But the pug grapevine was humming, and within a week Charlotte called with good news. A trainer she knew in Connecticut knew another trainer who had a client named M, who had just lost her cocker spaniel and wanted a friend for her pug. I was dubious, since Sophie and Clara got along like Romulus and Remus, but on the phone, M, a kindergarten teacher, seemed promising. After dealing with 5-year-olds, Sophie would be a snap. M and her husband worked different shifts so Sophie would always have company. M had a few questions for me. “Does she sleep in your bed?” No, I said. Sophie’s wake-up calls did not make her a good sleeping companion. “My dogs always sleep in my bed,” M said smugly. “We get up at 5 every morning and take a long walk in the park.” Who was I to compete with that? Here’s what sold me, though: While we were talking, her other pug began yipping. “She’s talking to you,” M exclaimed.

Hey, if she wanted a pug raconteur, then she couldn’t do better than Sophie. I called US Airways, which has counter-to-counter service in a climate-controlled pressurized cabin. My father argued that her new mother should pay for shipping since she was getting a dog for free. Secretly, I felt I should pay her to take Sophie off my hands, but I did drop a subtle hint. “Air fare is expensive,” I said. “I know,” M sighed. “And I’m so grateful.”

By the time I’d arranged for the flight, the crate and the health certificate, I was tortured by warm, fuzzy Sophie memories--I think I had two. To spare me further grief--and to guarantee that she actually got on the plane--my husband offered to pick her up at Blanche’s and drive her to the airport. It was a good thing he did because by Airlift Day, I needed Prozac. It didn’t help that derelicts on the Venice boardwalk who had seen me walk a pair of pugs for years kept asking, “Where’s the other one?” When I explained, instead of praising me for being a protective mother, they looked askance, as if I had sold the dog short. Meanwhile, Clara was so euphoric that I suspected she had put Sophie up to it. “Go ahead, bite him,” I imagined Clara saying, “I’ll back you up.”

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At 8 in the evening, my ordeal ended, or so I thought. M called from the airport. Sophie had arrived safely. M thoughtfully put her on the phone so I could hear her howling, a sound that grated on my nerves from 3,000 miles away. I felt a twinge of seller’s remorse when M raved about Sophie’s beauty, her loving nature, her enthusiasm. But I got over it. Until the next day when I got an update. Sophie had gone on a picnic and everyone went crazy for her. “She stays right by me when I walk her,” M gushed. “I can’t believe how well trained she is.” I knew I should be grateful, but I felt as if I had dumped a guy who went on to win the Nobel Prize.

For months now, my on-line box has been crammed with Sophie-related e-mail.

“I am a friend of the gal who adopted Sophie,” said one message. “I just wanted to let you know that she has already become attached to M and follows her everywhere.”

“Sophie was the guest of honor at a welcome party . . .”

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“Sophie played with all the neighborhood kids . . .”

Any day I expect to read that Sophie rescued three children from a burning building. But I’m looking on the bright side. It’s winter now in Connecticut and maybe Sophie finally misses her former Southern California home.

More likely, I’ll get a report she’s making snow angels.


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