the cartman.

I used to think that dog toys were silly. They were the kind of thing that over-enthusiastic pet owners wasted their money on, because they could not differentiate between animals and people. The pet industry does not help, with their aisles of brightly colored packages featuring pictures of happy and cute dogs. This thing will make your dog happy. Don't you want him to be happy? What are you, some kind of puppy-hater?

While the industry does take advantage of people who love their animals, I very quickly came to the conclusion that dog toys are a requirement, at least if you own a dog. Otherwise, you're probably still wasting your money.

The day before we were going to pick up Remix, I went to a retail store, where I picked up things that I knew to be actual necessities - leash, collar, food. I specifically went to Wal-Mart rather than an actual pet store. I do not trust pet stores. They offer more selection; you can buy a collar for a medium-sized dog in just about any color you like. But the cost for carrying so many colors is built right in to the price of each individual item, and in the end, you will pay more for something that does the same thing. At Wal-Mart, they had three colors: black, red, and blue. I like red.

I also wanted to get a toy. At that point, I did not believe in them, but I had been suffering from a bad case of Puppy Anticipation for a couple of weeks. I was already smitten with my new dog that I did not yet have, and I wanted to buy her something she would like. While Wal-Mart only has three collar choices, the toy selection is much greater. That's where the money is. You'll probably only buy one collar, but you might fill your buggy with toys.

I was quickly overwhelmed by the different varieties of playthings. There are things to throw, things to chew, things to pull on. Many of them had squeakers inside, and I felt conspicuous squeezing toy after toy that made a ridiculous noise. I had no idea whether dogs liked any of this crap, much less what my specific one would want to play with. I was tempted by the one that looked like a rubber chicken, but it did not seem very durable. I was leaning towards a tug-of-war toy, because I personally like to play tug-of-war with dogs. So I found something called a "DogZilla," which was a knotted rope inside a rubber chewy thing. I was pleased with myself for escaping the dog toy aisle with only one item. Take that, pet care industry! You will not take advantage of my love for my dog.

Back at DogZilla Corp., they smile and say, "Just you wait."

Even after dropping $25 at a - gasp! - retail store, I decided that it would be good to check out the thrift stores to see what kind of pet options they had. The answer is none, really. They don't have a pet section, except for the occasional terrarium. I have spent enough time in the used marketplace to know about this limitation, which is why I went to Wal-Mart for the things I definitely would need. Thrift stores do have a lot of stuffed animals. Back in December, I had found a stuffed Mario that we gave to Josh's brother's dog. I felt ridiculous giving a dog a Christmas present, but I have a great fondness for that particular dog, it was only a buck-fifty, and it was a lot of fun to see Mario in the mouth of a Rottweiler. I was willing to buy a couple of cheap toys to give to our new dog for the sole purpose of her destroying them. Here dog, go nuts. I dug around in the bin of stuffed animals and found an Eric Cartman and an inexplicable green lobster that I kindof wanted for myself. They were fifty cents each.

The day after we became dog-owners, Josh sent me a text message with a picture of Remix chewing on Cartman. Fifty cents well spent, in my opinion.

The funny thing is that Remix loved the Cartman. She would happily play tug-of-war with the DogZilla, but it was the Cartman that she carried around the house in her mouth. She was destroying it, sure. By the time I got home that day, there was a hole in his feet and big wads of stuffing on the floor (which is thankfully very easy to clean up). But when she was not ripping it apart, she was very gentle with it. She trotted along behind us from room to room, and then once we settled in a place, she would plop down on the floor and go back to extracting fluff from its innards. "Toy" to a dog means "something to be destroyed," because that's apparently how they have fun. Still, she seemed to be savoring it. She would chew on it as she fell asleep, and so she would end up sleeping with her front legs around it, like they were snuggling. Guys, my dog is freakin' cute.

Even with her careful handling, it was clear that the Cartman's days were limited. She was surely capable of obliterating it within the hour if she wanted, but instead it took about three days. After that, he was still mostly together, but the majority of the fluff had been removed and I guess she lost interest. Let's do the math: three days worth of happily occupied dog was fifty cents, which puts us at five dollars a month. I think I can do even better, given a bag sale at a church yard sale. It's possible that a $5 chew toy would last longer, but I put some value on watching her play with a recognizable character.

While she was ripping apart the Cartman, we noticed that she was not doing that to anything else. We thanked the shelter gods for giving us such a well-behaved dog. She clearly had the power and the inclination to destroy, yet she was thoughtfully limiting it to the one item we allowed. What a good dog, we thought. We planned to just keep buying her cheap used stuffed animals for her to massacre on her own time. We decided that we would always refer to the toy of the moment as the "Cartman." Where's your Cartman, girl? Where is it?

One night, she started chewing on one of the blankets we had folded up to use as a dog bed. In the morning, we found stuffing on the floor, a sight that has become ubiquitous in our house during the past couple of weeks. Our dog is apparently very interested in fluff-extraction. Well, we reasoned, it was old and there was probably already fluff coming out of it. Plus, we did give it to her. If later we had to spend a dollar on a new blanket at a yard sale, that was no big deal. Then another day, the day after she lost interest in the first Cartman, Josh had to retrieve my shoe from her mouth. Then I had to stop her from chewing on the futon cover. One morning, I found her in the library next to a book (from the 1860s) that showed clear gnawing marks. Bad Remix.

I read an article about how to stop your dog from chewing on your stuff. It basically said to keep your stuff away from the dog, and also just go ahead and start making peace with the fact that something will be destroyed, and it will probably be something you really liked. That was not the kind of advice I was looking for. I wanted a clear list of steps that I could complete in like five minutes, and then forever after that, Remix would never be caught with my shoe in her mouth again.

That's when I figured out that dog toys are necessary. They are a bribe, a distraction. Here, you may maim this however you want, just don't bother anything else in the house. It's like the dog comes to you one day and says, "You got a real nice futon mattress right here. This is new, isn't it? My guess is that you bought it within the last year. Bet it was expensive. It would be a shame if something happened to it. A real shame." And so you give her a stuffed green lobster to keep her happy. The pre-Remix me would have said that the dog needs to be properly trained until she doesn't chew on stuff, but I realize now that this is what dogs do. They chew. If you keep them in the house, they chew on things in there. If we can keep her in Cartmans such that she leaves our shoes and mattresses and books and furniture alone, then that is a deal that I am willing to make with her.

And if I can fulfill my part of the deal without having to go to the pet store, then that is just gravy.

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