When I was a puppy puppy, my mother would tell my brothers and I stories of our family's history; she knew we would soon be taken away from her, and made sure that we were aware of our heritage and responsibility as Chesapeake Bay Retrievers. We were a line with a rich history, going back to the mid-1800s, and were renowned for our ability to retrieve ducks (even if this task required the breaking of ice, a specialty of my great-grandfather) and guard the ducks when they were taken to market. Aside from our retrieving and swimming skills, we prided ourselves on our reddish-brown coats that kept us warm on winter hunts.
Which was why, when I moved to my third home, I was particularly excited when I saw that my new family lived near the bay--and one day, my master Bernie (who was really more of a friend than a master) put me on a leash and walked me to the bay for a swim. He had no gun, and there appeared to be no ducks in sight, but the smell of fish and clams and the rocky shoreline transported me back to the days of my parents and their parents before them in the Chesapeake. I ran to the water, drawn by these atavistic urges, and felt close to my [canine] family in a way I never had before. After a quick swim, however, I found myself cold and wet, and longed to be back at my house on the warm carpeting in front of the television. I felt like a bit of a disappointment, which was exacerbated by the earache I had when I woke up the next morning. Because my ears, like my coat, were so important to me as a dog--hearing the approach of ducks, rabbits, other dogs, humans--and the pain in my ear caused a marked interference with this ability--I felt entirely worthless. After a visit to the doctor, and some drops that Bernie put in my ears each morning, the pain went away.
This was my first failure as a dog, but my new family didn't seem to mind. They loved me regardless and didn't judge me based on this perceived inadequacy--that is, until I started to lose my coat.
Clumps of hair would fall out, getting stuck to the furniture with bits of dried skin on the ends. I was itchy all the time without my coat to mediate between my skin and the outside world, and developed welts and rashes on my skin. I hoped that no one would notice, and Bernie didn't seem to. His daughters, however, looked at me with utter disgust, especially the older one. She wouldn't pet me anymore (even though we weren't particularly close before this malady, I still noticed this difference in our relationship). My diet changed. This was fortunate because I hated the dog food they fed me and looked forward to the scraps of food that would be dropped on the floor or that the girls would sneak me under the table or when their mother wasn't looking. Now I got to eat people food--bananas in the morning and rice and ground beef in the evenings. It was repetitive, but when coupled with the scraps I accumulated over the course of the day (now more than before because my [human] family felt badly for me) I was relatively happy. But my coat continued to deplete.
I underwent an array of treatments. The first (and most peculiar of which) were baths in salts and muds from the Dead Sea. I didn't quite understand the purpose of these baths, but the smell of the muds and salts reminded me of the bay and provided me a way of interacting with the smells of the bay without getting an earache.
After the muds and salt and bananas, I started to get allergy shots. The office where I would get the shots was horrifying and contained an array of animal smells that disoriented me and made feel even more gross that I already felt. The cats in the waiting room fascinated me. Despite the long animosity between my species and theirs, they seemed to have a preternatural sense of what awaited them beyond the doors of the waiting room and communicated it effectively to the other animals in the room. With their eyes they would tell us that while it might be scary but that it was for the best. They'd tell us that they too found the smells offensive. Their wisdom was impressive, and with the combined efforts of the cats and Bernie's reassurance I began to enjoy my periodic visits to the office.
After a year of these treatments my coat was still gone. I had finally resolved that my coat would never come back and learned to disregard the scathing looks from the other dogs in the neighborhood and from the oldest girl in my family, when I was taken to a new doctor. This new doctor ran a series of tests (mostly involving needles) and after a few days, Bernie informed me that they had discovered why I had lost my hair--I was allergic to meat, grain, canola, chicken, duck, and an array of other things. How could I be allergic to duck? I couldn't imagine a more shameful thing--actually, I could, because, after all, I had just lost my coat. With the help of a new vegetarian and fish based diet, my coat began to grow back and I was beautiful again.
My coat was back, and I finally felt like a retriever again (albeit one who was allergic to ducks and got ear infections from the bay). The girls and the other dogs in the neighborhood looked at me with pride and were envious of my superior locks. And occasionally, I still got to eat bananas for breakfast.