My dog is a "before."
She sits there, sprawled on the veterinarian's tile floor as a nice woman named Susan photographs her from unflattering angles.
The haunches. Click. The rolls of — no, it's not fur — below her collar. Click.
They want her to drop 27 pounds, nearly a third of her weight. They're giving me free dog food to test. She's a trial dog. She has to be weighed and photographed every two weeks.
It has come to this, America.
It isn't just our own relationship with food that grows more dysfunctional with each new addition to the $1 menu. It's not just our filmmakers who are humiliated on airplanes, or our children who pay the price in the schoolyard for our benign neglect. Man's Best Friend doesn't even get a pass.
And we owe it to Casey to set things right.
• • •
Casey came into our lives at precisely the right time. The kids were still in the house, but well past diapers and constant supervision. We lived in a dog-friendly suburb. We were busy, but not overly so. It's not like we were jetting off to Paris every weekend.
She was everything you would expect from a Labrador retriever — mushy sweet (the breeder's exact words) and easy to please. The world's worst watchdog (we still haven't replaced the Wii from that burglary last summer). But really, with little ones around, you want a lover, not a fighter. We forgave her habit of stealing the TV remote. We laughed when she chewed the side of a love seat — it was $35 from Goodwill anyway. We got used to bathing her with special soaps to cure the skin rashes so common to the breed.
Her appetite, also breed-typical, was another matter.
Casey could rearrange the kitchen countertop to maneuver a bag of bagels within reach. She knew precisely when the repairman would turn his back on that open lunch box. A neighbor remarked that she would have been a terrific search-and-rescue dog. She even taught herself how to open water bottles.
That's half the problem.
The other half — and I'm trying not to single anybody out for blame — is that her owners had some misguided ideas about how to show their love.
At various times, people in my house slipped her tastes of this and pieces of that. The crust of a pizza slice. The drippings in a dish of pasta. Mmm, she was thinking. We smiled even though we knew it was wrong. But it had become a habit.
Veterinarians warned us over the years. We'd measure out her dog food in the morning. One cup. She'd gulp it, and then the second person in the kitchen would mutter, "Doesn't anybody ever feed this dog?" Before the sun had risen, she'd gobbled two cups. And stolen Junior's sandwich.
All you haters out there can take your shots if it makes you feel better.
But listen to Susan Wadulack, the certified veterinary technician who weighed Casey (87.7 pounds, if you have to know).
It happens all the time, she said.
Couples sit in her office, arguing bitterly about who's the food Nazi and who's dishing the dog table scraps.
"Sometimes it's like we need a marriage counselor," she said.
It happened in her own family. Her husband learned the habit from his father. Wadulack's arguments fell on deaf ears.
"We all know that food is love," Wadulack said. "But can't you love your dog another way?"
We can, I tell her, relieved to hear someone acknowledge that this issue can create bitter rifts in the best families.
But knowing we are normal does not lessen the guilt.
When I walk Casey in the neighborhood, people invariably comment about how fat she is. The loose translation: "Bad dog owner!"
I have trouble watching that movie Marley and Me, and not because of the heart-tugging scene on the vet's table. It's because my Lab never, ever looked that fit and trim.
And yes, my own lifelong struggle with weight is all tied up in this.
How many times have I started and restarted Weight Watchers? Or vowed to learn to cook healthy so my family would feel better? And I wonder if other fat dogs are the product of weak-willed owners who do not want to feel like hypocrites as they pass the Friday night pizza. We rationalize. We forget.
Until that day of reckoning.
• • •
Arthritis. It didn't occur to me at first. I had just brought Casey back from the park where she likes to watch the men play soccer on Sunday mornings.
It had been a typical outing — a long walk, some interaction with the other friendly dogs, a sprint through the game that the men accepted graciously.
An hour later my son, or maybe my husband, noticed that Casey was limping.
We thought she might have cut her foot.
A week later, also after a trip to the park, the same thing happened.
She still rejoiced at the chance to go out, did her insane happy dance at the sound of the word "walk."
But as time went on, she would amble slowly back to the house. Instead of bounding up and down the stairs, she would hesitate. At just over 7 years old, it seemed early for arthritis. But I can't say we hadn't been warned.
So off I went to the vet — tail, as they say, between my legs.
She prescribed a regimen of glucosamine and ordered me to get that weight off the dog once and for all.
I'd do a lot of things differently if I had the chance to do this over.
But I don't. I have only the present.
And a chance, I hope, to do better by my dog.
Marlene Sokol can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3356.