The Real Patch Adams

Life with a new puppy is nothing short of comedy

By Cynthia Adams

Photograph by Mark Wagoner

Comedian Robin Williams made Dr. Hunter Doherty “Patch” Adams famous when he portrayed the physician and social activist in a 1998 biopic. I met the good doctor in a Washington airport in 2006 as he departed on his trademark Gesundheit Global Outreach Clown Mission.

Adams was impossible to miss in a sea of weary travelers; he sported a handlebar mustache, gray hair tucked into a pony tail, and a clown suit rather than scrubs, adopted in order to dispense laughter as the best medicine.

When I tapped him on the shoulder of his lurid Hawaiian shirt to say hello, he grinned as if we were old pals, and in minutes it seemed we were. (An Adams meeting an Adams seemed hilarious to him.) Dr. Adams gave me his card, extolling the value of good humor for good health and urged me to take his laughter training course. So, I did, in June that same year. (My certificate is signed by the Cheerman of the Bored.)

Another Patch Adams entered my life, but he looks nothing like the physician, even though he too is a born comedian and has curative powers. He has bottle-brush whiskers, a wonky, slap-happy gait, and is brown mostly except where he isn’t.

He is funny without trying, but if he could talk, he would say he wasn’t born yesterday, yuck yuck — but he was born last year.

This is the true story of the real Patch Adams. 

Patch Adams wasn’t funny right off the bat. He was wary. His brown eyes were wide; he twitched occasionally but was largely silent.

He had just left his mama and family for the first and last time. There was a lot on his mind. Mostly, he kept to himself, close to his blanket and laid low.

We cooed at him, took pictures, provided him with puppy pads (given the subzero weather) and plied him with holistic treats and kibble, carefully chosen for his optimal growth and good health.

Perhaps we overplied him.

Within hours of being in his new home (which we carefully introduced to him room by room, just as Cesar Milan has instructed in his books) the tiny pup was sick.

He vomited. Then vomited again.

The little guy kept being sick. By daybreak on a frigid Sunday, we zoomed off to the emergency vet. It was hovering around 6 degrees outside. They quarantined us in case he had parvovirus. They asked his name. (We had a list of possibilities. Patch Adams was on the list.)

We tested the name, telling the vet staff the pup’s name was Patch Adams and this elicited laughter. 

Yet we didn’t feel like laughing. We texted the breeder, asking if any of his litter mates were sick, terrified Patch wouldn’t make it a full 24 hours in our care. In another hour, they had given him fluids and antibiotics. Chastened, we brought puppy home.

No more holistic treats.

He recovered within 24 hours. We abandoned Milan’s instructions and let him go wherever the hell he wanted, grateful that the puppy was still alive.

The plucky little guy, now introduced to the scary world of medicine, was officially Patch Adams.

“Puppies are adorable,” writes Oprah Winfrey.

Winfrey’s “adorable puppies” article is spread in my lap while multi-tasking, reading, writing a draft and glancing at the Dog Days webcam, where 4-month-old Patch is spending the day at play in doggie day care.

I’m a nervous wreck. And exhausted.

Our miniature schnauzer came to us on January 6. His predecessors in our household, Kip and Zoe, were also terriers and lived to be 16 years old. We had long forgotten how having a puppy around the house is a lot like having a newborn infant: the sleeplessness, feedings, check-ups, immunizations, and all- important potty training.

Immunization figured largely into our lifestyle. Puppy could not go into public spaces until he had all his shots. Friends came over and brought gifts — toys, a portable water bottle and treats.

Hubby and I begged off no matter the invitation. (I even skipped an invite to go backstage at the Bon Jovi concert in Charlotte. Don’t judge.)

After three months, puppy had proper immunity, and hubby bought a day-care package at Dog Days so we could drop him off for socialization.

The entirety of puppy’s first day, I checked the Dog Days webcam, jogging between cameras to be sure that the little guy — barely 6 pounds —  could handle the manic pack of dogs that endlessly circled him as if they were skating at Rockefeller Center. 

I yearned for him to be bigger, faster. TEN POUNDS is the magic number. Hawks and other predators can easily grab up such a tiny pup. I willed him to become bigger.

Speaking of magic, Patch is unnaturally cute. Of course, all puppies are adorable, like Oprah says. But from the day I took him in hand (literally, he fit in my palm—weighing 2.74 pounds) there was no denying this liver-and-tan colored mini-mite has something special. Forget yucky liver and think chocolate: Patch is the color of a melted Hershey’s bar with dabs of marshmallow cream.

We weighed Patch each evening and recorded his data in my orange journal if I didn’t fall asleep while writing.

We tag teamed between our bill-paying jobs and puppy training. (Actually, my husband does the training; I do back up, clean up and fretting.)

Since that first week, puppy commanded our complete attention as the natural world commanded his. At one point, hubby shoveled 9 inches of snow in order to make a path that would not swallow Patch, who liked snow. Puppy had a snow rapture, eating it, burying his face in it and digging his way to Mongolia. 

The weather was Biblical. Soon after snow came a deluge. The first three months brought 31 days of rain and relentless cold. Patch didn’t mind. He humored our following him around, umbrella in hand, as he meandered in the yard seeking the perfect spot to pee, unhurried by sideways rain and stinging winds. He studied each tree root and base as if the secrets of the universe were encrypted there. He sniffed and inspected moss, weed and ivy as if he were a botanist and had the fullness of time.

Of course, he has time; he is brand-new and the world is his.

In desperation, hubby spent $75 on a party tent, which he erected smack at the back door at the end of a puppy ramp he has built for tiny Patch. Our winter fitness ratcheted up, as we logged 10,000 steps searching out perfect pee spots. We strived to convince puppy, a born skeptic, that the perfect pee spot lay directly underneath the tent.

Hubby bought weights and tie-lines to secure the tent during a ceaseless onslaught of storms.

One fine day, Patch attempted the dog door, although he wasn’t large enough to push his way through the flap. We stood on either side, brandishing treats and encouragements. “You can do it!” we said helpfully, my voice unnaturally high, cheering him.

When puppy mastered his first re-entry via the dog door, we were ecstatic in full-on Snoopy Happy Dance mode. We grabbed up Patch and inhaled his essence.

Speaking of essence: Patch’s breath smells of puppy: sweet, grassy, delicious.

Patch’s favorite discoveries are rocks as large as he is, sticks, pine cones, organic matter such as wads of grass and weed. And, not to overlook this, puppy is enchanted by any paper product.

He eats, licks or chews everything in sight, including my hair and face. His favorite squeaky toy is hot lips, a ridiculous looking rubber Mick Jagger 40-Licks imitator.

On his second stay at Dog Days, I logged on to the webcam while writing an academic piece. Patch was hard to spot at first because he was literally inching along the wall in shadows, trying to make himself invisible. This again summoned childhood experiences at the roller rink.

My heart thrummed.

It took all the strength I could muster to not leave my desk and race over to rescue him from a frisky black Lab that could have eaten Patch for a snack. Unnerved by the Lab, Patch backed himself into a corner, clearly looking for a human to rescue him  He hugged the wall until forgetting his momentary panic, darted directly underneath another very large breed, appreciatively stopping to inhale the dog’s hindquarters.

I mumbled, Oh NO!

Patch treated the larger dog like a fragrant overpass and yet — luckily — nobody died.

By this time my mind was so far from my writing it was hopeless to pick up the threads of the draft. I called hubby. Did you see that???

He had.

I turned off the webcam, calmed myself and looked at other dogs on Pinterest. Is Patch as cute as I think he is? Yes.

Then I scanned the Internet for puppy training videos. I am particularly fond of a schnauzer named Chumpie. And another owned by an English couple who proudly videoed the mini-schnauzer, roughly Patch’s age. On her homecoming, the triumphant new mom announced the wee pup’s name was Peggy. This struck me as a name for a grandma with a fondness for the accordion.

The couple also announced their plans for Peggy’s training, installing her in a crate downstairs, leaving the tiny creature utterly alone her first night. Peggy whined softly, then the whine bloomed into a gutting wail.

The young husband cried, too, saying, “Help!”

Peggy had “made sick” three times inside the crate.

Oh, familiar territory, this.

During a March 12th snowstorm, the party tent collapsed as I worked out of town. Hubby dejectedly told me the tent was toast. The tent kept our sanity. We played “Taps” for it as it was stuffed into the garbage can.

We were invited to a dinner party. I texted the unflappable hostess that we would not be able to stay long.

“Bring puppy!” she texted back.

I was not in my right mind. I elected to take puppy to a grown-up dinner party. The entire time, I strained to see where puppy was and cringed at the thought that he would break with his much-touted training and have an accident.

Patch managed nonchalance. We did not.

We are a nation of dog lovers. Most homes have a pet (68 percent). In case you ever wondered, Arkansas has the highest percentage of dog owners (47.9 percent) and Illinois has the fewest (32.1 percent)

This year’s Wes Anderson film, Isle of Dogs, was a runaway hit. The Isle of Dogs Facebook page had, at my last count,167,828 likes and 170,534 people following it.

I watched the trailers more than once and put the movie onto my Netflix queue.

We started taking Patch out in public and noticed how different it was to take a walk with a puppy. People literally began smiling 20 paces away.

Patch, now sturdier and thoroughly immunized against all the scariest diseases, walked with us in Latham Park on our usual route. Except nothing is usual any longer.

Patch has charisma, according to my brother Kevin.

This must be what it is like to be born with charisma: strangers smile beatifically. They speak lovingly. They wish to stroke your perfect coat.

“He looks just like a plush toy come to life,” gushed a perfect stranger last Sunday afternoon. “Like Pinocchio!” blurted her walking buddy. Pinocchio?

“I don’t know!” she blathered, staring at Patch. “He’s just so adorable.”

We knew.

“What is he?” was the next question.

We thought we knew. The breeder said he was purebred schnauzer, but we had niggling doubts. Could chocolate-brown Patch be a Yorkie?

“I didn’t think we were getting a Yorkie,” hubby worried.

He sought Dr. Janine Oliver’s opinion. “Patch sure is small and has such a little nose. And he’s brown . . . ” the good doctor says, leaving any doubts to bloom in the air over our squirming, albeit charismatic, puppy of uncertain pedigree.

“There are DNA tests,” Oliver replied. “That’s one way to be sure.”

Unbeknownst to me, hubby ordered Wisdom Panel’s DNA test. He took a smear of saliva from Patch and sent it away to a lab.

When he told me, I asked whether he would he feel differently if Patch weren’t a mini-schnauzer?

Hubby said he just wanted to know.

As we waited for the DNA verdict we read training books, watched dog programs and compared Patch to every mini-schnauzer we encountered.

Out and about, strangers stopped to stroke his gleaming coat: “So cute, but what is he?”

We had jokey replies. Puppy was a muggle. A hamster. A schnauzer.

Eyebrows shot up.

I’m back at the webcam. Patch is in day care again. This is important for his socialization. The training books stress this. A kind woman in a hoodie picks him up and carries him around. He lies down near a friendly looking golden doodle, and then hoodie-wearing woman scoops him up again, giving him a cuddle. Patch, being no fool, licks her appreciatively, showering her with kisses.

Nearly every time I log on, which is approximately every half hour, someone has him in arms, stroking him.

Charisma, I think.

DNA cannot be tested for that.

My sister-in-law Mary (who lives in the dog-loving state of Arkansas, by the way) also has a mini-schnauzer, which my brother, John, named Leroy.

Leroy is two months older than Patch.

He has been losing his deciduous, or baby teeth. Mary phones to discuss this. When Patch began losing his, we collected them, tiny calcified shards. He crunched on them, like popcorn seeds, as he teethed.

Does the tooth fairy visit puppies?

At our front door is a concrete statue of a mini-schnauzer bought eons ago in Southport. It has grown green with age and bears Kip and Zoe’s dog tags.

When the last of the two pets died, I wrote a piece about it and sent it to O.Henry’s senior editor at the time, David Bailey. He called me. “We cannot publish this,” Bailey intoned. “It is so dark. Everybody would want to kill themselves. But I hope writing it was therapeutic for you.”

It wasn’t. Now I felt even more depressed.

Still deep into mortality matters, I asked family what things they might want as we updated our will. After radio silence, my Arkansas niece replied by email. She wanted the concrete dog statue.

The DNA report confirmed that Patch is as the breeder said.

Patch is now 11.58 pounds of pedigreed schnauzer and has begun developing a personality as the vet predicted. Patch is perceptive, affectionate and joyful. He is loyal. Pick a superlative. Pedigreed or not, we couldn’t have found a better friend.

Patch’s puppyhood will evaporate, a fact both anticipated and dreaded.

On my desk is an item torn from the December 2017 Tatler concerning pet burials. It reminds me of one of my favorite epigrams, penned by Alexander Pope: “I am his highness’s dog at Kew;/Pray tell me, sir, whose dog are you?” There are stories of Lord Byron’s dog Boatswain and his fine tomb. Accounts of the Queen’s private graveyards at Balmoral and Sandringham where the royal corgis rest.

The article posits the million-dollar question: “will our animals go to heaven?”

The Reverend Professor Andrew Linzy of Oxford, who specializes in graveside memorials, answers thusly:

“Animals will be in heaven. They’re not sinful, faithless or violent in the same way human beings are, therefore there’s no bar to redemption.”

I second the writer Charlie Gilmour’s succinct end: “Amen to that.”   OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.  She is shopping for a miniature Hawaiian shirt for Patch, just in case anyone should spot one.

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