The Most Unpopular Dog in Germany

New York Times
APRIL 28, 2018

MUNICH — My French husband spent the first 18 summers of his life in a small Greek fishing village. Because we moved to Germany from California five years ago, we now often visit this village, where many residents have known him since he was a baby.

We love Greece and Greeks for a thousand reasons, and the economic problems there pain us terribly. As is the case for most countries in crisis, it’s not just the humans who are suffering but also animals.

Greece has an abundance of stray dogs. During a vacation two years ago, our 9-year-old decided that she wanted to feed the strays along the roads. We filled the rental car with dog food (apologies to whoever rented the car after us) and bought a lot of hand sanitizer. At one stop, we found an emaciated brown puppy that could barely stand.

Holding her in his arms, trying to hold back tears, my husband asked, “What do we do?” With our daughter repeatedly shouting, “We must keep her!” what could I have said?

I always return from Greece with olive oil, walnuts and honey. I knew that “dog” would now be added to that list, whether I wanted it or not.

Like most Middle Easterners, I had never owned a dog. I was raised to believe that dogs were dangerous. Growing up in America, I was exposed to dogs enough to like them but I never wanted to own one. I always thought it was strange and frankly, unsanitary, to have a dog inside the house.

My husband put the puppy in the car to drive her to the nearest vet. I had no idea how she would react. Would she try to bite us? Did she have a disease we could catch? Rabies? Mange? Lyme? I might have never owned a dog but I knew all their diseases.

The puppy curled up on the seat and did not budge. She was more unsure of us than I was of her.

When we arrived at the vet, we were informed that the short-haired puppy, now named Nutella by our daughter, was 4 months old and needed medication for her infections. I helpfully pointed out the row of sores on her belly. “Those are her nipples,” the vet said.

After Nutella spent a month at the vet’s, we took her to our apartment in Munich.

Our city is full of remarkably well-trained dogs. Dogs accompany their owners on public transportation, to restaurants and to many offices. They are not allowed in food stores so they wait patiently outside, some on leashes, others not. It’s an impressive sight to see an unleashed dog sitting outside a butcher shop as the automatic doors open and close, simply waiting for its owner, not acting upon any temptation.

Given the high standards set by the local dogs, we immediately put Nutella in puppy class, hoping to also meet other owners. Every week, the other puppies mastered commands while Nutella ran around, defying all efforts to be civilized. My husband took it upon himself to defend her. “She knows her commands but prefers not to show that she knows them,” he said.

“Maybe she’s just not smart,” I suggested.

“She was traumatized the first four months of her life. That’s why she prefers to do her own thing,” my husband explained.

“Maybe she’s just not smart,” I suggested.

We soon found out that members of our puppy class were getting together socially outside of class with their dogs. We were never invited. “It’s because we don’t speak German,” my husband said.

“It’s because everyone hates our dog,” I told him.

After a couple of weeks, our trainer suggested that we purchase a special dog whistle and combine that with dog treats. Desperate to have a trained dog, and maybe even a few friends, we immediately did as we were told. Nutella was totally indifferent to the whistle, although many other dogs in Munich responded.

The trainer then suggested we purchase pricey liver treats that come in a tube. “Dogs will do anything for those,” she assured us. Given the choice of performing a simple command and getting liver treats, or running around like an escapee, Nutella always chose the latter. “This dog has dignity,” my husband said. “You can’t buy her with liver in a tube.”

We gave up after four trainers, all of them declared “not that good” by my husband. Nutella would never be an off-leash city dog. This did not matter to my husband and daughter, who were in love with her.

I was not in love with her. At our neighborhood park, Nutella had earned the nickname “der wilde Hund,” the wild dog. I learned enough German to explain that Nutella was simply enthusiastic and wanted to play. But Nutella’s approach was the problem. She would run full speed toward unsuspecting dogs. By the time she arrived to sniff, the dog and his owner had fled the park.

My life in Germany was already complicated and Nutella, the most unpopular dog in Munich, added another layer of complication. In addition, Nutella had weighed six pounds when we found her but she kept growing. Not only had I never wanted a dog, but I most certainly had never wanted a dog who now weighed 45 pounds. Did I mention we live in an apartment?

A year after we adopted Nutella, my husband became afflicted by blinding headaches. For the first time in the 32 years I had known him, he could not get out of bed. Nutella curled up at the foot of his bed and did not move.

For the first couple of days, I assumed this was a fluke. After all, this was “der wilde Hund.” When my husband got up after a struggle, Nutella quietly followed him. She refused to leave my husband’s side for two weeks. She didn’t even want to go to the park for her favorite activity, terrorizing well-behaved dogs.

Nutella’s transformation from Most Hopeless in Class to Most Caring of Creatures was nothing short of astonishing. Who needs mundane commands like “sit” and “stay” when you are smart enough to know the most important one, “show love”?

My husband made a full recovery, something he attributes in no small part to this creature whose life was once literally worthless. It was during those two weeks that I realized why people consider their pets family members. I get it now.

Sometimes I think about Nutella dying and tears roll down my face. What a burden to love a dog! And how sad that I lived the first 50 years of my life without this blessed burden.

A version of this article appears in print on Page SR9 of the New York edition with the headline: The Most Unpopular Dog in Germany.