Dog's Day Out

What's left for a dog to do in this high-tech world?

Once upon a time, dogs had jobs. They herded sheep, protected the house from intruders, and dragged sleds across the Arctic. They retrieved bloody ducks. They nipped at cows' hooves. They rescued skiers from avalanches. They did honest, outdoorsy work, and it left them dog-tired but happy at the end of the day.

That's all changed. Dogs can't type, so the Information Age left them behind; canine unemployment plagues the United States. A few lucky dogs still cling to old-fashioned jobs, chasing fake rabbits at a greyhound track or guiding the blind across intersections. A few more lounge underneath desks at high-tech companies in Seattle, as productive as the average dot-com employee. But most American dogs have succumbed to chronic joblessness. They lie around the house all day, bored and depressed. They cry when their owners leave for work; they sulk when their owners return. They chew things. They pee on things. They behave like children.

Puppy love: Elizabeth Bradford spoils Lola, Tuffy and Tessa.
Deron Neblett
Puppy love: Elizabeth Bradford spoils Lola, Tuffy and Tessa.

This conversation took place last week:

"How old is your youngest?"

"Tillie will be four in December. And your baby is what? Ten months?"

"Yep, ten months!"

"They're wonderful at that age."

In some ways, the exchange is nothing much, the kind of getting-to-know-you cooing that moms trade all the time on playgrounds, in supermarket lines and outside day cares. It's the sound of parent-to-parent bonding.

The interesting thing is that this conversation took place at a doggy day care, and the "moms" were talking about their Scotties. The dogs might behave like children, but their people were only too happy to behave like parents.

After lunch, a dog walker deposits Finley and Duncan, yet another pair of Scotties, at It's A Dog's Life. (Elizabeth Bradford, the day care's owner, says that she's "a Scottie magnet.") Finley isn't feeling well, the dog walker tells Elizabeth. The dogs' "mom," a therapist, had changed his diet that morning, and he'd suffered a bout of diarrhea.

"Did she feed him Nutrimax?" Elizabeth asks. "It's too rich. It does the same thing to mine. But I'll watch the treats today -- nothing with fat in it."

The dog walker releases the dogs from their leashes, and Duncan scrambles to join the pack of little dogs rumpusing in the front room. "Come here, little boy," Elizabeth coos to Finley. The pudgy geezer has survived two bouts with cancer, and he's a favorite of hers. She once imagined that small, quiet dogs like him would constitute most of her business. She envisioned herself sitting on the couch all day, watching Oprah with a sleepy row of Westies and Pekingese. Instead, most of her charges are rowdy big dogs, black Labs and German shepherds and collies, muscular outdoor animals who crave wide-open yards.

Elizabeth scratches Finley's ears. "You want to go outside?" she asks. In the backyard, Leonard Thornton is throwing tennis balls to a Lab, who bounds over the wooden play structure, kicks up cedar chips as he runs across the yard, then jumps high in the air to make the catch. The dozen or so other big dogs behave like the pack animals they are: They wrestle, sniff each other's butts, and lie panting next to each other, happy as Boy Scouts in the woods.

But Finley doesn't want to go outside. Like most little dogs, he prefers to putter indoors. He and the rest of the pip-squeaks follow Duncan, who scampers hopefully to the kitchen; Duncan, Elizabeth says with a laugh, is a "treat monster." He droops, disappointed, when she doesn't immediately offer dog biscuits. A trip to doggy day care is like a trip to Grandma's, an interlude of fun and treats. Some days, Elizabeth will even take Finley on a "field trip" to the nearby Three Dog Bakery, where she buys "pupcakes" for the dogs back at day care. That's the treatment they expect. This fat-free diarrhea regimen is a bummer.

Surprisingly, Elizabeth turns down more dogs than she accepts. To get into It's a Dog's Life, a dog must have all the necessary shots, be free of fleas, be spayed or neutered, and behave reasonably around other dogs. Elizabeth jokes that Tillie, one of her own Scotties, is very lucky that her mom owns the day care; otherwise, cranky, bossy Tillie might be kicked out.

Once, a golden retriever surprised Elizabeth by flunking the temperament test. Usually it's the little dogs who are nasty; and besides, golden retrievers possess famously sweet temperaments.

Elizabeth looked down. "He's not neutered?" she asked.

"No," said the man. And no, he wouldn't have the dog neutered, either.

It's always the male owners, Elizabeth says. A man thing.

In many ways, It's A Dog's Life looks like a regular day care. Two playrooms offer nylon-tube structures to crawl through. Outside, the playground includes a kiddie pool for splashing. And if a dog behaves badly, Elizabeth sentences him to "time out," a few minutes confined to a cage in a quiet back room, where trees and hills are painted on the wall.

Nap time is free-form. The big dogs run till they collapse, then sleep in the yard. Inside, the little ones nestle atop the couch's back, or snuggle under the computer table.

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