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.
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.
In the living room, Elizabeth keeps photos of her charges: There's Hakeem, the Chihuahua who chases the big dogs; there's Tuffy, the German shepherd, and Tessa, the dalmatian; and here's a baby picture of Cisco -- or is it Chester? And from last year, there's Biscuit in her Halloween costume. She's dressed as a pumpkin patch.
In the living room doorway hangs a little battery-operated ghost; loud noises, like Bailey's bark, make it vibrate madly. Elizabeth would like to decorate more for Halloween, but the dogs don't like the decorations; they don't like change. And Christmas? Forget it. The males would pee on a tree.
Elizabeth spends much of her workday cleaning. As soon as a male arrives, he feels the need to mark his territory, even indoors; and in the excitement of running with their playmates, both males and females sometimes forget their house-training. The backyard, of course, requires constant scooping.
All this Elizabeth accepts with equanimity; it is the nature of the beast. The smell of ammonia wafts from the playroom. "Did somebody piddle?" she asks in her dog voice, a supersweet high-pitched singsong. If you did piddle in the playroom, Elizabeth wouldn't hold it against you.
For 37 years Elizabeth worked as an oil-and-gas contractor, a well-paid vagabond who drifted from company to company doing title work. But a few years ago she grew tired of getting up early and driving downtown, leaving her Scotties behind.
She dotes on Tillie and Topper. For Tillie's first birthday, Elizabeth helped organize a "litter party." She and a friend put up posters, inviting one and all to "have a beer and a bone" at Lizzard's Pub. Tillie's entire litter showed up, as did many perfect strangers who thought it would be fun to party with their pooches. The moms took pictures of the dogs in party hats.
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One of Tillie's littermates had been adopted by a neighbor of Elizabeth's, and the lonely dog often came over to play with Tillie and Topper. "I'm running a doggy day care," Elizabeth thought one day. She typed the words into a search engine, and the Internet spewed forth information: In faraway places like California, such things not only existed but were moneymaking enterprises.
Elizabeth drew up a business plan. She'd charge $25 a day, as much as many human day cares, and as a base of operations, she'd buy a house in Montrose, near River Oaks. "Location, location, location," she says -- obviously, her potential clients lived in those moneyed neighborhoods. They are professionals who work lots of hours and earn lots of money. Either their human children are grown, or they have none. They live in town houses or high-rises; they have no room for a second dog, and they come home too tired to walk the one they have. They feel enormously guilty.
Doggy day care was a perfect service for this gilded age, and when Elizabeth and a friend began doing informal market research, strangers at parks and restaurants not only expressed willingness to pay for the service but seemed ready to sign up. Elizabeth wasn't surprised; she knew her customer base. "Their dogs are their lives," she says. "I mean, I have three grown children and seven grandchildren. But my dogs are my constant companions. There isn't anything I wouldn't do for them."
Her voice changed, shifting from people-talk to dog-talk. "What are you chewing on?" she asked the Scottie lying next to her on the couch. She sang his name: "Fin-ley!" He looked at her. She looked at him. And they both seemed perfectly content.