“Can we get her Daddy, can we get her, please, please, please. We’ll feed and take care of her, promise, come on Daddy, please!”
My wife Joanie and I manned the perimeter of the mini-moshpit as the bony, yet surprisingly strong eight and six-year-old Amelia and Connor pleaded their case. Connor was the more aggressive slam dancer, bouncing back and forth off our torsos like a pinball, while his sister focused more on exploring the space of the breeder’s country-themed living room with treble infused vocals. With the junior members of the family council imposing their will and my price negotiation leverage compromised I gave the thumbs up sign to the breeder and got out the checkbook.
We narrowed our choices to two but went with the playful and petite female black Labrador puppy over the more muscular and domineering Captain Jack. The Captain would have been a fine addition to our crew, but there was something special about the female. She seemed chill yet playful and was gorgeous.
We named her Elsie and welcomed her into our home with open arms. The onset of Spring saw each member of the family participating equally in the joy of our cute new puppy. Elsie was the star of the show. But something happened on her way to being immortalized on the family walk of fame. The cute and shiny Volkswagen Bug the kids fell in love with on the showroom floor grew into a mid-sized sedan. They returned to their routines of playing with friends and the electronic device du-jour, leaving Elsie stalled outside their bedroom doors. What the kids didn’t see was an engine that still purred like a brand-new car. They also didn’t appreciate that Elsie’s lean and trim figure put her in a luxury sports car class, nimbler than the SUV sized Labs parked throughout the neighborhood.
She needed someone to take her out for spins to show off her precision handling and powerful acceleration. It didn’t take Elsie long to figure out I was her go to, dutifully responding to each nudge of her wet nose or lick of my hand. Nothing slowed us down, be it rain, sleet, or slippery winter tracks. While our bond intensified each year, Amelia and Connor became teenagers, further solidifying their part-time playmate role with each text and Snapchat on their iPhones. Elsie and I are creatures of habit and have perfected a robust weekend morning routine with seemingly as many quality control steps as a NASA Space Shuttle launch.
I wake-up before the rest of the family as usual on a fine Fall morning and make my way to the bathroom. Elsie is sitting up with her paws stretched out in front of her on the fluffy bed in the corner of the room, her eyes full of anticipation. We make eye contact, and I mouth the words “Morning, Elsie.”
Upon reentering the bedroom, I stop and bend down to tap my knee, signaling to Elsie that it’s okay for her to get up. She sidles up and drives her snout into my knees. She likes to pass through a narrow opening in my legs while I rub her back and pet her behind.
We slip silently out of the room before Elsie pauses at the top of the stairs for a violent sneeze and body shake hybrid move. She is officially ready for the day now.
We make our way downstairs and Elsie noses the various chewed up dog toys and water bottles along the way to the kitchen as if playing a game of connect the dots. Her tail whips against my leg as I open the door to our deck and she glances back at me as if to say,
“I’ll be right back to eat Daddy.”
I use the time to prep the twenty-four-cup muffin pan we use as her food bowl, a brilliant idea by Joanie designed to stop Elsie from inhaling her food. A sharp bark from the deck serves as a potty break status update.
Elsie bounds into the room like a kid on Christmas morning to find her food waiting for her. She sits prim and proper in front of the pan, waiting for the go-ahead before chowing down. I wish I could take credit for her impeccable manners, but it was all Joanie, the architect of her obedience training program as a pup. I say “Good Girl Elsie, go ahead” and she dives in, methodically working through the food evenly distributed in each cup of the pan. My family spreads out her portion size of five scoops, but I like to give her four first to create the anticipation and illusion of receiving more with the final one.
Time for the after-breakfast treat, two medium size Milk-Bone biscuits inserted in a purple Kong rubber cylinder shaped chew toy. The family affectionately calls it the Bone Toy. Similar to the muffin pan, the Bone Toy serves as a means to slow the ravenous Elsie down, but also provides a challenge, requiring her to break up the treats by biting the outside. After conducting an expedited search she proudly presents it to me, her excited growls amplified by the open-end design. Elsie rises to claim her prize after I insert the biscuits, her paws resting momentarily on my waist. She walks a few feet with it secured in her mouth before stopping to stare at me with her head cocked to the side,
“Daddy, it’s time for you to slow speed chase me around the living room.”
I don’t remember how the slow speed chase started, but it has developed into the most critical step in our routine, setting the tone for the pace and quality of the remaining steps. She leads the way, and I follow, patting her behind as she slowly completes each lap around our brown leather couch with the Bone Toy firmly secured in her mouth. She turns around and glances at me, asking for me to continue following with her eyes. I do so enthusiastically,
“I’m gonna get that Bone Toy Elsie.”
Four loops in, the burning sensation in my back and thighs get the best of me, and I break off to the kitchen in our open floor plan, the signal for Elsie to settle in for the main event. She chomps down on the Bone Toy with surgical precision, eliciting the steady flow of biscuit bits from each orifice.
Walking Elsie is one of my favorite activities. It serves as a moderate exercise program, stress reliever, daydream portal, and bonding session with my good girl. Elsie’s tail wags in anticipation as I open a drawer in the kitchen and pull out a plastic Giant Eagle grocery bag, my preferred poop picker-upper, and locate her walking leash in the mudroom. She is panting now with her tail in full whip mode, looking up at me with sweet wide eyes and a big grin,
With the Gentle Leader in place, I open the front door and we hit the road. Following a few sniffs of the hedges near our front stoop, a private investigation technique designed to profile rival canine activity near home base, she leads me down the sidewalk. Our Neo-Traditional development provides the perfect walking environment with tightly packed in new houses set close to the street linked by impeccable concrete sidewalks, creating a royal pathway for the queen.
We encounter the first of what will surely be several inferior hounds rounding the first bend. Barks and bellows ring out in the still morning air as the master struggles to restrain the unruly light brown Cocker Spaniel from their position across the street. Staying true to her immaculate manners and royal lineage, Elsie ignores the boorish behavior, continuing her promenade in a ladylike fashion. She rubs my shin with her nose and looks up, letting me know she is true and there to serve and protect.
“I’m okay, good girl Elsie.”
The activity serves to stimulate her bowels, and she hunkers down under a tree amongst brightly colored leaves, a few feet from the road. As if on cue, a car approaches and infringes upon the private moment. I make eye contact with the driver who passes with an all-knowing wry smile as I wait with my hand firmly placed inside the plastic bag. Consistent with the sunny Fall morning weather, the pickup is clean and crisp, the fully formed logs dangling like rocks in the cinched-up bag.
With the business portion of the journey behind us, we settle into a nice rhythm and make our way up a slight upgrade on the royal trail, the brilliant foliage of the tree-lined street and Halloween decorations creating a trippy fall kaleidoscope-like viewing experience. My mind drifts like a car in need of an alignment to thoughts of work, but I self-correct by steering to images of Hilton Head Island, our favorite vacation spot. I think about how young the kids were on our first trip, Amelia the tender age of five and Connor three. Watching them grow like flowers each year with the beautiful island as a backdrop has been special. The sign outside the door of Stu’s Surfside Subs has served as an unofficial growth chart at our annual vacation kick-off lunch.
Onward we march on the royal trail and reach a house in the midst of construction, which takes me back to my days as an auditor in a public accounting firm. I loved auditing contractors and visiting project sites to assess the percent complete. This one looks to be about twenty-five percent, with only the foundation and shell of the colonial style home erected. The activity at the site peaks Elsie’s interest and she stops for a few beats to check it out, appearing to smile at the workers with her tongue wagging vigorously. The skill of the men serves as a reminder of how inept I am as a handyman.
Elsie finds a billowy patch of grass and takes her mid-walk break. She aggressively drives her face into the ground, picking up some blades of grass that stick to her snout. I try to sneak in a pet on her lighter shaded belly as she starts to roll but underestimate the speed of the rotation and end up grazing her back. Elsie gets up and gazes across her development like a royal before gently pulling me forward. It’s time to resume our walk.
I notice a runner approaching, and instinctually I shorten up the slack on the leash even though Elsie would never lunge out. Based on her pace and professional looking black ensemble with hot pink trim, it’s clear the woman isn’t messing around. A slight smile pierces her lips before she says good morning. The sight of Elsie can break down even the most serious pavement pounders. Seeing Mary Decker Slaney forces me to acknowledge my current plight. It felt good to hold down the leadoff leg in the Pittsburgh Marathon relay a few years back, but knee trouble has relegated me to the elliptical machine at the Y. I have hinted to friends about a possible return to the arena at the Shamrock Shuffle 5K.
As we near the end of our trek along a slight downgrade with ample views of the path ahead, I realize we have managed to avoid direct contact with other pups out for a stroll. Most owners commandeer their vessels to open water to avoid the awkward banter and potential risk, but the occasional get to know you sniff session is inevitable. The rigor which I apply to the process of evaluating which pooches are worthy of a meet up with Elsie is akin to a canine version of Tinder. Any thoughts of swiping right to engage with the approaching woman walking three dogs dissipate as the picture comes into focus. The snarling pack dragged her along like a rag doll, cutting an evil swath across the sidewalk, forcing me to make a tactical decision to steer Elsie to the other side of the street. The sheets of snot strewn about, chilling growls, and unruly behavior made it nearly impossible to identify the breed, but it didn’t matter. These were canine Beelzebubs through and through. I step in front of Elsie to shield her from the dark freak show.
We reach the holy ground of our street and I feel the slight pull of the gentle leader, a sign that Elsie is close to claiming her reward for another walk well done. She pushes through the door in full pant mode and practically slides into the kitchen.
I remember the plastic bag filled with poop dangling from my fingertips and tell her to hold tight while I discard it in the garage garbage can. Elsie is camped out in front of the treat door upon my return, wide-eyed, and panting. Joanie says I spoil her with the post-walk treats, but I vehemently disagree. I point to the multitude of studies which highlight the health benefits of a post-workout snack. Why would it be any different for a dog?
I survey the current stock of treats, comprised of a diverse mix of bone marrow filled nuggets, a meatball shaped selection, and a stick-like dental health treat, and decide to offer a sampling of all three. Elsie nods her approval before turning tail and heading to the living room or makeshift performance stage. Making her do tricks to earn her treats was borne out of her obedience training as a pup.
First up is the spin-o-rama, the most visually impressive trick which begins with me presenting the bone marrow filled nugget in my right hand and making a circular motion. Elsie spins pretty and earns the first treat.
The second trick is the old reliable paw handshake. It’s a basic move, but Elsie has enhanced the degree of difficulty by showing her paw dexterity. We go right first, then left. Boom Boom. The meatball didn’t stand a chance.
My decision to leave the dental treat for last is strategic. The dual faceted nature of the treat as a healthy snack and tarter reducer intrigues me, but I am skeptical.
I toss the treat into the air for the third and final trick. Elsie has a near one-hundred-percent success rate of keeping the treat from hitting the floor. I have upped the level of difficulty through the years and decide to push the envelope by flirting with the nine-foot-high ceiling in the living room. The scene seems to play out like a slow-motion highlight film with the stick nearly grazing the ceiling before beginning its slow descent to Amelia and Connor’s long drawn out cheers of encouragement,
The treat falls perfectly into her mouth, and the scene speeds up again. Elsie finds her customary post-snack comfy spot on the couch, and the kids return to Snapchatting with friends, disinterested in the normalcy which prevails after the shock and awe of the treat toss finale. One of these days they’ll realize they have the best dog in the world. Part of me hopes they stay plugged in so she’ll continue to fixate her beautiful brown eyes on mine.