Dogs will be dogs, come rain, come shine


Although I love my pets all year, they try my patience in the winter, when the pungent smell of steam rising off wet dogs fills the air, and muddy paw prints fill the house.

Days are short, walks and tempers even shorter. I'm cranky; they're restless and bored.

Andy, the brat, has his own ways of staying amused, pulling tissues from wastebaskets and shredding them, or seeing how many times in an hour he can use the dog door. Sometimes he'll just sit with his rump outside the door and his head and paws inside the house. From his point of view it's a fine arrangement -- he stays cool, but keeps on top of the action inside -- but I can't seem to muster much appreciation for the icy blasts he lets blow into the house.

If I shut off the dog door, he'll move on to another game. He likes to take his toys from the box in the back bedroom and bring them into the living room one by one, until the couch and floor are covered with green latex frogs, stuffed squeaky toys and tennis balls. My half-hearted efforts at teaching him to put the toys back have not been successful.

The one useful thing he could do on a cold winter night -- snuggle -- is not part of his repertoire. Thick-coated and warm-blooded, Andy prefers to spend the coldest winter nights on the concrete step outside the dog door.

Long as the winters seem to me, they must seem even longer to Toni. Her arthritic hips and knees make the nights a torture, no matter what I give her or do for her.

My dog-loving neighbor found a pair of children's sweat pants for her last year, and customized them with a hole for her long plume of a tail. Each cold night I put them on the dog before lifting her onto the bed -- she can't jump that high anymore -- and then tried to sleep while listening to the snoring of a 40-pound dog in pink fleece.

In the summer, Toni seems years younger. She suns herself on the warm concrete patio and then looks for something interesting to do. She'll track bugs through the yard or balls through the house. She accepts Andy's invitations to play and the two of them careen through the house like the puppies they haven't been in years.

In the summer, Andy comes completely uncorked. Every sprinkler is his enemy, every squirrel must be chased. The fences are watched for any sign of a cat, especially George, the neighbor's marmalade tabby, who lives to tease. This summer, Andy learned how to dig, and I was the one who taught him. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

My neighbors and I had embarked on an ambitious campaign to carve a garden out of the back quarter of the newest neighbor's yard. The area we chose had been weed-choked for years, and we worked furiously to clear enough space for the vegetables we dreamed of.

The neighbors' dogs, Doc and Binky, jumped in to help with the digging. Doc's a strong old golden retriever, and his double-pawed technique moved nearly as much earth as the gas-powered tiller. Andy watched from afar, interested, but not enough to participate.

I called him over and dragged his white paws through the freshly turned earth. He started gingerly,then warmed to the task.

He has practiced his new skill ever since.

One morning this week, I walked the dogs over to the garden, now lush with foliage and bursting with produce. I watered and weeded, glancing now and then at the dogs, resting outside the garden fence in the glow of the early-morning sun. Toni and Doc dozed, while Andy scanned the yard for enemies.

Moments later I glanced again and he was gone.

I noticed him behind the compost heap, his paws furiously active. I called him once and bellowed at him twice before he finally jumped the low fence back out and wandered over.

His front legs and chest were covered with muck and a squash vine trailed across his head and shoulders. A branch had tangled his long belly fur and dragged behind him like a second tail. He looked like an hour's worth of grooming, and something unidentifiable dangled from his jaws.

"Andy," I hissed, holding out my palm. "Give!"

He reluctantly spat a torn and half-rotted tomato at my feet and bounced away through a sprinkler to bark at a neighboring dog. Make that two hour's worth of grooming.

At that moment I longed for those quiet winter nights. Although I love my pets all year, they try my patience in the summer.

Ms. Spadafori is a newspaper reporter and an animal obedience trainer in Sacramento, Calif. Questions about pets may be sent to her c/o Saturday, The Sun, 501 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21278.

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