Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Attack of the dog people

Nameless humans pay homage to canine cult in the park

BYLINE: joe o'connell    
DATE: October 9, 1997 
PUBLICATION: Austin American-Statesman (TX) 
PAGE: 64
They lapse into baby talk, are convinced proper training is the key to a healthy relationship with their ``kids,'' and have pockets that stink of liver. They are Dog People, and, praise Lassie, I unwittingly have been sucked into their cult of canine personality.

It started innocently a few years ago when my sister and her family moved into an apartment that didn't allow pets. Their pooch needed temporary shelter and I provided it. My young nephew had named the critter Patch after a star of his favorite movie, ``101 Dalmatians,'' but, while Patch certainly was animated, his spots looked like they'd been left out in the rain. 

Patch had so much nervous energy that he once ate an entire couch. There was no getting around it, I had to walk him or face the consequences.Easy, I thought. At least it will keep him far from my cat, whose disgust was marked by hairball projectiles aimed at Patch with hair-trigger accuracy. And, hey, I lived down the block from a hike-and-bike trail and the exercise couldn't hurt. 

I attached the leash to Patch's collar and we were off, and running. He strained at the cord and pulled me down the trail, leaping randomly to the left, the right. By the time we'd reached the designated off-leash area, he was calm, so I gave in to his smiling eyes and their pleas for a little freedom to roam. Patch walked with me for a few yards, then stopped, looked both ways, and ran all the way home at top speed. 

If at first you don't succeed, get stupid again. This time Patch was the picture of poise. At least until radio personality and jogger extraordinaire Jody Denberg ran past at a steady trot. Patch, an apparent music buff, --decided to race the KGSR deejay.I bought a longer leash and started training the errant mutt. Over time he settled down, and I exhaled and began to notice a few details about life on the hike-and-bike trail.

 For instance, a male walking solo is given a wide berth and wary stares, but provide the same guy a dog to walk, and he's judged to be a harmless, all-around fun potential dog-sitter. How could anybody with that cute of a pooch be anything but? 

That goes double if the judgment is being made by one of the Dog People. You see, as I soon learned, Dog People travel in packs.Discover more than a few unoccupied square feet of green space in Austin, and you can bet Dog People were there first with their dogs' legs raised in unison to mark the spot. Every day after 5 p.m. Dog People cluster at covert locations around Austin, recruiting others to join them in the ritualized fun. After all, dogs are social, and it's much easier to stand around and watch them play with each other than it is to actually walk. The logic was enticing. 

Patch and I arrived every night at 4:59 p.m. sharp to see his friends. I had officially joined the cult.Membership has its privileges. I was invited to my first dog birthday party as ``Patch's Daddy,'' because Dog People don't know each other's names. 

I was given directions to a West Austin home and told to bring a gallon of vanilla ice cream: dogs can't handle chocolate. The crowd was already off-leash when I got to the small, well-kept house. Claws clicked across the hardwood floors in glee as a videotape of the Westminster Kennel Club show played on the TV in the background; Dog People exchanged knowing glances. 
Spike in business attire.

Our host, Cricket's Mom, had prepared two standing rib roasts, and the mouth-watering aroma wafted toward us as we rushed the table. I sat by the parents of Sasquatch, a hulking black lab known for her psychotic infatuation with large rocks, and the father and visiting grandmother of Thurber, a smallish, peppy critter. 

Dogs perched eagerly by our sides throughout the meal as we, the doting parents, were instructed to feed our kids at least as much roast beef as we consumed. Patch was in heaven. If I weren't already his official Dad, he would have eagerly slapped a paw print on the adoption papers. 

His love grew to new heights as I served him a heaping bowl of ice cream before scooping out the scant leftovers from the carton for myself. The Dog People looked on approvingly and began to discuss the merits of the new flea pill.Thus went my exotic life as a Dog Person, until the day the other paw dropped. 

My sister's brood had purchased a house and a large back yard awaited Patch. My cat burped up a hairball and licked herself in glee. Dog People friends shunned me. People on the hike-and-bike trail averted their eyes when I passed. I was crushed. 

Desperate people do desperate things, so I bought my cat a harness and a leash.I wasn't crazy; I knew she wouldn't go willingly -- at least the first time. So I primed her with a mound of catnip until her eyes were bloodshot and droopy. Then I quickly pulled the harness out of its hiding place and attached it and the leash before she could focus. 

We made it to the staircase easily, but then kitty curled into a ball like a pill bug. I had to drag her down, one step, one plop at a time. Outside it was overcast, and a light mist was falling. She perked up on the trail, walking slowly and sniffing, almost like a dog. Hey, I thought, this just might work! 

Then one of the Dog People approached. My cat arched her back and bounced wildly through the air like a, well, like a cat who's been mistaken for a dog. I grabbed for her, but she got to me first, claws imbedding themselves deep in my chest. 

The walk home was an awkward dance of pain.Six months later I embraced my Dog People-ness, and Spike entered my life. He's a pure-bred, gangly dalmatian who has yet to eat a couch but has eaten almost everything else (including cat food) not nailed down or hidden on top of the refrigerator. Recently Patch came back to me as well, and he and Spike couldn't be happier. Most evenings you can find the three of us at the park cavorting with our pals. I'm the one wearing half-eaten shoes. You know, the guy who smells like liver.