Dog Days

two white dogs at the gateMy boyfriend didn’t want a dog. We got one, and now the boyfriend lives in New York. My ex-husband advised against getting a second dog. We got a second dog, too, and he’s still my ex-husband. My daughters, on the other hand, wanted a dog more than anything in the world, and after two years of house breaking, leash training, dog whispering, and dog chewing-of-MacBook-power-cables-and-Italian-designer-shoes, we are one big, happy family.

Except not so happy that the dogs never try to run away. If I accidentally leave the gate open, their preferred course of escape is directly down the 800-yard driveway, out from behind a blind curve and across the road to the neighbors’ lawn where their ducks hang out. The first time they did this, I ran after them, planning the contrite apology, the purchase of new ducks (the frying up of the freshly-killed ones, too), the months of tension with the neighbors, only to arrive there and find my two 80-pound dogs sniffing hesitantly after a commanding-looking duck, while the neighbor clutched at his chest.

In fact, it is thanks to our dogs–Kaya and her brother Lari–that I have a surprisingly rich social life in the sleepy town where I live. The first time Kaya escaped, she went to the hill just north of ours, where the neighbors’ young son was friendly and generous with treats, teaching Kaya once and for all that the great wide world is kind. The boy’s mother is a beautician, so thanks to my leg wax chit-chat, she knew just whom to call to come and get the dog.

The next time Kaya got out she went one house farther. My doorbell rang at 10:00pm as I was stepping out of the shower. I threw on my robe and leaned out the window, looking, I was later told, like a witch. “Do you have a big white dog?” said a delicate-looking blond. My heart almost stopped, as I thought of Kaya standing on her hind legs to exuberantly “hug” (jump on) and “kiss” (lick) this woman, as she likes to do with us. I went and collected Kaya, introduced myself properly to the woman and her husband, and now regularly enjoy their excellent barbecues, delicious wines and international circle of friends. They also come to our house, as long as the dogs are in their pen.

two white dogs in wheatfieldUrged on by success, one day not long after, Kaya led Lari down our hill, through the forest and up the hillside opposite, to a house that lies west of ours. Jackpot. I found Kaya and Lari barking delightedly at four English setters safely–thankfully–behind a fence. The setters belong to a master hunter of the woodcock and his lovely French wife. Lari won’t get into cars, so I loaded up Kaya and drove slowly home, Lari trotting behind us all the way. I now find myself at an elegant dinner party given by these neighbors almost once a week, during which he regales guests with tales of his childhood in a small town in Calabria, and she serves up Michelin-star-worthy four-course meals.

In addition to charming, generous friends, the dogs have taught me something about love. Kaya was a rambunctious puppy. I chalked her behavior up to moving house shortly after we got her, to the wrong training approach, to the wrong expectations on our part, to having picked the most outgoing puppy–the one that “comes right up and climbs in your lap,” the way the experts say you shouldn’t. Even her breeder concluded she had a temperament–needy, exuberant, high-strung–rare for her kind. (Lari is more typical–stand-offish and very low key.) It was only when I stopped trying to change all that, and gave her some extra attention, that she started to settle down, trust me, and relax around others. When I get home in the evening, worn-out after work, arms full of groceries, kids tired and hungry, I stop inside the gate, squat down and pet her for a while, scratch her behind the ears and try to tune into her mood. I just give her what she wants–which in the case of a dog is easy–and it makes all the difference in the world.

Lately I’ve been good about closing our gate. But a few days after New Year’s, heading to brunch with my family in Connecticut, I got a worrisome call from Italy.

“It’s Rossi,” the man said. Rossi is the most common last name Italy, yet I couldn’t think of one I knew.

“Sono Rossi,” he repeated, “from the station.” The carabinieri!

“What happened?” I asked.

“I just saw your dogs, heading south, toward the highway. Couldn’t stop them, try as I might. Now it’s dusk, so we’ll have to take up the search tomorrow.” Tomorrow?!?!

“How do you know they’re mine?” I asked.

“Got your number off their collar tag.” Couldn’t stop them, you say?

I hung up and called the dog sitter, who had already collected my adventurous dogs and brought them safely home. Needless to say, I have never been to dinner at the Rossi’s.

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