Wednesday, November 1, 2017

The Single Dog Mom

June 2003: Kinook and I remained alone in the house. I felt responsible for her, like a mother to a child. I was juggling work, social life, caring for myself and for her in this aftermath of intense emotional drama, and with a great deal of uncertainty on financial resources. 

Not having children of my own makes it difficult to judge the degree of challenges a mother faces, and from where I was looking, as a single woman caring for a dog, it seemed to me that children were easier to look after than dogs. Children are welcome everywhere - there are no sign in stores, doctors’ offices, office buildings or parks that read: “No kids allowed”. But dogs -  at least in Ottawa, Canada - they are a different story: dogs are not allowed in most shopping malls, all restaurants, many offices and office buildings, and unless they are service dogs, they are certainly banned from grocery stores. Only specific parks in town are dog-friendly, and none of the beaches, including the public beaches on natural lakes in national parks, allow dogs. 

What this meant for me, as a single care-taker for Kinook, was that if I tried to lump my chores in one travel, and combine shopping and various appointments with dog-care and walking, I had to leave Kinook in the car, which was only possible in the colder weather, to make it safe for her, as car interiors get too hot in the summer. I would not dare tie my dog in front of stores and leave her on the street - what if somebody steals her? I couldn’t risk that. 

I have no close family this side of the Ocean, so Kinook filled in the role of sister, daughter and close friend. I became really creative in finding places where I could go with her and things to do where I could include her. When I would set playdates with friends, and someone would propose a place to go to, I would immediately check: “Is it dog-friendly?” 

One summer day I met with my two friends, Lucie and Anne, and went for a stroll in Ottawa’s Byward Market - a central place of shopping and entertainment for the young and bohemian crowds. Kinook was on leash, by my side, her suburban canine self utterly curious and intrigued by the downtown smells and busyness. Lunchtime pulled us towards an Italian restaurant with patio tables. I tried my luck and asked the owner: “Could we have lunch at a patio table? We have a dog…” Luckily the owner wanted our business more than he feared Health Canada laws, and allowed us in. I was at my happiest, out with girlfriends, and with my puppy-girl by my side. Why is it such a thrill to do things with your dog? I can’t remember being so thrilled going out on dates with sexy men - and I have been out on dates with quite a few lovely, sexy, great men! Maybe it’s a offer versus demand thing: places to go with your dogs are so scarce, that when you find one, it feels like you won the lottery. Maybe I’d be less thrilled in a place like Yellowknife, where people take their dogs everywhere. Everyone in Yellowknife seems to drive trucks instead of cars, and every truck has a large, calm, fluffy dog riding in or on it, enjoying the scenery and their rides with their humans.

The Canal Ritz restaurant on the water is one of those grey areas where taking your dog out for dinner is legitimate thanks to logistics: the restaurant’s patio is fenced by a low, simple fence which makes the separation between inside and outside merely symbolic. 

So I would go for a meal with my puppy girl and tie her outside on the fence, then sit at the table right next to her, on the inside. I could touch her, pet her, and feed her my steak (of course!) while we were dining together but legally, she was not in the restaurant. This became one of the places you go primarily not for the food, but for the company and view. 

“Look! Squeaky toys!” I would tell Kinook, pointing my fingers towards the ducks lazily floating on the Rideau Canal waters. 

“How underwhelmingly interesting” my placid working breed of a dog would say with her eyes and body language. She had no interest in either chasing birds, or squeaking toys. “Is there more steak on your plate for me?” she’d inquire instead. Requesting steak from a human’s plate is a time proven tradition, way more effective than duck-chasing and a much better use of an Akita’s time. The mark of an intelligent dog is that she knows that the source of her food is the human’s plate and fridge, and not so much on the land, so it’s important to know where to place one’s efforts and attention.

Kinook and I walked often at the Arboretum, a doggie-friendly park filled with interesting specimen trees, a lovely park unfolding further down from the Canal Ritz on the Rideau Canal. There was a “doggie beach” at the park, where water-loving dogs would swim, retrieve sticks and balls, or try their luck chasing ducks and geese. One day we watched a black Labrador Retriever stalk a bunch of ducks up and down the water, while his human was patiently watching the scene from a bench. “The self-entertaining, self-exercising dog” I thought, my eyes on this scene which looked like a live clip of a doggie comics cartoon: the black Lab swimming up and down, following the ducks with committed aplomb, neither bored or discouraged enough to give up, nor eager enough to get tired ; the ducks were just enough annoyed to try and get away from the dog, but not threatened enough to flee. So the pursued and pursuer swam up and down, up and down. And Kinook - she couldn’t be bothered. 

Kinook had a thing for squirrels though. She took more interest in creatures who jumped, ran and climbed up trees, than water creatures who swam. Her double coat getting heavy while in water kept her interested in dry land endeavours, while her greatest aquatic adventures consisted in wading through the water with an open mouth so she could step forward and drink at the same time, in examining the occasional fish or frog, ears perked up and rotating to the sides, like satellite dishes. Occasionally she’d jump up and stomp in the shallow water with a sudden splash in a half-hearted attempt to catch that fish or frog by surprise - but really, without placing all her bets on the move.

But chasing squirrels on dry land, that was a different kind of game: it was entrancing, compelling, deeply engaging, and it had a very specific procedure to it. First, you watch the squirrel from afar. You lower yourself by flexing the knees, you lower your tail, and the ears go pointing forth. You gently walk forward towards the squirrel, as silently as you can, treading lightly over the tops of fresh, dewy blades of grass. You walk step by step, stop for a short while with one front leg in the air, smelling the breeze coming the way of your nostrils from the squirrel. And when you’re close enough to the target, you sprint with your full speed towards it, and give it your all to reach it! When the inevitable happens, and the little creature has climbed up a tree (why, oh, why do they put trees wherever there are squirrels? It’s not fair!) you sit under the tree, looking up at your almost-caught game, and speak up your mind from the tops of your lungs: “I see you! I know where you are! Come on down here, you pesky little squirrel! Come on down, and make my day!”


Is it a coincidence that all my friends are animal lovers, and particularly dog-lovers? It so happens that all the houses I have been invited to for visits and dinner, have been open to me together with my dog - except those houses with territorial cats, but for some reason I don’t remember myself visiting many of those houses. I do, however, remember visiting Gabriela’s house in Gatineau, the Quebequois (French Canadian) city right across the river from Ottawa. Gabriela and I share the same cultural background, both born and raised in Bucharest, Romania, and as we found out in our conversations, we even attended the same school, but in different years. 

Gabriela was a single Mum for her (human) daughter. She loves people (she’s a medical doctor), and she loves animals. Kinook and I entered her home, we humans gathered for chats and tea, and Ms. Pup went on to do what she needed to do when on new grounds: she went exploring. There’s a great deal of new smells to take in when on a visit, so she went ahead meticulously examining Gabriela’s house room by room, her life enriched by the novelty of the experience.

In the middle of the conversation, we heard a far away bark. “Wroof!” And then a pause. Then again, “Wrrroof!” And another pause. And it went on and on with committed, predictable barks, neither too flimsy nor too enthusiastic, spaced out at about five seconds apart. We went looking and found that the sounds came from upstairs. 

“Oh!” Exclaimed Gabriela on our way up the stairs. “She must have found Gogu”

Gogu is a ubiquitous male name in Romania.

“Who’s Gogu?” I asked.

“The Hamster” she replied.

We found Kinook planted in front of Gogu’s cage, staring him in the eye, intrigued and bedazzled by this creature that she couldn’t reach in spite of it not climbing up a tree, and she kept interrogating him: “Who are you?” Pause. “What are you?” Pause. “Come on out!” Pause. “Look at me!” Pause. “Come on out!”

Gabriela took Gogu out of his cage, and we were both (scientifically) curious to see what would happen in an encounter between our furry friends. She carefully held Gogu in her hand, and sheltered him in case Kinook would decide to consume him as her treat; then she placed her under the nose of her curious visitor. Kinook sniffed carefully, filling the data files in her brain with the new information, and then she gently licked the hamster twice. 

It wasn’t the exuberant, affectionate sloppy and slobbery kind of a lick that translates to the human kiss which the more passionate dogs are known to do. It was a careful procedure of curious exploration to complement her sense of smell, where she employed the taste buds on the tip of her tongue (specialized on hamster-tasting, I am sure!) to get all the information that she could on Gogu, which proved satisfactory enough given Gogu’s silence and stubborn reluctance to answer any of Kinook’s interrogation.

The encounter was short-lived, as Kinook’s short attention span being that of a typical Akita, a breed too intelligent and curious to be captured by one single event for too long, so once satisfied with the smell-taste introduction to the hamster, she went on to explore new corners of our hostess’s home.


The most difficult part of being a single Mom for Kinook was caring for her during the times I needed to travel out of town. I had to find a good, reliable dog sitter. And I did. On one of our walks to the Conroy Pit doggie park, we found the business card of a woman who offered “A home away from home” to dogs. I called. The woman was freshly retired from her job as a computer science college teacher whose dream was to come home to a moving carpet made of dogs. She had two fluffy canine creatures of her own, and she went on advertising for her retirement occupation as a dog-sitter. The woman, Penny, was a true dog lover. She lived in a two-storey townhouse across from a park, had a dog-friendly car (a van) for chauffeuring her clients to the off-leash grounds, and had turned her house into a doggie day-care place with walk-in crates under the stairs, toys, and a hall-of-fame wall in the entrance hallway showing the portrait photos of her favourite clients. Kinook’s face was on top of the pile! 

Kinook proceeded to steal Penny’s heart, and upon my returns from travels, when going to pick her up and bring her home, I would hear stories of what she had done, like staring at Penny’s dinner pizza until she got her share. One time I came to pick Kinook up, and she came to greet me, her Akita-enthusiastic tail vibrating extended way beyond the usual two seconds, and then she returned to a marrow bone she was chewing with an outstanding exuberance and a delighted smile on her face. I will never know for sure, but when I think of it now, she was so happy at Penny’s that I think I could have left her there, and she would have been as happy as she was running to our car to go home with me. Penny was clearly the dog-sitter made in Heaven, and a fur baby’s single Mom’s best friend!

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