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Authors: Dave Nasser and Lynne Barrett-Lee

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“With the other dog owners,” she answered,
quick as can be. “Mom’s going to be here for the weekend, plus my grandma and auntie, of course, but mostly I thought it would be something we could do with all the people we meet down at the park. I thought we could all, you know, get together with our dogs, and, well, have a little party. Why not?”

And so, Christie not being one to make idle threats, a party in the dog park was exactly what
we had.

It was all new and strange to me, this business of having dog friends because, the truth was that when the day came for us to celebrate George’s birthday, we did so with a bunch of people—about a dozen of us in total—whose names we mostly didn’t, and still don’t, know. We knew all the dog’s names, of course; it would be difficult not to. We knew Drake, the Great Dane, but also Bart, the
yappy little West Highland terrier; Chester, the highly strung liver-spot Dalmatian; Disney, the trimmed-to-within-an-inch-of-his-street-cred black poodle; and Super Mario, the appropriately named mile-a-minute Afghan hound. And never let it be said that Christie doesn’t know how to organize a party. Despite there being no manual, as far as I know, called
Throw Your Dog the Perfect Party
(though
there just might be) and despite there having been no precedent set (we’d neither of us attended a similar party down at Morris K. Udall Park, and I seriously doubted that there’d been one before George’s), she organized a party that any dog would be proud of. There were special party hats for the different dogs, in all sorts of wild colors, with a variety of tassels, carefully sourced from the
pet store. There were also games to play, treats to eat and, best of all, a big tray of “pupcakes”—special dog cakes she’d tracked down, specifically formulated for canine tastes—which were gone in the blink of an eye.

We were a little anxious, it must be said, about Christie’s ninty-five-year-old grandma, mostly because she was such a big hit with all the dogs that we were seriously concerned
she’d accidentally get knocked over in the crush. But apart from that, it all went really well. George, of course, was in his element. Showing an early appreciation for the advantages of his status in life (one we would come later to recognize, unequivocally, as his incredible star quality), he bounded around with his canine pals, mingling impressively, and lapped up being the center of attention
among both his doggie and non-doggie pals.

To an outsider, strolling past the dog park that November early evening, one glance through the wire-mesh fence would have said it all, really: dog lovers and owners really are special—a breed apart.

As for me—the Dave I’d been for most of my years, at any rate—I remember deciding one other thing that evening: this was the single most embarrassing thing
I’d done, or been involved in, in my entire life. I ran around, threw balls and
sticks, adjusted drooping doggy headgear, doled out sweet treats and pupcakes and took lots of photos, all the while wondering to myself (though I didn’t mention it to Christie) what on earth people would think I was
doing
. To say I felt silly would have been like saying the Pope is Catholic.

Yet, as we began packing
up after our hour or so of fun, with the low sun winking off the bright metallic hues of the party hats, I happened to glance across at my wife. Her face was a picture; there was no doubt about it. But it had a look I hadn’t seen there before. I was used to her cool business head, her drive, her sense of humor; I was used to all aspects of the person she was. But here she looked different: she
had an aura of contentment.

This party for George wasn’t silliness at all—not at all. This birthday party was a sign.

CHAPTER 8
The Road Less Traveled

Had we spoiled our dog? I wondered. Was that what had happened? Had we pampered him, indulged him, let him have his own way on one too many occasions? Had we created a rod for our own backs with this pet of ours? Had we inadvertently created a monster?

It was December 23, at seven in the morning, with
the sun rising, the way dusty and the road long. And George wouldn’t go to the bathroom.

We’d set off, in the star-sprinkled Arizona dark, on An Adventure, which was now becoming, in the early-morning sunshine, A Big Stress. We’d stopped first, still in darkness, on the outskirts of Phoenix, at a gas station. And he didn’t need to go, which was fine. Since then, though, we’d also been through
a couple of fast-food chain parking lots, without progress, and we were beginning to worry about the fact that neither place seemed to be providing whatever it was George required to have a pee.

Little did we expect such a hassle. This was to be the sort of road trip made famous by a dozen iconic movies: a long strip
of glossy asphalt, the sun blazing down above us, balls of tumbleweed (duly
tumbling), acres of dry scrub (though no iconic heat haze in December, of course), the dusty hard shoulder, the endless, unreachable horizon, the traditional plumes of dirt billowing up every time we stopped…

Except we seemed to be stopping rather more than we’d planned to. “What’s his problem?” I asked Christie, though I wasn’t really asking Christie. I was speaking rhetorically, because it
was my turn to take George, so she was sitting in the truck.

“What’s his
problem
?” I asked again, this time louder, and
to
her.

She leaned out the window and shook her head. “I don’t
know
. Perhaps he just doesn’t need to go.”

“Honey, he
must
need to go. We’ve been traveling for four
hours
. And he’s drunk, like, half a gallon. He
must
have to.”

Bet this sort of thing never happened to Jack
Kerouac when he was on the road…

It was Christmas and we were traveling to California.

We’d taken George to visit Christie’s parents only once before, and this Christmas trip was a big one: about twenty or so family members would be either driving or flying in. It would be George’s first big family occasion as well, and already he was behaving like a recalcitrant teenager, refusing to get with
the program.

Traveling to California was a big deal for George. We’d
started out with that day trip to Phoenix, of course, and he’d been okay with that; on our first trip to California, he had been okay too. But back then he was smaller, and a whole lot less picky about where he’d use the bathroom—which kind of mattered. It was an eight-hour road trip from Tucson to Seal Beach, California, five
hundred miles of mostly desert country on Interstate 10. There wasn’t much variety in the choice of places to empty your bladder.

But this time he was picky. Boy, was he picky. Whatever he’d picked up about life along the way, he’d definitely grown a lot more choosy. Just as he’d grown wary of Doc Wallace’s tendency to prod him with needles, it seemed he’d also grown fussy about where he’d squat
(which is how Great Danes always pee, male or female), so it was beginning to feel a lot less like an adventure and more like a growing headache—not to mention it might be the potential forerunner to a major medical emergency. We were currently miles, I figured, from the nearest veterinary hospital and I had visions of having to call 911 from the side of the freeway, yelling, “I need an ambulance!
I have a dog in urinary retention!” How much fluid could a dog take before his insides exploded? Surely it had gone in, so it
had
to come out.

Or did it? For this was yet another—perhaps our fourth—human-dog standoff, or, rather, not so much a standoff, as a wander off. This dog of ours wouldn’t squat
anywhere
.

“How can he not need to go?” I said again. Christie leaned out of the truck. She
seemed way too relaxed.

“He hasn’t drunk
that
much,” she said. “Besides, it’s hot up
in the truck. He’s been panting it all off. He loses lots of fluid that way, don’t forget.” She gestured to where George was padding in small circles in the dirt, stopping only to bend his neck to sniff the odd weed or to peer thoughtfully into the middle distance.

“Besides,” she went on, “you know how he is
about going in strange places. Maybe if we drive on a ways—find somewhere a little different—”

“But in what
way
different? Italian tiles, piped music, a bidet? And if he’s like this now, how’s he going to be at your parents’?”

“Oh, stop stressing, honey. Come on. Let’s drive on for a while.”

George definitely heard this; he gave me such a haughty look. He loped regally back to the truck.

And so we drove on. And on a bit farther. And still on. Another bunch of miles. Another dusty hard shoulder. Another couple of hours. Another well-appointed place for going to the bathroom (a Mexican fast-food place, this time, for an early lunch) that seemed to tick all the right boxes: a good selection of soft grasses, nothing spiky, not too dusty or exposed. Yet,
again
, another bathroom refusal.
He was getting like a highly strung show jumping stallion.

“Okay, you’re right,” said Christie, this time the one out of the truck. “You’re right. He really
should
need to go now.”

Except he didn’t, and we stressed pretty much constantly from that point. How was he going to manage once we got to California? More to the point, how were
we
?

Not Going to the Bathroom had never been something that
crossed my mind when contemplating the various downsides of dog ownership—never. Crashing into furniture, inadvertently knocking over small persons, costing a week’s salary to feed, fighting neighborhood cats—these were real considerations before we got him. But going to the bathroom? Dogs
love
going to the bathroom. Going to the bathroom was what dogs did best, wasn’t it? Going to the bathroom,
I’d always thought, was the doggie equivalent of John Travolta swaggering down that street, paint can swinging from his hand, in the opening scene of
Saturday Night Fever
. Since when did going to the bathroom become an issue for an animal? Particularly for a dog—dogs
love
peeing.

I said this to Christie. “Beats me,” she said, and then she tutted. I think, by now, I might have been ranting.

But then, thankfully, to our immense relief, a whole six hours into the trip, he finally condescended to go to the bathroom in the back lot of the Palm Springs branch of McDonald’s, a little way off from the Dumpsters. It was a small patch of grass and it was a tense couple of moments. Once I saw him squat, I had to put my finger to my lips urgently so that Christie wouldn’t start talking and distract
him. To anyone watching, we must have looked crazy. We weren’t sure what it said about his taste in stylish bathrooms, either, but God Bless America even so.

Christie’s parents lived in a California cottage house situated on a bluff about a quarter mile from the Pacific Ocean. Seal
Beach is a small, attractive city that sits between Los Angeles and Orange County. It isn’t a big place; it has
a population of around twenty-five thousand, around a third of which live in a big place called Leisure World, which is a gated community for senior citizens. Leisure World shares beach space with both a huge naval weapons station and the equally massive Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, which comprises around two-thirds of the land of the whole city—an odd mix, but they seemed to get on.

This wasn’t the house that Christie had grown up in—her parents had moved farther along the street when the children had grown up—but it was still very much a big family residence. It was bedecked, as were most of the other houses on the street, with all the stuff you’d expect for a Christmas in California. When the sun shines so brightly on your holiday decorations, you tend to up the ante by doing
it fairly large. And like almost any other street in Southern California over the holidays, Christie’s parents’ street had gone whole hog. There were numerous giant Santas, any number of reindeer, a bunch of sleighs parked on roofs and lawns—mostly piled high with heaps of pretend presents—plus lots of different types of snowfolk and a smattering of jolly elves. There were also enough strings of
brightly colored lights to nearly circumnavigate the planet. Though, as it was still daytime when we pulled up at Christie’s parents’, we’d have to wait till nightfall to get the full twinkling effect—us and, I didn’t doubt, the good folk on Mars.

The whole house, by the time we arrived, was full to burst
ing with Christie’s family. There were Christie’s parents, plus her brother, Kevin, and his
wife, and their children, plus Christie’s mom’s siblings, of whom there were many: Christie’s mom was one of seven—five sisters and two brothers. And to finish up, there were a whole bunch of grandparents, both Christie’s mom’s mom and pop and also her father’s mom and his sister.

I don’t think George had ever seen so many people of all ages and sizes assembled indoors at once. And like any dog
with a fondness for mass adoration (which is most dogs, let’s face it), he just loved being there from the start. He could hardly stir without someone wanting to come up and pet him or sneak him treats to eat. He particularly loved the attention of the children, who, once they’d gotten over the immediate size-shock, did what all children did with a big friendly dog: they recruited him right away
as part of their team, which he lapped up. He was completely in his element.

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