First off, let me say that I’m not a bad dog, just misunderstood. “Yappy,” they call me. “Neurotic,” they say. “Disobedient,” they snicker. Well, how would you like it? One day, you’re romping through the bluegrass of Kentucky and three days later you’re in Philadelphia, a big city with barely a blade of grass in sight.
By Wendell (as told to Jennifer Weiner)
That’s what happened to me, I am a rat terrier who went from the open spaces of Kentucky to a city choked with cars I’m not allowed to chase and where the gutters are full of chicken bones I’m not supposed to eat. Every time I go out for a walk, skateboarders come behind me sounding like wheeled Armageddon, and don’t even get me started on the rollerbladers.
Jennifer, my owner, must have noticed my discontentment because one steamy June afternoon, as I was lying on her bed (yes, I’m allowed) musing on the injustice of it all, she flopped down beside me and popped the question: “Hey, Wendell, want to go to dog camp?” I peered over her shoulder as she read from a brochure: “We’ll stay at the Tails Up Inn in Putney, Vermont. They’ve got seven fences, guided walks every morning and every night, swimming holes, hiking, delicious food.”
I wondered if they had any obedience, because I would have some serious objections to that. And, hey, wait! Did you say swimming holes? I don’t know how to swim! But Jennifer was already on the phone with her checkbook open. Great, I thought, another major life decision in which the dog is not consulted.
And so off we went to dog camp. On our way to Vermont I learned that Camp Gone-to-the-Dogs has been around for over nine years. It is run by Honey Loring, who holds a master degree in psychology and more importantly, standard poodles. The camp runs for weeklong sessions at a boarding school, and there are courses in everything from sheep herding to canine citizenship, to the dreaded obedience.
The inn where we stayed was a meandering two-story farmhouse with brightly painted trim and a doghouse by the door. We were greeted by a big, dolorous dalmatian named Harley and his friend, a small shih tzu mix called Pip.
“Howyadoin’?” I said, growling low in my throat by way of introduction. “I’m Wendell the Urban Dog.”
“Whatever,” said Harley, with a huge yawn.
“I’m a rat terrier,” I said, this time growling a little louder.
“Whatever,” Harley murmured and then slumped, belly first, onto the gravel.
“You certainly do resemble a rat,” said Pip.
“I’m not called rat terrier because I look like a rat, I’m called that because I was bred to catch rats on long ship voyages!” I barked. Pip retreated and Jennifer apologized for my less than friendly behavior. But I was not sorry, I would not let Harley and Pip make fun of me. “Score one for Wendell,” I thought.
Once we went inside the house I saw two samoyeds and a small wheaten terrier named Mac. While Jennifer helped herself to wine and cheese and mingled with other dog-owners (the people version of butt sniffing), Mac told me he was in a kennel for six years working as a breeder.
“Nothing to do all day but eat, sleep and mate,” he said.
“I’m neutered,” I offered.
“I noticed,” he said.
“Did I mention I was bred to catch rats on long ship voyages?” I asked.
“You were,” said Mac. “Believe me, mating’s better,” and wandered off. While I was pondering what he meant by that, we went for a romp in the yard. There I met my roommate Maybelline, a large, fluffy sheepdog with a red bow in her hair.
“Hey!” she squeaked.
“Hiya,” I growled.
Then she tried to sniff me in a manner I found forward, so I barked until she backed off. Jennifer started apologizing for my behavior again but Maybelline’s owner waved it off. “I love how he asserts himself,” she said. I puffed up with pride. “It’s great when the little guys do that,” she added. “Excuse me,” I thought indignantly, “Little guys?”
At dinnertime, people headed indoors, toting designer dog foods in specially labeled tupperware. Imagine my embarrassment when I looked down at my generic kibble packed in a plastic shopping bag! After the meal, we headed to an apple orchard full of soft grass, tantalizing mud, and the sharp autumn-like tang of apples.
Freed from our leashes, we raced through the trees, charging through mud puddles, exploring ravines, ditches and anything that smelled good. It was like being back in Kentucky! Then the skies split open and it started to rain. All of us were taken back to the Inn where there was a mudroom, fragrant with wet dog smell, that included a deep tub, warm water and towels, even a blow dryer for Maybelline.
And that’s how it went, all weekend long – a series of perfect, sparkling-blue days and crisp, clear, starry nights. There were cows to chase, sheep to boss and Maybelline to romp with.
On Friday morning’s hike, I hopped over an electrified sheep fence (the sheep were giving me attitude) and had to be rescued. That afternoon, we attended a Fourth of July parade in a little town where my jaunty red bandanna drew many approving comments. Next Jennifer took me swimming. That is, she carried me waist-deep into the Connecticut River and swirled me around. She let me go and I managed a clench-jawed dog paddle back to shore. We ate barbecue (well, Jennifer ate barbecue and I whined) and hiked up Putney Mountain to a rock-topped plateau from where all of Vermont could be seen spread beneath us in perfect rings of green.
On Saturday we hiked once more up a mountain past an icy-cold waterfall and I chased some cows (they were giving me attitude too). At the top of the mountain, we picnicked near a tiny lean-to, devouring pies of ham, cheese and sweet peppers until someone saw a big snake curled up in the roof (I could have taken it, I just chose not to).
I was so happy for the smells and the sounds that I had an easy time in obedience class. “He’s never been this good before!” Jennifer proudly told my instructor.
My owner behaved well, too. She seems to have learned to listen in what she called the “country quiet”. At night, she didn’t play her machines, but sat out on the lawn, her head up like she heard something way off in the distance. I decided that “camp” is a useful euphemism, after all, for a place I’ve heard Jennifer call “doggie heaven.”
But, alas, it all ended much too soon. I was shoved into my carrier before I had a chance to sniff goodbye, carried into the car where I sulked my way home through thicker, dirtier air and man-made racket. So I went back to Philadelphia, to the cars, the clamor and the cement beneath my paws, to the one bedroom, rat terrier blues. A few days later, Jennifer got the pictures back from our weekend, and put one on a low shelf where I can see it. There we were, the two of us, side by side on a rock on Putney Mountain, the twilight sky stretching into forever above our heads.
Yes, the streets of Philadelphia are still full of giant droning terrifying buses, skateboarders, rollerbladers and rottweilers who think they’re better than me just because they’re big and scary-looking. But I carry a little piece of Vermont around with me, and I’m not just talking about the mud that I snuck home between my paw-pads. At night I can circle three times before curling up on her pillow (yes, I’m allowed), close my eyes and remember the smells of my walking weekend; wet mulch, pine trees, apples, sun and river water. It doesn’t make the city go away, but just knowing that there are places like that (and that some day, I might get to go back!) helps.