Lilah is on the steps of the library, holding Bumble like a baby while I renew some books inside. The dog’s furry black face and wide-set brown eyes stare out from under a Winnie-the-Pooh blanket.
“That’s nice,” says the woman, as if the girl has told her she can fly or she lives in a castle with a unicorn. She coochie-coos Bumble under the chin. “You must have a very busy house, with 300 dogs,” the woman says, playing along.
“Oh, it is,” Lilah responds politely. “But they don’t all live in the house. That would be too much. Mummy only lets us bring four puppies inside at a time. She says too many’ll freak out Sweetie. She’s our cat. Now we just have 21 puppies, plus the mums, Freaka, Daffy and Suzie, plus Four-Door who has a sore eye, plus Lulu the house dog, plus Mo who lives up the road but hangs out with us all the time. We used to have Sophie, too, but she died so we have one less and Daddy says she’s not in pain any more.”
The woman knows even a five-year-old can’t come up with a story this elaborate. She stops patting the dog and raises an eyebrow. “Did you say you have 300 dogs, dear?”
I’m eavesdropping now. I could come around the corner and introduce myself, tell the woman my husband Bob and I run a dogsled touring operation. We raise Alaskan racing husky puppies and take care of the sick or injured dogs at home. When they’re ready they go to the kennel, about eight fenced hectares in the woods between Whistler and Pemberton.
I could tell her there are caregivers at the kennel who feed, water, love, play with and scoop up after them. I could tell her that when the pups are about six months old they’ll start harness training, marking their entry into life as a sled dog, and begin taking guests around Whistler trails. But I don’t. Sometimes I prefer to hear how Lilah handles the conversation herself.
“What on earth do you do with 300 dogs?” the woman asks.
“Mush. I got to drive a sled this year with Daddy, but Jack took out his own sled all by his self and I can when I’m bigger but I don’t want to tip like Mummy did that time we all fell into the snowbank.”
“So this is a sled dog?” she asks, examining the swaddled package in Lilah’s arms. Bumble is about the size of a kitten.
“Yup. Daddy says she’ll grow but Mummy says she wouldn’t mind if she stayed teeny.”
True. Bumble is the runt of her litter and darn cute. Her brothers and sisters – Bee, Wasp, Stinger, Hornet, Honey and Buzz – are three times her size. She’s healthy, happy, eats well and has lots of energy. We’ve had runts before, and they always catch up in size eventually.
“Do they all have names?” The woman looks around for me.
“Yup. I name them all.”
Not exactly true. She didn’t name the recent litter of six. Bob decided on Corona, Heineken, Guinness, Sapporo, Amstel and Dos Equis. It helps us keep track of who’s related to whom if we name them in categories.
There’s the band: Trumpet, Tuba, Oboe, Drummer, Banjo, Harpy and Piccolo.
We have the hockey team: Canuck, Flame, Senator, Maple, Oiler, Nordique, Jet, Canadien and Gretzky.
We have the reindeer dogs, starting with Dasher and ending with Rudolph.
And there’s Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel – we call that last one Hottie.
Sometimes the dogs practically name themselves. Surprise came from a single-dog litter. No one knew the mother was pregnant when – surprise! – there was a puppy in the doghouse. Trooper was the only dog to survive in her litter of weak and sickly siblings. And Chubby and Pudgy were the roly-poliest pups we’d ever had.
“Do you remember all the names?”
“Yup. Every one.”
I sure don’t. Like a schoolteacher, I can remember the names of the naughty ones, the terribly cute ones and the ones whose families I know. The others, it’s not easy.
Bob can name many of them just by hearing their barks; he’s been doing this for more than a decade. It’s hard when there’s a litter of all-black or all-white dogs. We eventually name each one, but for the first few months we just call them all Puppy.
Lilah unwraps Bumble and sets her on the sidewalk. She stretches, yawns and wags her tiny tail.
“Well. You’re a lucky young lady,” the woman says. It’s hard to tell how much of the story she believes. “You must really love dogs.”
“Yup,” says Lilah. “I really love dogs. But I’m getting a unicorn for Christmas.”
From the Globe & Mail, February 3, 2011, reprinted from G&M, October 24, 2008: It’s a Dog’s Life, by Katherine Fawcett, Pemberton, B.C.