Little Dogs, Big City
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Little Dogs, Big City

I thought I had my dogs all figured out -- they were pampered, protected, and would never be able to handle urban life. It only took them five minutes to prove me wrong.

Imagine two little dogs living in a fairytale land or, rather, Northern California, where pets get respect, organic kibble, and aromatherapy treatments. "Good morning, Sticky and Larry, what big ears you have," the lady who owns the card store says, offering them biscuits as they walk by. "And where are you off to today?"

Sometimes the answer is to the park. Other days, they're taking a hike. The two little papillons (the name is French for "butterfly") have huge ears that flutter like wings as they chase bunnies and ladybugs.

Rumor has it that Marie Antoinette carried her beloved papillon as she walked to the guillotine, and certainly Sticky is regal enough to be comfortable living at court. She lifts her back legs off the ground to balance, teetering on her front paws, whenever she relieves herself. This looks like a circus trick, but it keeps her feet dry. Larry, a puppy with a tough-guy swagger and a five-pound body, growls at dogs 10 times his weight and dangles a mini-rawhide like a cigarette from his clenched black lips.

Life is idyllic, except for a couple of teeny, tiny behavior issues. If we leave them home alone, the two dogs sit on the back of the sofa and look out the window, barking loudly at passersby. When the neighborhood dog hater, Tina (aka my best friend), can't take the noise anymore, she comes into the house to try to calm them.

Other than that, everything is perfect. But there comes a page in every storybook when life takes a dark turn. Poor Sticky and Larry: One day, a witch casts an evil spell. The witch (their owner, otherwise known as me) plans to imprison the two little white dogs inside scary plastic crates and send them into the bowels of an airplane. Several hours later the plane will land in a far-off land of gray concrete and leaden humidity -- New York City in summer. This will be their new home.

How can pets who are as high maintenance as Sticky and Larry survive the shock without dog doses of Valium?

"It won't be that bad," insists my friend Dave, who lives in New York City with his dog, a scrappy terrier named Nigel. The two of us are sitting on my front stoop a few nights before the move. I am telling Dave how I have rented an apartment with the thickest, most siren-muffling walls I can find. It is near a park, on the ninth floor of an old, prewar building, but a "pet clause" in the lease specifies no barking, whining, or other unsociable behavior.

"I'll probably get evicted," I predict.

Dave thinks about this. Then he says, in a comforting tone, "One time I was at a sidewalk café when a woman with a little Pomeranian walks by." I feel a glimmer of hope because having a Pomeranian in the city is, after all, not that different from having a papillon.

"And then," Dave continues, "this other guy comes down the sidewalk with a pit bull. Big dog, studded collar. And as the pit bull walks by, the woman screams -- her Pomeranian is gone! The pit bull snapped it up, like an appetizer." Dave claps his hands and makes a chomping sound, just as Larry comes trotting toward us. He has a teddy bear in his mouth: He looks like a stuffed animal carrying a stuffed animal.

Coming to New York

"Yeah," Dave says, "you have to watch out for little dogs in the city." A few days later Sticky and Larry's flight lands at Newark airport at 7 on a muggy June morning. My husband, Josh, and I have taken an earlier flight and are waiting nervously outside our building for the pet transport van. "Sticky and Larry must be so homesick by now," I say. "I read that sometimes it's hard for a country dog to adjust to city life."

"What happens in those cases?" my husband asks.

"You might have to medicate it. Or put it in a head halter," I say darkly. We stand in silence, trying to picture Sticky popping pills and Larry wearing a head halter -- would he look like Hannibal Lecter, all trussed up with angry eyes? The pet transport van pulls to the curb. The driver unloads the crates -- ominously silent crates, I think. I drop to my knees, crooning, "Sticky, Larry, it will be okay."

I flip the latch and Sticky nonchalantly sashays into the sunlight. She takes in her surroundings -- the park across the street, the manicured topiaries that flank the building -- and licks my hand. Then wags her tail. Larry scrambles out, too, and accepts a rawhide stick from my husband's outstretched hand. He takes a drag on it and wags his tail.

From that moment they become different dogs. They trot happily into the park, where we take off their leashes and they scamper and sniff. In the elevator they stare expectantly at the door, as if it's a game show and could open any second to reveal marvelous riches. We hardly ever hear them bark now. Maybe it's because you never see a stranger walking past a ninth-floor window. Or because the old plaster walls silence the traffic sounds.

Whatever it is, New York City agrees with them. I am shocked as Sticky and Larry caper around, acting like Eva Gabor on Green Acres ("Darling, I love you, but give me Park Avenue"). I can't understand what just happened.

"Why weren't they traumatized by the move?" I ask Josh.

"Maybe they don't care where they are," he says. He may be on to something: I've heard that dogs are attached to people rather than places. Seems that the movies you see about a dog that single-mindedly finds its way back after a move to another town or state (who among us did not cry our eyes out at The Incredible Journey?) are fudging a bit. The dog is not trying to get back to a place. It's looking for its people.

In other words, my little dogs could move anywhere, anytime. So long as they go with me.

Life post-move is not all nirvana, of course. There are still a couple of small issues: Sticky and Larry bark whenever they hear our neighbor turn her key in her door. Traipsing along city sidewalks, the dogs get as filthy as sewer rats, and once they teamed up and almost caught a squirrel that was old and sick and suspiciously slow to climb a tree with a "Beware of Rabid Animals" sign posted on it.

For the most part, though, my dogs have wised up to city life. A few months later Larry and Sticky are trotting along a path in Central Park. Larry has a twig dangling from his lips when he gets to the top of a rise and sees a pit bull. The three dogs freeze in their tracks. The big dog, wearing a studded collar, contemplates the tiny, fluffy appetizers. Sticky runs behind my legs. But Larry? His hackles rise, his butterfly ears flare and he growls.

Country dog mistake! "Larry, stop," I plead, trying to pull him away.

But then, a funny thing happens. Instead of snapping up Larry in one bite, the bigger dog cocks its head, backs off very slowly, then turns and trots away.

A job transfer is sending Michelle Slatalla and her dogs back to California. Sticky and Larry have not yet been told they have to give up their beloved elevator rides.

shim