Dogless In A Dog-Crazy Mountain Town

On my newspaper's website, there's a tab that's marked "our dogs." Click on it, and you'll find a gallery of the dogs owned by the staff. Everyone's dog but mine, that is, because I am currently dogless deep in the heart of Dog Country, and I say that as a journalist who despises the Stupidly Inappropriate Use of Capital Letters.

To say Washington's Methow Valley is dog-friendly doesn't begin to capture the truth. Dog-mandatory is more like it. And the prevailing attitude among many valley residents is: Now that we have one dog, why not two?

My doglessness does not go unnoticed. There are about four dog-free folks in the entire valley, and everyone knows who we are. They don't say anything, but they know.

A while back, I was looking out the front window of our newspaper office, chatting with the advertising manager, when a work-worn F-250 parked in front of the building. Bounding around in the truck bed was an odd-looking, spunky dog with a mottled coat. I pointed the animal out to the ad manager—her dog's name is Ringo—and asked, "What kind of dog is that?"

"Mutt," she said. "Cowboy dog." Sure enough, the lank fellow in the driver's seat wore a sizable, beat-up cowboy hat, clamped down hard. They were made for each other.

In the Methow Valley, you will know your neighbors by their dogs. People are familiar with each other's dogs' names, personalities, histories and maladies. If you drop into the middle of a conversation, you may not be able tell if the talk is about kids or dogs. "Toby scraped his leg the other day" may need clarification—unless, of course, you already know that Toby is the dog, while the kid's name is Jake or Cody or something.

Anywhere you go, doorways, sidewalks and porches are understood to be recumbent dog zones. You step over or around the lounging pooches, but you never begrudge them the territory. It's not only Dog Country, it's Real Dog Country. The typical Methow dog is not just full-sized, but often big enough to hold off a bear (which may be necessary out here). Two of them might strike you as capable of pulling your rig out of a ditch.

You don't see many of what my partner Jacqui calls "snack dogs" on leashes, or worse, being carried around, because there are a lot of untamed critters out here that will eat them. And they just don't look good in the back of a spattered, jacked-up, four-wheel-drive pickup truck, or hanging out the window of a dust-draped Subaru station wagon.

Local dogs are well behaved but not docile. They are runners, jumpers, fetchers and waggers. Many of them also are, less endearingly, barkers when left alone for long periods. The police blotter usually has a few entries of people complaining about the incessant barking of a neighbor's dog(s). I don't blame the dogs. I blame the owners. But because the dogs usually shut up when their owners get home, owners often have no idea what their angry neighbors are yapping about.

Dogs have to be walked, fed, watered, paid attention to. It's not unusual for some of my staffers to take a dog-walking break during the day. Phone conversations with veterinarians are routine. Related dogs have visiting privileges with each other. Dog welfare is at the top of everyone's mind. We have some summer scorchers here, and if someone leaves a dog in a hot car on the main street of my little town, they may come back to find a stern note on their windshield—or someone standing there waiting to remonstrate with them in person.

There is no escaping the dog imperative. At a gas station in town the other day, on the other side of the pump island, was an impressively dilapidated crew cab pickup; the per capita incidence of rust-ravaged, utterly woebegone pickups here must far exceed that of even some Third World countries. And three enormous dogs jostled back and forth on the passenger side of the front seat.

The driver was a young fellow who pretty much complemented his ride, meaning that he looked like he by gum works for a living. In my mostly unblemished, dogless Pathfinder, I felt like a poseur.

I'd actually love to have a dog—Jacqui even has names picked out—but I'm not set up to take appropriate care of one right now. Call it fear of commitment. But one of these days ...

This essay first appeared in High Country News.