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Impeccably Pampered, Perfectly Bred

By Meredith Phillips

FEBRUARY 7, 2000:  Winston, the pinkish, princely, silken, sulking cocker spaniel, is not happy. He ignores me the majority of the time, but occasionally catches my eye as he glances around the living room with liquid, wearied, slow-blinking eyes, looking for his, or rather our, mommy. His chin, flat on the plush blue carpet, is set in a position I can easily recognize -- what initially looks like defiance is actually the precursor to a collapse into total tears.I wore this very expression last week because I, too, have been abandoned. While the rest of the family takes two-and-a-half weeks to tour the cities of Spain, staying up all night to slurp Rioja and spit olive pits on the floor, stomp out flashy flamencos, and see important art in cool, thick-walled museums, I have been appointed to stay in the family dwelling, caretaker of the cur. And since I don't have a day job, my time is my own. Or in this case, Winston's. We are stranded, together.

I love dogs in general, and I certainly love Winston, but he's more movie star than pet. Winston has a nature as sensitive as that of a baby, or even an artist. After reading the instructions detailing his "routine," perhaps we should call it a nurture.

According to the three-page memorandum typed up by my father, Winston tends to be a late sleeper with a sensitive stomach. In the morning, if he isn't granted a cookie as soon as he wants one -- i.e., as soon as his jaw has shaken off enough sleep for him to gather the strength to chew -- he sees fit to vomit. Nice trick, Winnie.

After the treat, he tiptoes out of his "nighty-night," the euphemism for his metal crate laboriously festooned with pillows and blankets, and moves on to his real breakfast -- a small bowl of Rice Krispies. He relishes these with milk, and I'm sure if he could manage it with his outsized, fluffy feet, he'd demand a spoon. I ran out of milk soon after the family left. When he was served Rice Krispies with water, Winston looked with alarm at the clamor in the bowl -- half the fun for him -- licked once, then turned his disgusted gaze on me and went back to bed. Cereal with water? I bore and offend him with my philistine ways.

Creatures as beautiful as he are often allowed to behave this way. He is truly gorgeous, with a thick, velvety snout, fringe like a sink-skirt around his tummy, and perfect posture. While the rest of the family is some combination of AngloIrishCanadian mutt, Winston has breeding, and the papers to prove it. We once had an angry little poodle mix who was more on our level, but he knew his place in the world, so he just stayed under the table and growled. The current arrangement seems to work out much better; Winnie's standards of refinement and sophistication give us something to strive for.

To greet a visitor, he glides down the stairs like a socialite lady. But like this selfsame lady he is temperamental, and if he is feeling under the weather, will not keep it a secret. Other dogs shake when they are cold, as a physiological reaction to the temperature. When Winston is chillier than he wishes to be, he will look you straight in the eye and clack his tiny teeth together.

This penchant for the stage might explain the harruphy little cough -- exaggerated, most likely -- that made our mother insist she would cancel her trip to Spain unless I drop everything to abide his every whim for two weeks, instead of having him boarded at a kennel, like a normal dog. They have a special relationship.

When my mother is around, Winston will settle himself in front of her like a downy gargoyle: head held high, proudly lapping at the air for no discernible reason. With his flair for fashion and royal tendencies, he'll sometimes position himself under the draping fabric of her bathrobe, or the folds of quilt coming off of her bed. She understands him, and prepares him bowls of warm, milky tea which he laps at leisurely in the evenings.

Winston, of course, also belongs to my dad. No one in the world other than my solemn, fact-wielding father would name a spaniel after a British statesman dead some 30 years. For the record, Dad resembles Winston Churchill far more than the dog does, and this is both physically and in the decrees he sets forth:

"Winston, you will come to the park, and this time you will get out of the car and walk."

It is a terrible thing to be publicly snubbed by a spaniel, but it happens with more frequency than we like to admit. Only Mother is allowed to parade him around -- the rest of us must drag him if we wish him to move.

I may rub him, and I may feed him, but otherwise he will ignore me -- or try to get me to rub or feed him. His most common mode of food procurement is simply climbing into the "nighty" and looking at you. He gets a cookie when he goes to bed, or when he is locked in when everyone leaves the house, so his logic is that climbing in will get him whatever he wants. He's right.

A more aggressive tactic of getting what he wants is the "angry little lion" routine, where he paces the kitchen in ever-widening circles, woofing through a closed mouth, casting admonishing looks at the audience, and upending his food bowl with a sweep of his generous paw, usually spraying kibble onto the floor.

You see, kibble is not Winston's idea of dinner, and he won't settle for it. At the beginning of my freelance career, my mother once phoned me, her eternally hungry daughter with a dribble of a salary, and mentioned that my father would be grilling swordfish for dinner. As I thought back to the tenaciously chewy cube steak my mother pan-fried for my sister and I on the occasions that they themselves ate expensive fish for dinner, my mother explained, with a note of pride in her voice, "You know, swordfish is Winston's favorite food."


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