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In Los Angeles dog owners go to extremes. Only by doing too much for their dogs can they do enough
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“We’re only as good as we smell,” says Andrew Rosenthal. A slender, dark-haired former New Yorker, Rosenthal is standing in the middle of LA Dogworks, the posh canine spa and boarding facility he opened on Highland Avenue in Hollywood last fall. The place’s main attraction—a 2,500 square-foot AstroTurf-covered indoor park—is designed to accommodate dozens of dogs as well as clean up after them. Set atop a porous sports-tile base that slopes imperceptibly to a concealed central trough, the park is flushed hourly. Attendants with disinfectant-filled spray bottles are also at the ready.

The park at LA Dogworks, where a winter morning finds an American Staffordshire terrier, a corgi, two weimaraners, a German shepherd, and a boxer puppy barking, chasing balls, and otherwise cavorting, is just one part of Rosenthal’s canine pleasure dome. In the adjacent Zen Den, dogs receive massages or undergo aromatherapy while reclining on tatamis. In the hydrotherapy room, they work out on treadmills immersed in tanks of gently heated water. The grooming area, like the kitchen of a contemporary restaurant, is enclosed by oversize plate-glass windows that transform every shampoo and pedicure into performance art. Then there’s the Dog Den, where animals sleep in a honeycomb of blond wood warrens covered in an Hermès-orange Ultrasuede by Haute Pooch. Before lights out, overnight guests are treated to Best in Show or Clifford the Big Red Dog on a plasma-screen TV.

Not surprisingly, the 51-year-old Rosenthal is particular. He likes to wear jeans and mesh jerseys and almost always sports bullneck cowboy boots and a sterling silver wallet chain of the sort favored by motorcyclists. As for his cell phone, it doesn’t ring—it barks. Most of his life Rosenthal has earned his living as a commercial photographer, shooting primarily for Harley-Davidson. He was inspired to change professions upon moving to Los Angeles in 2003. “I couldn’t find anyplace where I’d leave my dogs,” he says.

Rosenthal spent his childhood working in pet stores. He’s owned a poodle, a weimaraner, and Dobermans, and now he has three Italian greyhounds. His aspirations for LA Dogworks are grand. “My sole purpose,” he says, “is to put an eye on the dog care industry and raise the bar.” After attending an American Boarding Kennel Association convention and consulting with the operators of Manhattan’s high-end Biscuits and Bath, he hired an architect to draw up plans. Once a location—an old film-stock storage house with raw concrete floors and a barrel-vaulted ceiling—was found, construction commenced. Though Rosenthal initially only intended to put $400,000 into the place, he ultimately shelled out more than $1 million. “This is my big thing,” he says, “my King Kong.”

Seasons in LA

The park inside LA Dogworks. Photograph courtesy ladogworks.com

Although Los Angeles already boasted its share of canine-coddling establishments—on the Westside there’s the Loved Dog and Urban Dog (whose Webcam allows owners to monitor their animals online 24 hours a day), on West 3rd there’s Chateau Marmutt, downtown there’s Bark Avenue, and in Sun Valley there’s Paradise Ranch (where, should one so desire, staffers will bunk in the same bed with a four-footed guest)—LA Dogworks is altogether different. “Think any Four Seasons hotel,” Rosenthal tells employees when discussing the service he expects. “Think any Steve Wynn resort.” If the facility succeeds, Rosenthal plans to open branches elsewhere in the city and possibly nationwide.

The attention and care offered by LA Dogworks does not come cheap. A night in the Dog Den is $70. A one-hour massage or hydrotherapy session costs $75. The price for boarding during the day is $45. It adds up fast, as Missy Peters, the business’s first customer, knows. An associate legal counsel for the fashion line BCBG, Peters spends her days in a downtown office, but every morning begins and each evening ends with her parking her silver Mini Cooper beneath LA Dogworks’ bright orange-and-yellow sign.

Peters purchased Pye, a one-year-old Pomeranian mix, from a pet store last summer when her life was in flux. She had just graduated from law school and relocated to Los Angeles. Woman and dog became inseparable. “I’m incredibly attached to Pye,” Peters says one evening as she sits at a cafè table overlooking the park at LA Dogworks, where her dog is zipping back and forth across the AstroTurf. “I live alone and she sleeps with me. She’s a little guard dog, very protective.”

Because Peters’s home is in the Hollywood Hills, she can’t let Pye roam outdoors during the day as the coyotes could get her. Nor can she abide the thought of the dog being cooped up alone. So from the moment Rosenthal’s facility opened, Peters began boarding Pye there. “I have to do it,” she says. “My parents are in Montana, and my sister is in D.C. I take care of Pye. She takes care of me.” With that, Peters scoops Pye up and walks outside to her car. She is the picture of confidence, a young lawyer with a dog that means the world to her. Yet no sooner does Peters reach her Mini than her resolve collapses. “My parents think I’m crazy, and a lot of my friends do, too,” she says.

No wonder. At $45 a day, she could spend more than $10,000 on dog boarding in 2005. Even in Los Angeles, where financial excess is the norm, it is a hefty sum. As Peters climbs behind the wheel, her voice takes on a tone of incredulity. “It’s a lot of money. Is it ludicrous?” “No,” I tell Peters before she pulls away. “It’s not ludicrous at all.”

For my wife and me, Jackson, a 14-and-a-half-year-old Jack Russell terrier, and Beatrice, a two-year-old of the same breed, are better company than most people. They frolic with us when we’re happy, commiserate with us when we’re blue, and climb into our bed each night. “Dog,” as Madeline and I are fond of repeating, “is God spelled backward,” and whether this is more than literally true, I can state with conviction that ours are soulful, inspiriting beasts. Indeed, I owe my life to Jackson.

The January evening in 1991 when Jackson, courtesy of a Hancock Park breeder, burst into our world found me bogged down in a nonfiction book project. I was 36 years old, and week in, week out, I sat alone in a home office stacked floor to ceiling with crumbling court documents, musty police files, boxes of newspaper microfilm, untranscribed tapes, and in every corner the balled-up pages of a manuscript that would not come together. Failure and self-doubt hung over the room.

None of this gave Jackson a moment’s concern. Beginning the first morning, he climbed into the wicker basket I’d prepared for him beneath my typewriter wearing an expression that suggested he was there for the duration. More than that, he promptly made it known that at sundown he expected me to take him on a long walk. When five o’clock came and I’d not moved from my desk, I felt his paws on my thighs as he reached up to rub my hand with his nose. Against this summons there was no resistance, and within minutes we were off. So began an enduring tradition.

The sight that Jackson and I presented on the streets of our neighborhood was ridiculous. I’m six feet three inches tall and weigh 200 pounds, while he is one foot tall and weighs 20 pounds. Yet from the instant he bolted out our gate, he’d be a leash’s length ahead of me, hurling himself over every barrier and leaping each curb as I sprinted in a futile effort to keep pace. “He’s taking you on a walk,” strangers would offer as we blurred past, and they were right. He was taking me on a walk out of creative despair and self-rebuke into a place of, if not contentment, at least laughter.

“Sir Speedy” Madeline and I nicknamed Jackson in tribute to his fleet-footedness. Eventually, he picked up many other monikers. “Citizen” pays homage to the resemblance he bears to a mobcapped French revolutionary when he folds his ears over his head. “Slurb” derives from the way he simultaneously slobbers and slurps. As for “Barry,” every dog needs one obscure handle. “Mr. Wigglesworth,” meanwhile, is both descriptive and, as befitting a Jack Russell, very British.

Speedy though Jackson is, I’m not. It wasn’t until 2003 that my manuscript was published. The process was excruciating, yet Jackson never missed a day’s work. Now that the book is in the stores, my debt to him has come due. Last fall, as I was preparing to leave town on a lengthy promotional tour for the paperback edition, I was agonizing about what to do with Jackson and his new sidekick, Beatrice, in my absence. One afternoon as Madeline and I drove through Hollywood, we spotted a flurry of activity. After parking, we ducked inside what turned out to be the nearly finished home of LA Dogworks. A couple of weeks later, the place had two new boarders.

Seasons in LA

LA Dogworks. Photograph courtesy Yelp/Andrew R.

Though not all or even most of Los Angeles’s estimated 417,600 dogs (only 131,881 of whom were registered last year) receive the canine equivalent of most-favored-nation status, this is a city where dogs are having their day. The reasons are many, but they can be summed up by a comment that former president Harry Truman once made about life in the nation’s capital: “If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.”

The sprawling nature of Los Angeles makes interaction between human beings difficult and sporadic, opening the door for dogs. “L.A. is so spread out,” says Kim Garsed, the proprietor of Urban Dog. “Everyone is in their cars on the freeway. It’s hard to meet people. This is a very lonely town. So dogs become a source of love and friendship.”

Along with the physical distance between Angelenos comes a corresponding emotional distance, and it, too, gives dogs an entrèe. “This is a city of a thousand failed relationships,” says Ananda Lewis, a reporter for the syndicated entertainment show The Insider, who boards Java, her 18-month-old pit bull, at LA Dogworks. Lewis, who spends long hours at work, says, “Right now in my life I don’t have enough energy to devote to a relationship. It’s too much of a struggle.” Thus she dotes on her dog. Even if Lewis met someone intriguing, she adds, he’d have to pass muster with Java. “I would only date a dog lover.” Alicia Tully, the co-owner of Naughty George, a dog-walking business whose clients live mostly in Los Feliz and Silver Lake, offers a similar view. “For a lot of singles,” says Tully, “dating is brutal. They get companionship from their animals.”

Los Angeles’s signature industry also factors into the equation. The movie business sets the tone for the city. This is a town where there’s little room for gratuitous kindness. Los Angeles is like the conditionally loving parent who only shows affection when one performs, and even then the affection can, on further review, be retracted. Moreover, appearance here counts for everything. But dogs neither buy into the prevailing ethos nor care about looks. “They just love you,” says Urban Dog’s Garsed. Adds Ananda Lewis: “With Java, I can have on a face mask. I don’t have to take a shower. I don’t have to change anything with her. She doesn’t critique me.”

Stratos Mayas, the owner of the Heavenly Bodies clothing line, and Joanie Black, a Pilates instructor, hold dinner parties twice a month at Black’s condominium below the Getty Center. They pour Opus One into Baccarat crystal and serve Mediterranean cuisine on Fitz & Floyd “Platin d’or” china. Yet when guests sit down on the leopard-print dining chairs, what they notice first are the couple’s dogs. Chanel, a five-year-old female Yorkshire terrier, usually wears a pink-and-white silk taffeta party dress and a rhinestone necklace. Versace, a one-year-old male Pomeranian, prefers a conservative black tuxedo. Not that these are the dogs’ only choices. A Louis Vuitton tote that serves as their wardrobe holds any number of getups. For barbecues, both dogs have been known to dress down, Chanel in a pink-and-blue Von Dutch T-shirt, Versace in a leather bomber jacket over a black Von Dutch T-shirt.

On the bright January afternoon I spend with Black and Mayas, they sit on a sofa in the condominium’s living room. Black wears a Heavenly Bodies workout suit; Mayas is in jeans and a cut-off tee. “It’s all fun,” Mayas says as Black puts Chanel and Versace through a fashion show in which they not only model various outfits but try on colognes. Chanel favors “La Pooch,” a sweet and floral scent, while Versace likes the manly “Love Your Beast.”

Playing dress-up with one’s dogs is over-the-top, but that’s what makes it so indicative of the larger point. Los Angeles is a city where dog owners go to extremes. Whether one cloaks one’s canines in haute couture or, as Missy Peters does, boards them at LA Dogworks, only by doing too much for them can one do enough. This doesn’t mean that vast expenditures of money are required. The most important things to give a dog—attention and activities—are free. Still, the town’s proliferation of high-end canine clothiers offers a splendid yardstick by which to measure Angelenos’ escalating obsession.

Versace Dog Collar
Versace Dog Collar

Photograph courtesy etsy.com

Black buys Chanel and Versace most of their outfits at the Wagging Tail boutique on Santa Monica’s Montana Avenue. The small two-year-old shop, with its hardwood floors and pastel green-and-lavender display cases, offers everything you didn’t know a dog needs. The store’s motto, as its ads in Vogue attest, is “Where begging for fine jewelry is socially acceptable.” “We have some fabulous raincoats for spring,” says owner Jean McCoy, who braves a chilly morning in a white T-shirt and red velour slacks. “Right now,” she adds as she strolls through the shop, “argyle is really in.” Sweaters come in blue and brown and pink and green. The store also carries zircon-encrusted dog tags. Then there’s the furniture, including a $250 faux-mink bed, which, naturally, Chanel and Versace already have. Yet what sets apart the Wagging Tail is that it does weddings—a dozen in the last year. For couples who envision their male golden retriever as a ring bearer or their female poodle as a bridesmaid, this is the place to get matching formal wear.

As is true of shops that attract an affluent two-footed clientele—think Maxfield Bleu or Prada—those that purvey high fashion to canines are not without their pretensions. A visit to Fifi & Romeo, a Beverly Boulevard boutique done up in pinks and greens and a favorite haunt of Paris Hilton and her ubiquitous Chihuahua, Tinkerbell, is an eye-opener. Owner Yana Syrkin, formerly the costume designer for Ally McBeal, declines to emerge from her open, second-floor loft office to greet me. Instead, the job is delegated to Owen Swaby, Fifi & Romeo’s 27-year-old dreadlocked vice president. Swaby is a walking advertisement for the shop’s lines. He wears a cotton Lycra T-shirt with cashmere trim that bears Fifi & Romeo’s dog bone logo. In one ear is a gold dog bone stud, while from his neck dangles a gold charm modeled after Syrkin’s Chihuahua, Yoda.

Swaby tries his best to explain Fifi & Romeo’s merchandise, but no sooner does he say, “We’re known for our pet apparel,” than Syrkin interjects from on high, “We don’t have clothes with a dog theme.” Swaby then produces some of the shop’s best-known items, among them its cashmere canine shawls and leather canine totes. When he attempts to articulate why such goods are popular with the Hollywood set, the voice from above again cuts him off: “These people have been friends of mine for 20 years. That’s why they shop here. Every place else in L.A. that makes clothes for animals, I don’t want to be in their club.” Once more, Swaby proceeds, elucidating the master plan for the Fifi & Romeo brand. Already there are boutiques in Japan, and eventually there will be “comic books and a movie” featuring the shop’s fictional mascots. Apparently, this part of the spiel is acceptable, for there are no further clarifications.

The Dog Psychology Center of Los Angeles stands on two acres of land in a district of aging industrial warehouses deep in South-Central. There amid the sounds of train whistles and semis, Cesar Millan is trying to undo much of the neurotic canine behavior that he blames on Angelenos like me. As Millan sees it, the practice of humanizing dogs is good neither for dog nor for owner. The paradox is that Millan’s business and his new National Geographic Channel series, The Dog Whisperer, would not exist were it not for the changing relationships between Southern Californians and their canines. But such niceties are hard to keep in mind when walking between the parking lot and Millan’s office. This asphalt expanse is home to 38 rough-looking Dobermans, pit bulls, German shepherds, poodles, Labs, and assorted mutts. “No touch, no eye contact, no talk,” Millan instructs after advising that five members of the pack are “human aggressive.” Millan maintains that by ignoring these dogs they can be figuratively defanged. “You’re introducing yourself as the dominant one,” he says as he leads the way, and sure enough, during the 15 seconds it takes to cross the space, not a bark sounds.

All confidence and charm, the 35-year-old Millan wears a black T-shirt and jeans held up by a belt whose silver buckle bristles with red rhinestones. To him, most problems between Angelenos and their dogs can be attributed to a failure on the owner’s part to take control. Sitting on a lawn chair on a fenced-off porch in front of the center’s brightly painted plywood structures, he says, “People here like to connect first with a dog with their hearts. But that doesn’t work. Every dog needs three things: exercise, discipline, and affection—in that order.” The only Angelenos whom Millan believes get the sequence correct are the handicapped, the homeless, farmers, and hunters. For them, dogs perform a job, which is as he thinks it should be.

Seasons in LA

Cesar Millan. Photograph courtesy facebook.com/cesar.millan

“Dogs want to be balanced,” Millan says, “and with a pack leader they experience balance. Just because you love a dog doesn’t mean that it will be affectionate. They don’t know that you pay for their food, their license, and the vet. So even if you think of your dog as your son, you have to be the dominant one, because they live in your world. When a dog lives with a person, the person has to claim the kingdom and become the pack leader.”

The son of a photographer for the Mexican government, Millan spent much of his youth on a ranch in the state of Sinaloa. He always had dogs of all breeds and mixes and believed he could trust them more than he could trust his own kind. By the time he turned 13, people were calling him el perrero, “the dog man.” Throughout his teens Millan was by turns a dog walker, a groomer, and a technician in a veterinary office. “I was practicing to be a vet,” he says, but exposure to well-trained Hollywood dogs on television changed his mind. “I decided I wanted to be the best dog trainer in the world. It felt organic, like, ‘That’s who I am.’ ”

In his early twenties Millan moved to Los Angeles and began working with the sorts of big, difficult dogs that terrify people. “I was the guy who could run up Runyon Canyon with ten Rottweilers off leash and keep them under control.” Yet much of what Millan preaches bears the imprint of pop psychology. “I combine the third world with the new,” he says. It’s an attractive mix, and as a consequence Millan soon won publicity and celebrity clients, among them the directors Ridley Scott and Michael Bay. The Dog Whisperer premiered last fall. On the show Millan does basically what he does in life—makes calls at homes where canines and owners are in conflict. Most of the dogs he treats on the air exhibit behavior problems. They bark when the toaster goes off. They tear up the furniture when their owners go out. Nine times out of ten, it’s the people who need help, and Millan gives it to them in memorable sound bites. “If you put Gandhi and Castro in front of a dog, they’re not going to follow Gandhi,” he’s fond of saying. “We follow Gandhi because we’re rational, but dogs follow Castro because he’s assertive energy. That’s what dogs respond to.”

Leashed to a post on the far side of the Dog Psychology Center is the angriest dog on the premises, an eight-year-old dalmatian named Puck. If Millan can’t change the animal’s behavior, it may have to be euthanized, which would devastate its owner.

Eighty-eight-year-old Teddy Cole grew up in a house at Venice Boulevard and 4th Street in a different Los Angeles, one of orange groves, undeveloped spaces, and animals. Stray dogs were her girlhood companions. As a young woman she graduated to dalmatians, both for their beauty and playfulness. Pillows and objects bearing likenesses of the breed fill the Beverly Hills home where the widowed Cole now lives. Puck is her sixth dalmatian. All was well between Cole and the dog until this winter. Following a walk during January’s heavy rains, Cole stooped to remove Puck’s collar, and without warning he bared his teeth and bit her. The wound required nine stitches. Two days later, as Cole worked at her desk, Puck, who’d been napping at her side, awakened and with a terrifying snarl lunged at her, forcing her to take refuge atop her work surface. She didn’t budge until he fell back asleep. A friend suggested that Cole either put the dog down or phone Millan. She made the call. “I adore Puck,” she says. “I can’t have him destroyed. What I want is for him to once more be the dog that puts his head in my lap and makes everything all right.”

During Millan’s initial $350 home consultation, he determined what he believed to be both the root of the problem and the precipitating event. First, Cole, who admits, “I’ve been too lenient with Puck,” had never sufficiently disciplined the dog. “It was affection, affection, affection,” says Millan. Nonetheless, Puck might have avoided trouble had not something awful happened in his owner’s life. In October Cole was diagnosed with lymphoma, and in November she began a regimen of chemotherapy. “The dog was already out of control, sensed her weakness, and responded with panic, fear, and finally aggression,” says Millan. “Even though she’s a lovable person who shares shelter and food with the dog, the dog’s mind still developed instability. It’s not too late to change things, but Mrs. Cole can’t do it. She’s weak and ill.”

Which is why Puck has departed Beverly Hills to spend a month in South-Central. For $1,200, Millan will work with the dog every day. He says he initially leashed Puck to a post because “he’s so angry he might bite me.” Within a week, however, Millan will introduce the animal into his pack. Finally, he will place Puck in a number of stressful situations—a trip in a car, for instance. “I will rehabilitate him, and then I’ll train Mrs. Cole.” The process will be tough on Cole, who will have to live apart from her dog at a time when chemotherapy has rendered her needy. But to Millan, this is the only way. “Once Mrs. Cole establishes dominance,” he says, “she and Puck can have a beautiful emotion that dogs can only have with humans—love.”

On Sundays, Madeline and I inevitably take Jackson and Beatrice to the Laurel Canyon Dog Park. It’s a ritual that, if not as elegant as the one depicted in A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, has become for us and countless other Angelenos a welcome respite. That I participate in such outings represents an astonishing about-face. I used to lampoon Los Angeles’s dog parks as gigantic outdoor bathrooms for the pets of status-conscious strivers who, when not checking out one another’s cars and bodies, were trying to get ahead in Hollywood. None of this has changed. But I have. To spend time with people who, whatever their affectations, love dogs and relish watching them run free makes me happy. Yes, it’s an absurd scene, but tenderness always entails a degree of absurdity.

Seasons in LA

Laurel Canyon Dog Park. Photograph courtesy Yelp/Jayde Y.

On pleasant afternoons the Laurel Canyon Dog Park attracts a broad cross-section of Los Angeles families. Although plenty of animals are accompanied by moms, dads, and kids, what stands out is how many of the dogs fill the role of children for childless couples, straight and gay, and the otherwise unattached. In this setting, terriers chasing tennis balls tossed long-distance with the aid of those plastic devices called Chuckits and retrievers rolling on the ground are so many sons and daughters.

Like most of those who frequent the park, Madeline and I are also childless, but in Jackson and now Beatrice, we have two creatures that look to us not just for food and shelter but for emotional sustenance. In the act of providing love for them, we become more selfless and hence more human. When Madeline and I discuss our devotion to Jackson and Beatrice, one of us will proclaim, “I’d take a bullet for those dogs.” Whether we truly would, I’m not sure, but I do know that my feelings for the two, heightened by the bond formed with Jackson during the writing of my book, are profound. While the idea of dog’s loyalty to man is so ingrained as to be a cliché, the idea of man’s loyalty to dog is an evolving one, and it is being worked out every day in Los Angeles.

The week after New Year’s, Douglas Graham arrived at the Animal Surgical and Emergency Center on Sepulveda Boulevard in West Los Angeles with his ailing 11-year-old golden retriever, Winston. The center, which has been open a year, is the city’s newest and by general consensus most advanced veterinary hospital. It features five operating rooms, an intensive care unit, two radiology suites, an isolation ward, a blood and plasma bank, and a CT scanner. The staff includes seven surgeons and seven emergency and critical care doctors. During an examination of Winston, Dr. Scott Anderson, the center’s co-owner, discovered that the dog was suffering from a rectal blockage. He prescribed removal of the possibly malignant mass.

The cost of the procedure would be $2,400. Graham and his wife—he’s an architect, she’s a radiologist—didn’t think twice about letting Anderson proceed. The operation was a success; the tumor was benign. Such procedures take place daily in Los Angeles, but what makes this one noteworthy is that it was the third major operation Anderson had performed on the dog in two years. The first and most complicated procedure, which was prompted by a chest wall cancer, required the removal of four ribs and the insertion of a prosthetic device. It set Graham and his wife back $3,800. Shortly thereafter, Anderson put Winston under the knife again. This time he realigned a knee joint. The price was $2,000. Since 2003, Winston has racked up nearly $10,000 in hospital bills.

“Winston is expensive,” says Graham. “But he brings us so much joy. We’ve had him since he was a puppy, and he’s an only dog. We both are in high-stress professions, and to come home each day and have this fellow so happy to see us and to know that his world rises and falls with us is very fulfilling.”

On November 8, 2004, Elizabeth Hart, a 34-year-old freelance marketing consultant, pulled her Jeep Cherokee into a Beverly Hills parking garage. Because she was only running an errand, Hart left Bailey, her four-and-a-half-year-old cavalier King Charles spaniel, on a bed in the car’s backseat. When Hart returned an hour later, she found her passenger door broken open and the dog gone.

The Beverly Hills police responded immediately, took fingerprints, and began an investigation, but the detective in charge did not hold out much hope. His thinking was that Bailey, a valuable pure breed, would quickly be fenced. Hart, however, refused to stand by helplessly. Her Web site, www.findbailey.com, opens with a picture of her snuggling her floppy-eared brown-and-white dog. The adjacent text block reads:

I have raised Bailey from a puppy and she is my devoted and beloved companion. These weeks without her have been incredibly difficult … among the most difficult of my life.

The theft of Bailey is just one of the many dognappings committed in Los Angeles in the past six months. Chris DeRose, president of Last Chance for Animals, a West Hollywood-based nonprofit organization that investigates pet-related crimes, says that his office typically fields four dognapping reports a week. A 56-year-old ex-cop from New Jersey, DeRose calls Los Angeles a “hot spot” for pet theft. “It happens in the best areas—Brentwood, Beverly Hills, Hancock Park, Sherman Oaks. It’s what I call ‘crash and carry.’ People leave their dogs in the car a few minutes only to come back and find them gone.” According to DeRose, most of the animals stolen are small pure breeds. Usually, he says, the dogs are sold to puppy mills, although sometimes they’re held for ransom. “I try not to get emotionally involved,” he says, “but it’s a terrible crime. It’s devastating for the owners.”

Elizabeth Hart still has hope that Bailey will be returned. She is offering a $2,000 reward, and on February 14, at the Barrington Dog Park in Brentwood, she, DeRose, veterinarian Jeffrey Werber, and former Baywatch star Alexandra Paul held a news conference to call attention to Bailey’s plight and the larger issue of dognapping in Los Angeles. Thus far, Hart’s pleas have gone unanswered. Next to a ticking clock on the home page of her Web site is the legend: “Bailey is still not Home … Wednesday, February 23, 2005 … 4:02 p.m.”

To find Miranda Alcott, a self-proclaimed “animal communications counselor,” one must drive down a street of apartment buildings in Brentwood until, at the very end, several small clapboard houses appear. Standing in front of one is a ceramic sculpture of a dog. “Whatever you do,” Alcott says, “please don’t use the P word in describing me. I’m not a psychic. What I do is hear things that other people can’t.” Tall, with long, blond hair, the 45-year-old Alcott is wearing an aquamarine sweater and black slacks. Her tone of voice is low-key and reasonable, her demeanor calm and matter-of-fact. In the 14 years since she was seriously injured in a car accident, she has all but lost her hearing. However, she says that as this sense withered, an extrasensory ability that she had been cognizant of since age seven simultaneously bloomed.

“Last night,” Alcott is saying as rain drums steadily against her roof, “we were working with a couple in Maryland that believed their dog needed to be euthanized. But as it turned out, the animal was not ready to transition.”

How did Alcott obtain this intelligence?

“The dog communicated to me that he is not ready. He did it telepathically. Do you know about quantum mechanics? Everything breaks down to vibrations. I am able to tune into these vibrations.”

In this case, Alcott—who in telephone consultations uses her mother as an interpreter—began by asking the dog’s owners for some basic information. They told her that their 17-year-old American Eskimo, Kodi, had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. After taking in the information, Alcott requested several minutes to commune with the dog. That it was 2,000 miles away, she says, was not a hindrance.

During a period of what she calls “harmonious listening,” Alcott says that Kodi told her that he didn’t like his food. Alcott then asked the owners to return to the line. “I instructed the woman to get some of Kodi’s kibble and rub it between her fingers. It smelled like fish—I could smell it. I asked her whether his food could be related to his illness, and she said, ‘Oh, God, we changed his food two-and-a-half months ago, and that’s when his symptoms started.’ ” Alcott suggested that the owners take Kodi to the vet for more tests. Two days later, she says, they phoned her with the news that after changing Kodi’s kibble, the dog had rallied, and for the moment, they had put off all thoughts of destroying him.

Alcott, who charges $150 an hour and $1,000 a day, is in constant demand. During the time we spend together, I find myself doubting everything she says. Yet for all my misgivings, I can’t dismiss her. Communication between man and canine is mysterious. To anyone who owns and loves dogs, the question of what is on their minds occurs frequently. When a dog is ill, that question dominates its owner’s thinking. With cocked heads and puzzling expressions, they appear to be telling us something we don’t have the tools to comprehend. At the least, dog psychics, no matter what they call themselves, offer those who seek it the consolation that they’ve tried to bridge the gap.

The awareness that Jackson, who if he were a person would be in his nineties, is now approaching the end of his life weighs heavily on Madeline and me. Almost every month for the past year, there have been reversals. First, he contracted Addison’s disease, a malady that just as in people is marked by insufficient cortisone production. He takes a powerful drug to correct the imbalance. Since fall, he’s shown signs of disorientation. To combat this decline in cognitive function, he’s on another powerful drug, but so far it hasn’t helped. More noticeable, he’s lost his running ability. Where he and I once walked great distances, today we cover at best a block—and that takes half an hour. At night, my wife or I carry him upstairs to bed. In the morning, we carry him down. On those occasions when we both are away from home, we leave him at LA Dogworks. There he spends the bulk of his time asleep on the edge of the AstroTurf dog park. But each afternoon, Andrew Rosenthal tells me, Jackson comes to life, patrolling the perimeter in a stifflegged gait as if he were reviewing the troops. In homage, the staff has given him still another moniker: “the General.” This news thrills Madeline and me, for we named our gallant pup after the Civil War general Stonewall Jackson. As the final days approach, a bit of what we saw at the start remains. Yet like all dog stories, this one will end sadly.


D
r. Jonathan Salkind arrives at clients’ homes in a 1972 Jeep Wagoneer, the sort of four-wheel-drive vehicle that was once the preferred mode of conveyance for geology class field trips. A balding, bespectacled 37-year-old veterinarian, he typically carries an old-fashioned elk-skin medical bag redolent of another era. Salkind so identifies with a vanishing breed of personal care that he cut back on his clinical practice six years ago, preferring to make house calls. The last four digits of his phone number spell out the word HEAL, but as often as not, his appearance on a Los Angeles doorstep means that a dog’s life is coming to its end.

“The way it happens at a vet clinic,” Salkind says, “is awful. Not only do you have to drive the dog there, which means it’s in unfamiliar territory, but they place the dog on a metal table and stick in an I.V. catheter, which is an uncomfortable and painful thing to do.” Furthermore, adds Salkind, when a dog is put to sleep at a clinic, it’s all over in 20 minutes. For him, however, time is not a concern. After ascertaining that the animal is indeed terminal, Salkind settles in for the long haul. First he injects the dog with Telazol, an anesthetic that produces a lingering twilight. Then he stands back, encouraging owners to imbue the act with ritual.

holistichomevet
Holistic Home Vet

Photograph courtesy holistichomevet.com

At a home in Beverly Hills, Salkind euthanized a black Lab for a woman he identifies as an “aging celeb.” When he arrived, he found that the owner had prepared an outdoor shrine for the dog’s last hours. Tibetan fabric covered the ground. Incense burned in terra-cotta holders. A framed photo of a yogi gazed down. At a mansion in Holmby Hills, Salkind euthanized a chocolate Lab for a woman he describes as an “oil heiress.” The dog awaited him on a bed of “more pink and red roses than I’ve ever seen in my life.” Lit candles surrounded the bier. On a Sunday morning at a house in the Hollywood Hills, Salkind euthanized a dog for an owner whom he says was “very gay.” The man had invited a dozen friends for what was essentially a farewell brunch. As Spanish club music played, the man lay on the floor next to his dog sobbing. Everyone, Salkind notes, has a different way of letting go. “These are folks you’d expect to have no religion,” he says, “but they’re searching.”

Whatever the nature of the ceremony, there comes a moment when Salkind places the head of the still-breathing dog in its owner’s lap. “Once this is done,” he says, “I move out of the scene. I work from the dog’s back leg. I don’t pretend to an intimacy in what is a very private affair. I just concentrate on doing my job, although if the dog is a longtime patient of mine, I usually cry.” After the owner says good-bye, Salkind administers the final injection, producing immediate death.

Sometimes, as in the case of the black Lab in Beverly Hills, Salkind will bury the dog in the owner’s yard. “It’s against the law, but I don’t care.” More often, he bundles up the corpse in a plastic bag and drives it to the Beverly Hills Small Animal Hospital for refrigeration prior to cremation at a facility in the San Fernando Valley. The total charge is around $500. When Salkind talks about his practice, he sounds much like those who operate lavish dog-boarding facilities or own canine boutiques. “In Los Angeles,” he says, “dogs are people’s children.”

A native of Massachusetts and a graduate of Tufts, Salkind enrolled in veterinary school thinking he’d use the education as a foundation for wildlife research. But events brought him to this place. “Sometimes my job is tough,” he says. “It can mess me up for a day. If the dog is in pain, I can’t go back to work.” Yet after a moment’s reflection he adds, “I’ve seen stuff you couldn’t see anywhere else but here.”


This feature appears in the April 2005 issue of Los Angeles magazine.

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