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Poodle Peepers

I wonder if other dogs think poodles are members of a weird religious cult. — Rita Rudner

When Rosa asked me what my plans were for the rest of the day, I shifted uncomfortably in my pedicure chair, unsure how to answer. Unscripted schedules make me feel as if I’ve been dropped in the middle of the ocean without a compass. I didn’t want to admit that I had nothing going on, so I subtly redirected her query: “Yeah, well, you know…what are you doing today?” My friend outlined her mellow schedule — aside from some packing for an impending business trip, she had nothing arranged. She added that her husband, Josue, was planning to experiment with goat cheese, peppers, and puff pastry and that David and I were welcome to partake. The most I could commit to was “maybe.” When Rosa and I returned with our freshly polished toenails to the building in which we both live, we parted ways at the elevator with a promise to touch base in a bit.

David suggested we take a drive to Julian, but we agreed it was too hot and too far to deal with the Sunday surge. After ten minutes of sitting in listlessness, I hopped up and grabbed my laptop. Determined to inject purpose into my day, I scrolled through the events listed on the Reader website. As soon as my eyes alighted upon the words “Poodle Fest,” I knew I’d found the event I didn’t know I’d been searching for.

Twenty minutes later, Rosa, Josue, David, and I piled into my car and set off for the Del Mar Horsepark. It was unanimous — poodles were silly looking, and any opportunity to see them up close was not to be missed. As I merged onto Interstate 5, Rosa said she’d always thought poodles were “snobby, wimpy, and stuck-up.” She admitted those were more the characteristics of the dogs’ owners whom she’d encountered in the past, but she still deemed the “froufrou” pups guilty by association. Neither David nor I cared for the fancy Frenchwoman aesthetic of the typical poodle ’do, and Josue thought poodles were simply uncool for anyone who is not white, female, and really old.

It was 1 p.m. when I pulled onto a small dirt road and parked my Mini among the Mercedes and Lexus SUVs. “Okay, get it out now,” I said to my crew of doggie oglers. Josue asked what the hell I was talking about. “I don’t want these dogs to know — I mean, to think — that we’re mocking them. So giggle now if you have to.” Josue pointed out that I was the only one who seemed to be having difficulty maintaining my composure. He was right. I wiped the smirk off my face and led my posse toward the tents on the green.

We approached one tent, beneath which a man was busy styling the mane of a large white standard poodle on the table before him. The man had close-cropped brown hair and wore sunglasses, a black suit, and cornflower blue shirt. His maroon tie, dotted with black silhouettes of poodles, was the only outward indication that he wasn’t an aspiring stockbroker who had wandered onto the wrong field.

The stoic pooch on the table stood still as its long white hair was teased into a bouffant. A thick coat of hair covered the animal’s head and chest. Its back, hindquarters, and legs were shaved but for two dense rosettes on its rump and pompom-like anklets above each paw. I couldn’t contain myself. “I just don’t get it,” I said. “This dog looks like a topiary. I mean, why the butt-balls?”

I hadn’t meant for the man in the suit to hear me, but he did. He turned, smiled invitingly, and said, “This isn’t just an arbitrary style, you know, there’s a reason for it.” I took a few steps closer to him. He patted the dog’s leg and said, “This is Fabio. You know, poodles are the original retrievers. They’re hunting dogs.” Rosa, Josue, David, and I gave the man our rapt attention as he explained the reasoning behind the poodle ’do. Around 400 years ago, the retriever was primarily a water dog — the word “poodle” comes from a German word for water, pudel. The hounds were great swimmers and were often sent into frigid water to collect felled fowl. They were shaved as much as possible so that their thick coats didn’t drag them down in the water, but fur was kept in crucial areas for insulation — on the chest, to protect the heart and lungs; on each side of the rump (the butt-balls), to warm the kidneys; and surrounding the joints. Hair was swept back and up from the face so as to leave the eyes unimpeded, and some hunters fastened it in place with brightly colored ribbons that made it easier to identify the dogs from a distance.

“Wow, I had no idea,” said Josue, reaching out to stroke Fabio’s prominent snout.

When Josue caught sight of a poodle with long black dreadlocks at the next tent over, he decided a poodle could be cool after all.

“I have been too quick to judge,” said Rosa. “I don’t want to be a superficial pet lover, and now I see past the froufrou to what is a restrained, intelligent, and playful animal.” We passed the next table, where a dog lay on its stomach, its chin resting in a cushioned stirrup to support its head. The female groomer introduced the pooch as “Amadeus” but then corrected herself: “I mean, Champion Divine Rock Me Amadeus.” She nearly emptied a giant can of aerosol hairspray into canine-Mozart’s white, Texas-beauty-queen hair.

After we watched expert handlers prance the poodles in a circle and then line them up for the judge to poke, prod, and violate (Come on, I thought, is it really necessary to rub your finger along his anus and cup his testicles like that? It’s not like he’s going to turn his head and cough for you), we bid adieu to all of the nice groomers, handlers, and owners who had taken the time to clue us in.

We were about to get back onto the 5 heading south when I asked if anyone was hungry. A resounding cry of “Yes!” filled the car, so I swerved into the parking lot of Milton’s — one of the few good Jewish delicatessens in the county. Once seated in an overly air-conditioned booth, we talked dog.

Rosa and Josue don’t consider their pet an animal, even though his name, Chucho, is the Spanish word for “street dog.” Their baby boy, a miniature schnauzer, is better cared for than some children — Chucho’s clothes are not purchased at Petco or Muttropolis but at Baby Gap. Like a stern father, Josue explained that while training Chucho, he made sure to bite his ear: “That shows him I’m the alpha, like the mommy would do.”

“We want to have more dogs,” said Rosa, with the sigh of a woman who has more nurturing to offer.

“I want a dog,” I said. David agreed that a fun-loving pet would be nice someday, but with our travel schedule and trips that last two weeks or more, it just isn’t practical right now. Josue nodded at this and explained that as much as he loves Chucho, if he could go back and choose whether or not to have a dog, he would choose not to. “It’s like having a kid,” he said. “You can’t travel so much, and if you do, you need to find pet-friendly locations and hotels. Like with a kid, you end up going to Disneyland instead of a wine-and-culinary tour.”

“Yeah, it would take some sacrifice,” I said. “I mean, I’d like to wait until I have a yard. And, I’m just not ready to be tied down like that. Then again, it would be so nice to have a puppy.”

“We’re not getting a dog,” David said. He recognized the tone in my voice that signaled my mind’s entrance into rationalization mode.

I gave him puppy-dog eyes and said, “We’re going to eventually. Why not sooner rather than later?”

“We have all the time in the world to get a dog down the road,” David said. Then, in response to my persistent “I-want-a-puppy” face, he smiled and quipped, “Don’t make me bite your ear.”

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