Like many people with rescued dogs, i do not know the exact age or birth date of my French Spaniel mix, Chloe. When I adopted her in the fall of 2004, I was told she was between six months and one year old — which is a wide margin, considering how much a dog grows in that first year. And while part of me wanted to believe she was at least a year old (because she weighed 55 pounds at the time and I doubted that I could physically handle anything beyond that), I decided to give Chloe a March birthday.
Why was this important? Because I wanted to throw Chloe a birthday party, of course. We always welcome a reason to celebrate our new shelter dogs, and what better day to celebrate than March 20 — the first day of spring.
Spring in New York City is particularly glorious, in part because we New Yorkers have to endure such harsh and miserable winters. One could argue that New York dog people are exposed to more than our fair share of the harshness in winter, because we have to take our dogs outside at least four times a day. This is not to say that having to walk our dogs is anything to complain about at any time of year, because we love, love, love our dogs. But, to be perfectly honest, walking a dog through ankle-deep slush in the freezing rain (rain that somehow manages to rain sideways) is not fun. I can’t say I unequivocally enjoy it. Just don’t tell my dog I said that. (But sometimes, not even she enjoys walking in the sideways-sleet. So there.)
Anyway, winter is behind us now, and signs of spring in New York City are everywhere. On the sidewalks, you’ll pass dozens of mini-gardens planted in the city’s tree beds and protected by low iron fences. Because volunteers or townhouse owners or neighborhood associations take charge of these mini-gardens, each one is different and beautiful in its own unique way. Beneath one tree you might see clusters of purple hyacinth mixed with white dwarf daffodils; the next flower bed will contain clusters of colorful primroses arranged within tight tangles of ivy; next: a riot of eye-popping tulips in pink, orange and red. It’s wonderful to see so much color after so many months of gray. We start walking our dogs almost 10 times a day because we just want to be outside, soaking up all that beauty.
Often you’ll see little signs posted at the base of these tree beds, with the message: Please do not let your dog urinate on the flowers, and we dog people always respect that request, because spring in New York City is a time of happiness and renewed hope. Every New Yorker is in love with the world in spring, so we are kinder to one another, and more considerate. We smile and make eye contact. We take time along the way to smell the flowers, as they say. Thus, no one messes with the flowers. Plus, as I always tell the dog, there are plenty of other places to pee in New York.
But getting back to Chloe’s birthday. Many people scoff at the idea of throwing a dog a birthday party, but those people are usually not dog people. They might not understand our belief that each of our dogs deserves his or her own “special day” just as we all deserve one. Or two or three or three hundred and sixty-five. One could argue that with shelter dogs, the desire to create a special day is even stronger, because these dogs may have suffered cruelty or neglect. These dogs may have spent months in cages, without being treated as “special” at all.
So bring on the marching band because we’re having a party.
Now, New Yorkers are known for going over the top when it comes to parties. I know people who have spent hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars for doggie birthday parties and doggie weddings. There are bakeries that make chicken-andoatmeal birthday cakes frosted with chocolate-brown liver pâté. There are doggie daycare centers that rent out party rooms for more money than you’d pay for your own wedding reception. There’s even a boutique that sells tiny rhinestone “Happy Birthday” tiaras for lap dogs to wear to parties on the Upper East Side. I am not judging any of this. I celebrate any occasion at which a bunch of dogs get to play and have fun.
But, being a writer, I was on a limited budget; therefore, Chloe was not going to have artisanal foie gras “pupcakes” at her party; nor was I going to rent a 3,000-square-foot space and hire an agility instructor to teach all the dog guests to leap over hurdles and shimmy through plastic tunnels and hoops (bummer). Also, I don’t cook, which meant there wasn’t anyone in my household who was going to spend four days constructing shepherd’s pie cupcakes from organic buffalo meat, vegetable terrine and mashed fingerling potatoes. No, I was going to keep this party simple.
Plus, I reasoned, dog people — when you get down to it — are easy to please. Know what I mean? We’re more down to earth, in a way, because our dogs constantly ground us and teach us to focus on the simple pleasures of life: nature, exercise, food, play, sleep. So who needs fripperies when the guest of honor is perfectly content with a dirty old tug-arope, a couple of dog pals to steal it from, a gingersnap and some praise?
I decided to hold the party at our local dog run, which happened to be one of Chloe’s favorite places in the world. The invitations consisted of a handwritten notice posted on the community board inside the run and a quick announcement on NYCDog’s Manhattan Dog Chat site. I requested “No presents, please” and encouraged well-wishers to make a small donation to Animal Haven instead.
March 20 happened to be on a Friday that year, which was great, because on Friday evenings, we held our weekly Yappy Hour at the run. We’d bring wine and music (and our dogs, of course) and spend a few extra hours socializing while the dogs tore around. Technically, we were not supposed to bring any food to the dog run because the presence of food can instigate food fights (among the dogs), so our rule for Yappy Hour was that you could bring snacks that would have no appeal to a canine: tapenade, tofu (raw, not fried), garlic pickles, seaweed salad, hot green salsa and so forth. None of these things paired very well with red or white wine, but that was part of the fun. Sometimes someone would sneak in a baguette or a bag of chips to accommodate the tapenade and the salsa, and that person had to stand on top of the picnic table, doling out slices of bread or some chips to the humans, one at a time. The things we do for our dogs ...
On the morning of Chloe’s assigned “birthday,” I fed her a special breakfast of lamb chunks (which she loved) and presented her with a pretty new collar. This collar was quite chintzy — a pink faux-velour band with fake pink crystals and rhinestones and embroidered flowers. But that is why I liked it. It looked like spring — something a six-year-old girl would wear as a belt to an Easter parade. And no, I did not spend hundreds of dollars on this collar: it came from Target and cost 12 bucks.
Chloe looked very pretty with her new collar, and I also had her groomed for the occasion, so her white-and-brown coat was sparkly and fluffy. At the party that evening, friends noticed the coat and new collar, and everyone went out of their way to praise Chloe and scratch her belly and tell her happy birthday. Chloe seemed to enjoy all the extra attention she was getting. It’s always nice to be told one is pretty. It’s always nice to be told one is a “good dog” and a “special girl.” Her tail wagged nonstop for hours.
People brought the usual assortment of sour, bitter and pickled foods to the party, plus a few bottles of wine — all of them from dog-themed wineries such as Mutt Lynch and Faithful Hound. Many of my dog-run friends cheated on the no-presents rule and brought presents for Chloe — toys and small packages of treats — and one friend actually made a little birthday cake (peanut-butter-flavored, with yogurt icing). I asked this dear woman to hide the cake until the party was over. Chloe, it must be said, had been the instigator of many a food fight, and I just didn’t trust her anymore. Not even on her own special day.
There is a famous line from the movie Casablanca, in which one of the male characters is described as “like any other man, only more so.” I guess we could say that, to a dog, a birthday is “like any other day, only more so” as well. At her party, Chloe played with her usual pack of friends: Greyhound mixes and Jack Russells and Lab mixes and Pit Bulls. They chased one another around the perimeter of the one-acre run, rolled in the dirt (or rather, mud, given that this was spring) and played tug-of-war and keep away. Their joy was a celebration of play itself.
After a few bottles of wine, we humans sang a rousing and slightly off-key rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Chloe, trying to coax some of the hounds to join in. Barley the Bassett obliged, adding a singular high note to the finale. Then we brought out birthday hats — those little cone hats with those elastic strings that wraps under the chin. We managed to get the hats on several dogs, including Chloe, and we watched as they each tried to shake them off. Some might have considered this game mean (why torture the poor dogs?), but we laughed at their cute, comic struggles. After about 10 seconds, the hats became play things as one by one, the dogs got them off, took them in their mouths, tossed them in the air and/or ran off. Soon, the run was littered with mushy piles of chewed-up cardboard and string.
Chloe’s pretty new collar was also ruined within seconds, because her dog friends kept tackling her and biting her on the neck. And whose idea was it to groom a white dog two hours before taking her to a muddy dog run? Consider it a birthday splurge — much less costly than hiring a marching band. At the end of the day, I found bits of rhinestone and pink thread all over the run. “Made in China,” one of my gay friends said, with a smile and a shrug. “You get what you pay for.”
Eventually the wine ran out and the dogs got tired. Chloe returned to my side, panting, with bright eyes and a smile on her face as if to say, This is fun! I put one last birthday hat on her head and watched her run away and try to shake it off. She did so with a grunt and then stepped on the hat, looking up proudly, like a conqueror. This seemed to signal the end of the party, and we all gathered up our bags and leashes and dogs and said goodbye.
Once Chloe and I passed through the exit gate, my friend handed Chloe’s birthday cake over the fence, making sure that the other dogs did not see. It was packaged in a little pastry box tied with string, and as I carried it to the car, Chloe kept leaping up and twisting in the air — because somehow she knew this was her birthday cake. For me! her leaps seemed to be saying. Cake for me!
I always enjoy watching her leap like this — with such joy — because she spent much of her early life in a shelter. As she continued to bark and spin, I thought of all those shelter dogs, still waiting for homes. I hope that each one will have the chance to celebrate — and be celebrated — in such a way: with fun and sun and glorious weather, with trips to the dog runs to play with friends, with long walks in the park amidst the spring flowers, then lamb chops for dinner and a wellearned nap. A life like any other, only more so.
When we got home, Chloe wanted to snarf down the entire cake in one gulp, of course, but it was big enough for three meals, so we split it into thirds. As I put the two extra slices into the refrigerator, she looked at me rather forlornly, as if she had been betrayed somehow. She seemed to know (being a smart dog) that it was still her birthday and would remain so until 11:59. “Oh, all right,” I said, and gave her another spoonful. And then two more. The rest, I decided, we’d give to a neighbor — an elderly woman who was constantly bringing home abandoned Pit Bulls from the streets. “Is that okay?” I asked Chloe. “Do you approve?” She thumped her tail a few times, which seemed like a yes. Those poor Pit Bulls deserved a special treat to celebrate their new lives too.
The postscript to this story is that my 55-pound dog soon blossomed into an 80-pound dog. This had nothing to do with birthday cake. My French Spaniel mix now had the long and wide-ribbed body of a Labrador Retriever. This also meant that Chloe probably was born around March after all. She was a spring baby, as welcome as a new flower. Which is always a cause to celebrate.
Illustration by Donna Grethen