Puttin’ on the dog

My dog Lulu and I were in Riverside Park, waiting for our photo op. Actually, it wasn’t our photo op — it was Lulu’s.

Photo op for what, you ask? Dogs of the Blue Line calendar? NPR’s Canine du Jour? The cover of the Weekender? It was none of those things; in fact, it was better than all of them. It’s for her oil portrait by Heidi Guterlsoh, which I sorta won in the Women’s College Scholarship Fund’s raffle.

I say “sorta won” because I didn’t out-n-out win it. Instead, I’d won a quilt in the raffle, but the person who won the portrait traded it for the quilt. For me it was The Deal of the Century: My childhood pal and seamstress extraordinaire Kathy Patnode made me my own special quilt, so I was all set in that department. But a pet portrait by Heidi is in a class of its own.

Heidi’s portraits are masterpieces of a special sort. Since I have two others by her, I consider myself an expert art critic and thus can explain the special nature of her work.

One of my paintings is of Brother Phineas the Pug Thug, rest his little heart, and it’s a perfect rendering, since it captures his looks and personality exactly. Brother Phineas, the product of a puppy mill, was goofy looking and had a goofy personality. He was not by any stretch of the imagination a pretty pug, a handsome pug, or even a mildly good-looking pug. Instead, as I said, he was goofy.

And that’s the beauty of his portrait — Heidi didn’t make him look like something in the AKC Hall of Fame, or even a dog you’d see on a Hallmark card. Instead, he looks like Phineas. And that’s why it’s a masterpiece.

But a lot of people wouldn’t want that. They’d want their goofy-looking pug to look like the Westminister Best in Show.

It’s what the portrait painters of old were all about. They knew where their money came from (or didn’t), namely the rich and the aristocratic. And while their clients were heavy in the money department, their looks might’ve been average … or worse. Given their multi-generational game of The Joys of Inbreeding, odds are that rather than looking like today’s Hollywood versions, they looked like the weak-chinned, gootch-eyed, congenital idiots they were. But not on canvas, for reasons as obvious as the long droopy nose and drool-laden lips on Philip IV’s face.

So while Heidi is my idea of a brilliant portraitist, I doubt she would’ve been gainfully employed in the court of Henry the Eighth. In fact, given old Henry’s proclivities, if she’d adhered to her current artistic ethos, I doubt her head would’ve adhered to her neck.

Grinding to a halt

Anyhow, a note about the star of this tale: Lulu and I are the same age in dog years and she’s an easy dog to deal with. She’s low-key, obedient, consistent, likes everybody, and is generally a happy little soul. The only time she’s out of sorts is in extremes of weather.

When we got to the park, Heidi and her husband Bill were there, Heidi all ready to snap some pics till she had the one she wanted. It was no big deal. Or at least it hadn’t been with my other dogs. But it sure was with Lulu.

Almost from the start, Lulu was a lousy model. She avoided looking at Heidi; she avoided looking at all of us. In fact, she didn’t seem to be looking at anything, except for longing backward glances at my car.

I tried everything.

I praised her, I petted her, I made funny faces at her. Nada.

Then Bill and Heidi did the same. More nada.

The more we tried, the less she cooperated. She wasn’t having a meltdown, so much as a shutdown.

And finally I figured it out.

The craft of graft

It was sunny, pleasantly humid, temp in the mid-80s — a glorious summer day to me. But to Lulu it was the exact opposite. It was way beyond her comfort zone, and all she wanted was to get the hell out of there — pronto!

“If only I’d brought biscuits,” I said to Heidi. “I can’t believe I spaced that.”

“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll get some good pics anyway.”

Ah, when Hope springs eternal!

Heidi kept shooting away, Bill and I kept imploring away and Lulu kept looking away.

Meanwhile, my nerves went up on me. What was supposed to be a walk in the park, pardon the semi-pun, was turning into a disaster. The more we tried, the less we succeeded, and I was feeling more and more like the world’s worst dog parent. But what to do? Was there any solution to this mess?

Suddenly it hit me: A literal stone’s throw away from me was the answer to my problems — Little Italy. I’d bribe Lulu with one of their garlic knots. I told Heidi that, excused myself from the exercise in futility, and sprinted across the street.

Then, about halfway there, I realized garlic isn’t good for dogs. No biggie – all I’d nearly need was a couple of crusts. I mean, what the hell, this is an animal who devours deer poop with delight, so any human food would have to be the chien equivalent of haute cuisine.

Paolo and Bonnie were in there when I threw the door open, wild-eyed and breathless.

We exchanged hellos and then I launched into my diatribe about trying to take pics of my dog but she wasn’t cooperating at all so I figured if I had some food she wouldn’t feel uncomfortable about the temperature and on and on and on. While I realized I was coming on like a babbling imbecile, I also realized I couldn’t ratchet it back.

“A crust,” I implored, “just a crust. That oughta do it.”

Luckily, Bonnie was the essence of sanity.

“How about some pepperoni?” she said.

Pepperoni? Brilliant! What could be more delicious, especially to a poop-eater?

Paolo offered me a bunch of slices, but I took only one. I may not know much about dog training, but I do know this much: Twenty tiny pieces of pepperoni to a dog is the same as 20 pounds of the stuff, delivered a pound at a time.

When I got back to the park, Lulu looked as miserable as before, and Bill and Heidi didn’t look like anything to write home about either.

“Hey Lulu,” I called.

She ignored me.

“Lulu,” I said, “want a treat?”

She looked at me, I gestured with my hand, and she came over. And as soon as she got within noseshot, she became A Whole Different Dog.

She straightened her spine, perked up her ears, her eyes sparkled.

I broke off a barely visible piece and held it out to her.

“Sit,” I ordered.

Her butt hit the ground and her eyes about bored a hole in my hand.

I gave her the piece and broke off another.

The transformation was amazing. Only a minute before she looked like the very picture of gloom; now she looked like she was the grand winner on “America’s Got Talent.” She was all aglow, frisky and focused — the perfect artist’s model. Meanwhile, Heidi was snapping pic after pic after pic — all of them prize winners, I was sure.

Within a minute or two, Heidi had enough shots. And even though Lulu’d had barely enough pepperoni, I’d had more than enough anxiety.

I also had the First Rule of Dog Training reinforced, which is this: All too often, where love fails, food succeeds.