September 30, 2012

Bill Nemitz: New job for the doggie in the window

I've got a pet question -- and it's not about fleas, food, shedding, barking or any of the other run-of-the-mill issues normally associated with the family dog.

click image to enlarge

Fairbanks gets a hug from his person, Andrea Nemitz, as he levels his love-me doggie gaze out of the window of the Black Parrot boutique on Middle Street in Portland in January. Those were happy times for “the Bankster” – he was fully employed charming passers-by in the Old Port, who reciprocated with visits and cookies.

Photo by Jack Milton

No, this one's much more complicated: How do you tell your dog he's been laid off?

It happened last week. Fairbanks, our beloved golden retriever, worked his last day in Portland's Old Port and, coward that I am, I'm waiting until Monday morning to deliver the bad news.

More on that in a minute. First, a little about "the Bankster."

My wife, Andrea, and I adopted him nine years ago this weekend through the good folks at The Golden Retriever Rescue Lifeline, who saved Fairbanks and a dozen other unwanted goldens from death row in Alabama and ferried them all the way to Maine in the back of a Ryder truck.

He had company for the first few years. But then we lost Colby, his yellow-Lab companion, and Fairbanks was left to his own devices in our big old house in Buxton.

Don't get me wrong -- life for the Bankster wasn't half bad as he grew from scrawny puppy into the kind of specimen you see on those big bags of dog food down at the supermarket. And the more handsome he grew, I swear, the more he knew it.

Problem was he spent his weekdays stuck at home while we went off to work. He'd stare through the glass of the porch door, his brown eyes a guilt trip in progress, as we turned the key and disappeared for the day.

Until a year ago. That's when the missus took a job managing a high-end clothing boutique in the Old Port and had an epiphany one morning: Why not bring the Bankster to work?

And just like that, a star was born.

From the moment he first set paw in the shop, Fairbanks hopped up into the display window overlooking Middle Street. And there, day after day, week after week, month after month, something truly unexpected happened.

Downtown workers, hurrying to get coffee or make an appointment, froze in their tracks at the sight of the "doggie in the window" staring out at them with that come-hither look -- the kind that says, "Yeah, I know. I'm gorgeous. Deal with it."

Tourists, cameras in hand, tripped over one another posing with the four-legged highlight of their visit to Portland.

At times Bankster sat so motionless that passers-by mistook him for a funky mannequin. Suddenly he'd move and scare them half to death and, once again, out came the cameras.

Then there were those for whom the funny faces and tapping on the window just didn't cut it. They had to come in and actually touch the Golden Wonder -- sometimes two dozen or more fawning groupies a day.

A few actually hung around to buy something, which in my humble opinion entitled Fairbanks to some kind of cash commission. (If only he'd stopped caving at the sight of a dog biscuit.)

But other drop-ins, truth be told, had no interest whatsoever in a Lilith dress or a Hache handbag or any of the other merchandise that served only as Bankster's backdrop. They just wanted to pet the dog.

More than once, visitors told my wife they'd just lost a pet of their own. Eyes misting, they'd get down on their knees and hug Fairbanks and for that few seconds, he'd stand ever so still and quietly channel their grief.

Other times, men and women with developmental disabilities would come by, often with cookies, and shower their affection on this creature who smiled (yeah, he can do that, too) and welcomed them without reservation to his ever-growing community.

"He really, really loves me. I can tell," one such admirer would pronounce every time he visited, which was almost daily. Judging from Fairbanks' furiously wagging tail, the young man was really, really right.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should also note that Fairbanks occasionally lost his cool and barked up a storm when other dogs -- at least the ones with attitude -- paraded by. Turns out Bankster has a low threshold for trash talk.

Inevitably, of course, the whole thing went digital. As of last week, the Facebook page "Friends of Fairbanks" had 162 likes, dozens of photos and countless compliments from friends and strangers alike.

Observed one poster: "Fairbanks was particularly handsome today. He even had lipstick on his face. Clearly a hit with all the ladies!"

Advised another: "If you're having a bad day, just walk on down ..."

Which brings us back to the tough part.

This week, my wife starts a new job -- and Fairbanks is not part of the deal. After a full year of watching the world go by, he is once again unemployed.

No more running around in circles as he senses it's time to head out in the morning.

No more racing to the car and, without missing a beat, vaulting into the way back.

No more thumping his tail against the rear hatch door as Old Port cobblestones rattle the floorboard.

No more falling asleep within minutes of arriving home at night because it takes serious energy, after all, to charm an entire city day in and day out.

So now what?

Friday afternoon, I had a chat with Nancy Freedman-Smith. She owns and operates Gooddogz Training in Portland and thus knows a thing or two about the canine psyche.

I explained our dilemma and asked if maybe Fairbanks should go to one of those doggie day cares for awhile. But Freedman-Smith sees nothing to be gained from a dog his age spending the day with a pack of young whippersnappers.

Or, as she put it, "I used to slam dance -- and I don't slam dance anymore."

Besides, Freedman-Smith had a better idea.

"Why not give him a new job?" she suggested. "What about making him into a therapy dog?"

It turns out Freedman-Smith actually trains therapy dogs (which, when you think about it, Fairbanks already is) to brighten the days of the elderly folks at Portland's Barron Center.

If all goes well, she said, Fairbanks could be strutting his stuff for the seniors in no time at all. In fact, he's welcome to try out for the center's annual Halloween Pet Parade. (Fairbanks in costume? The mind boggles ....)

Now keep in mind that the Bankster won't know until Monday that the Old Port display window is no longer his to smudge. But Friday evening, in an effort to cushion the blow, I thought I'd sound him out on the possibility of giving up his rock-star status and transitioning to something a little more sedate and (no way to sugar coat this) a lot less glamorous.

"What do you think, Banks?" I asked as he lay on the floor, exhausted after a long week of charming the masses. "Want to become a therapy dog?"

Nothing. No smile. No wag of the tail. No rush for the door.

Just a steady, poker-faced, unblinking stare.

I get it.

He wants me to talk to his agent.

Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at:

bnemitz@mainetoday.com

 

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