A tall woman burst through our living room door a few minutes after some neighbors had dropped in to visit. Her hair was mussed from the wind and a round top-knot surmounted the peak of her head. It waved back and forth as she talked and settled into the chair. Ticker continued to wag her way about the room missing hardly anyone. Melissa, the latecomer, was the only person who totally ignored the dog and sat silently by herself in a far corner.
The room was in tumult.
When Ticker approached the newest guest, she brusquely pushed the dog away when she tried to jump up on the newcomer. Ticker had taken the center of attention for the past several minutes and Mary Ann and I had difficulty quieting her down and keeping her from jumping up on the guests, sometimes as high as their chests, especially when they remained standing and were trying in a friendly fashion to get acquainted. Cries of "Down, Ticker! Down!" echoed through the house.
Mary Ann had recruited Melissa to increase Ticker's walking exercise. Our dog seemed to have unlimited energy and mine was clearly rationed. She had arrived today for her twice-weekly visit and now was caught up in this melee at our home. Melissa finally stood to her full six feet and said, "You can't have her knocking over little kids and old ladies; you know. You'll have trouble on your hands for certain." She turned to Ticker and said in stern and authoritative terms, "OFF! Ticker, Off!" Ticker became instantly docile and lay down on the rug near the couch at Mary Ann's feet.
The room quieted. Melissa took over the room, and lectured, in a fashion. "You're giving the wrong commands and they are inconsistent. 'Down!' means to lie down and be quiet. 'Off!' means to get off something, particularly you and me." The other tip, when you visit a home that has a dog, enter quietly with no greeting to the dog or attention paid to it. Sit in the remotest chair and let the dog sniff you. Sniffing someone is not "cool" in social situations with humans but it is the way animals discover strangers and learn who they are. It's okay with dogs especially. Their sense of smell is exquisite.
As a child, Melissa's fist dog was a Corgi, and she has loved dogs ever since. She wanted to go to veterinary college but when she learned she would be asked to "put down" suffering elderly and terminally ill dogs, she told herself she could never do that. So as she grew older, she took on more pets to care for and exercise. She came to the Vineyard with her boyfriend where they hoped to remain and take up their lives together, he as a carpenter and she as dog walker. They were married in the old airstrip at Trade Wind in Oak Bluffs.
Her first year, she developed 25 clients and after a year of advertising in The Times she erupted with 120, which proved too many. Now, on average, she takes five or six dogs on a joint leash walk and later three to six individual leash walks. She averages three to six miles a day and has been known to walk 25 miles in one day. That is tough on her feet, she says. On Tuesdays and Thursdays she picks up Ticker for her walk. Usually five or six dogs are watching quietly out the rear window of her wagon, no joisting for position, no barking or clawing to get out, just happy dogs needing more exercise.
Melissa is a little eccentric in her interactions with her dogs. Every birthday of her own dogs warrants a party with funny hats and games and a special birthday cake. One evening after such a party, a friend reconnoitered the fridge and ate up the remains of the cake. "You didn't eat the cake, did you?" asked Melissa "I was hungry," he said. "No wonder," she said. "Nothing bad, just flour, eggs and butter but no sugar," she said. "I thought it tasted strange," he said leaving. No wonder, she thought. This is the kind of story, which gives Melissa heart. Eccentric is okay as long as it has heart. Never mind, I say, to the one about the rooster attack leaving a hole in her leg or the time a client met her at the door alongside her pit bull with her cat in her arms and the dog unleashed. "Get out of my yard," the woman said to Melissa. "The dog doesn't like cats," and she let the dog go. Or another story about the cat attack when the cat kept returning to jump up, claws extended several times until kitty got tired of feeling Melissa's boot.
As Melissa left one noon-day she said to us, "Ticker is very smart; she knows how to keep from tangling the leash when she runs into a tree or some brush while hunting. You don't need to worry about her. She'll learn. I know you worry she'll bolt into the water and swim to the middle of the pond. She's smart. Don't worry." Melissa nuzzles Ticker and lets her lick her face. Melissa says, "I've been thinking I'll give Ticker a trial off-leash in the woods trail one day." I pale to think, but intuition tells me Ticker is in safe hands.