Michiana Chronicles: A Dog's Bath-Time Drama

Nov 30, 2018

Luna in her winter coat
Credit Joe Chaney

This week at my house we performed the biannual washing of the dog. Our dog Luna has a sort of self-cleaning mechanism—not just the licking, but also fast bacterial janitorial work, or something like that. Her fur is short and sparse. Only very slowly, or hardly at all, does she become sour-smelling as the season progresses. She does have a certain doggy love of goose droppings. She rolls in them, and she seems very pleased with herself afterwards, knowing that she can show off this distinctive perfume to the neighbor dogs. But we scrub the goose poop off with dry shampoo, and that does the job. Still, by the time November rolls around, Luna has accumulated enough dirt to warrant bathing.

As we start the bath and water roars into the tub, the drama begins. It’s a tragedy, according to Luna. Her life seems to be coming to an end. Because she knows our intentions, she sinks to the floor and spreads out, making herself heavy and hard to lift. All dogs, I suppose, are natural physicists. They understand inertia and resistance, leverage and momentum. The process of getting her into the bathroom, which is my job, must look like a man struggling against an oversized  robotic spider. Luna weighs 50 pounds, and she seems now to have eight or ten legs.

Luna is what a dog trainer would call “soft.” She’s sensitive to commands and corrections. She wants to obey. She strives to prove to us that she’s a good dog, that she understands what we want. Her terror on bath day wipes away all the training, but as I struggle to move her, I see that she isn’t angry. Instead she expresses a sentiment more like, “Why me, Lord?” Getting her into the bath is a two-step process of positioning her front end on the rim of the tub and then shoving and lifting from behind until she gives up and leaps into the water.

The bathtub is one part of the human world that will always be a scary mystery to her, like brooms and vacuums. No matter how hot the water is, Luna shivers at first. Once the shivering passes, she becomes the perfect image of resignation or humiliation—it’s hard to tell which. The bath lasts long enough that it must seem eternal to her. My wife and I attack from both sides with Burt’s Bees Shampoo for Dogs, followed by pitchers full of warm water. I’ve had dogs before who were fun to wash because their long fur could be shaped into pompadours and other laughable forms. With Luna, the water flattens her white fur, making it translucent, so that you can see her skin with its usually-hidden dark spots.

Finally there comes release and redemption. After a thorough toweling down (during which she manages more than once to spray us with water by shaking herself in that loud flappy way that dogs have of drying themselves), we open the door for her, and she immediately races around the house like a nut—or like a soul entering the gates of paradise, born again to the doggy life, which is a good life, with unpredictable human companions and reassuring neighborhood dog-friends and intriguing smells everywhere, each one telling a story that only a dog can understand. And maybe such a life is worth the trials and tribulations of bath-time.

Music: "Atomic Dog" by George Clinton