Wondering what "Atlanta to Appalachia" is all about? It's part of an occasional series about life in the wilds of West Virginia through the eyes of a couple who never dreamed they'd love it there. Read previous installments here.
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Hosting my dogs' cousins for a family reunion is not something I ever expected to be doing. And yet, there they were: A dozen pure-bred pugs gallivanting around our house as if they owned the place. There was Turner attempting to pee on a piece of furniture in the living room, while Heddy and Patti ran circles around him. My wife Elizabeth was giving another pug a manicure.
I guess I should back up a moment and explain how we ended up hosting this massive pug sleepover party. The fact that I even own a dog, let alone two, is a remarkable feat considering that growing up, for no apparent reason, I was deathly afraid of dogs. The dogs of my childhood pop culture memories – Snoopy, Clifford the Big Red Dog, Disney's "101 Dalmatians" – didn't elicit the same dread. They were merely fun creatures of fiction. In my preternaturally pea-sized kid brain, it was like how the general public felt about Winnie the Pooh: He's cute on paper, but nobody wants to bump into a real bear with no pants on in the woods.
As I got older, and left the confines of a Fido-intolerant upbringing, I knew that my fear of dogs was completely baseless.
And then one Thanksgiving, I simply crossed the Rubicon. My friend Michael was leaving town and asked if I would housesit – the catch being that his little beagle mix named Squeaky would be there with me. Seeing this as the perfect way to overcome my fear, to ever-so-briefly live with a dog and see what it would be like, I jumped at the opportunity. I watched Al Roker introduce a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade with Squeaky lying on the couch, his resting head propped up on my leg, his soulful eyes looking up at me. That's all it took. I was a convert.
Flash forward 20 years and I've now been blessed with several dogs who have enriched my life. When my wife and I were dating, she told me she had always been fascinated with pugs. She pointed out that no matter how bad her day was, she could always look at a silly pug face and instantly smile. We talked about getting our first pug after we settled into marriage, but instead I surprised her with a pug puppy at the wedding. That was nearly 16 years ago.
At the moment, we're the proud owners of two young pugs, Fergus and Spike. We got them from the same breeder in Ohio, and they are actually related. Fergus is Spike's uncle.
Our pug Fergus is a miracle of nature. His mom was Gwen, a sweet pug who we've met on several occasions. His dad, on the other hand, is quite literally an absentee father. Stuffy was a famous show pug who won multiple awards in the 1970s. Yes, my dog's dad is older than I am. Stuffy was so admired that his Nixon-era owners froze some of his DNA in a doggie sperm bank inside the veterinary school on the campus of Ohio State University. Even though Stuffy passed away shortly after Watergate, his legacy lives on in the dozens of best-in-show pugs that he's sired from six feet under. Fergus is one of his more than 50 children.
Meanwhile, Spike comes from a more traditional lineage. His parents – Sig and Bella – were at least alive when he was conceived.
We stumbled into this strange world of pug pedigree in the summer of 2016 when we met a pug breeder in Ohio, about four hours west of us. By day, she's a nurse. But at night (and on weekends and every spare moment in between), she has been tirelessly working to perfect a line of AKC registered pugs. She has become such an expert in the breed that she's written medical articles about them and has herself become a dog show judge. For pug lovers like ourselves, it was like meeting the Wizard of Oz.
And getting a pug from her is no easy task. It requires more careful vetting than a CIA security clearance. We had to provide multiple references and letters of recommendation. We had to fill out pages of forms, and she questioned Elizabeth and I separately to corroborate our answers. She even interviewed our vet. Ultimately, she traveled across state lines to see our house in person to make sure it was safe for a pug. It had the feeling of a social worker coming over for a home visit.
We live out in the woods and now have chickens. You would think we'd want a guard dog like a Great Pyrenees. Or an Australian sheep dog like the one our neighbor, the farmer, uses to herd his cows. But no, we like pugs. Compared to working dogs, they're a toy breed so effete they require air conditioning to survive.
To be fair, they're not completely useless. In the 16th century, when Spanish soldiers attempted to assassinate Prince William of Orange, it was the royal's loyal pug Pompey who barked and alerted his master to the oncoming danger. After that incident, not surprisingly, the pug became the official breed of the House of Orange.
Now that we have two pugs from this breeder, she has become part of our extended family. We've been to her house a couple of times and she's been out to ours as well. So when she inquired about staying over again, we didn't blink. She was driving from her home to a national pug show in Baltimore. She would be showcasing some of her best – including Spensur, a dog who specializes in agility competitions (something not always associated with the lazy, lap-loving pug breed).
She asked if she could stay over at our place, since we're about halfway between Ohio and Baltimore.
"I'll have some pugs with me," she told us, and we didn't think to follow up with what she meant by "some." We thought she'd be sleeping over with a handful of pugs. But, as it turns out, she had a new litter of puppies and they required 24-hour attention. Leaving them with a dog sitter just wouldn't do. And so that's how we had a dozen dogs for a pug sleepover on Sunday: our two pugs, her five show dogs, and five puppies.
Her van was packed like a vehicular version of Jenga: travel crates, foldable crates, blankets, towels, dog food, bins of supplies and more. She deserves some sort of Marie Kondo award for her skilled organizational techniques. In preparation for their arrival, we turned our house into the ultimate pug resort. Her five adult pugs slept in the dining room, with easy access to food and water. We converted our entire top floor into a puppy play area for the newborns, complete with washable, removable flooring since they are not yet potty-trained. Elizabeth and I have long joked about opening up a bed and breakfast, but now I'm wondering if we should just go the kennel route instead.
Even though it was the humans who had planned this family reunion, it was the dogs who took charge. Fergus and Spike welcomed everyone into the home, and offered their cousins some toys and treats to play with. They took walks around the backyard, sniffed the bushes together and presumably caught up on each other's lives.
"You got neutered? Oh, so sorry to hear."
For us, it was neat to see that a lot of them shared the same idiosyncrasies – just like in any family dynamic. Aunt Lexi licks hair off the carpet just like Fergus and Spike do. Although, to be fair, all these pugs look so similar. Honestly, I had no clue who was who. On more than one occasion, I picked up a pup and asked, "Is this my dog?"
So what does one do at a pug sleepover? Sure, we could watch movies like "Lady and the Tramp" or "All Dogs Go to Heaven." But nobody was in the sit-still mood, so we set up a pug spa. In the kitchen sink, Elizabeth gave the five tiny puppies their first-ever bath, while the others enjoyed getting their teeth flossed.
The humans had a breakfast of shakshouka from eggs laid by our hens that morning, and the dogs ate the same thing they do everyday. The dogs said their goodbyes as the humans packed up the car. We waved as the car left the driveway on its way to Baltimore, Fergus offering a meager bark as the van sped away. But this is not the last we'll see of them. Elizabeth will be meeting them at the pug show later in the week to help the breeder show her pugs. Win or lose, they will then turn around and head back to Ohio.
They'll be sleeping over again on Sunday night. And the fun will start all over again.