Is there anything freakier to a dog than the weird experience of riding an elevator?


Columnist John Kelly's black Lab, Charlie, in the elevator of a hotel in Asheville, N.C. He wasn't enthralled by riding the elevator. But a bribe of biscuits helped. (John Kelly/THE WASHINGTON POST)
Columnist June 29, 2014

We American English-speaking humans have a word for the amazing contraption that allowed the construction of ever-taller buildings. We call it an “elevator.”

I’m not sure what my dog, Charlie, calls it. “Strange, moving room,” perhaps. Or “evil metal box.” All I know is, he’s not a fan of Mr. Otis’s handiwork.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section. View Archive

I discovered this last week on a family trip to Asheville, N.C.: Four Kellys and Charlie spread over two adjoining rooms at a dog-friendly hotel downtown. Two rooms on the fifth floor.

Charlie was fine going up in the lift. He was excited to check out a new place, and I think he sensed he would be sleeping in the same room as My Lovely Wife and I, something that always delights his inner pack animal (which, of course, is not that inner, dogs being incapable of sublimating any aspect of their personalities).

It was when we left the room for the first time to go for a walk that Charlie freaked out. When he spotted the elevator, he became 75 pounds of reluctant Labrador retriever.

When a large dog decides to plant himself somewhere, he is well-nigh immoveable. With his butt down, his center of gravity lowered, his front legs tensed, the dog becomes a heavy, hairy tripod, a canine anvil. If the Nazis had sown Normandy with recalcitrant German shepherds, the Allies would never have been able to get their tanks and Jeeps across the beach.

“No, no, you go ahead,” we said to other guests waiting to board the elevator as we tried to shift Charlie, the stone to our Sisyphus.

Charlie is not afraid of many things. Some dogs get freaked out by vacuum cleaners. I can nudge his belly with the bare floor attachment, and he barely stirs. Thunderstorms? Charlie sleeps right through them. But he found the elevator scary, or at least disquieting.

I’m not surprised. Imagine what was going through his head: “I walked from one room into another, then the room shook, the doors opened and I was in another room. What kind of dark magic is this?”

Dogs have accommodated themselves to much of mankind’s ingenuity. Many pooches enjoy riding around in cars, but only because they like hanging their heads out the window. And they like that because it intensifies the odors they can smell, which is, after all, every dog’s favorite hobby. To a dog, riding in a car — head out the window, nose in the air — is like freebasing cocaine.

But how to get Charlie on the elevator? When my kids were little, I used to let them push the elevator buttons. That wouldn’t work with Charlie. In the end, we relied on his natural fondness for food, bribing him aboard the elevator with doggy treats. Eventually, he associated his elevator rides not with some weird rift in reality but with snarfing down biscuits. In fact, I wonder now if he was faking it the whole time.

City mouse, country mouse

On the long drive home, we Googled on the iPhone for lunch ideas and decided on Smokey’s BBQ in Wytheville, Va. It’s not the sort of place that announces itself on an interstate exit sign along with McDonald’s and Cracker Barrel. But that’s just what we wanted: authentic rural Virginia cuisine.

When we travel with Charlie, we erect a set of stairs at the back of the car so the arthritic dog can amble in and out. It makes our Kia Soul look like a lunar lander and always attracts attention. As my daughter Beatrice and I sat at a picnic table outside, a bearded, pot-bellied man on his way into Smokey’s called out to us good-naturedly: “They servin’ barbecued polecat?”

“I’m sorry?” I said.

“Polecat. You know what a polecat is, don’t you?”

I knew he was joking. I also knew that sitting there with my dog stairs and my iPhone and my Nordstrom shirt, I probably looked like an Eastern liberal aesthete unable to speak good-old-boy.

“Yes I know what a polecat is,” I said a little too defensively. “But I’m not sure she does,” I added, throwing my daughter under the bus. I hoped he wouldn’t ask what a polecat was.

“What’s a polecat?” he asked.

“Um,” I said. “It’s a long, skinny animal, a member of the ferret family.”

He scrunched his face.

“It’s that black and white critter what makes a stink. I wonder if they got barbecued polecat on the menu.”

And with that, he opened the door to go in. I shouted, postmodernly, “They have grilled cheese!”

My pulled pork sandwich was very good, by the way.

Send a Kid to Camp

Are there skunks at Camp Moss Hollow? Sure. The occasional bear, too, and plenty of other natural wonders kids in Washington don’t usually encounter.

You can help support this summer camp for at-risk children ages 7 to 14 by going to www.familymattersdc.org. Or send a check, payable to “Send a Kid to Camp,” to Family Matters of Greater Washington, 1509 16th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036, Attention: Accounting Department.

Twitter: @johnkelly

For previous columns visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.

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