For a Va. Neighborhood's Dogs, Santa Arrives on a Mail Truck

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the troubled and toothy history of canine-mail carrier relations, the northwest corner of Zip code 22101 is something of an anomaly. There, dogs do not erupt in an angry frenzy at delivery time, nor do they savage the mail when it comes through the slot. Some are known to leap up and down in celebration when postman Scott Arnold arrives each day; others simply throw their heads back and howl.

But it is during the holidays that the humans along Arnold's route through McLean especially look forward to seeing him. That is when Arnold, a 27-year U.S. Postal Service veteran, transforms into a kind of dog-themed St. Nick, powered not by reindeer but by the force of a curious tradition he calls Santa Paws (he couldn't resist).

Each year, rain, snow or shine, Arnold delivers more than 100 doggy stockings along his route, writing each pooch's name in careful lettering across the cuff. He packs them with rawhide candy canes, dog cookies and rock-hard biscuits, along with an ornament, different each year, that features a photo of the dog taken with Arnold's 35mm film camera.

"They are like family to me," said Arnold, 54, a warm, bespectacled man with rough hands, a bushy moustache and a jolly physique worthy of Santa. By family, of course, he means the people and the dogs.

For 17 years, he has worked the same delivery circuit through the mansions and modest brick ramblers of 22101, becoming a daily presence in the lives of his customers. It is a long stint for a postal route, far longer than the life span of most dogs. And so, over time, Arnold has seen new puppies arrive, watched them grow up and grow old, until the day they no longer rush out to greet him.

That is the other purpose of Santa Paws, a shared sadness for the short lives of dogs, at a time of year their absence grows sharper. Because Arnold can no longer deliver a stocking when a dog dies, he writes the owner a letter, in the dog's voice, from the comforts of an imaginary place he calls North Pole Kennels. That is where dogs "retire" to work for Santa Paws when they are gone, where the treats are unlimited and the furniture is indestructible.

"If you feel the need to get another dog, please do! I won't be offended!" read the letter received by Martita Marx and Gerald Wein this year, their first without their chocolate Lab, Mozart. It was signed "Fleas Navidog!! MOZART."

"It's not just the ball or the doggy bone," Marx said. "He knows what pets mean to you, and he's able to capture that in how he touches you."

Her Christmas tree had 10 years of Mozart-themed ornaments of Arnold's creation, each photo showing him a little further along. The last, framed inside a plastic snowman, captured the 13-year-old just before he died, his muzzle white, his eyes clouded with age.

"Everything is so impersonal now. You go to the grocery store and you don't know anyone," Marx said. "And here's someone who knows our names, who knows who we are."

Marx has other photos from the Santa Paws package over the years, showing the neighborhood dogs' stockings lined up in long red-and-green columns of quirky names: Elwood, Snuggles, Zorro, Bandit, Bella, Moo-Moo, Warf, Butters.

"It's a weird situation," said Arnold, a Herndon resident who grew up in Falls Church. "Sometimes I know the dog's name before I know the owner's name."

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