On the day of his first swimming lesson, my dog, Charlie, exhibited an almost cartoonish reluctance to get into the water. He hunkered down, splayed his legs and dialed his toenails to maximum extension.
You could hear them scrrrrrape as he was pulled toward the pool.
"This is typical," Maury Chaput assured me.
I thought that was rather generous of Maury, who two years ago opened Canine Fitness Center in Crownsville. It's a place for dogs to do what so few of them get to do these days: channel their inner Michael Phelps.
As much as I love Charlie, he has been something of an embarrassment to me. He's a Labrador retriever that I call a Labrador "leaver," since he can't be bothered to actually retrieve anything. Oh, he goes after it. He just won't bring it back.
Worst of all, he's not very fond of the water. This in a dog with webbed feet, a water-repellent coat and a tail like an otter's. He ran from the surf at the beach last summer, and the only thing he'll do with a creek or a stream is drink from it (thus assuring he gets some awful waterborne illness that makes trotting behind him with a plastic bag unpleasant duty indeed).
In short, he's been a bit of a wuss as far as H2O is concerned.
Which is how we ended up at the Canine Fitness Center, with Charlie looking rather sheepish in a bright orange flotation vest that was tethered to a long, white rope that Maury held.
When we'd gotten Charlie into the pool, at least into the few inches of water that lapped atop a ramp, Maury's mother-in-law, Irma Tillman, threw a ball into the far corner.
"Thatta boy," shouted Maury. "Get that ball!"
Charlie was dog number 890 at the Canine Fitness Center. Maury said fewer than 10 have flat-out refused to go in the water.
He and his wife, Lynne, opened the facility -- which features two 14-by-26-foot pools, four feet deep, heated to 80 degrees -- after their Lab, Shadow, had knee problems. The nearest place they could find where Shadow could do a low-impact water workout was a horse facility in Harford County.
It took them a while to straighten out the zoning for their new business, our solons not having foreseen doggy swimming pools. It costs $15 for 15 minutes of pool time, or $25 for half an hour.
Maury and Lynne haven't quit their day jobs; he's an administrator at Anne Arundel Community College, she's a CPA. "This is something you do for love of animals," he said. "It's not paying for itself."
Labs are the most common customers, Maury told me, golden retrievers a close second. The biggest dog they've had is what you might call an Eastern Canada special, a Newfoundland-Labrador mix who weighed 195 pounds.
"I had to boost him the first two times," Maury said. "After that, he went in. Honestly, I didn't have the strength to do it a third time."
They've had Irish wolfhounds and Bernese mountain dogs, English mastiffs and Rottweilers. I would like to see the English bulldog named Beefcake.
"He has to move his limbs so fast to stay afloat, it's hysterical," said Irma.
And Charlie? Well, bless him, he went after that ball.
It wasn't pretty. "Ungainly" does not begin to describe Charlie's early attempts at swimming. He flailed desperately at the water, a look of fear in his brown eyes.
"Swim!" I shouted helpfully. "Swim! Swim!"
Maury pulled on the rope, guiding him toward the ball, and Charlie chomped at it. It looked like he was bobbing for an apple.
And then, after a while, some synapse fired in Charlie's meager canine brain. He seemed to accept that he wasn't going to sink, that perhaps water wasn't just something to be braved or tolerated, but something to be enjoyed.
From then on, he belly-flopped into the pool in pursuit of the ball. His favorite stroke? The dog paddle.
"They don't know the word 'quit,' " Maury said of dogs in general. "And they live to please you. If he thinks you're getting pleasure out of this, he'll go on forever."
I'm not sure that describes Charlie exactly. I think he has an inkling I derive no pleasure from some of his habits, such as eating the mail and, shall we say, greeting other dogs in an overly familiar way.
"I warn you, he might be a little bit sore tomorrow," Maury said after Charlie had shed the vest and swum on his own. "He's using muscles he's never used."
I tell you, I couldn't have been prouder if that dog had been named a National Merit semifinalist.
In the Swim of Things
Learning to swim can be traumatic. My experience was like Charlie's.
I remember swimming lessons as being angst-ridden, terror-filled affairs. My mother had to buy me off with milkshakes after each one.
My human offspring, on the other hand, got their first taste of the pool as babies, cradled in my arms at the YMCA. They can't remember never being able to swim and are naturals in the water.
I was curious about Maury's experiences as a kid. Do you remember learning how to swim, I asked him.
He leaned toward me and dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper.
"I can't swim," he said.
I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org, or The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or 202-334-5129.