Oscar, the dog who doesn’t know his name. | Photo: Cindy Mayer

We just got a dog. A rescue. From Santa Barbara Humane. Of course that’s what you have to say in this dog-loving town. When was the last time you heard a Santa Barbarian proudly say that they got their dog from a puppy mill?

Not gonna happen. No one wants to face that much public scorn and ridicule. It’s like living in Montecito and admitting that you do your own laundry.

We got to know him for a few days and named him Oscar. He doesn’t know his name yet. To him, “Oscar” is just a friendly sound. He came from the shelter without a real name. Or a history. No one knows exactly what breed he is, who his family was, or even if he had a family. He’s like that cute but scruffy uncle who shows up at family reunions — no one’s really sure where he came from, who he’s related to, or what he does for a living — but you still feed him dinner.

Why is he named Oscar? Well. It’s a secret. Even though he’s messy and unkempt just like the character in The Odd Couple — he isn’t named for Oscar Madison. And he obviously isn’t named after Oscar Wilde, Oscar Robertson, or Oscar de la Renta, because, even though he’s a smart dog, he’s not famously witty, he can’t average a triple-double for a season, and his odor is not one you would associate with a perfume. My friends assume he’s named Oscar because, as a screenwriter, I realized that it was the only way I was ever going to get one.

Oscar was found wandering the streets of Fresno. But don’t hold that against him. He actually has good taste. In other words, he doesn’t like dog food. And, unlike any other dog I’ve ever known, he refuses to lick up any biscuit crumbs he’s dropped on the floor. He also insists on having his ears and belly rubbed all the time. I like to think of him as coming pre-spoiled.

Training is more difficult when a dog doesn’t like dog food or, in Oscar’s case, food in general. Because almost all training involves giving treats for doing something: Do this — get a treat; do that — get a treat. It’s kind of like being given a MAGA hat — you don’t really understand what you’re doing; you just do it because you get the hat. And, eventually, you’re well-trained.

Walking with a dog is a much different experience than walking alone. Especially if the dog is at all cute. Or just not snarling. Because, in this town, where nearly everyone likes dogs, everyone wants to pet the dog, to know the dog’s name, and to hear stories about him or her (at least you think they do). Walking a dog is like spraying a bottle of Instantaneous Conversation on people. The same person you walked by a dozen times without saying hello to now knows how much time you spend brushing your dog’s teeth.

To illustrate how pervasive dogs are in our culture, note how many metaphorical dog phrases we use: You can live in an apocalyptic “dog-eat-dog world” in which you spend your “dog days” being “thrown to the dogs,” or get in a “dog fight,” become “dog-tired,” and then get “sick as a dog.” 

Or, you could live the easier “it’s a dog’s life” world, where you might be “a lucky dog” who has his own “dog house,” gets a “doggy bag” at a fancy restaurant, rereads a favorite “dog-eared book,” and maybe even becomes an “underdog” who wins the game because “every dog has its day.”

Either way, things happen fast — because you live your life in “dog years.”

A few years ago, I wrote the novel The Van Gogh Murders, in which I described Santa Barbara’s infatuation with dogs. Considering my current situation, revisiting a few adapted paragraphs seems appropriate:

Santa Barbara is a real dog town. We love our dogs. There are a lot of older people in this town who treat their dogs like the children or grandchildren they never had; or they substitute them for their kids who only visit them once a year.

The names of good veterinarians are traded in hushed tones at parties like stock market tips, and it’s rumored that we have fire hydrants that are not attached to any pipes — they’re just placed there for the convenience of our dogs.

And if you need any more proof of how good a Santa Barbara dog’s life is — it’s been said that Toto, Lassie, and Rin Tin Tin all retired here.

That’s it. Sorry. Gotta go walk Oscar.


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