Way-Too-Close Encounters of the Furred Kind

The thing about surreal suburbia, land of neat lawns and sedate sidewalks, is the occasional touch of rural reality. We can't ever quite forget we inhabit a planet - a co-op, really - filled with all sorts of creatures. On the quarter-acre we call home, we have squirrels, raccoons, cardinals, and skunks. The skunks were never a problem, other than the occasional whiff of skunk aroma hanging in the summer air. But then we got a dog. And then the dog got skunked.

I'm not sure how it happened; I don't know who surprised whom. I only know I was saying good night to my daughter when our noses told us something was terribly wrong outside her open window. Skunk! was my first thought. (Actually, it was "monster skunk!" We were on the second floor, you see.) This was quickly followed by my next thought - Charlie!

Our dogged dog had just been let out for his evening run around the house. The timing was bad, but my hope was that somehow, some way, Charlie had been where the skunk hadn't.

But when Charlie came back inside it was immediately apparent that he and the skunk had occupied the same space at the wrong time. Charlie was clearly the loser. He looked chagrined.

The family leaped into action. Tomato juice, someone said, I think it was my son. My husband bravely held his breath and lifted Charlie into the tub, trying to remove some of the skunkiness with mere soap and water. But we didn't have any tomato juice. We had plenty of orange juice, but we figured that would only make him sticky and probably attract bees. So we improvised. We slathered him with spaghetti sauce, the kind that has large chunks of onion and garlic. Charlie smelled like a skunk who'd eaten a great Italian meal. He managed to maintain his dogly dignity, but only barely.

The next day we tried vinegar, another recommended remedy. That made Charlie smell like a skunk dying Easter eggs. Charlie was cooperative, but clearly not pleased. The day after that I bought tomato juice, and we gave Charlie an out-of-doors tomato-juice rubdown and rinse. My son said Charlie smelled like a skunk eating tomatoes.

I wish there were such a fruit or vegetable as a skunk-eating tomato. I'd plant them in my garden and let them eat the skunks. Unfortunately, no such plant exists. And besides, I don't have a garden. I don't have the patience of a gardener. I have the patience of a shopper. I was willing to buy any product that promised olfactory relief. I was willing to try anything. That's why Charlie was so nervous.

It soon became apparent that nothing really worked, except for the passage of time. We sudsed-up Charlie in dog shampoo: It made his skunky fur shiny and tangle-free. Charlie maintained an attitude of stoic endurance, but he was beginning to show signs of strain. The sight of a shopping bag or a garden hose made him flinch.

Two weeks later we almost had our dog back to his original scent. Then - bingo! Charlie and the skunk collided again. Or maybe it was a different skunk this time. (I never see them, I only smell them.) The score was now: Skunks 2, Border terrier zip. And the whole horrendously humiliating and mostly ineffective washing process started all over again.

CHARLIE took to skulking in and out of rooms, looking sheepish and smelling skunkish. Our once-effusive terrier had turned into pariah puppy. We tried to assure him we still loved him, even as we tried to reassure ourselves he wouldn't always smell this bad. We started making him sleep in the basement. Charlie took this abasement badly. He was now skulking and slinking. He was practically lurking. We bought products with names like Skunk-Away and Skunk No More, and sprayed them lavishly on his fur, like they were French perfume. This only made him more despondent. He knew there was something wrong, only he couldn't quite put his paw on it. We hope he never does. We're just not up for skunking No. 3. Not yet.

Finally, we realized the trick is not tomato juice or vinegar or shampoo, or peroxide (which will turn your odorous dog a lovely shade of blond), or any other product for that matter. The trick, as G. Gordon Liddy so aptly put it when explaining how he could hold his hand over an open flame, is not minding. It's been almost a month now since the last close encounter of a skunk kind. You could say Charlie's his old self again. Or you could say we've learned not to mind.

We have a friend whose Jack Russell terrier once had 15 run-ins with a skunk, and this not in a lifetime, either. Just one bad summer. We're hoping Charlie doesn't beat his record. Otherwise, we might have to get Charlie a copy of "How to Be Your Own Best Friend."

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