A long line of pet owners already waits at the reception desk when I walk into the small-animal clinic, yet the two women behind the counter don't seem to be helping anyone. Instead, one secretary stands next to her chair looking helpless and waiting for direction, while the other one – obviously the alpha secretary – talks into the headset hooked around her ear.
"Raisins?" she asks. "How many?"
Silence. We all wait while the caller on the other end of the phone responds.
"What kind of chocolate?"
More silence. We're gradually getting the picture, knowing glances passing among the dog owners vying for service from the staff.
"It depends on how much milk chocolate he had," she finally says, mouthing something to first person in line.
The conversation between the alpha secretary and the caller gets more involved, prompting the second secretary to turn her attention to the growing pack of people waiting.
It's late in the day, and we're all here to pick up our pets. When she looks at me, I tell her I'm there for Scotty, who had stitches removed. She collects the names of the other canine patients and directs everyone to some nearby chairs.
The secretary says to sit, so I do. If only Scotty were as obedient.
I pick up a newspaper to pass the time, but I can't help but keep my ear on the phone call between the head receptionist and the concerned puppy owner.
"Yes, I know it's hard to tell what they're thinking," she says, "but it sounds like you did the right thing."
I recall the many times in the past seven years that my dog has prompted me to pick up the phone and make sure I was doing the right thing, too.
Once, Scotty ate a pack of cigarettes out of the pocket of a jacket left on the floor by one of the painters working in our bedroom. I called the vet to find out if he was in danger.
"Probably not," she said, "but expect him to be jumpy and take him out frequently. He's likely to be sick to his stomach."
Dogs never get sick to their stomachs outside. There's no carpet to throw up on. Scotty's tobacco high lasted several hours, and the carpet-cleaning guys came the next day.
When we first got our dog, before I knew you could brush burrs out of a puppy's ears without hurting him, I called to make sure this was OK. That's when I learned that when it comes to pets, there is such a thing as a stupid question.
On the other hand, the reason he landed at the vet clinic this time didn't require a phone call for advice. His need for medical attention was obvious. Somehow he suffered a large gash on his chest that left dark bloodstains on his fluffy, butterscotch fur. The more he fussed with it, the worse it got, until we realized late on a Saturday night that a trip to the animal ER was in order.
It was a worrisome night as I discovered how deeply Scotty had been cut and how much pain he must have endured. With the area shaved for examination, his wound looked angry and swollen and sore.
It turns out the price of doggy stitches with anesthesia also is painful — $450 — but, of course, I agreed to pay it. What else could I do? He's not just our dog; he's a part of our family.
Several stitches, a week of antibiotics and a plastic cone on his head did the trick, so now I wait for him to emerge from the clinic after his follow-up visit.
And wait. And wait.
Meanwhile, the alpha receptionist is still reassuring the owner of the chocoholic dog. Finally, she says something that puts the last seven years with Scotty into a new light — something that explains his insistence on sitting at my feet while I write and in following me from room to room when I clean the house, jingling his tags with unnecessary devotion.
"With animals, it's like this," she says. "You don't choose them. They choose you."
I used to think Scotty simply had figured out that I'm the one who buys the kibble, but it turns out when we picked him for our pet, the selection was mutual.