Saturday, 22 November 2014

Fashion forward

By Emily Prucha | Prague Daily Monitor |
21 October 2011

With temperatures in the single digits, it's time for the population of Czech canines to break out their new season finery. Single-color jackets, coats with furred hoods, and even fashionable plaid blanket wraps are all the rage for the Czech Republic's most pampered pet this autumn. Whether big or small, city or country, Czech dogs are rarely seen without the proper attire for the weather. Taking one's beloved canine for a crisp autumn morning stroll without his jacket is a crime akin to taking one's infant out without a hat.

Despite being a practical society for the most part, when it comes to pets, particularly dogs, Czechs have a level of keen devotion and unabashed emotion reserved otherwise only for beer, ice hockey and sometimes small children. Czech dogs are revered by the population in general, with even non-pet-owners doting on the nation's most beloved pet. Although I've yet to be a pet owner in the Czech Republic, it's impossible to live here and not notice the special treatment that Czech pets (and sometimes even pet owners) receive just by virtue of their existence.

Czechs are willing to spend significant sums to keep their pets well-dressed in the latest styles. I sometimes wonder if Prague's dog owners update their pet's wardrobe more often than I update my own. In our friend Maxík's case, his fashionable collection runs the gamut from a festive Hawaiian button-down, perfect for summertime barbeques, to a full-fledged winter snowsuit, complete with hood, long-johns and cowboy foot-booties. His attire makes the clothes I dress my children in comparatively dull.

Maxík, a Pražský krysařík (Prague ratter) is the smallest dog I've ever seen, and his very existence always amazes my three children, as well as scores of passersby on the street. His four tiny legs, one of which he often holds in a curl while running, seem barely strong enough to support his thin body and larger head. But he walks with an attitude that dares dogs four-times his size to mess with him. Although Prague ratters are one of the more popular breeds of small city dogs in Prague, Maxík never fails to steal the stage when he struts through his Prague neighborhood. My American friend, Maxík's "mother" fields questions about Maxík's size, age, and origin and receives unsolicited instruction on dog care each time the pair leaves their apartment. When we first walked together, as a foursome (my friend with Maxík, me with newborn Oliver), I was surprised, and admittedly a bit chagrined, to discover Maxík received far more attention than the baby.

Most public spaces throughout the country, including many restaurants, cafes and shops are dog-friendly, as is the nation's public transportation system. Although on public transport, dogs that aren't contained in a bag or purse need their own ticket and a leash and muzzle. While a regular customer might go waiting several minutes for a menu, it's likely a waitress will appear on the spot to offer a water bowl to the canine resting under the table or on someone's lap. Only once have I witnessed a dog being refused entrance to a restaurant while eating-out in Prague. In this case, the pet was permitted into the restaurant, but couldn't sit in the carpeted section. The wait staff was apologetic and offered an alternative seat in the non-carpeted section instead. Since few of Prague's restaurants are carpeted, this problem doesn't seem to arise frequently.

It isn't unusual for a Czech dog owner to prepare a hot meal especially for their pet, despite veterinarian cautions about feeding table scraps to dogs. In one of my first English classes, I remember Zuzka describing her nightly ritual of making fresh chicken and rice for her dog. Although she was just a 16-year-old student, she cooked independently for her pet. She explained quite carefully, that she didn't feed him leftovers, but instead prepared dishes just for the dog. That was more effort than I remember expending to prepare my own food when I was 16, much less for a pet. I didn't know whether to be impressed or alarmed.

When Czech dog owners go to visit friends, they naturally take their pets with them. In most cases, this situation is considered a positive bonus for the hosts. Not only do they benefit from their friend's witty conversation, they also are blessed with the opportunity to watch a real-live Czech animal "celebrity" in action. For us, this means that every visit to Radek's babička has the potential to become a tail-swinging, fur-flinging, lick-fest if Arnie, the family's resident hound, is present.

Arnie is an overgrown, hyperactive, three-year-old mixed-breed mutt belonging to my husband's cousin, but looked after primarily by Radek's aunt and uncle. Arnie's development is stuck somewhere between toddlerhood and adolescence. His wild behavior combined with his large size means that he should have no business visiting cramped places like babička's living room. Nonetheless, that's where he ends up most Sunday afternoons. His chaotic arrival is met with more excitement and delight from my in-laws than I can fathom. Despite a bit of grumbling about Arnie's clumsiness, they coo and cajole him just as they do their own great-grandchildren. In fact, Arnie receives fewer harsh words than the children do when he knocks something over with his over-eager tail or snaps food straight from someone's unsuspecting hands.

In contrast to the adults' indulgence, when the doorbell rings announcing Arnie's arrival, my children go manic. They rush to climb in babička's lap to get as far away from Arnie's flapping tail and slobber as they can. These are the same children who clamber over one another to pet Maxík and argue over who might get the privilege of holding the little dog's leash or giving him a small treat. While my in-laws believe the kids are frightened by Arnie's size, I've watched them calmly give treats to our neighbor's Československý vlčák (Czech wolfdog), who is equal in size, but is also a professionally trained show dog with far better manners.

Impeccable manners or not, Czech dogs comprise an important sector of the country's pet population. As revered members of the family, they are petted and doted on by a population that isn't typically enthusiastic with its affection. The phenomenon of Czechs and their dogs has been remarked upon and written about by other non-Czechs over the years, with the general consensus that being a dog in Prague is a pretty sweet life, indeed. Although our family has yet to experience the thrill of dog ownership personally, I have already fielded a few requests from the children to have their own puppy. If their persistence ever comes to fruition, I figure at the very least I'll benefit from the elevated status as "dog-owner" among my Czech peers. And admittedly, dressing the pet might be my favorite part.

Emily Prucha is a Life Section columnist for the Monitor. She likes writing about bilingual and multicultural families.
You can reach her at emily@praguemonitor.com. You can read more of her stories here.