Jesse loved her husband, John. And her children. And their business.

A huge metal barn from a former auto body shop set down next to acres of cows in Northern California, converted into a compound for boarding and training dogs. Johnson’s Acres. They had thought of calling it the Triple J Canine Ranch, but settled for Johnson’s Acres: Dog Boarding and Training.

A small wooden ranch style home a bit away. In between, a large pen of antic goats and a narrower run hosting a pride of parading peacocks. The whinnies of the goats and the cries of the peacocks, at any time day or night, created the background music for the barking and yips of the dogs.

Inside the barn, the Johnsons sorted the dogs into home groups, packs of six to eight inside their own wire-walled areas of 20 by 15 feet. They used criteria of age, activity level, size, personality and general level of alpha/submissive status. Dogs who spent a lot of time there and had good friends were buddied up in the same pack. Each home group was outfitted with scattered stuffed dog beds and a few repurposed toddler beds for dogs who liked getting off the ground for their daytime lie abouts. 

After breakfast, the Johnsons slid back the huge metal barn door that gave access to the whole yard. Then around the clock, they opened one or two pack enclosure gates to their packs so  dogs could romp in the open yard that surrounded the barn. They had the long water trough and hay bales to climb and to pee on, all behind a wire fence that allowed the cows to radiate cow smells, to move close enough to the dogs for them to hear the bleats of the calves and moos of the mothers. They heard the whinnies of the goats and the cries of the peacocks on the other side of the driveway. Dogs ran around the perimeter of the barn, rolled in the dust or lay in the shade. They went in and out as they pleased for their allotted time dogs awash in sun and shade and the richness of big animals safely out of their reach.

After the dogs had dinner, Jesse and John herded each dog into their individual plastic kennels. They turned them to face one another in a circle, a couple of feet apart, so the dogs’ breathing mingled and merged throughout the night.

The Johnsons also trained dogs, boarding them in “boot camp” for ten days until they had the basic commands down. Jesse spent two or three hours training their owners when they picked them up: how to give commands, to wait until their dog responded and what to do when they didn’t, how not to repeat commands, and how to understand the resistance their dogs might show at first. Outlining for them what they had learned about their dog during the training. Itemizing the habits their dog could be trained out of and into. And which ones, say a tremendous food drive, were best handled by removing opportunity. For to train them out of a strong built-in drive would be impossible without breaking their spirit. Killing it really. And that was not an option. Not for Jesse and John anyway.

The Johnsons had two cranky Corgis who hung out in the dog barn. they never entered the boarders quarters, and spent most of their time under a side door table near the door. A sheet hung like a tablecloth off the table and the Corgis hid behind it in the cool dark enclosure. 

“We call them the Piranha dogs,” Jesse told their clients. “They like to lie in wait and dash out when you least expect it.”

At their very worst, they frightened people not forewarned. They were a little grumpy and bossy, but so far had not bitten anyone, canine or human, and were allowed to “announce” their dominion from time to time.

Lydia brought Sylvie there when she left town for meetings, conferences and trainings with other educators. Sylvie loved Johnson’s Acres, wagged her tail furiously when they got out of the car, headed toward the gate into the yard. The Johnson kids loved Sylvie because she was a Dalmatian. Because Sylvie loved kids, they were allowed to take her into the house after school to play with her for a few hours.

Sylvie adored John. She made a fool of herself, straining against her leash as soon as she saw him. One time, eager, wiggly, Sylvia peed all over the dusty walkway in her excitement to reach John 

When Lydia apologized, John dismissed her, ““Oh, I have that effect on all the girls.”

Jesse stuck her head out the side door of the barn and raised her left eyebrow to give Lydia a knowing look.

John was a charmer. Handsome, handy, great with dogs.

He didn’t make Lydia pee her pants, but on the long drive back home after dropping Sylvie off, Lydia liked to imagine the life Jesse and John had together. Letting her mind wander, Lydia supposed that once the dogs were tucked in for the night, the goats and the peacocks fed, everyone gathered in the sweet little house. And when dinner was cooked and eaten, dishes done, the kids homework checked, stories read, Lydia figured Jesse and John stripped off their doggie clothes and took a long shower. Together.

Then they engaged in their own little animal games, the window open to goats and the peacocks. And if, in this noisy, fecund surround, they made some noise of their own, what the sleeping children heard in their dreams were the whinnies of the goats and the occasional and unpredictable cries of the peacocks, huaaa, huaaa, aieee, aieee, aieee.

Lydia imagined it was a good marriage, a good family, a good business.

It was true, Jesse counted herself a happy woman. She didn’t mind that John charmed the mostly female clientele, didn’t begrudge his sway over the dogs. Jesse didn’t mind that she did the books and the calendaring and most of the cooking. She didn’t mind that the clothes she took off at night smelled of dogs.

Jesse had one private joy in life separate from the sweetly, complexly integrated life with her family, their business. The goats and the peacocks. The seasons. The dogs. The great big high-ceilinged barn. The wide sky and the hills she could see beyond, running green in the winter to the gold of summer and fall.

Once a week Jesse took another shower in the morning, put on some nice pants, make up, sandals and drove down the highway to Guide Dogs for the Blind in Marin.

She plugged her i-Phone into the speaker, set her Pandora station to Etta James or Chavela Vargas or Jimmy La Fave, music John wasn’t so fond of. She stopped for a latte before hitting 101 and thought about where she might have lunch after she completed her training. Her day, her way.

Jesse didn’t train the dogs. She trained the people. The blind people who had been linked with one of the graduating dogs. She taught them commands, helped the pair learn how to work together, to work as one. Assisted them in becoming partners.

Jesse brought everything she knew about dogs, about people, about partnering and close bonds, to these sessions.

One client, recently widowed, so far, had not learned to trust his dog. After three sessions, he was still not ready to take Fancy, his beautiful, smart golden retriever, home.

Jesse needed to figure out what made Mr. Toprano tick. What would help this old Italian man open up, relax, help him let Fancy do what she was so well-trained to do?

Before Jesse asked the attendants to bring Fancy out this day, she sat down next to Mr. Topranoi.

 “I know you miss your wife, Mr. Toprano. Tell me a little about her. What was her name?”

“Valentina. Valentina Sofia. I called her my Little Valentine. My name is Giovanni so she called me Vanni, her Vanni Valentine.”

They both laughed.

“What did the two of you like to do together, Mr. Toprano?”

“Oh, please, Gio. We could dance. We met at a dance and we never stopped. We waltzed in our kitchen, outside in the summer. We danced everywhere.”

“Hold on a minute, Gio.”

 Jesse retrieved her i-Phone and searched Pandora for waltz music.

“Like the Viennese waltz?”

“No, Italian waltz. It’s not so fancy, it’s the dance like people in the countryside do.”

She found a YouTube video of Italian country dancing. Jesse couldn’t show it to Gio, but they could listen. He nodded.

“O.K., Gio, I will play the music and you will teach me to dance.”

Gio used his cane to stand up and reached in her direction. Jesse took his cane and placed it next to his chair.

She stepped toward Gio, placed her right hand in his left hand. Gio held it away from their bodies. He placed his right hand at her waist. Jesse moved her left hand holding the phone up to his shoulder so they could both hear the music.

“OK,” Gio said. “We are ready to dance. The music, please.”

She pressed play and Gio moved in a loopy box step. Steering her, he was a little tentative, but soon moved smoothly. Not the jerky shoulder-stooped walk he assumed with Fancy’s leash in his hand.

“Remember, it’s a big room, Gio. I won’t let us bump into anything.”

Their steps grew wider and Gio began to steer her in circles all around the room. 

Gio said, “O.K. now we let go of my shoulder but keep my hand.”

Side by side, they stepped forward, their arms stretched between them.  Jesse copied his feet and after a turn around the floor, Gio pulled her easily back to him.

They danced until the song was over.

“You are a good dancer, Mr. Toprano. You made me feel like a good dancer. You led me. Before I bring Fancy in, can we have another dance?”

Gio smiled.

“This time, can I lead? I want to teach my husband to dance like you and Mrs.Toprano danced!”

They reversed their positions and Jesse took the lead.

At first Gio had trouble letting her make the decisions of whereto move, when to let go and rejoin. He hesitated, resisted a little then relaxed.

Half way through the song, they were gliding, Jesse leading.

“What a good dancer you are. You made it easy for me to lead!”

“I was thinking not like I was dancing with Valentina, but like I was Valentina.” Gio was quiet.

“And that is how you will learn to walk with Fancy, Mr. Toprano. You will let Fancy lead.”

“Yes, I can see it,” he said. “I can learn. But can we start each session with Mr. Toprano and Jesse dancing?”

“Yes, yes, it would be my pleasure, Mr. Toprano.”  Jesse was certain she was blushing a little.

“OK, let’s get started, eh?  On my dancing lesson with Fancy then!”

Mr. Toprano bowed in Jesse’s direction.


©Marty Williams, 2020

             Marty Williams, Summer Institute 1993, is a poet, teacher, writing coach and a once in a while fiction writer. Her stories are sometimes, like this one, adaptations of something she has experienced or heard directly from someone else. This story is based on a story told to Marty and embellished beyond its original telling. The real-life story teller did own a dog boarding business. If you want to know what it was like, as it is now closed, you can visit their old Yelp site. Go here to learn about the good work done at the Marin Guide Dogs for the Blind. If you are curious about how peacocks really sound, any time day or night, you can go here. To learn more about writing workshops and BAWP’s monthly literary reading series, Teachers Write – Writers Teach, about to enter its 25th year, you can go to Room to Write on Facebook.

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