Stroll any morning along the glorious bluffs of Heisler Park in North Laguna around 6:45 and you’ll invariably find a small pack of dog-treat donors and their pups huddled together, barely letting passers-by by.
Most of the dogs sit patiently waiting for their daily presents, except for one pooch on this day, who snaps at the hands that feed him. Rick, the “Santa” who originated the custom of year-long treat-giving from his bags of gifts 10 years ago, stands at least five feet back today and tosses doggie chicken strips into the mouth of the surly beast.
I used to walk my satiny-coated yellow lab, Crystal, on the streets of South Laguna for 12 years until we moved to the north end of town last December. Instead of pulling me at a fast pace, she now dawdles behind me, which suits my 12-years-later more leisurely saunter.
On one of our first walks in Heisler, Crystal slowly made her way towards the boardwalk where she spotted two Labs below us. They stretched towards the extended hand of a man who gave each dog a few biscuits from seemingly bottomless bags. As in days long gone, Crystal’s pace quickened as she pulled me down the stairs.
We approached the thin man we now know as Rick. Dressed appropriately in a Big-Dog black-and-white plaid hoody, Rick touched her snout with the back of his hand and asked with much-appreciated pet protocol, “Can I give your dog a treat?” before giving her the treat. Having heard the key word, Crystal’s tail wagged vigorously, but Rick wasn’t fooled by her jauntiness. He petted her again. “She’s getting up in years, isn’t she? Can I give her another treat?” Crystal did the answering again. Labs never say no, especially to treats.
Crystal and I searched for Rick for months after that first meeting, but when we spotted him again, to our disappointment, he strolled quickly by on some sort of mission without so much as making eye contact. Finally, we saw him again with a diminutive woman walking her dog, Jasper, a diminutive poodle-mix. This time Rick noticed Crystal, her tail in full propulsion. He gave her treats from each of the gift bags he carried. The woman added two more treats, petting her lovingly; the second treat with instructions, “to clean your teeth.”
Over the next six months, Crystal met more and more dog-treat donors on her bluff-top walks, but Rick and Jasper’s owner still rank as her favorites. Her pace is even slower now, unless, of course, she sees one of her benefactors; then she flies towards them, tail in full propulsion again, dragging me along, like so much dust, behind her. I felt awkward at first, almost nerdy, giving out treats. I guess I wasn’t much of a Claus-for-Dogs type, but I finally started carrying my own bag o’ treats.
In the heat of this last summer, I arrived at an off-season revelation about the essence of Christmas gift-giving and why Rick carries more than one bag of treats. I started carrying three different types of biscuits, giving each pooch, friendly or frisky, its goodie-of-choice. We often learn about unconditional love from our pets, but it was the dog-lovers of Heisler who taught me about the true spirit of Christmas giving.
Ed Kaufman, a psychiatrist practicing in Laguna Beach, also hosts OC Dime Stories/Laguna Beach, a monthly gathering at the Laguna Culinary Arts, 845 Laguna Canyon Rd., where writers can read their short stories (www.dimestories.org; e-mail: email@example.com). He is the author of “From Monks to Mountain Gorillas.”