Barks Office Report: What It’s Like Watching ‘Isle Of Dogs’ With Your Dog

Danielle Taormina

I got my dog a little more than a year ago during a transitional period in my life, and he’s been bringing me both joy and aggravation ever since. I say “got” because “adopted” feels grandiose (as opposed to what, natural birth?) and “bought” doesn’t feel quite right either (“rescued,” meanwhile, feels positively Wahlbergy). He was just six weeks old when I took him home, and for the first few months I had him, all my emotions felt raw. My feelings were like a tooth that’s just been drilled — nerve exposed to the slightest breeze. Things I’d long since taken for granted could suddenly sting me to the bone.

The way a small puppy can instantly soften everyone it comes into contact with makes you feel like the press agent for pure joy. It changed my life immediately, and not just because I became quickly inured to the feel of still-warm bagged feces in my hand. Neighborhood characters I’d never given a second look would cross the street to stop me. A woman who seemed to live in her car on my block would shriek at the sight of him, hug him close to her chest and let him lick her neck in a way that was clearly therapeutic. “I needed that,” she’d say, and I understood. We never exchanged names.

These interactions weren’t about me, of course, but we shared a certain something being emotionally vulnerable in such close proximity, acknowledged only with polite smiles.

I named the boy Charley, after the Steinbeck book (not realizing at the time quite how common a dog name “Charlie” is). Once, he met a shy little girl outside a coffee shop. She was tentative at first, clearly wanting to pet the puppy but a little scared. Charley seemed to feel similarly about the small human. Her father asked the dog’s name, and upon hearing that it was Charley, she said, in a very small voice, “…my name is Charlie,” before giggling as he licked her cheek. I only just managed to smile politely and go on my way before dissolving into a puddle. Another time, I was teaching him to walk down stairs for the first time near Aquatic Park. I coaxed him down, using my most encouraging voice, as he slowly gained the courage to first take the steps one at a time, and then gradually a few in a row. All the while, I hadn’t noticed that a crowd of about 10 people had gathered behind me. When Charley made it all the way to the bottom step for the first time, they cheered. Every day was like that, a mini adventure.

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It was that quality, of seeming like he needed my help to fully blossom, that made me adopt (sorry) Charley in the first place. He was from a litter of farm strays that hadn’t been to the pound yet. I met the owner in a parking lot and had to choose between Charley and his brother, two little black dogs with white chests and feet (sadly, I could only take one). His brother had floppy ears and more white on his nose than Charley, who had a nearly solid black snout and pointy ears. I initially thought the brother was the cuter of the two. But whereas his brother, initially gregarious, quickly lost interest in me, Charley was standoffish at first, but slowly warmed. Eventually he wouldn’t leave my side. I know it sounds incredibly lame, but in some way it seemed like he needed my help to navigate the world.

Charley’s hesitance turned out to be a good practical joke, as he quickly grew into the boldest, most excited-to-be alive dog I’ve ever owned, a ball of pure exuberance. I went from having to help him navigate the world to trying to keep him from attempting to experience all of it, right this second. He wants to eat all the foods, smell all the smells, chew all of the people’s hands, all of the time. FOMO-ass dog.

It wasn’t all fun and games, of course. I once had to get a $180 car detailing when he expelled his anal glands in the backseat of my car — we were actually on the way to the car wash at the time and I’d just removed the cover so it could be vacuumed. (Did you know dogs sometimes do that when they’re scared? They do. It smells like a dead shark’s carcass left sitting in the sun).

Danielle Taormina

Supposedly a lab/border collie mix, Charley was a quick learner, whether the lesson was hitting a bell when he needs to go outside, rolling over, or catching and returning a frisbee. He could learn it all, and sometimes perform it, during those brief moments you can actually get him to pay attention. He’s far less lazy than I was hoping, not exactly the chilling-at-your-feet-at-the-bar dog I was expecting. I’ve taken to naming various dog toys around the house so that when he starts to annoy me I can say “Charley! Charley! Where’s your rope? Go get your rope!”

To which he responds, “What?!? What?!? My rope?!? Hold on!” and rushes around the house looking for the object. It helps to keep him busy.

He caninifies constant motion. In pictures he mostly appears as a blur. Which would seem to make him a poor candidate for this week’s BYOD (bring your own dog) screening of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. There are many things Charley loves — jumping on the bed uninvited, drinking from the toilet, loudly licking his own asshole while I’m trying to get my last few minutes of sleep — sitting still for 90 minutes is not one of them. But what the hell, how often do you get to bring a dog to a movie?

Danielle Taormina

Outside San Francisco’s Roxie Theater, they had set up a dog-sized step and repeat (that’s the backdrop you take pictures in front of at movie premieres) complete with miniature red carpet. The event was conceived by Andrea Bertolini from Allied Marketing, which was handling local publicity for the film, and happily hosted by The Roxie, a funky independent theater that has also hosted The New York Dog Film Festival in the past.

A handful of lap-sized pups, many from Muttville, a local senior dog rescue organization, stood or were held in line for the step and repeat. Most of them seemed to love having their picture taken. Charley, by contrast, was immediately overstimulated. Dogs to sniff! People to meet! Food to beg! He also has jet black fur that doesn’t photograph well. But through a combination of “Sit!,” “Stay!,” and “Hey Charley!,” we managed to get a few pictures that didn’t come out blurry.

Dogs got first choice of seat, and Charley and I eventually made our way into the theater and found a spot front and center. Charley wouldn’t sit in the flip-up seat reserved just for him, but he loved using it as a stool to reach people’s faces in front and behind. He tried to wriggle to the left, to a lady with some treats, then to the right to sniff a terrier. Behind us sat an older Shiba Inu, content to sit quietly and attentively, the anti-Charley. There’s a reason Menswear Dog is a Shiba, they’re great at sitting still and staring quizzically. In the front row sat a fluffy Samoyed named Frank. In a room full of older and smaller dogs, year-and-a-half-year-old, 55-pound Charley was notably the largest and youngest.

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Greg McQuaid introduced the film, with the help of his one-eyed Bichon-Shih Tzu mix, Pirate. Charley was briefly calm until the applause, which made him jump up on his seat and look at the crowd behind him, as if the applause was for him. I often use claps to call him during fetch, so his confusion was understandable. A few times I had to pick him up like a baby and scratch his belly to keep him calm, which is hard, because, as noted, he’s large, heavy, and squirmy. Not the ideal dog for someone frail or elderly.

He calmed, ever so slightly, when the movie started. There were fewer dog-related outbursts than I was expecting from a dog movie filled with dogs, but the occasional yip or whine was added value for the film (which, truth be told, I had already seen). Charley seemed to enjoy it, though he got a little antsy in the middle section, chewing my hand, and gnawing nearly all the way through his chest harness. On the way out, he got his head stuck in a popcorn bag.

All in all, a pretty successful evening. Sure, I’ll have to buy a new chest harness (Charley’s third), my hands are a little raw from the mouthing, and my arms a little sore from pulling and straining to keep a brash beast from ruining everyone’s night. But of course, small prices to pay for a new milestone with my life partner.

Danielle Taormina
Danielle Taormina

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.