Friendships are unleashed - though the dogs are not - when these women go out walking

December 04, 2005|By SUSAN REIMER

"You may attend a party where strange customs prevail," said the fortune in the cookie that came with Sigrun Ortmann's Chinese dinner.


The next evening, she found herself at a holiday party - for dogs. Owners optional. Pilot, a golden retriever, stayed on after his owner had to leave for another engagement.

"It was kind of Taney to do this," said Kathryn Huston as she handed off Pilot's lead. "Pilot likes to be out with his group."

Taney is Taney Hamill, an Annapolis healthcare executive and titular head of what her late husband, Wayne, used to call the Women's Society of the Big Dogs. Or something like that.

For years, Wayne was left alone for three or four hours every Sunday morning while Taney and her friends - and their big dogs - walked all over Annapolis, talking, stopping for coffee, shopping.

The women all walk very big dogs. Labs, labradoodles, goldens. Except for Grits, Debi Dick's Westie.

"It is an ego trip for her to walk with the big dogs," said the owner, cradling the tiny terrier in her arms. Like the women, the dog is wearing a holiday sweater. "She thinks she's a golden."

Each Christmas, Taney has handed out dog-themed gifts to her dog-walking friends, but this year she decided to just give a party at Paws, a cat and dog boutique on State Circle in Annapolis.

It was an after-hours gathering with wine, cheese, dogs and dog hair. One year, Taney gave out needlepoint pillows that read "Everything tastes better with dog hair."

Last year, she gave out dog collars with bows - red bows for the girl dogs, tuxedo bows for the boy dogs. Everyone wore bows on this night.

"It started five or six years ago with Bess and Homer," said Taney of the dog-walking group. Bess, now with white hair around her muzzle, is Taney's golden retriever. Homer is neighbor Linda Johannes' labradoodle.

Since then, Linda has added Virgil, another labradoodle. Taney has added Jake, a golden puppy. Pilot is Jake's litter mate. That's when Kathryn joined the Big Dog Society, or whatever Wayne called it.

"We added them all when they were puppies," said Taney. "They've grown up together. They love each other."

Indeed, it is remarkable to see this many big dogs getting along so famously in this tiny shop, owned by Michelle Kownacki. A couple of "stray" customers wonder in, and snarling territoriality breaks out. But when the strangers leave, tranquillity - well, a sort of tranquillity - returns. Dogs don't exactly stand around and chat.

Several of the women at the party are - how shall I put this - unescorted. Donna Merrick lives in a condo and can't own a dog. She calls herself a "surrogate," and she most often takes Bess' leash on Sundays.

"She has Bess' picture beside her bed," Taney whispers.

Brandi Wyatt is often a surrogate leash-holder for Jake. "I can't have a dog," she says. "I travel 100 percent of the time for work."

"Jake is her screensaver," Taney whispers.

In the back of the shop, near the wine and cheese, Megan Evans, owner of ArtFX on West Street in Annapolis, is gently pressing a paw from each dog into a clay mold. The molds will be painted, glazed and fired to become Christmas tree ornaments, this year's present from Taney. Each will have the dog's name scripted underneath his print.

During a break in the paw printing, the group sits for a holiday photo. Sigrun, the woman with the prophetic cookie, puts her fingers between her teeth and emits a shrill whistle to get everyone - including the women - to look at the camera.

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