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Animals In Print
The On-Line Newsletter

From 4 January 2009 Issue

THE POSTMAN- A happy feel-good story

For a Va. Neighborhood's Dogs, Santa Arrives on a Mail Truck

By Nick Miroff, Washington Post Staff Writer Thursday, December 25, 2008

In the troubled and toothy history of canine-mail carrier relations, the northwest corner of Zip code 22101 is something of an anomaly. There, dogs do not erupt in an angry frenzy at delivery time, nor do they savage the mail when it comes through the slot. Some are known to leap up and down in celebration when postman Scott Arnold arrives each day; others simply throw their heads back and howl.

But it is during the holidays that the humans along Arnold's route through McLean especially look forward to seeing him. That is when Arnold, a 27-year U.S. Postal Service veteran, transforms into a kind of dog-themed St. Nick, powered not by reindeer but by the force of a curious tradition he calls Santa Paws (he couldn't resist).

Each year, rain, snow or shine, Arnold delivers more than 100 doggy stockings along his route, writing each pooch's name in careful lettering across the cuff. He packs them with rawhide candy canes, dog cookies and rock-hard biscuits, along with an ornament, different each year, that features a photo of the dog taken with Arnold's 35mm film camera.

"They are like family to me," said Arnold, 54, a warm, bespectacled man with rough hands, a bushy moustache and a jolly physique worthy of Santa. By family, of course, he means the people and the dogs.

For 17 years, he has worked the same delivery circuit through the mansions and modest brick ramblers of 22101, becoming a daily presence in the lives of his customers. It is a long stint for a postal route, far longer than the life span of most dogs. And so, over time, Arnold has seen new puppies arrive, watched them grow up and grow old, until the day they no longer rush out to greet him.

That is the other purpose of Santa Paws, a shared sadness for the short lives of dogs, at a time of year their absence grows sharper. Because Arnold can no longer deliver a stocking when a dog dies, he writes the owner a letter, in the dog's voice, from the comforts of an imaginary place he calls North Pole Kennels. That is where dogs "retire" to work for Santa Paws when they are gone, where the treats are unlimited and the furniture is indestructible.

"If you feel the need to get another dog, please do! I won't be offended!" read the letter received by Martita Marx and Gerald Wein this year, their first without their chocolate Lab, Mozart. It was signed "Fleas Navidog!! MOZART."

"It's not just the ball or the doggy bone," Marx said. "He knows what pets mean to you, and he's able to capture that in how he touches you."

Her Christmas tree had 10 years of Mozart-themed ornaments of Arnold's creation, each photo showing him a little further along. The last, framed inside a plastic snowman, captured the 13-year-old just before he died, his muzzle white, his eyes clouded with age.

"Everything is so impersonal now. You go to the grocery store and you don't know anyone," Marx said. "And here's someone who knows our names, who knows who we are."

Marx has other photos from the Santa Paws package over the years, showing the neighborhood dogs' stockings lined up in long red-and-green columns of quirky names: Elwood, Snuggles, Zorro, Bandit, Bella, Moo-Moo, Warf, Butters.

"It's a weird situation," said Arnold, a Herndon resident who grew up in Falls Church. "Sometimes I know the dog's name before I know the owner's name."

Each Christmas stocking Arnold delivers also comes with a Santa Paws newsletter, stuffed with the comings and goings of the neighborhood's hounds. Written in Santa Paws's unmistakable style -- heavy on exclamation marks and puns like "Happy Howlidays" and "Fleasons Greetings" -- the letters welcome new dogs to the neighborhood, salute those whose owners have moved away and mark the passing of the dogs that have died.

Last year, residents along Arnold's route got an additional letter, with instructions not to open it until Dec. 26. It contained the news that Arnold's 13-year-old sheltie, Cody, faithful wearer of reindeer antlers and the reluctant subject of many Santa-dog costume photos, had moved on to North Pole Kennels. Arnold called him "the star of the Christmas sock" and told the neighborhood he was devastated.

Larry Fleck, who lives a few doors down from Marx and Wein, said Arnold understands what it's like to lose a companion. "We've had five dogs, and Scott has known three," said Fleck, owner of Carmen Ohio II, a 125-pound Newfoundland who resembles a black bear. Fleck, 70, has named two dogs Carmen Ohio, after the song of his alma mater, Ohio State University.

"My wife made his wife a scarf for Christmas," Fleck said. "He's a member of our family."

Arnold and his wife, Cindy, now have two 1-year-old shelties, Milo and Mischa. Arnold said he has always had dogs but, other than keeping a beer can collection, has never been much of a hobbyist. He makes the stockings and ornaments on the weekends while watching Redskins games.

Only one dog has bitten him in his career, back in the late 1980s (no stitches), and it was about that time Arnold began using an old postal carrier's trick to ingratiate himself with the other dogs on his route. A few Milk-Bones went a long way toward self-preservation, he found (he has since curbed the practice, per Postal Service rules). He made friends with dogs big and small, and as he'd deliver parcels during the holidays, he found himself turning to his new friends and saying, "And what are you getting for Christmas?"

So he began making stockings for them.

Until this week, the Postal Service was unaware of the existence of Santa Paws, and the agency said Arnold's activities are done on his time, without official approval.

Despite an ever-growing crush of holiday parcels, Arnold said Santa Paws will live on, even though this year he had to deliver holiday stockings at 5 a.m.

"I treat my job like a little country store," said Arnold, who also wears a Santa suit on Christmas Eve to pose for photos with kids. The dogs, and the people, he said, "make my day so much better. A lot of people think that's corny. But that's the way I think it should be."

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