Doug is one well-travelled pooch thanks to restaurant patrons who pack him on their holidays
BY SUSAN GRIMBLY
What started as a gag with a throwaway camera in the summer of 2000 has snowballed into a travelling art event.
That’s Doug the Dog, the stoic stuffed animal taking on a life of his own as the star of tourist photographs taken around the world. Italy, Ireland, Sarasota, Jamaica, Argentina, London, Havana, Boston, Spain, Portugal and San Francisco – no place is too exotic for the jet-setting pooch with the heart of sand.
A canine Forrest Gump, he is shown peeking coyly from behind a memorial to those who fell in the Battle of New Orleans (“A moment of silence please”); or boldly hogging the foreground in a tableau of the Tower of Pisa. There is Toronto’s artful dodger reflective before a pieta of the Baby Jesus or insouciant before a pick-up-doo-doo sign (“Gracies”) in Spain. Sacred and profane space gets equal billing. Fine-art museums, the Coliseum, Alcatraz or cathedrals are all backdrops for our deadpan doggie.
Wini Mertens, impish bartender at the hot soul-food restaurant Tru Grits near the Annex, is Doug’s manager and agent.
“It started as a lark,” she says, “and took off like wildfire.”
And what more appropriate place for bar stunts than the Bloor-Bathurst corner crowned by Honest Ed’s, in the Markham Street neighbourhood when iconoclasts are fostered
A gift from Elena, the executive chef, Doug took his maiden voyage with busboy Shane to Italy and Ireland. When he returned with a sheaf of 5-by-8s for Wini, who showed them around to amused patrons drinking bourbon sours, the offers to backpack the pooch poured in.
A fully realized life of Doug started to develop, through each new set of snaps. Here, a tiny cartoon character overwhelmed by space in a Portuguese piazza; there, a giant eating a muffaletta on the banks of the Mississippi. Whether in or out of focus, his beady eyes and stocky build clearly plant him in the pictures as a dog of great presence.
One customer had a special itinerary printed to help Ms. Merten’s handle all the requests. Now “Doug’s Travel Journal” is pegged on the wall over the bar. Beside it is the giant distressed-antique can of Ocean Blend Tea where Doug lounges in comfort and style under a red-velvet sombrero with gold trim, when home from his sojourns.The gimmick was inspired by ongoing stories of the English, French and Australian prats who steal ceramic and plastic gnomes and then send the hapless owners evidence of Kodak moments of their kidnapped garden sculpture. In the mid-1990s, there was a mini-rash of Gumby thefts.
But there is no kidnapping involved here. Doug is an adventurer more akin to their Excellencies Bill and Ted.
Part weasel, part sheltie, part Border collie, he is a hard-boiled stuffie, which gives an aura of reality. “Little kids were coming up to pet him. They thought he was a real dog,” Ms. Mertens says. “During the trip to Boston, he was chased on the subway platform, because dogs aren’t allowed on the train. My friend had to knock his head on the platform to prove he wasn’t real.”
No mere sunseeker or gawking Hawaiian-shirt wearer, Doug is a culture vulture, embracing sculpture in Madrid and painting in Boston.
He’s missed a few trips – Puerto Vallarta and Thailand fell through. “Someone wanted to take him to Italy, but he’s been there,” Wini says. “Someone wanted to take him to Woodbridge.” And, like any seasoned traveler, he has had his share of travails. His tail fell off in Ireland. He broke his leg in San Francisco. “It’s epoxied back on.”
The big fear is that when Doug is travelling across borders to somewhere like Argentina, he might be suspected of harbouring illicit substances and cut open. Undaunted, Ms. Mertens says, “If that ever happens, I tell customers, take pix.”