Clean Dogs

by Matthew Walsh

The day would start with me in the passenger seat, lapping up oatmeal and fresh cut strawberries with vanilla soy milk. My partner, Michael, and I would drive through Guelph until we reached work just outside Fennel, Ontario, where he was a laboratory assistant and I was a dog cleaner at a dog food testing facility. We worked and lived together, and it worked for a while. Evenings we’d just do our own thing, sometimes one of us would go out, the other would stay home. For me the dog food job was supposed to be temporary.

I had had two jobs, the morning job cleaning shit and an evening job at a restaurant where I microwaved frozen curries. Michael hated his job but it paid. He hated grinding their poop and weighing poop and then checking the nutritional value in poop. I managed a whole wall of microwaves, to be exact. The restaurant, Curry in A Hurry, fired me when they found out where I worked in the morning. I probably was going to bring them parasites, they said. They didn’t want anyone to make the connection between the guy who cleaned up dog crap and the guy who heated up curry.

The facility was beginning to make a lot of money and there was a rumor about expansion, extending the dog halls so the facility could do more dog food testing trials and increase revenue. The new dogs, I heard, would be mixed breeds, possibly temperamental, larger than the beagles, less docile. There was a barn being built on the property that would have six extra rooms, but it wasn’t ready for life just yet.


Every day, I put the dogs outside in their designated groups while I pressure-washed their room. When that was done, I would let the dogs back inside, put them in their cages and feed them two types of food, Trial A and Trial B, noting which one the dog ate out of first.

It sounded easy if you leave out the fact that when the lights went on in the morning, the dogs would howl, and it would be awful, so awful the dog cleaners needed ear protection.

I would walk in to greet the dogs, check for any eye infections, scratches, signs of soreness, blood, all while they hid at the back of their paddocks or jumped furiously against their cage door, flinging a confetti of shit and kibble at me. The scared ones were the cutest. They didn’t do anything but avoid you, and ran out of the room when you needed them to.

The dog rooms were a robin’s egg blue color, with a drainage system running along the wall. Once you power-washed the rooms clean, the drainage system took all the shit and old food away to a septic tank just north of the complex in the middle of a field.

In the field was a pond where there were other signs of life. Frogs had their babies in the pond in the spring and by summer there were plenty of frogs living there in the muck. One year this didn’t happen, and the next year, the number of frogs died down. Either raccoons ate them, or the dogs did, or they died because the water sources around the building were too polluted.

You couldn’t drink the water there—even if it was filtered. Every cleaning supply we used, the orange tile cleaner, dog shampoo soap, descaler, went into the ground. Cleaning chemicals, feces both human and canine, you name it. I poured water from the tap one day and my Michael swatted a glass out of my hand. Even if the water was boiled, Michael said, no one should drink it. My first week there, I couldn’t eat because anything exposed to the air in my mind had been contaminated, but I eventually broke down. I started covering my Tim Hortons coffee with a piece of paper, and if that didn’t work, I’d just pick dog hair off the cup rim before I took a drink.


All summer the hallways were littered with horse flies. They would crawl all over the windows like TV static, buzz by my ears. There would be flies everywhere you needed to put your hand. Door knobs, your pen, the clipboard, the dog brush, on the toilet seat.

Every morning there would be a pile of maggots in at least one of my rooms feeding on the dog shit. Maggots would crawl back out of the drain once they’d been blasted away, little black beetles would hide in the corners of the room, small as watermelon seeds.

I would let the dogs out and stand at the back of my room with the power washer and spray down the bars of the cages, the back walls, making sure all the shit and food went into the drains. Each week we’d have to take an orange cleaner and brush down the floors and walls just to take the sanitation to another level, removing decalcified piss and shit stains, killing any microscopic parasites. The orange cleaner burned my lungs, and if anyone got it in their eye, the cleaner would burn their cornea. Somehow the orange cleaner got in one of my co-worker’s eye and she had to wear an eye patch over it, and when it was removed she had only recovered partial vision.

Once in a while you worked with someone else, but usually I was by myself. Sometimes a dog was too old or injured to go outside with a group, so it would stay inside with me while I cleaned. I wasn’t getting along at home with Michael and coming to work was depressing. I let one dog stay in with me when I cleaned. She liked to sit by my legs while I power-washed and I’d try not to trip on her.

Her name was Clarice, and she was a fat, squat little beagle with two back legs that could no longer support her. When she sat down her legs looked like rubber chickens, but Clarice was a favorite of mine. I would put her on a leash after her room was cleaned, brush her fur and chop her nails off. None of the dogs liked getting their nails chopped, but Clarice couldn’t feel her back legs, so she was content with what was happening to them. She would sit with her back legs folded under her, sticking out at impossible angles. Everyone in the dog hall knew she had to be reported but no one wanted to be the person to do it.


When she was given her pain meds in a meatball of wet food, I took her for walks past the water cooler, kitchen, and laboratory where Michael grinded and analyzed dog poo. I tried giving Clarice as much attention as possible one day. The veterinarian stopped me. “Is she still eating?” they asked me, and I said yes.

It was dangerous to say No, they weren’t eating. If the dogs weren’t eating then they weren’t valuable. I heard rumors about what happened to the dogs if they didn’t eat, but I hadn’t actually seen anything awful happen to any dog. Despite the fact that a dog’s sole purpose there was to test different dog foods, they got outside every day, got baths on a monthly rotating basis and had better vet care than most household pets. Clarice didn’t have a bad life. She lived like a millionaire. She never had to worry about anything. Stuff was just handed to her.


One morning, Michael and I were late for work. We were fighting about oatmeal and trying to get out of the house on time. He was going to leave me, he said, one day. One day he almost did. Driving into Fennel, Michael accelerated the car in anger, passed the big Walmart that was being built across from a graveyard, and a cop car pulled up out of nowhere. He didn’t give Michael any warning or sympathy, and when we got ticketed, Michael said, “You’re paying the ticket, it was your fault.”

“How is it my fault? You were driving.” I put my empty oatmeal bowl under the car seat. We were fighting because I couldn’t leave the house without the oatmeal. I had to eat something. Oatmeal only took five minutes. Breakfast was important. If I didn’t have it I wouldn’t survive the day at work. He didn’t understand because all he did was grind up poop all day and run tests. He wasn’t lifting up dogs and breaking up the occasional fight or reporting face cancers to the vet. I needed energy. I didn’t want to waste it fighting with him.


When we pulled up late, the smokers outside buzzed with news that new puppies were coming. A new generation of dogs. I wondered how many puppies were coming. I didn’t see room for any more dogs, except for the barn, and that wasn’t ready yet. The running water needed to be hooked up.

I took off my outside clothes and changed into my coveralls and rubber boots. My partner had already changed and was in the laboratory looking into a microscope while a poop solution boiled in a beaker beside him. I decided I wouldn’t look at him all day, and he decided when they went to Tim Hortons he wouldn’t tell me.

I walked to my hallway and flicked on the lights in my three rooms, and the dogs howled as usual. In the first room I let out all the off-leash dogs into the field, and put the groups into their paddocks. I gathered up all the used dishes and took them to the kitchen, trying not to think about the ticket we had got. I asked one of the kitchen people about the puppies that were coming. “They aren’t coming yet! Not until the new barn is built and that won’t be for months,” a woman named Arlene said. “A lot of changes coming.”

There were rumors about expanding but no one knew when it would happen. This business needed eaters and space. Space was important, you couldn’t just pack as many dogs as you wanted into one room or they’d fight. I walked past the laboratory room and Michael was drinking an extra large Tim Hortons coffee. I wouldn’t even look at him. I was already on my last room—Clarice’s room— two hours before my day was finished. After her room was cleaned I took her for a walk around the facility, slowly, as slow as she wanted to go. We made it halfway through the kitchen, past the lab, and we were on our way back to her room when the veterinarian stopped us to look at her feet.

“Have you reported this weakness to the dog supervisor?” she asked. Her name was Colleen.

I nodded. “Everyone seems to know about it,” I said.

“Will you bring her into the treatment lab for me?” Colleen asked, “and put her on the examining table?”

I walked the dog towards the treatment room, watching Michael boil another beaker of shit.


Sometimes I did work socializing the male dogs, or slept in the break room until Michael came and kicked my chair telling me it was time to go home. The next day, in the afternoon, when I was waiting for him, I decided to take Clarice out to the field but she wasn’t in her room.

Clarice could have still been with Colleen. I didn’t think anything of it until the final room was cleaned and the dogs were back in their paddocks. I went to the kitchen and asked Arlene where Clarice’s dish was. “She’s in the vet lab and that’s where she’s eating,” Arlene said.

I peeked my head in the window of the vet lab, and Clarice was sitting on a table chewing a milk bone. She had a pink blanket wrapped around her back legs. The vet came into the main room from the supply closet and caught me looking in, so I opened the door. “I was just looking for this dog.”

“You know that you’re supposed to report ailments to the vets, right?”

“Ailments?” I asked. Clarice had been walking like that since I had started work there and the vet knew it.

“This dog can’t walk. I`m calling in Becky to come look at her.”

Becky was the owner, and when the vet said the dog wouldn’t be coming back to the room today I figured Clarice would be back tomorrow. In the car on the way home I told Michael about Colleen.

“They are starting to phase out all the old dogs,” Michael said, turning up the radio, “so don’t be surprised when we lose a few.”

The next day there was a memo about reporting any ailment whether it was serious or mild in an attempt to better monitor animal health. Most of the cleaners thought this was a bad idea because it meant more work for them, but I knew it was just a way for the vets to decide which dogs were good eaters and which weren’t before the new puppies arrived.


Colleen was in Clarice’s room when I came in the next morning, oatmeal-less. She didn’t say anything to me, but took Clarice away. I started with that room since I was already in it. I put the dogs out, cleaned, and did it two more times. It was only one in the afternoon. Michael wouldn’t be done until four. I went and ate lunch in the break room.

If I had this much time left over, it was off the clock, because dog cleaners got paid for only so many hours. I walked all the aggressive male dogs who led me on the leash across the field, to the pond where they would look down, maybe for other signs of animal life. That day was overcast, grey, the air was wet. Bumblebees trailed from flower to flower in the field. No flowers grew in the one metre radius around the building, but further out they did: purple blossoms, dandelions, little white flowers I thought were baby’s breath. When Michael was done he called out to me from the back door of the facility. He was still in his work clothes, and he waved to me. I got up off the grass and walked the dog, Rocky, to his cage. Rocky had a brother, Bullwinkle, once that I never met. Apparently they were exactly alike, mostly brown with a white bib, white socks, and a violent tendency to bite.

I got changed, put my stuff in a locker and met Michael in the car. I thought we’d talk about the speeding ticket but we didn’t say anything. I fell asleep and when I woke up Michael was getting his stuff out of the car. I picked up my bowl from under the seat. In the elevator Michael just stared at the bowl, not saying anything. “They put a lot of the older dogs to sleep today,” Michael said when we got to our floor.

“It seems so sad. I don’t know why they can’t take them to a farm to die.”

“They’re lab dogs. They have no immune systems for the outside world,” Michael said, unlocking the front door. We dropped our stuff by the door, kicked our shoes off.

“They’re going to put Clarice down soon. I know it. She wasn’t in her room,” I said, putting my oatmeal bowl in the sink.

“They put her down this afternoon,” Michael said, drinking from a two liter of coke and wiping his lips.

“Why didn’t anyone tell me?” Had they really killed one of my dogs without telling me? Would dogs just be there one day and then gone the next? I thought about Clarice and her screwed up legs.

Michael took another drink from the two liter. “They don’t tell you, they just take them.”

“That’s awful. What if we wanted to say goodbye?” I went to the bedroom and took off my clothes.

Michael leaned against the doorframe, eating out of a bag of chips. “Do you want to go somewhere for supper?”

“Where?” I grabbed a towel from the closet. I was hungry and mad at my job. Feeding those dogs just to lead them to their deaths. There were so many old dogs there, so expect a few changes coming. Hadn’t someone said that to me? I showered, cleaning under my nails, my hair, beard. I soaped myself up twice, brushed my teeth twice. I toweled off and got dressed. We went to dinner at Thai Elephant, eating quietly at a corner table. Why didn’t Michael come and get me? I wanted to know but I didn’t ask. He slurped Pad Thai into his mouth.

In the morning we left together, and in Clarice cage was another dog, a cute, smaller dog named Gumdrop. Gumdrop went out with the other female dogs. I cleaned the room, washed all the maggots down the drain, and put Gumdrop and the other dogs into their cages. When the dog food dishes were dropped in their cages I noted which bowl they liked more than the other, and moved on to the next one, then the next one, wondering if the empty cages when I walked into the rooms meant that someone else had left me.

Matthew Walsh is a poet and short story writer whose work has been featured in Geist Online, Matrix, Joyland, Descant, Arc Poetry, Zaum, Hoax, and the Fractured Nuance. You can reach him on Twitter at @croonjuice.