Friendship at the water's edge

Here's lookin' at you, fish

This is the story of a fish named Falstaff and Chino, the dog who loved him.

The two met three years ago, when Chino's owners, Dan and Mary Heath, traded Portland for Medford and a house with a backyard pond.

Falstaff, a 15-inch orange-and-black koi, lived in the pond. Chino, a 9-year-old golden retriever, did not.

But every day, Chino would pad out to the pond and peer into the water, waiting for Falstaff to appear. Falstaff would swim to the surface, offering what seemed like a finny greeting. Together, the inter-species pals forged a strong bond.

"Chino just got real fascinated. He would lie there on the rocks and just watch the fish," says Mary Heath, 58, a retired environmental quality worker. "This is one of the few things that'll get him to wag his tail."

The fascination continued when the Heaths moved to a new house and built a new pond. The fancy 2,200-gallon digs made a perfect home for Falstaff - and a perfect perch for Chino.

Today, the dog spends up to half an hour at a time following the movements of Falstaff and a small school of goldfish. Belly flat, paws wet, nose an inch from the water, Chino watches intently as the fish swim close enough to touch.

"Falstaff comes up sometimes and will nibble on Chino's paws," Mary Heath says.

In cynical moments, she figures the fish is motivated by the food pellets that usually accompany Chino's visits. At other times, she's convinced the koi shares Chino's sentiments.

But neither she nor her husband, a Realtor, is quite sure what attracts Chino, who has shown an affinity for other fish, including those in the large tank at his veterinarian's office.

"It seems like he's watching a TV screen," Mary Heath says.

Danna Catt, a vet at Jackson Animal Hospital, says it's very possible that Chino has a soft spot for Falstaff.

"Retrievers are smart dogs, they're sociable, they can see just like we can see," Dr. Catt - yes, a vet named Catt - says.

"The fish, on the other hand, who knows?" she says. "Nobody knows what a fish thinks."

So far, Chino has never seemed tempted to make a meal of Falstaff or the other fish.

"We've never taken him hunting or fishing, so he has no concept of killing an animal," Mary Heath says.

Instead, the fuzzy-faced pooch appears intent on preserving the finny friendship, even at the expense of other antics. Don't ask Chino to perform the standard doggy acrobatics, says Mary Heath. It's fish-watching or nothing.

"This is his stupid pet trick," she says.

Reach reporter JoNel Aleccia at 776-4465, or e-mail


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