"Whoa!" cried a young woman, admiringly.

"Whoa!" yelped an older man, jerking back to avoid being touched.

"What," marveled a third bystander, "are you going to do with him?"

The woman with the black dog that had once been flaxen gave them all a look of humorous despair. She sighed comically. In fact, the element of humor was a put-on. Inside, she was despondent. She wanted to rebel. She wanted to do something drastic and terrible.

She couldn't do anything drastic or terrible, though, because she was a responsible dog owner. She was a responsible dog owner who really did love the dog in question -- though not much at the moment. A responsible dog owner does not sell an animal to the circus just because it happens to be caked in mud. A loving dog owner would never dream of giving the creature away, free, to the next person who expresses a flicker of interest in it.

"Do you have a fenced-in yard?" asked a good Samaritan. "You could let him dry off outside and then it'll be easier to brush the dirt out."

"No, unfortunately we don't have a fenced-in yard," said the woman, gazing gloomily at the filthy animal that stood panting beside her.

The filthy animal was gazing enviously at his friends, who were still playing freely off-leash in the enclosed park that had been designed for this purpose.

Big dogs rose on their hind legs and boxed one another, baring their fangs in a friendly way. Little dogs ran after sticks that their owners threw for them. All the dogs paused frequently in their play to inspect the backsides of other dogs, as such creatures do.

It was a temperate day, for midwinter, warm enough that the thick mulch covering the ground of the park was soaked with water. The resulting compound had incredible adhesive powers. Every dog was blackened to the ankle; some had patches of goo on their flanks.

Yet only this blond dog had managed to blacken himself from his dripping muzzle all the way to his dripping tail. He looked like he'd been swimming beside the Exxon Valdez. Even his dangling pink tongue was spattered with sodden mulch.

"You could hose him off in the mudroom, if you have a faucet and a drain," suggested another owner helpfully.

The woman smiled, but thought savagely: Yes, well, I would hose him off in the mudroom if we had a mudroom with a faucet and a drain, which we don't.

It was too cold to hose the dog down outdoors. There was no fenced-in yard. There was no waterproof mudroom. There would only be her, kneeling in the driveway with a bowl of warm soapy water and an old towel. Through her mind ran the old Jewish joke: When does life begin? When the kids have gone to college and the dog dies.

She sighed again, and almost in spite of herself she smiled at the dog, for she really did love it. "OK, pup, let's go get you cleaned up."

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.