PERHAM - Roger Hoenigschmidt was taking his daily constitutional when he was joined by an unexpected companion.
She was a large, affable, cream-colored golden retriever, and she trotted beside the retiree as if she'd known him all her life.
As the dog accompanied him on his usual route along Paul Lake south of Perham, Hoenigschmidt worried she might be a stray.
But when they approached the Bruce and Pam Hoekstra home, just three blocks from Hoenigschmidt's house, the retriever jogged into their yard and stayed there.
In subsequent walks by the Hoekstras, Hoenigschmidt noticed the young dog in her kennel. He got an idea. One day, he knocked on the Hoekstras' door and asked if they would mind if he took their canine along for walks.
That was five years ago. Since then, two families who were once strangers have shared the love and companionship of one big-hearted dog named Maggie.
In an age where people routinely share jobs, condos and season tickets, the Hoekstras and Hoenigschmidts share a dog.
When the younger Hoekstras are at work, Hoenigschmidt and his wife, Hazel, care for Maggie. They take her on walks, feed her, play with her and even take her to the vet.
At night, when Pam Hoekstra has finished her day as office manager at a dental office, she picks up Maggie to spend evenings, nights and weekends with her family.
The arrangement seems to benefit all parties. The Hoenigschmidts have almost become like grandparents: They can spoil and enjoy Maggie without footing the responsibility or expense. The Hoekstras don't have to pay for a pet sitter, yet know their dog is in the best of hands. And social butterfly Maggie gets a chance to be loved by not just one family but two.
"It's a win-win," Pam says. "They're helping us more than we help them."
The arrangement has worked so well that Pam has started Paws4masnpas, an online referral service that encourages people who live in the same community to share a pet.
Bruce, an information technology specialist, has built a website to promote their idea.
But perhaps the best advertisement for the service is the Hoekstras' own success story.
The magnetic Maggie
As is often the case with pets, the Hoekstra family didn't pick Maggie. She picked them.
When they heard of a Fergus Falls breeder whose dog had given birth to registered golden retrievers, they excitedly made plans to check out the puppies. They had their hearts set on a red-colored, female runt of the litter, just like the dog they'd previously owned.
At the breeders, they were admiring a tiny, red puppy when, out of nowhere, a giant, blonde pup bounded in. She tackled the red puppy and enthusiastically wedged herself in front of the Hoekstras.
"She just came brawling in and took over," Pam says, laughing. "She had a big head, big paws, big butt. We just fell in love."
The family learned the red puppy was actually a boy, while the strapping Viking was female - the only girl left in the litter. All visions of fine-boned, red retrievers flew out the window. Instead, they brought home the boisterous blond, and named her Maggie.
Like many young families, the Hoekstras were busy. Both parents worked, then often attended their children's activities in the evenings. They felt guilty about the amount of time Maggie had to spend alone, but they didn't know what else to do. The closest petsitting services were located 20 miles away, and could run up to $80 a day.
Then Maggie adopted Roger as her exercise companion. He would walk her twice daily before returning her to her kennel. One day, he approached the Hoekstras and asked if it was OK if Maggie spent the day at his house.
"She looks so sad when I put her back in her kennel," he told them.
The Hoekstras enthusiastically agreed. Before long, their dog was spending every weekday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the friendly older couple down the road.
Indeed, on a recent trek to the Hoenigschmidts' place, Maggie runs a half block in front of Pam and her daughter, Karlie. Her white, feathery tail swishes high in the air and she perks up whenever Pam says, "Roger's house."
"Maggie knows the routine," Pam says. "She could walk there without us."
Once Maggie arrives at the Hoenigschmidts, she is greeted like a favorite guest.
Hazel and Roger ooh and aah over her, petting her broad back and scratching the scruff of her neck. Her powerful retriever tail wags so enthusiastically that she could clear a coffee table with a single sweep. If dogs can smile, she seems to be grinning from ear to floppy ear.
"It's nice going to work when you know she's being taken care of," Pam says. "You get that warm, fuzzy feeling like you do when you drop your child off at a good daycare."
The Hoenigschmidts loved dogs, but they no longer wanted the full-time responsibility of one as they grew older.
So now they enjoy part-time ownership of Maggie. A photo of the dog hangs prominently in the couple's hallway. Hazel explains that they follow the same daily ritual with her, which includes feedings, walks and Roger wiping her face with a wet washcloth.
Maggie and Roger share a special bond. She lets Roger know whenever it's time to go outside by giving him a long look. She follows him around the yard as he does his chores. She also has her own toys at their house, including a favorite stuffed tiger.
"She's really more Roger's dog," says Hazel, smiling. "It's so nice to have him out there and have her out there with him. They're pals."
Maggie has not only won over the older couple, but also their children and grandchildren. Her presence helped alleviate the fears of one of the Hoenigschmidts' grandsons after he was bitten by a dog. After some time with the sweet-natured canine, the little boy wound up playing with Maggie and scratching her on the belly.
"She's a beauty," Roger says, proudly. "And so smart."
Starts referral service
But like any daycare attendee, the pooch is ready to go home at the end of the day. At a few minutes before 5, she'll station herself at the door, looking for Pam's car.
Although no money is exchanged at this "dog-care," the Hoekstras thank their granddogparents with cards, photos of Maggie, gift certificates and small presents.
"It's super-cool because they have become kind of like our grandparents, too," Pam says.
"Roger is my Facebook friend," adds a smiling Karlie, who attends Minnesota State University Moorhead.
The situation worked so well for everyone that Pam felt inspired to encourage others to try it.
The Paws4pasnmas website includes online forms where either dog owners or prospective dog watchers can register. For a $15 fee, Pam will help connect people who live in the same neighborhood and have compatible needs in dog care.
Pam says the program makes "referrals, not recommendations," much like Childcare Resource and Referral in Moorhead.
That means Paws4pas isn't responsible for arrangements that don't work out or which might involve abuse or neglect.
Instead, anyone who doesn't like the way an arrangement is working is encouraged to trust their gut and immediately terminate the connection, Pam says.
Her real hope is that the connections will yield lifelong friendships, satisfied owners, happy providers and even happier pets.
"This isn't about the money," she says. "If we can help just one family benefit like we did, that would be great."