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Bowling alley dog has the gumption to spare

Zoe, a Jack Russell terrier, is King-Pin Lane's unofficial mascot. Her favorite game: fetch with an 8-pound ball.

February 25, 2007|Carolyn Starks | Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO — Just what made that little terrier think she could lug an 8-pound ball around a bowling alley? Everyone knows a dog can't bowl.

One night three years ago, Zoe sank her canines into the holes of a pink bowling ball at King-Pin Lanes and took off at an awkward trot. Making a U-turn in the locker room, she dropped the ball by the bar, where baffled regulars put down their drinks.

Zoe apparently wanted to play fetch.

"I was shocked," said Jeff Nielsen, who owns the 7-year-old Jack Russell terrier and the bowling alley. "Her back feet could barely stay on the ground."

The brown and white dog with the bandit face has become a local celebrity with her antics. She has her own cherry-red ball that patrons roll to her as if it were a rubber toy.

Nielsen, 39, a former engineer and account executive, bought the puppy when she was 6 weeks old. The two were virtually inseparable, even more so after Nielsen quit his job in 2002 and bought the bowling alley. He shares the upstairs apartment with the dog.

As a pup, she quickly demonstrated a talent for opening zippers, so Nielsen wanted a name that started with Z.

Once Zoe became a regular at the lanes, she became obsessed with bowling balls. Never mind that, at 19 pounds, she could tote balls more than half her weight.

Nielsen finally gave her a ball of her own to carry around, then another and another. She wore out the finger holes with her dedicated clawing and chewing.

Her fourth ball is already showing wear and tear. So are Zoe's teeth, which are ground down from all that ball-carrying.

Originally bred to hunt foxes in 19th century England, Jack Russell terriers need a mission.

"They're dogs that absolutely have to have a career, and they will just make one based on what their environment is, and that's obviously what that dog has done," said Terri Batzer, administrative director of the Jack Russell Terrier Club of America.

King-Pin Lanes, which opened in 1925, is a "Cheers" version of a bowling alley, with a folksy bar and a set of regulars who love the dog. The eight hardwood lanes were built in 1955, and Nielsen said the automatic pinsetters were among the first in the country. Scores from decades ago adorn the walls. Bowlers keep track of their spares and strikes with paper and pencil.

"She's the star," said an admiring Pamela Lee, who sat at the bar on a recent weekend with Zoe perched on her lap. "I'm allergic to her and I still hold her."

Nielson played fetch with Zoe when he wasn't busy tending bar. He tossed her ball and she bolted after it, growling and snarling. Easily picking it up, she hauled it 10 feet before dropping it on the carpet with a thud.

Sometimes, Zoe chases a ball down the lane. When league play is underway, that gets her banished to the upstairs apartment.

One recent Saturday evening, things were on a friendly roll. Zoe was being naughty, but no one seemed to mind.

"Hey!" bowler David Pascoe yelled as she charged halfway down the lane after his ball.

Zoe stopped in her tracks.

"Get back here!" Pascoe warned. The dog turned around and trotted back, tail wagging.

She once scratched a $150 ball that a bowler had left beside his bag. "It took her seconds to scratch the heck out of it," Nielsen said. "He wasn't mad. I told him I'd replace it."

Nielsen said Zoe's tricks are even more amazing when you consider that she was nearly killed by a car at 8 months old. Her pelvis and a knee were shattered; the vet said she might never run properly again.

"They were telling me I might not have a normal dog on my hands," Nielsen said, laughing. "Instead, I have Superdog."

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