BY KATIE WALSH — It may have been the presence of an audience, or perhaps just something in the air. But whatever it was, Líška seemed to know it was go-time.
The year-old black and brown mutt with ears twice the size of her head sprang to attention at her owner’s voice, adeptly maneuvering through several commands that were given entirely in Spanish and included rolling over and dancing.
“I think people were mostly impressed that she’s so young — a puppy — that had a bunch of tricks,” said Andrew Payton, one of Líška’s owners. “And she did really well that day.”
At the end of the day, Líška’s tricks netted her the grand prize June 10 at Hyattsville’s Dogs for the Arts event: Dog of the Year. It was a long way to come for a pint-sized pup who just months before had been a pet store reject in Mexico.
Payton and his wife, Paulina Valencia, were living in Cotija, Mexico, where Valencia is from, when they first laid eyes on Líška. The couple said they had been making daily trips to a pet store owned by a friend of Valencia’s to walk all the dogs there and let them out of their cages for a while. As the only mutt in the store, Líška stood out — but, according to Valencia, not in a good way.
“I think nobody likes her because she’s mixed,” Valencia said. “And when she was so tiny, she had these big, big ears. I think nobody liked that.”
As Payton and Valencia came to walk the pet store’s dogs each week, they watched the full breed pups routinely be purchased and taken home to be someone’s beloved pet. But little Líška failed to capture anyone’s eye.
“And she got to really know us because we were the only ones that ever took her out of the cage, and that made us sadder and sadder, and more and more attached,” Payton said.
Eventually, the couple decided to adopt Líška, which is pronounced LEESH-ka and is the Slovak word for “fox,” on the pretext that she would be a family dog for Valencia’s father and siblings. That arrangement didn’t last long, however; Valencia and Payton simply loved her too much. When they decided to move to Hyattsville approximately three months ago in order to be closer to Payton’s job at the University of Maryland, it was clear Líška was going to have to come along.
The transition to the United States was rough on Líška, Valencia said. The couple first lived with Payton’s parents, then moved to their current home in Hyattsville. The unfamiliar environments coupled with Valencia leaving town briefly for a job caused Líška to have some aggression issues.
“I think she was just like, ‘Ahhh, everything is changing!’” Valencia said. “We were a little bit sad about it because her personality changed, and we were worried.”
The couple decided to get serious about Líška’s training. In Mexico, they’d taught Líška little tricks here and there, but Valencia and Payton said it was in Hyattsville that they truly dove into experimenting with what they could teach her to do, even going so far as to model certain behaviors for her to show her what they wanted. Líška took to it instantly.
“She was really focused on us, watching what we wanted,” Valencia said.
It was those newfound skills that Líška took with her to Magruder Park for Hyattsville’s 22nd-annual Dogs for the Arts event, which is coordinated by the Lively Arts and sponsored by the city, said Cheri Everhart, recreation and event supervisor for Hyattsville.
Dogs for the Arts features a talent contest, a dog and owner look-alike contest, a dog dress-up contest and paw painting. Líška took part in every event except dressing up, though she was more successful at some than others, Payton said.
“She was not into the painting,” Payton said. “Once she got her paw in there it was just like, ‘Get me out of here; I don’t know why you’re putting my paw into the pan.’”
But even with a botched painting attempt, Líška shined as a pup who was “spunky, very intelligent and friendly,” said Councilmember Erica Spell (Ward 5 ), who served on the judging committee at Dogs for the Arts.
“Líška had a colorful and vibrant personality, just like our community,” Spell said. “She is a great example of what Hyattsville has to offer.”
And with that, the little dog who had previously been passed over time and time again finished first for once, winning numerous compliments from other attendees as well as several gift certificates for her owners.
“We were joking that she’s paying her way here with the gift cards,” Payton said.
Gift cards aside, Valencia and Payton said they enjoyed their time at this year’s Dogs for the Arts. Valencia said she likes that Hyattsville sponsors many kinds of events that allow different sorts of people to get together, and added that it was nice to be at an event with other dog lovers, a sentiment that Everhart echoed.
“As with all of the events we hold in the city, Dogs for the Arts is an opportunity for our residents to get out and spend time together,” Everhart said. “This particular event is fun and unique in that it brings together residents of all ages who share a love of their furry friends.”
Valencia and Payton said they are looking forward to attending with Líška again next year, perhaps this time having prepared costumes or practiced Líška’s painting skills. They have already started working on new tricks, such as one where Líška has to move a bottle cap from one bowl to another.
But until then, Líška will be content doing the thing she does best: being a dog.
“The only thing she wants to do is just explore the world,” Valencia said.
“She kind of pushes us to explore more, too,” Payton said.