“Uniqueness is the commodity of glut.” Matt Ridley, GenomeImage

In the ancient animal kingdom of my youth, there were only two kinds of dogs –mongrels and pedigrees.

Purebred dogs dominated film and television as canines like Lassie and her Aryan cousin, German Shepherd Rin-Tin-Tin, proved time and again that the pedigreed dog was indeed man’s best friend.  The mongrel dog, however, was viewed as a poor relation and a mere supporting actor.  With names like Tiger and Scout, these mud-bloods were furry accessories and semi-domesticated symbols of the nuclear family.

They greeted us on our front door steps, would willingly eat broccoli passed under the table, slept in dog houses and protected personal property across America’s rural and suburban communities. Mongrel dogs were a microcosm of our nation – a melting pot whose murky mélange of genetics produced a strange but even stronger alloy of person and animal.

Veterinarians were trained in school to use more politically correct clinical terms  like “pound puppy” or “mixed breed” to describe a dog with questionable heritage. Our vet explained that our mix breed dog was smart and resourceful – a testimony to his confused lineage and hard knocks upbringing.  Max was a poodle, shepherd and terrier mix.  It must have been quite a party the night he was conceived.  His genetic cards left him looking like the lead guitarist in an acid rock band — wild, matted hair, crazed eyes and an inability to focus. He was a fearless guard dog with the guts of a burglar and a pit bull’s resolve.  Max was fearless and would chase anything that moved including cats, trash men, small children and trucks — the latter of which eventually bested him.

Our neighbors on the other hand, had a pure bred Dalmatian — a dog more tightly wound than the lug nuts on a new bridge.  Luigi had managed to bite every kid in our town — a rap sheet that his owner felt was undeserved. In the epoch of Jurassic parenting where children were always considered guilty until proven innocent, a kid might come home crying of a dog bite and immediately be interrogated by an angry adult, “ well, what the hell did you do to make Luigi bite your arm?” In these days, children were considered sub-human and the benefit of the doubt always fell to the Kennel Club canine with papers.

Around the block was another purebred – a German shepherd named Lobo who had probably been inbred more times than the descendants of the Bounty on Pitcairn Island.  Lobo had bad hips and could not catch an eighty year old with a walker.  However, he was crafty.  He would crouch by a low retaining wall – waiting patiently for kids walking home from school before he thrust his front legs on to the wall and lunged at us savagely barking. His owner, Mr. Heitzenbach, would yell at us while his dog threatened to turn us into eunuchs.  “Hey you kids, quit teasing that animal.”   Germans loved their purebreds. Yet most of their breeds –Doberman Pinschers, Shepherds, and Mastiffs were bred primarily for law enforcement or personal property protection.   Even my grandparent’s schnauzer, Flossie, had a chip on her shoulder.  The only exception to this Aryan purebred factory of fierce creatures was the dachshund, which was really the French’s idea of a funny birthday present to the Kaiser who liked weinershnitzel.  As usual, the Germans failed to see the humor and a few weeks later invaded the Alsace.

As an adult, I finally confronted my sense of inferiority for never having owned a pure bred and purchased an Australian Shepherd.  I had always been fascinated with working dogs — Border Collies, Aussies and Queensland Healers.  Brody, the tricolor Aussie herder was our first effort to join the elite circle of pedigree owners.  As I drove to the dog park with Brody, I felt a strange mixture of pride and betrayal.  Somewhere in the cosmos, Max was lifting his leg on me for selling him out. Driving into Spencer’s Run car park, I spied a United Nations of breeds intermingling, chasing, tumbling and pouncing.

Brody’s genetic programming kicked in within a minute of the dog park.  He wanted to go to work.  The park was imploding with happy anarchy and he was determined to restore law and order.  I suddenly heard the dreaded four-word query that would plague me for months to come. I scanned the yard for Brody and watched as he stood victorious over a Weimaraner. The incensed owner pointed at Brody and screamed, ” Ok, whose dog is this?”

Minutes later I was skulking out of the dog park like a drunk thrown out of a German beer hall during Oktoberfest. It’s actually hard to get tossed from a dog park or a German bar in October.  But Brody had out worn our welcome.  As I dragged my happy but bewildered buddy to the car, a woman walked by with a microscopic caramel-colored, short hair dog with massive ET eyes, alert ears and perfect hypoallergenic hair.

“Hmm. What kind of dog is he?” I asked.

She surveyed me and my Aussie as if we were both immigrant convicts fresh off the ship at Ellis Island. “Francine is a triple chi-mini-poo”

“Isn’t that a drink at Starbucks,” I asked.

“She is three parts Chihuahua, one part miniature pinscher and one part cockapoo. She never sheds, understands Spanish and English and has one bowel movement a day that is the size of a peanut.”

I suddenly pondered Brody’s relentless regularity, his shedding, matted hair that required constant brushing and felt woefully inadequate as if my leaping, twisting, enthusiastic herder was an outdated version of some new cell phone.

“Let’s go home, Buddy. I need to read some Tolstoy to you tonight.” I walked away dejectedly and then remembered her condescending look.

“You know, on second thought, let’s go back into that dog park and make some trouble for these mutants.”

As we reentered doggie Disneyland, I was suddenly aware of the weird and subtle genetic nuances in many of these dogs. They were not just labs, spaniels, cockapoos and terriers -they were genetically modified vegetables.  An animal scurried by my feet and I jumped.  It resembled a NYC roof rat more than a dog.  It ran passed me and jumped into the arms of its owners.  The man cooed, to the dog-rat saying, ” Good boy, Cujo.”  I wondered if Cujo slept on a bed or in a hamster cage.

I could not help but ease drop on two new age, millennium Mendels as they described their genetically altered companions. “Ginger is a ChiShihTzuNot – a Chi Shih Tzu mix with a Nottingham terrier. She’s not like that BullShihtz over there.” She pointed to what looked like a miniature bulldog wearing a curly brown hair shirt. “The Bull breeds are so mischievous and unreliable. Ginger is very consistent. If she scratches at the door, she really does need to go outside to use the rest room.  This breed is all business.”

Brody ran off as he spotted a Springer Spaniel racing along the fence line. I could almost see his brain calculating the angle that would assure him the shortest distance to intercept the moving object.  As he bolted, I whistled at him to stop.  It was no good, his genetics were firmly in control and it was looking as if I would be once again be kicked out of the dog park.  In a flash, he closed the distance on his prey and lowered his head, ready for a spectacular takedown. As I winced and cringed,  the Spaniel miraculously sprouted two small flaps and lifted itself in the air as Brody crashed into the dog park railing and tumbled head over the heels.  The spaniel fluttered harmlessly to the ground and continued on his run. Brody looked like a cold cocked fighter – staggering back to me and collapsing at my feet.

A young man leaned over and smiled. ” Pretty cool huh, he’s one of those Flying Turkey BoxSprings — a cross between a Springer, Boxer and turkey vulture.  Apparently, they are one hell of a dog.  They even eat roadkill.   Don’t you just dig his weird little wings?”

I shook my head and then noticed one dog, walking with determined conviction, his left side to the fence. He patrolled with serious intensity, never leaving the park’s perimeter. He had the head of a mastiff, the wrinkled chrome-blue folds of a sharpei and musculature of a bulldog. He looked powerful but clearly was uncomfortable mingling with the mixed breeds.

“So what kind of dog is that?” I asked pointing at the tough solitary creature.

The young man looked up and shook his head. “Oh Newt, he’s always here.  He’s a strange mix between a Neapolitan and a Conroy pit ball. It’s a weird breed. He’s very tough but never leaves the right side of the fence.  Don’t approach him from the left, he lacks peripheral vision and he might bite you.”

What the heck do you call a breed like that.”

He smiled and turned to reply as he was walking away.

” I think they call him a Neo-Con”

The Gods of Frolic


Australische herder in verschilldende kleurslagen.
Image via Wikipedia

The dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.  ~Mark Twain, letter to W.D. Howells, April 2, 1899

Once upon a time, there was a family of four boys.  The children dreamed of owning a dog.  However, their father had allergies and was convinced that dogs were really reincarnated socialists — lazy, unemployed and insensitive to the consequences of having a large family.  The constant plea for a canine companion fell on deaf ears.  But fate would not deny them.  A chance encounter with a litter of mongrel puppies while on a beach in San Diego led to the rash and exciting adoption of Brutus, a flop eared cockapoo mix who pattered across their floors and hearts for eight glorious weeks.  To this day, each boy recalls the black moment when he learned his new dog had succumbed to canine distemper.

Brutus was followed by Max, a “pound puppy” whose heritage was about as clear as the ingredients of English blood sausage.  Each morning, the boys would stir in bed as they heard Max push open the back door of the house to go outside.  He would conduct a cursory patrol of the neighborhood looking for anything out of the ordinary.  As with any carnivore or herder, it is best not to run as it only encourages spirited pursuit.  Max could close a 30 yard gap in five seconds and bring down any mammal five times his weight with a bite and twist of the ankle.  The dog was the perfect playmate — bred to run among a pack of wild things — jumping fences, biting, tackling, and chasing any moving object upon the simple command of “Get ‘em!”  When tears and disappointments arrived like seasonal storms, Max’s warm presence would quell the tempest with a simple lick of the afflicted kid’s ear.  He smelled of damp, woolen clothes and warm, dirty blankets.  Max endured one annual bath where he was sheared, coated with an explosion of fragrant flea powder and branded with a humiliating bow around his collar.  As if sensing his masculinity was in question, he would aggressively scratch against an ancient pine tree to remove the ribbon and then roll across pine needles and dirt to eradicate the smell of the kennel salon. 

The father could not disguise his dislike of Max.  The four-legged tangle of dirty hair did not much care for the father either, and avoided him like a bad neighborhood.  Given his penchant for marking sofas, Christmas trees and bathroom towels, Max had declared himself the alpha male in the home which offended the father.  Perhaps in another life, the father and the dog would have been inseparable pack mates.  However, in 1970’s suburbia, there could be only one alpha male per household.  The father did not appreciate Max’s zeal for leadership and loathed his relentless regularity, his lack of inspiration and his tendency toward promiscuity.  He would periodically assert his dominance over the dog by exiling him outside, shoo’ing him out of a room or “nudging” him in the hind quarters — not to injure him but merely to assert his role as the lead dog on the sled. 

 In dog years, Max was an 18-year-old boy and thus, all his behavior seemed normal to his beloved quartet of young boys.  Yet like the teenage boys, the dog was not without guile and premeditation.  He had a long memory. In the summer of 1974, alpha dog bested alpha father in an act of pure revenge.

In anticipation of entertaining her husband’s largest advertising client and perhaps helping him achieve a critical promotion, the mother had made the rare and exotic buy of a magnificent Kurdish weave carpet.  Given that their household operated on razor-thin margins and was occupied by four destructive boys, the rug was indeed a risky purchase.  The children were directed by their mother to not so much as look at the carpet, let alone walk on it.  Max did not get the memo.

The day of the all important client dinner arrived.  The boys were banished to friends’ houses, with Max chased outside by the anxious father.  As the fastidious client and his wife arrived, they chose to walk across the freshly cut front lawn and into the foyer of the immaculate Spanish style home.  The front door opened to a foyer fit for a middle eastern sheik.  The carpet that in Arabic meant “1000 Flowers” spread across the red-tiled floor in reverent welcome to their most important visitors.

The mother smelled an odd odor as the couples exchanged superficial pleasantries but the smell was quickly overwhelmed by the rush of Mrs. VIP’s strong perfume.  Yet this experienced mother of four boys was highly evolved and equipped with extra sensory perception.  Something was terribly wrong.  As the dinner group moved past her into the home,  the mother closed the front door and to her horror, discovered the client and his spouse were now tracking fresh dog poop across the new carpet and throughout the house.  Still a neophyte at client politics, she did not dare utter a word to the customers.  She could not possibly risk embarrassing her husbands’ biggest client. Instead, she surreptitiously spent the evening shepherding them in and out of rooms and then excuse herself to rush to clean the soiled floors and carpets.  

Finally, she could not stand it any more and gently took her husband aside.  He looked up and suddenly understood why his wife had acted so peculiar throughout this very important evening.  It was not nerves, it was dog feces.  He advanced from disbelief to anger and flashed an icy stare out the window to the patio.  A filthy mop of a dog sat triumphant in pale light cast from the dining room windows outside, panting and gazing in on the adult dinner party.   Revenge was sweet, but contrary to the old saying, it did not smell very good.

It is now years later and like my father, I find myself dancing with wolves.  Unlike my Dad, I find something extremely reassuring about living with man’s best friend.  My Australian shepherd, Brody, is my confidant and confederate.  He is well-known for his ability to keep secrets and to go for extended periods without uttering a word – content to listen to my musings and to reward my insights with a lick and laughing smile. 

To be a boy is to have a dog.  You are a breed apart — existing for the simplest of things — play, adventure, companionship, love, a warm place to lie down and the occasional secret hand-off underneath the table.  As a companion and athlete, my dog gets dispensation for his periodic accidents, biological miscues and lapses in judgement. He looks up at me and seems to be saying, “You, sir, are utterly brilliant.  If I had thumbs and a pencil, I would record everything you say.”  He, too, smells like of old, wet blankets and the cinnamon scent of lost youth.  

“The dog”, a  writer once mused, “was created especially for children. He is the God of Frolic”