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”