Cock-a-doodle-doo-doo

“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 Run

The Run

I love a dog. He does nothing for political reasons. Will Rogers

The Run is two acres of patchy, broken grass and hardpan, enclosed by a split rail rectangle of fence.  It buttresses adjacent paddleball courts and the town’s community pool.  It is not much to look at but within it lopes the ultimate harmonious society.  It is a place where dogs run free and their humans loiter and talk, observing a diverse community of animals as they leap, wrestle and chase out of sheer joy of being off leash.   Spencer’s Run is an oasis for dog owners who love their animals and who understand their need for the companionship and enthusiasm of dogs from all different walks of life.  Dog owners know that dogs, like teenagers, need to get out, socialize and occasionally dig a hole.  If not afforded the chance to exercise and yield to their genetic programming, these affectionate canines transform into mischievous billy goats capable of indescribable mischief and destruction.

There are the regulars, the inner circle and social order of mornings and afternoons , dogs, men, women and children who arrive with a certain arc of the sun, tossing tennis balls and conducting traffic as the herders, lap dogs, hunters and pointers collide in great waves of movement and mayhem.  Spencer’s Run dogs are pack animals and while they possess predictable genetic triggers and embedded instincts, dogs have an amazingly human side.  They are our mirror images – – proud and insecure, particular and accepting, high strung and laissez faire, confident and paranoid, deviously intelligent and a tad slow.  Like their handlers, they prefer garbage food to brussels sprouts. They teach us to live in the moment and to shrug off the fact that sometimes life can be boring or uncertain.   The daily roster of The Run’s actors is too lengthy to mention.  There is Seamus, a herculean St Bernard, a micro celebrity in these parts who looms over the green field like a wooly mammoth.  Daily ground traffic is highly regulated by a pair of bellicose Bassets named Hoover and Minerva who patrol the Run looking for signs of sedition and disrespectful behavior.  On any given day the dog park is a blurred Grand Central Station of breeds: Shitzus , pugs, boxers, German Shepherds, Russian Samoyeds, Labs, Airedales, French Pyrenees Mountain Dogs and Afghans – – each day a UN meeting without politics.

My ticket of admission is my seven month Australian Shepherd, Brody.  “Mr Wild Thing” is a high energy herder that chases anything that moves and is incapable of resisting the instinct to buzz his target du jour into a tighter and tighter circle of control.  The focus of his shepherding could be a bird, squirrel, an octogenarian or UPS truck.  Already neutered, Brody still plays the alpha and like the man with a prosthetic leg who still swears he can feel an itch, he means business. To my chagrin, he occasionally expresses his desire for lead dog status through a series of highly inappropriate acts that can only be described as X rated.

Children are for people who can’t have dogs.  — Cicero

Like any loved one, we want to raise Brody to respect others, play nice in the sand box, not talk with his mouth full and avoid stalking four-year-old toddlers.  When we found Spencer’s Run, Brody was a rough pup from the South side of Boston.  He lacked finesse and the social graces required to be accepted into the pack.  He found an unconditionally accepting community that would quickly socialize him to the ways of the canine world.  Despite his Down Under heritage, Brody is distinctly American – – good-natured, naïve and prone to bark loud when meeting a dog of another nationality for the first time.  While as humans, we tend to shake hands upon greeting one another; dogs tend to go right for sniffing various parts of one another’s anatomy.  His penchant for the ” sniff” makes me cringe knowing that I still let him lick my face.  I wonder if it was a dog that started the rumor that a canine’s mouth is cleaner than a human’s.  I wager this observation was written like third grade bathroom graffiti in crayon on the side of some barn in the Midwest and an incredulous farmer figured it had to be true.  His sheep dog was laughing his bottom off that night.

From the dog’s point of view, his master is an elongated and abnormally cunning dog. ~Mabel Louise Robinson

I notice that owners like their dogs choose to either join the pack or sniff around the edges of the Run.  Some humans are clearly experienced pet owners and radiate a sort of god-like wisdom.  These dog-whispering oracles can explain to you the dark mysteries of your basenji – – the ten things canus africanus does not want you to know.   Dogs tend to resemble their owners and the demographic in the Run is similar to that of America with about 30% needing a dry food diet and a mandatory two hours of exercise each day.  Others breeds are sleek, sinewy paragons of discipline — practically eliciting applause from the crowd as they prance from one part of the park to the next – – and that is just the blond owner.  Like his human, Brody seems to go for lighter hair and gravitates to those from the wrong side of the tracks.  Purebred dogs put him off. He prefers big dogs and pound puppies perhaps because he himself is a descendent of convicts.  Brody avoids small dogs as they often suffer from Napoleonic complexes.  He thinks they are carrying handguns.   He tends to pal around with a yellow lab from Pound Ridge and a magnificent collie named Graham.

I sit under a shaded tree and watch as a well-mannered beagle trots by my bench doing the rounds.  He is beaming after seeing a distant relative win Best In Show at Westminster. Everywhere, people and dogs are chatting, mingling and exchanging pleasantries.  In the Spencer’s Run community there are surprisingly few protocols: Stay with the person you came to the dance with, be kind, clean up after yourself and have fun.  Not a bad way to run a dog park or a high school for that matter. Brody and I debrief after each visit.  I barrage him with questions as he lays panting like a child just home from school: ” So, you really caved in to that miniature boxer, didn’t you?” “Did you see that Afghan?  I mean was she exotic or what? ” He trots over covered with a mud mask mixed lovingly from dirt and a thousand licks.  He is filthy, exhausted and content – – the way I looked after my first Rolling Stones concert.  As he leaps into the passenger seat of my car, he barks one last yelp over my shoulder as if to say, “see you tomorrow”.  I back out and watch as another car enters my spot.  An excited Schnauzer jumps out of his handler’s car and strains against his leash.  He is speaking in German, “Achtung, Achtung! Dies wired groß sein (Hurry, hurry. This is going to be great! )”