The Dog as urban deity
• Wed, Jul 16, 2014
By Thom Nickels
Who let the dogs out?
Or: Here come the pit bulls, twenty in a row and howling like wolves in Germany’s Black Forest. Where to escape? Many people slip inside their houses. Moms who had been sitting on stoops reach out and take their babies out of strollers and tell their other toddlers on tricycles to stop everything and get inside.
"The pits are coming! The pits are coming!" somebody shouts.
I witness the Stephen King scenario from my second story window. "Does this explain the odd disappearance of feral cats from the neighborhood?" a friend of mine who dropped by, asks.
"How’s that?" I say.
"Feral cats slip in and out of backyard tiny spaces, the same private backyard spaces where the city’s new breed of choice, the pit, lingers and waits. It’s much like the fly going into the spider’s web. The pit eliminates the feral!"
My friend may be right. The neighborhoods used to be filled with feral cats... On my own block we used to see two or three a day. Suddenly there’s an absence.
Of course, I never did see twenty pits in a row racing down my street, but given the popularity of pits, it could happen in the future.
It’s not the breed it’s the people who raise the dogs, the pro-pit campaign posters state. We’re supposed to commit this feel good advertising to memory. We’re supposed to remember this the next time we read an awful story in the press about a pit attacking a toddler on the way home from school. We’re supposed to get it straight that pits are just like any other dog—the regal Greyhound, the cute as pie Chihuahua, the hot dog or Dachshund or the supremely benevolent Collie. Blame the awful person who taught the pit how to be an indiscriminate fighter or growler, the pro-pit campaign says. The pit, by itself-- as a blank slate—is as angelic as the lower order of angels. "Stop the persecution!"
Stop the persecution!
Let me review my experience with bad dogs.
There was the ferocious German Shepherd that would chase me on my bicycle when I was a paperboy. At 12 years of age, I avoided big dogs but this mammoth Shepherd loved to snip at my ankles whenever he saw me riding by. On Fridays, when I’d go door to door to collect the weekly newspaper subscription fees, the Shepherd would circle my bicycle, growl and then force me to bypass the house and collect when the Shepherd was out of sight. I tried my hardest to process the dog’s nasty demeanor, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I learned very early on that however endearing a pet may be, on a base level they are still beasts, and that no matter how sweet and lovely they are, every now and then a portion of that beast emerges.
Our own dog, Lucky, a tan and black Dachshund, was a good looker but he was known to growl illogically and violently whenever any of the males in the family placed a plate of dog food in front of him.
"What’s with Lucky?" my brother would ask, "Licking and loving you one moment, then ready to take your head off the next"
Lucky had a good life. He loved to roam the cornfield behind our home, run down to the creek and sniff the water’s edge for crayfish, and then explore the stacked hay bales inside a nearby barn. He was combed and brushed and given endless treats from the dinner table. One day he even brought home what looked like a monkey’s paw. Where did he find a monkey in Chester County? The paw (or claw) was a topic of conversation in our house for years.
Loveable as Lucky was, his dangerous habit of running into the street in front of our house at the approach of a car or tractor trailer truck eventually did him in. His insatiable thirst for nipping at wheels going round backfired when he miscalculated and nipped too far underneath a moving vehicle. "He was hit by a car," my mother told me the day I walked home from school and found her cuddling Lucky in her lap on the grassy embankment in front of our house. She was weeping terribly.
Because Lucky had never once growled at my mother, the family came to believe that she had a special bond with him. That afternoon on the embankment I felt bad mostly because my mother was feeling bad. I felt for Lucky although I could not bring myself to cry.
With the Lucky era over, it would be a while before we got another dog. When that happened I was already out of the house away at school or in Boston but when I heard of the dog I also heard of the new pet’s bizarre behaviors: like how she liked to "eat" her own tail.
What sort of dog is into self-cannibalism, I wondered. The tail eating got so bad that the pet’s tail had to be amputated, but instead of correcting anything the lack of a tail led to other self-eating attempts. The otherwise sweet dog just wanted to eat herself off the planet. It occurred to me then that maybe dogs had more neuroses than human beings and were often more trouble than they were worth.
Nobody had pit bulls in those days. I remember Collies, Dachshunds, Boxers and Shepherds, although the term junkyard dog (breed unknown) made the rounds from time to time, referring to ill-mannered ugly dogs who were so nasty they would attack their own shadow.
The entire time I lived in Baltimore (as a student) or Boston or Colorado I barely remember seeing anybody walk dogs, even though I’d done plenty of that with the most infamous dog in my extended family, the black French Poodle, Monsieur Faux Pas.
Monsieur Faux Pas was an indiscriminate, shameless cad. He loved legs, all sorts of legs, male, female, young and old, small children, toddlers just starting to walk, even furniture stumps. As a teenager, I would walk Monsieur Faux Pas all over the streets of West Chester. I had great fun doing this. (Of course, these were the days before the idea of bagging your dog’s poop had entered the public consciousness). Monsieur Faux Pas was well behaved during these walks but he showed his Jekyll and Hyde side at family gatherings, namely Christmas, Thanksgiving and Easter, all occasions when the adults would be sipping cocktails in the living room.
That’s when he would go on a leg tear. There’s nothing in life that brings one down to earth faster than having a dog greet you with a leg humping routine. My venerable grandfather, dressed in one of his meticulous tailored suits, would suddenly be jolted forward on the sofa as Monsieur PP wrapped his beastly paws around his argyle socks.
"No, no, no!" grandmother would interject. At that, Monsieur PP would disengage as grandfather would check his trousers for marks.
Monsieur PP, undeterred, would proceed to Aunt Dora—silk stockings always made the grade—then proceed to grandmother herself, and then after that to each of my siblings, going down the line, sometimes leaving trails and sometimes not, until the group outrage turned into a kind of fascinated, guilty laugh. Monsieur PP had succeeded in breaking up the stuffy formal atmosphere.
"He needs to be locked in a room," his owner, Aunt Katherine, would offer, and so Monsieur PP would be ushered upstairs until the terrible spell that had possessed him had passed. In an hour or so he could be released into polite company.
Of course, once released, Monsieur PP would bide his time, staring sheepishly at each one of us in turn while lounging in front of the fireplace, his eyes focused on our legs as if he was just waiting for an opportune moment to begin again. Sometimes he got his wish, especially when he’d position himself under the dining room table during dinner where there would be a cacophony of legs of all types and sizes.
"Monsieur PP, please stop that," Aunt Gertie would mumble between mouthfuls of fresh fruit cocktail or shrimp.
"Is he up to his old tricks?" Aunt Katherine would snap.
"He is," Aunt Gertie replied. "Maybe if we ignored it, he will stop."
When I heard of Monsieur PP’s death when I was in my twenties, I felt a little sad. "He was a family unifier all right," I said to my sister Susanna. "He knew when to strike. At the height of a heated political discussion, or when one of the older relatives made a bitchy comment about something. He’d come in and do his thing."
Had Monsieur PP been a pit bull I cannot imagine there would have been much laughter as he went from leg to leg.
Monsieur PP may have had a sexual problem but it was a benign problem at best, a mere indiscretion. But substitute real flesh biting or the gashing of teeth for comedic humping and you have a First Aid kit nightmare. Monsieur PP was also good-natured. I don’t think I ever heard him growl in my life. He loved life, he loved people, and of course he loved legs.
I’m reluctant to comment further on pits because I don’t want the pit lobby to come after me and tell me to stop persecuting them. Live and let live, I say, even if pits in my mind are a symbol of how far the world has fallen from being a relatively civilized place into a rustic cellar filled with brutal uncertainties.