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The Truth, Mainly - 02/25/1991

For people's dispositions, even a bad dog better than no dog at all

"Why," my wife and I ask each other, "do we have this beast in our house?"

It's our dog we're talking about—Ned, the one-eyed Beagle with the mismatched jaws and the headstrong personality—and it's a good question. Ned is not a Good Dog.

For one thing, he lacks the groveling humility you expect from a Good Dog—especially one who's been through what Ned's been through. He was lucky even to come in second when he tried to take out an '85 Buick LeSabre on Adams Street. A porcupine in Colorado left 16 quills in his snout, and a veterinarian with a sharp scalpel made sure he'll never pass along his defective genes.

But none of that has humbled Ned. He puts up with us largely because we have opposable thumbs to dish up his food and because our moralizing amuses him.

"Bad dog," we say when he runs off with our underwear, and he grins wickedly.

Ned and I pass long winter evenings playing "Who's the Dominant Wolf in this Pack?" We roll around on the floor baying and woofing and yelping at each other, the object being to get the opponent by the throat and holler "Who's the dominant wolf in this pack?" The game ends when the one on the bottom says "You are." Then, our aggression spent, we share a graham cracker.

He doesn't hold grudges, but he growls a lot. He growls when we shake a finger at him for burying plastic bones under the sofa cushions. He growls when we give him a bath because he's rolled in unspeakable filth. He growls when we try to separate him from the stolen Chicken Kiev he's run under the bed with.

Ned has an eating disorder. He eats anything animal, most things vegetable, some things mineral. He looks like a one-eyed bratwurst, and his indigestion keeps us awake at night as he mutters and moans and contemplates past and future excesses.

So the question keeps coming up, and because my wife and I like to think of ourselves as rational, we keep trying to answer it. Why is this beast in our house?

If you don't like dogs, you should stop reading right now. The rest of this will disgust you. You'll probably roll your eyes and say "Good Lord." Because our justifications are extravagant.

We keep him partly because he came to our house like a divine visitation after the lingering death of our previous dog. St. Sherman had been around for nearly 17 years, and in a house where an old dog has died, a new pup is a kind of resurrection, an epiphany with the shape and heft of a small meatloaf. We used to carry him around in our coat pockets with just his head and floppy ears showing. It knocked us out.

But now Ned is an adult dog who doesn't suffer fools gladly. So why do we suffer him?

I think it's because we're afraid of what we might become without a dog. I think it's because, as silly and sentimental as it sounds, we're convinced that even a Bad Dog sweetens our dispositions and humanizes us as we humanize him.

The Truth, Mainly


Before we were convinced of his intransigence, we took Ned to obedience class with 12 other disobedient dogs. It met evenings after their owners had come home from work, and we were mostly cranky and defeated. But by the end of each session we'd all be talking and laughing and civil again. "Good dog," the trainer would say as his demonstrator Doberman displayed a new maneuver—and all the dogs there would wag their tails. Not because they thought he was talking to them, but because one of their guys was conning some praise. And all the owners would smile. It was a community of joviality that cut across species.

Next time you're in a park or on a hiking trail, notice the faces of people walking their dogs. Especially notice their faces when they talk to other people walking their dogs. They have the look we'd all have if Adam and Eve had said no, thanks, they didn't care for an apple.

I told you you'd roll your eyes and say "Good Lord." I told you you'd be disgusted. And I'm not finished yet.

Some day, I like to imagine, George Bush and Saddam Hussein and all their entourage will tire of the carnage and sit down at a table to talk. Two days before the meeting, my fantasy goes, the U.N. will dip into its discretionary peacekeeping funds and buy puppies for everyone involved. Before negotiations begin, there will be a mandatory 20-minute group activity: the new owners will get down on the floor with the new puppies and bay and woof and yelp at each other while they play "Who's the Dominant Wolf in this Pack?" Then the puppies will chew each other's ears and sniff each other's privates while the warriors, their will to power made comic and benign, will watch, and talk, and laugh, and end the war.


Satterfield is a college professor and writes as a means of discovery.


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