The Truth, Mainly - 09/06/1999

On the genetic playing field, even one-eyed beagles are the winners
by Leon Satterfield

For the last couple of months, I've been-as we all say nowadays-in a state of denial. But I'm getting over it. I think I can talk about it now.

I entered my state of denial while reading a piece by Stephen Budiansky called "The Truth About Dogs" in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly. In it, Budiansky has the audacity to deny that dogs are man's best friends.

Instead, he writes, dogs "belong to that select group of con artists at the very top of the profession, the ones who pick our pockets clean and leave us smiling about it. . . .They lie on top of the air-conditioning vent in the summer; they curl up by the fireplace in the winter; they commit outrages against our property too varied and unspeakable to name. . . .If we had roommates who behaved like this, we'd be calling a lawyer, or the police."

"Naw," I say to myself as I read it. "Huh uh."

Dogs, he writes, exploit the bejesus out of their owners. Dogs, he writes, should be classified as "social parasites."

"That's not true," I say aloud. "Sir Walter Scott said of the dog, the Almighty 'hath invested him with a nature noble and incapable of deceit.'"

As a species, Budiansky writes, humans don't think very clearly about dogs. He quotes a scientist saying that even scientists "have their scientist hat and their dumb hat" and "whenever they start talking about dogs, they put on their dumb hat."

"Like fun," I say.

The problem is, Budiansky writes, humans are "compulsive anthropomorphizers. . .primed to seize on what are in truth, fundamental, programmed behaviors in dogs and read into them extravagant tales of love and fidelity."

"Not me," I tell the magazine. "I don't even know what an anthropomorphizer is. And I believe what George Graham Vest told the U.S. Senate in 1884, that 'the one unselfish friend that man can have in this selfish world, the one that never deserts him, the one that never proves ungrateful or treacherous, is his dog.'"

In fact, Budiansky, says, it's all genetics. We are "genetically programmed to seek signs of love and loyalty" and dogs are "genetically programmed to exploit this foible of ours."

"I deny that," I exclaim, perhaps too loudly. "I deny hell out of that!"

An owner of a Black Lab probably wouldn't feel as threatened as I feel by the article. Black Labs have convincingly mastered the art of gazing in apparent adoration at their owners, making them absolutely certain that their best friends would follow them into the fiery pit of hell just to hear the words, "Good dog!"

But I'm not an owner of a Black Lab.

Our dog is Ned, the one-eyed Beagle with the headstrong personality and the mismatched jaws. And I object so loudly to Budiansky's article because it confirms my darkest suspicions about Ned-the ones I ponder at 3 a.m.

Budiansky has forced me to face up to the truth: Ned exploits us, dominates us, manipulates us.

Riding in a closed car in -5 degrees F., he cleverly moves us to open a window so he can stick his snout out. He does this by emitting, at will, spectacularly offensive emissions.

When we're not looking, he gets in the middle of our bed-even if we're already sleeping there. When we try to make him move over, he growls at us.

Right now, he's recovering from knee surgery. He blew out his anterior cruciate ligament-the same ligament football players blow out-and he's had two rounds of reconstructive surgery. He hobbles about like a heroic fullback worrying about losing a year of eligibility, a look of tragic martyrdom in his one good eye, until we feel so sorry for him that we give him a piece of cheese. Then he walks away as good as new.

Since his surgery, he's been hooked on his nightly pain pill. He doesn't need it anymore, but he likes the narcotic effect. He heard the vet say that loud panting is a more certain sign of pain than whining, so if we don't give him his pill when he whines, he pants loudly. If that doesn't work, he growls. So we give him his pain pill. But it has to be inside a little cheese ball so he gets his narcotic fix wrapped up in his cheese fix.

But now that I've read Budiansky, that's all over.

"I'm onto you," I tell Ned, "like dog hair's onto the car seat. No more exploitation."

Forgetting his blown-out ACL, he jumps up beside me on the couch. He's not supposed to be on the couch. He puts his chin on my knee, his good eye positioned so it's the only one I can see. He licks my hand.

I feel primevally gratified. I sense a prehistoric emission of love and loyalty. I have a primitive compulsion to scratch his ears. He lets me do it. When I stop scratching, he growls, so I go get him a piece of cheese.

He accepts my homage. He swallows the cheese, grins a con-man's grin, and belches a cheesy belch, secure in his genetic triumph.


Lincoln English Professor Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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