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Jack Smith

Discourses on the dismaying decline of dogs' destinies: What does a retriever retrieve?

August 06, 1986|Jack Smith

My Superior Court correspondent, Judge Ron Swearinger, asks a question that may be of interest to everyone who owns a dog.

"We have a new dog at our house," he says--"a golden retriever. No amount of research and inquiry has yet disclosed just what it is that a golden retriever is supposed to retrieve. Perhaps you know, or one of your readers may know.

"I have been able to ascertain what other canine subspecae are supposed to do: The St. Bernard lugs brandy up the slopes, the collie herds sheep, the terrier is supposed to be good at rats and mice. Nothing on golden retrievers.

"I feel sorry for the poor devil. He stands on the porch with a puzzled expression on his face, looking forlornly off into the distance. He doesn't know either. Since we are all supposed to realize our destiny, I feel compelled to offer him some assistance."

Judge Swearinger has put his finger on a malaise that affects most dogs in American cities, especially Los Angeles. They have been bred in other climes for pursuits peculiar to those climes, and now they find themselves misplaced in a subtropical metropolis--idle, pampered, overfed, underworked, bored and, as the judge indicates, puzzled by a feeling of having somehow missed their destiny.

Of course, what a retriever is supposed to retrieve is a question easily answered. I believe the retriever was bred in England to retrieve grovels.

I don't know exactly what a grovel is. I do remember their being mentioned once in an essay by the late S. J. Perelman. I can't recall the exact words, and God forgive me for garbling the matchless prose of Perelman, but it went something like this:

"He turned on the radio. Savagely the radio turned on him. He went groveling in the dirt. After gathering a basketful of grovels. . . ." And so on.

It's possible I have grovels mixed up with grebes, grumps, partridges or grouse. But they're something like that--all of them being fowl. Englishmen take great pleasure in shooting these birds out of the air. It is thought unsporting to shoot them on the ground. And when the bird falls, the retriever is supposed to go fetch it, so the gentleman won't have to get his boots muddy.

Of course there are no grovels in Los Angeles, and if there were, there would be an ordinance against shooting them inside the city limits.

So two kind of creatures are certain to live unfulfilled lives here, one being the sportsman who likes to shoot birds out of the air and the other being his dog.

My Encyclopedia of the Dog (Richard Marples, general editor) tells me that the golden retriever has an obscure but romantic origin. "It has been suggested that the breed has its origins in a troupe of Russian circus dogs which Lord Tweedsmuir saw and bought in Britain; it is perhaps a pity that there is no factual evidence to support such a story."

What in fact happened, according to the encyclopedia, was that in 1865 Lord Tweedsmuir bought, from a cobbler in Brighton, a yellow wavy-coated retriever bred by Lord Chichester. This he mated to a Tweedwater spaniel, and then bred on to further crosses with black retrievers, an Irish setter and a bloodhound, so that by 1913 the Kennel Club was able to recognize the result as a separate breed.

Knowing that he is the product of such aristocratic bloodlines, one can indeed feel sorry for Judge Swearinger's retriever, sitting listlessly on his porch, only dimly remembering, perhaps, what a grovel is.

In Los Angeles there are hundreds of thousands of unhappy hunters, pointers, setters and retrievers, all sitting about on porches, or kept indoors, or confined to fenced yards, while their nerves tingle and their blood courses in response to distant challenges.

It is as cruel to take a cocker spaniel from the field and place him on a lady's lap as it would be to take a savage from the New Guinea jungle and seat him at the card table in a London club.

Think of the poodles that sleep on their mistresses' beds--fat, perfumed, coiffed and finicky, their idle lives a travesty of their heritage as fearless water dogs.

In similar indifference to natural law I kept an Airedale in my yard for 13 years. An Airedale ! No more courageous dog was ever bred. The Airedale is acclimated to the wet and chilly fields of middle England, a dog bred for war and big-game hunting; the "king of the terriers."

The only time he was happy, I believe, was when we took him to our house in Baja California, where he roamed unrestrained among the cactus and mesquite above the sea.

He'd had no training in field work, of course, but we once saw him stalk a roadrunner on our porch. The roadrunner had alighted on the porch wall, and the dog began to creep toward it, neck extended, nostrils aquiver. It was the classic approach of the gun dog. Instinct, was it?

Of course the roadrunner is a wise and fearless bird. It waited until it was almost too late, then lifted like a helicopter and flapped away. Never had I seen the dog more frustrated. He had missed the one chance in his life to be what he was meant to be.

Judge Swearinger says he tried a duck on his dog the other day.

"No response, although the duck later proved to be delicious a l'orange."

It is perhaps a pity.

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