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Much Ado About Dogs in Former East Berlin : The Hundemuseum, with its 20,000 dog-related artifacts, testifies to Germany's love of canines.

August 23, 1992|PAT HANNA KUEHL | KUEHL is a Denver free-lance writer.

BERLIN — My West Berlin friend was humoring me. Not much of a dog fancier and even less a fan of former East Berlin, he'd agreed to escort me on a visit to a dog museum in the Blankenburg district on the northeastern city limits.

I'd read in the Guinness Book of Records that this was the only dog museum in Germany--a country known for its dedication to pooches. And I was hoping our planned experience would provide a glimpse into the German psyche . . . at least where its preoccupation with dogs was concerned.

It seemed appropriate that such a museum would be in Berlin, where at twilight the main thoroughfare Kurfurstendamm takes on the aura of a classy dog show, with elegant owners walking their pedigreed companions. At sunrise, Berliners and canines meet at the chic Cafe Mohring before wandering over to the Europa Center for a little shopping at the designer boutiques. Person and dog alike are obviously well groomed and well bred.

Then look eastward, well beyond where the wall divided the city until almost three years ago. Somber Blankenburg with its factory- smoke-darkened brick houses, potholed pavement and peeling paint is a long way (about an hour and $35 by taxi) from the gaiety of the Ku'damm. And you can't miss the sharp contrast in style, with people in drab sweaters and baggy pants escorted by over-fed mutts with wiggly tails.

When we pulled up in front of the Hundemuseum ("dog museum"), a two-story brick house behind an iron picket fence, we didn't know what to expect. The listing in Guinness had mentioned seven exhibition halls with 20,000 dog-related artifacts. The place didn't look big enough--but, then, who defines what is "artifact" and "exhibition hall," not to mention museum material?

The curator, a silver-haired gentleman, politely greeted us at the door, then launched into an avalanche of rushing German. My friend began translating as I reeled back, overwhelmed by the assault of canine memorabilia. Enormous posters. Hundreds of dog show medals. Display cases of miniatures. Long outdated calendars. Clocks that barked instead of cuckooing. Framed cartoons. Shelves of vases, music boxes, even lamp bases. Plates. Plaques. Playthings. Even a postage stamp.

If it had a dog carved, painted, etched, inked, sewn or inlaid on it, it was probably part in this garden of canine kitsch. My first impulse was to laugh. But the curator was so intense, my friend so focused on translating, that I realized the exhibits were not intended to be taken lightly.

Gradually the translated story took shape. Margareta and Gerhard Laske, professional chow and Pekingese breeders, began collecting canine memorabilia 40 years ago, then opened the museum to the public in 1982. For 24 years the Laskes served as co-organizers of the biggest kennel show in the Soviet states, drawing 40,000 to 50,000 visitors every May to the grounds of industrialist Werner von Siemens' villa in Brandenburg.

The kennel shows, which drew as many as 25,000 entries, were one of the few major competitions not under government control, the curator said. The accent on improving canine bloodlines was so strong that retirees over 60 were permitted to take winning dogs outside East Germany to compete in international shows. It was during these visits to other countries that requests were made for donations to the planned dog museum in Blankenburg.

The donations--which ranged from doggy knickknacks to pedigree charts, veterinarian X-rays to yellowing snapshots of smiling families with their pets--were added to the Laskes' private collection (understandably heavy on chow and Peke material). It was enough to overflow a seven-room house that once served as shelter for farmhands who worked the acreage out back.

A number of the exhibits predated the building of the Wall. Even my non-dog-loving friend was intrigued by the German shepherd's food-stamp card from 1942. The Third Reich deemed a "useful" dog worthy of the same rations as a soldier.

"You rarely see shepherds in Germany any more," my friend whispered. "They haven't been popular since Hitler declared shepherds his favorite dog." He quietly made note of the fact that there was a lack here also, of photographs of political leaders with their dogs--Hitler with his shepherds, Bismarck with his mastiff and Frederick II with his whippets.

Upstairs, one spiked canine collar hanging on the wall looked to be two feet in diameter. "For a mastiff?" I asked. "No, a bracke ," a large hunting dog, the curator explained, his hands outlining an animal about the size of a compact car. I wondered aloud if Prussian brackes snacked on dachshunds.

"Dachshunds are strictly Bavarian," my West Berlin friend explained, sounding a little impatient. "You won't see many dachshunds in Berlin."

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