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A Status Symbol With Real Bite

L.A. STORIES: A slice of life in Southern California


I counted eight big dogs on a recent stroll down the Venice Boardwalk, several of which were adorned with studded leather accouterments, including a spiked collar. Their masters--mostly bulked up guys with tattoos--were similarly decorated.

Three of the big dogs were Rottweilers, four were mutts heavily leaning toward the pit bull persuasion, and one was a mastiff. Right, a mastiff. Something I thought existed only in Sherlock Holmes stories.

To be specific, it was a Neopolitan mastiff, as I later learned. For those of you who haven't seen a Neopolitan mastiff, it is a hulking (110 to 150 pounds average) blue-gray creature with a face that the great accordionist Flaco Jimenez could solo on. It looks like something Dracula might want to play "fetch" with. Beelzebub's best friend.

As I marveled at this creature, it hit me: Where have all the doggies gone?

Nobody was walking collies, terriers, shelties or dachshunds. In their place were things that looked like Minotaurs and small bears. Slavering mongrels so gruesome that they looked like they had been concocted by Ray Harryhausen for one of those Sinbad movies. Cerberus at the gates of Hades.

And they are everywhere: in parking lots, glaring through the tinted windows of every third Range Rover, Cherokee and four-by-four; chained up and angry in back yards; jogging menacingly through Griffith Park.

Is it a conspiracy? Is it mere coincidence that Jay Leno's production company is called "Big Dog"? Is this just his wife's pet name for her big, lovable puppy dog Jay--or is it an insidious coded wink of approval to all who covet formidable canines?

Obviously, some people are procuring big dogs for protection and security--reasons that, sadly, are easy to understand. But a lot of the owners I've seen look pretty secure already. They'd look right at home on "American Gladiators" so I can only think that they flaunt their dogs as fashion statements--as plumage, symbols of status, even virility. Rolexes with teeth.

A woman friend put it more psychoanalytically: "These guys with their big dogs," she says, "they're all walking their (insert word here for male sex organ)." (Just what this implies about women walking dainty, perfumed little teacup poodles is open to speculation.)

To be fair, the Neopolitan mastiff on the Venice Boardwalk was peaceable--that is, until meeting another big dog, at which point both beasts strained mightily at their leashes in efforts to have meaningful physical contact. Somehow, I got the idea that this contact could easily have bypassed the nice-to-sniff-you stage.

What was even more nerve-racking, however, was that they showed their teeth to one another and their muscles bulged ominously through their skin until veins stood out on their necks--not the dogs, but their owners. Yes, the masters seemed to relish the encounters.

They appeared to thrill at the sight of their very own personal, obedient living hunk of murderous looking meat snarling and lunging at someone else's very own personal, obedient living hunk of murderous looking meat. And the more fearful the passers-by, the more the owners seemed to prolong the doggy tete-a-tete.

Watching this made me think again of my woman friend's statement, and brought to mind that old KEN-L Ration jingle, "My dog's bigger than your dog."

I admit I might not have even noticed all the big dogs had I not recently had meaningful contact with one of them--a Rottweiler or a "Rott," as fans call them.

It happened in Taiwan, where I was visiting an unfinished building in which a friend owns a condo. Trying to find a way in, I opened a door into a huge dark room. From a far corner came a strange scratchy sound. Then came guttural grunts and a low, rolling growl.

As I bounded wildly back into the daylight, yelling at my friends, "Get in the car!" I turned to catch a glimpse not of Michael Douglas--but of a lumbering Rott drunk with the prospect of sinking his fangs into the femur of some fresh human.

I figure I lived to talk about this because the dog had already eaten. The old man who was guarding the premises with this "pet" burst outside, screaming at my friends: "That foreigner came in and tried to hit my dog" and further offered that we were all "pigs."

I tried, in broken Chinese, to assure him that we were not pigs, and made a mental note about possibly skewed powers of perception among big-dog owners. Not surprisingly, I have had occasional nightmares since, starring my Chinese Rottweiler.

My dreams also have been inhabited by the pit bull mix that lived near my home for several years. One of those horrific tiger-striped variations, this creature would maniacally charge at me on sight. If the owner had not held fast the dog's tether, I'd probably be typing with my toes my now.

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