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A Dog's Gotta Do What a Dog's Gotta Do

Bark, bite, chew. It's not easy fitting into a human world.

August 20, 2004|Mark Derr

In the dog days of summer 1785, George Washington was worried about the future of the young nation and the fate of seven rare French hounds sent to him from Paris by his friend and fellow dog lover, the Marquis de Lafayette. He feared that their transatlantic escort, a young John Quincy Adams, had abandoned the dogs in New York, where "war" had been declared "on the canine species."

The hounds being "strangers, and not having formed alliances for self-defense, but on the contrary, distressed and friendless may have been exposed not only to war, but to pestilence and famine also," Washington wrote to a former aide on Aug. 22.

Fortunately, the Harvard-bound Adams, like many college students, had simply forgotten to write Washington with the news that upon his arrival in New York, he had turned the dogs over to the former chief physician of the Continental Army. The hounds arrived safely at Mount Vernon on Aug. 31, where they became part of Washington's beloved pack. (He recorded their behavior and matings in his diaries and boasted that they ran so tightly bunched in pursuit of a fox he could throw a blanket over them.)

Happy ending aside, Washington's concerns were well founded. New York, a fast-growing city of 30,000 in 1785, was locked in one of those bouts of fear of free-ranging dogs that periodically gripped many communities, especially in summer when every hot, panting canine was believed to have hydrophobia -- rabies -- then a mysterious, fatal disease.

Hysteria over a possible rabies outbreak combined with resentment against packs of dogs harassing people, livestock and other dogs to produce demands for action. On Oct. 26, the New York Common Council declared that dogs not chained, leashed, muzzled or otherwise confined could be apprehended and killed.

Two centuries later much has changed, not least the development of vaccines for distemper and rabies, but dogs still need friends and allies. Fully 25% to 30% of the 65 million dogs in the U.S. have at one time or another been abandoned, turned over to shelters or rescue groups or given away to new owners. Experts estimate that millions of animals a year are abused or neglected. Nearly a quarter suffer from anxiety, phobias and other psychological problems. Two million to 3 million are euthanized in shelters each year.

Such figures underscore the central paradox surrounding the dog's place in our lives. How can an animal so beloved by humans be so cavalierly treated by them as well? The answer lies in our capacity for willful ignorance -- of the nature of the dog itself and the history of our relationship to it.

The dog is essentially a gray wolf that decided tens of thousands of years ago to hitch its evolutionary fate to that of humans. It allowed itself to be domesticated. It did not, however, surrender its capacity to bite, bark or chew -- to be, in short, a rambunctious animal.

Because they live so intimately with us, we have come to expect our dogs to always be loyal, obedient, devoted and forgiving. We expect them to anticipate our need for attention and then give their love unconditionally. That they so often oblige is testament to the dog's uniqueness.

But in making those demands, we often forget that dogs remain a separate species, not simply a human adjunct. The Associated Press reported last week, for example, that Chihuahuas are all the rage in Japan, where they are treated to spa visits and fed pasta lunches -- until they fall from favor and are abandoned. Every animal care worker has similar horror stories.

People and animals pay a price for such incomprehension. Mistreated, badly trained and poorly bred dogs become hazards to themselves, other animals and people. One example: An estimated 4.5 million Americans are bitten by dogs each year; 20 to 25 of them die. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have declared dog bites epidemic, and many communities now outlaw certain breeds and demand greater regulation of all dogs.

The dog's friends and allies are working hard to solve these problems through education and training programs, but they are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of the problem. Too many people behave like young John Quincy Adams and walk away from their responsibility, or worse.

All of us who claim to love dogs must strive to understand their nature and their motives. We must give them the training that would allow them to live in tight quarters with people who love them and with those, who in Washington's words, would wage war against them. We must treat them with respect -- and let them be dogs.

The history lesson is simple: In seeing to our dogs, we see to ourselves.

Mark Derr is the author of the "A Dog's History of America: How Our Best Friend Explored, Conquered and Settled a Continent," which will be published next month by North Point Press.

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