This Changing Dog

A Howl
By Ian Shoales, November 2008

Around the time that scoopable litter was invented back in the ’80s, cats as pets in America began to outnumber dogs. And our attitude toward dogs began to change. We started to get a bit more finicky.


We don’t want dogs with long hair because we have allergies. We don’t want dogs who shed because we hate to clean house. We don’t want dogs who bark because it’s annoying. We don’t want dogs who growl at strangers because we might get sued. We certainly don’t want dogs who bite.


We’re looking for something playful, but not something that knocks over furniture. No scratching, please. Come when I call you, but don’t be needy.


A hundred years ago, all we looked for in a dog was the ability to herd hooved animals and ward off cougars. Now we want a dog, you know, like the one Sandra Bullock had in that movie? The one with Keanu Reeves?


We’re starting to buy hybrid dogs. Labradoodles (Labrador and Poodle), Puggles (Beagle and Pug), Cockapoo (Cocker Spaniel and Poodle). Boggles, and Bichonpoos, and Schnoodles.


And once we have designed our dream dog and taken her home, we put her in little pink hoodies and canine crinolines.


According to the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, Inc., Americans spent close to $40 billion last year on pets. Custom-made birthday cakes. Faux chinchilla cuddle cups. Beer for dogs, nonalcoholic: It can be yours. Burberry outfits for pooches? Not a problem. Pet psychics! Pet psychologists!


I found myself depressed recently by a press release that read, in part: “Now the 74 million dogs … in the United States can begin enjoying the sweet life with the launch of a new therapeutic comfort bed specifically designed to meet the health and wellness needs of our four-legged friends. ColdHeat™ … introduces Dolce Vita™ Therabed™ pet beds, a complete line of heated pet beds in a variety of shapes and sizes…”


I mean, really, for dogs? Why can’t I get a heated bed designed for my wellness needs? I’d even be willing to fetch a Frisbee or two.


Then there was the story, issued on a very slow news day by Universal Press Syndicate, which included the following: “Many designers believe pet accessories and furniture should complement home decor. ‘It makes sense,’ says Eileen Chanin, founder of Calling All Dogs … ‘I'm surprised when you go into beautiful, million-dollar homes and walk into the mudroom where the dog stuff sits, and there are plastic bowls … Pet stuff needs to be beautiful, too.”


This depressed me. I don’t even have a mudroom, for one thing. In a truly just society, I’d have a mudroom stacked to the ceiling with Labradoodles wearing outfits that match the wallpaper.


And all of this consumer activity is for dogs, some of whom could no longer survive without human intervention. The Pekingese, for instance, has been bred to the point that it is difficult for a mother to give birth naturally to her pups because their heads are too big to fit through the birth canal.


In article about canine hybridization in the New York Times Sunday Magazine, Jeff Riedel wrote: “Mark Neff, a canine geneticist at the University of California at Davis, says … ‘You’ve removed natural selection and replaced it with artificial selection … Dogs are now subject to the whims of humans. And as soon as humans get involved, all hell breaks loose.’”


Which reminds me of Gladiator. At the top of the movie, you’ll recall, a battle is about to commence between the Romans and the German barbarians. Roman general Russell Crowe shouts, “At my signal, unleash Hell!” When he gives the signal, Hell is indeed unleashed, along with his dog, to run rampant among the barbarians.


We never see the dog again. Whether the barbarians got him or the dog decided he had better things to do than bite ancient Germans, or whether the screenwriters just plain forgot about him, I don’t know.


Watching the scene, however, I found myself wondering: Was there Hell and a dog, or was the dog in fact, named “Hell?” The way the scene was cut, it seems possible. But that’s not a very good name for a dog, not even a dog of war. Test it yourself: “Here, Hell.” “Heel, Hell!” “Walkies, Hell?” I think not.


Then again, anachronisms aside, dogs of the past are very different from dogs of the present. For example, I read a comment by one of the screenwriters that the dog in Gladiator was actually supposed to be a wolf, a symbol of Roman swiftness and power and also a reference to the wolf that suckled Remus and Romulus (the latter of whom killed his brother and then went on to found Rome).


Well, it looked an awful lot like a German Shepherd to me. That’s a lot of symbolic weight to put on a breed that didn’t even exist in ancient Rome.


At any rate, we don’t have dogs named Hell, or Satan, or Star Thunder any more. It’s all Mr. Snappy, and Foo Foo, and Princess Booger. Can you imagine Hell in a tutu? Nor can I.


Mark Derr, a canine expert, railed against the new canines back in the ’90s, calling their creation the “appalling human practice of breeding mutant animals for ego satisfaction.”


Well, maybe that’s a little harsh.


After all, the world of dogs was dominated for centuries by bearded dukes grinning fiercely as they tore into chunks of venison by roaring fires, massive mastiffs scowling at their sides. Czars in troikas followed their Borzois as they tracked down elk.


Aristocrats invented breeding mutant animals for ego satisfaction. And only the aristocracy could own these beasts. King Canute of England established the Forest Laws in 1014, which decreed, in part, that any “meane person” caught owning a Greyhound would be punished and the dog’s feet mutilated to prevent it from hunting. A Greyhound was valued more than a serf, money-wise, and if you killed one, you would be charged with murder.


On the other hand, we still have the descendants of those heroic dogs: police dogs, firehouse dogs, drug-sniffing dogs, bomb-sniffing dogs, cancer-sniffing dogs. Now anyone can own one, not just a king.


So the heroic dogs are still among us. And who knows, maybe even a fierce Shih Tzu could turn the tide of battle. But maybe not. “At my signal, unleash Fluffy!” It doesn’t have the same punch, does it?


Ian Shoales is the alter ego of writer and performer Merle Kessler. Ian and Merle both currently reside in San Francisco.