The ‘dog’ days of summer

by Gene Lyons

One time I started to write a book I called “Animal Passion,” a history of my marriage in pets. The first chapter, about an extraordinary collie/German shepherd mix we’d adopted during our student days on a cattle farm in Virginia, appeared in the Oxford American, for which I was most grateful.

Somewhere in Chapter Four, however, given our half-century of marriage and the number of animals we’d owned — dogs, cats, eventually horses and cows — it became clear that the fool thing would end up longer than “Don Quixote,” and I abandoned the project.

To give you some idea, I once kept a pack of eight beagle field trial dogs in the backyard — also in my office, the kitchen, in the TV room and anywhere else they enjoyed snoozing. One day Diane declared she’d had enough. Some of them had to go.

I said, “Fine, you choose four, and I’ll find homes for them.”

She gave me one of those looks wives give you. “You son of a b***h,” she said. And that was that.

Then there was the time our German shepherd mix Pupska bit our priest. He’d arrived 10 minutes early while I was showering and Diane was in the kitchen. How things normally worked was that all vehicles driving up the 75 yards from the front gate got a boisterous canine escort until I’d walk out to greet them, at which point the pack backed off.

“It was all my fault,” Father Davis explained as we tended to his sore ankle. “She warned me not to come on the porch, but would I listen?”

He made a wry joke about the dog not recognizing his “Superman collar.” In the rural parish he’d served for decades, Pupska was far from his first farm dog. The way he saw it, she’d been doing her job.

So here’s my advice for President Biden: The White House is no place for a German shepherd. The instinct to be territorial and protective is in their genes. They’re inclined to be leery of strangers and to resist handling by anybody they don’t know. Bullying begets counteraggression. They are not beagles or even golden retrievers.

Did you see that photo of 400 goldens sitting together in a field in Scotland? That’s the breed you need.

Elsewhere in dog news, The New York Times recently published an extraordinary exercise in Manhattan provincialism entitled “Dog Parks Are Great for People. Too Bad They’re Terrible for Dogs.” Because author Julie V. Iovine once encountered an aggressive dog with a churlish owner, she decided to warn everybody that a “thunderdome of rowdy pooches” is awful for everybody everywhere.

“Those loopy circles that dogs make in a dog park, called the zoomies?” Iovine writes. “Those could be playful, or they could very well be your dog screaming, ‘I just can’t take it anymore!’ ”

If you can’t tell the difference, you probably shouldn’t have a dog. Stick to cats. They’ll bewilder you, too, but the cat won’t care. One thing I’ve learned during our daily visits to a large, tree-shaded dog park over the last several years is that a sizeable proportion of pet owners have no clue.

The good news is that there are normally experienced hands around who can help out. Most dog fights, for example, resolve harmlessly unless people jump in, take sides and make everything worse.

Sometimes, however, it’s good to have somebody like Eric nearby, an imposing ex-Marine whose “command presence,” as they say in the Corps, can settle a dog fight with a stern look. Even Eric, however, knows better than to go grabbing. For one thing, you can get bitten.

Also, restraining a frightened animal only redoubles its fear.

Anyway, we really have little choice at our house. All four dogs know exactly what time it is. Never mind tornado warnings or 103 degrees. Comes 4 p.m., the cacophony can be deafening. Sophie, the elderly basset hound we adopted after our dog park friend Debbie died suddenly, stands on the car’s front seat peering ahead: a canine navigator.

By the time we turn into the city park, everybody’s whimpering and moaning. They charge the gate, eager to see their friends, canine and human. There are a couple of regulars who carry dog treats, beloved figures.

The bossy corgi/Aussie cattle dog we call “Officer Marley” has taught several people to throw balls for her. Hank the basset hound, aka “The Ladies’ Man,” trots off looking for young women to charm. Aspen, the handsome, sweet-natured collie/Great Pyrenees who’s the Brad Pitt of the dog park, searches for his pals, while Sophie solicits treats. You can’t fool her nose.

Diane and I walk laps while they play, and then adjourn to a tree-shaded bench to visit with some of the endearing oddballs we’ve met there who share our love of dogs.

Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.”  You can email Lyons at eugenelyons2@yahoo.com.