Posted by on Mar 17, 2009 in Palaver | 4 comments

First in a 3-part series

My family inches ever closer to buying a dog, and this is a fine thing. You know how there are cat people and dog people, and never the twain shall meet? I’m an exception: while deep down I’m a cat person (we’ve owned four, including Herschel the Best Pet Ever and the two malcontents staring at me right now), I truly love dogs as well.

But I’m not as thrilled by my canine prospects as I ought to be. I don’t merely want a dog; I want to obtain and own a dog the right way. And today, that’s virtually impossible.

What is this right way? Simple: the way my family did it in the 1960s and 1970s.

And just as Suburban Dad can no longer toss a half-dozen kids in the Ford Country Squire and let them slide around, seatbelt-free, for a run down to the ice-cream stand (a fast run at that – Suburban Dad is emboldened by three beers in his belly and one tucked between his precupholder legs), a family can no longer get a good old-fashioned dog and treat it the way good old-fashioned dogs ought to be treated.

Let’s start with obtaining a dog. There are two methods I approve of:

  1. A neighbor’s bitch has yet another litter of puppies. Your kids visit them in the neighbor’s basement, then wear you down with can we can we can we pleas. You chat with the neighbor, and you both know what’s going to happen to the pups he fails to get rid of, so … aw, hell.
  2. The kids wear you down, but there’s no convenient litter of pups in the neighborhood. So one warm spring evening, with mom making the kids promise they’ll walk and feed and whiz the dog (right), the family piles into that Country Squire for a trip to the local pound. There the kids sit on the floor, get swarmed by adorable puppies, and fight over which one to take home. An agreement is reached (usually when the eldest sibling shuts up the youngest through a liberal application of noogies and/or titty twisters).

Note that in both scenarios the breed, size, and disposition of the puppy are utterly irrelevant. That’s because every single pup under consideration is a mutt. Who knows how it’ll turn out? It may be a barker, a chewer, a runner, a drooler, a shedder. You picks your dog and you takes your chances.

Clearly, dogs are no longer selected this way – at least not in my reasonably upscale suburb. Today, the process begins with (what else?) web research. You want a dog that will weigh no more than X pounds full grown. And you want it docile. You don’t want a barker, God knows, and a shedder is unthinkable. The kid next door is allergic to everything and her father’s a personal injury lawyer, so you’d best get a dog that’s hypoallergenic. You’d prefer a light brown dog, truth be told, but not a light brown that would fight with the sisal mat in the family room.

The result of millions of households performing this calculus is … the Labradoodle. I could rest my case right there.

Which brings us to breeds and back to the 1970s, when the assumption was that every dog was a mutt. In fact, non-mutts (except German Shepherds and Golden Retrievers, which rightly got a pass due to their general doggy goodness) made us all suspicious – why, precisely, would anybody pay $250 for a freakish Giant Poodle when he could have had a floppy-eared mutt for a $10 ASPCA donation? Was a mutt not good enough for him? Did he think he was better than us? Well la-difreakin‘-da.

It’s all been inverted, of course. In the past couple of years, at least a dozen families in my neighborhood got dogs. Only one that I can think of had the spirit and heart to adopt an old-fashioned mutt from the pound (it’s liberating to call the Animal Shelter the pound, just as it is to call the Transfer Station the dump).

Once a breed is decided on, the Calling of the Breeders commences. From the stories I’ve heard, selecting a breeder is a lot like selecting a contractor: everybody tells you to get references and ask a hundred incisive questions, but the truth is you’re going to go with the first one who calls you back. In the case of a good friend, that call came from … Indiana. That’s right, he paid $1800 to a woman in Indiana for a Standard Schnauzer. The woman, who happily made the 1880-mile round trip, was a delight, as is the dog. But still.

Not for me. I want a mutt, I want it from the pound, and I want it free or damn near. And once I get that damn-near-free mutt home …

Well, that’ll be tomorrow’s post – what dog ownership is like now, what it was like then, and why the old way was better.