In Praise of Dogs

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A Bichon Frise, one of the small breeds that thinks big. Photo by MrRobot.

In the baleful time of the unjustly named “dog days of summer,” we should (and have) focused on the year-round days of the dog. Dogs have achieved historical fame and an unprecedented importance and role in the lives of humans, as companions and family members.

The separate category of beings known as pets includes the mysterious cats, parrots, snakes and animals that spend their days running in a wheel, a species, if you will, of which dogs are undeniably emperors and kings. Cats, and people who pride themselves on lacking sentimentality (who often prefer cats or no companions at all), would no doubt disagree.

Dogs have crossed over into the world of humans as pets, as family members, as significant statistics in the world economy in terms of the manufacture of food, the practice of medicine, the creation of dog-specific toys and the making of television commercials.

So, let us now praise famous dogs: those who have appeared as heroes, movie and television stars and bit actors, athletes, characters in and the subjects of visual and literary art. They are omnipresent in marketing vehicles (and thus part of the workforce), legends in war and peace, creatures upon whom humans lavish love, money, time and inordinate attention.

They are also, as has been duly noted without being fully appreciated, the furry examples and practitioners of the art of something called “unconditional love,” evidence for which exists in irrational fashion in the daily lives of pet owners and caretakers.

Emerging from the zillions of pure breeds, new breeds and the much-honored mutts, dogs lead singular lives of independence and dependency — the dependence existing in sometimes serendipitous, sometimes cruel fashion. Dogs do not choose or marry their human companions, and cannot dictate the degree of love or lack of it in their owners. Often with enthusiasm and a great gift for bonding, dogs have a great capacity for making do. And they have an even bigger gift for remaining in the memory of those with whom they have bonded, or even those who may have merely laughed or cried at their antics in stories and movies.

Let us praise, for instance, those marketers, or actors, stars of screen and television, who may have been the inventors of method acting in the sense that they lead double lives, like the late terrier Moose and his son Enzo, who both portrayed Eddie, the smarter-than-the-humans canine foil on “Frazier.”

Let us praise Uggie, star of “The Artist,” and Terry, the Cairn Terrier who became Toto in the forever-classic “The Wizard of Oz.” He is certainly a denizen of the land over the rainbow.

Let us, of course, praise, Rin Tin Tin, the first enduring star of silent and talkie films, followed by the innumerable versions of Lassie, the faithful and brave Collie, and even Duke who advertise baked beans and the Otterhound who played Sandy in the film version of “Annie.”

There are, in Wikipedia, categories for almost every dog who achieved fame, including Nixon’s dog Checkers, Andy Warhol’s dog Archie (who got more than 15 minutes of fame) and all the famous rescue dogs, war dogs, working and service dogs, the Weimaraners made famous by William Wegman and the presidential dogs, including Fala (FDR) and Pete the biter (TR) and Buddy, who kept Bill Clinton company in his time of troubles. The record for longevity, incidentally, is held by Bluey, an Australian cattle dog who lived for 29 and a half years.

Poets from Emily Dickinson to Robert Burns to Pablo Neruda wrote about their dogs. Billy Collins wrote an acerbic poem that gave voice to a dog not happy with his owner: “I never liked you,” he says.

Aside from that, there was Man Ray’s Fay Ray, and also Fay Wray, a Yorkshire Terrier who used to live in my neighborhood.

Among the heroic and famous, there really is only one dog we cherish until our last breath. It is the one who shared our lives with us, always, no matter how long, all too briefly. There are more dogs now in the lives of humans, but all remain singular.

In the true dog days, I remember Bailey who honored me with his presence. This Bichon Frisé’s black-eyes-against-white-fur cuteness made himself unforgettable without half trying.

Bailey has been gone six years now, but I, as do many dog owners with theirs, miss him daily. He endures, as he did everything — his love for cats, the salt-and-pepper friendship with Smokey, the Lab-Cocker mix and his best pal, the way he ran through a field on another dog’s tail, his bark, used judiciously — seemingly without effort. He made his feelings known not by grandstanding but with disdain and honesty.

He was not like a poodle I knew who insisted he was human and not a dog. Bailey insisted that he was what he was: a dog — not a wolf or some branch of human, but a true-blue dog in his 17-pound authentic glory.

Here’s to all the singular dogs who loved us and we them. Here’s to mine and here’s to yours. Unforgettable.

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