Man's best friend?

by George Ringwald

A SHORT WHILE BACK THE MAIL carrier dropped off in my mailbox a brief message about Dog Bite Awareness. He couldn't have picked a more empathetic customer.

A notice reported that last year 4.7 million Americans were bitten by dogs -- man's best friend, indeed! -- and 2,851 of the victims were letter carriers. An insignificant percentage, you might well say, unless of course you were one of the letter carriers. I am totally in their corner.

Not that I've ever been bitten by a dog, but it wasn't for lack of their wanting to. Most of my life, it seems, I've been hounded by dogs, so to speak.

What amazes me is that I've never done anything to offend them that I know of. Never threw rocks at them, tied cans to their tails or asked them to chase sticks. Never tried to play any of those games that humans like to inflict on their pets.

When it comes to that old canard that you can't teach an old dog new tricks, hey, I'm on the dog's side. It isn't that you can't teach him; it's that the dog is smart enough to know that he wants no further part of people's stupid tricks.

I even once gave a speech in praise of the dog. It was in a grammar school assembly and I'd been picked to deliver this then-famous argument of an attorney in defense of some canine, charged apparently with some human abuse; the attorney's summation was so eloquent that it brought the jury to tears and to a ready acquittal. (Today, I figure that dog must have been guilty as hell, but I wasn't as cynical back then.)

Nobody cried after my speech that I remember, but you'd have thought word of it would have quickly gotten around to the dog world. Surely they'd have known that I was a good guy, not to be snarled at.

No such luck. One of my scariest times was as a teenager, when I was hitchhiking from St. Louis to New Orleans and found myself one black-as-pitch night walking a road through the spooky pine forests of Louisiana. I'd been walking for hours, it seemed, with hardly a car in sight and no luck in flagging down one of the few that passed.

Then I heard in the distance the baying of hounds, faint but unmistakable. Gradually it grew louder, closer and definitely more menacing; and in my mind the number of those bloodhounds of hell had swollen from maybe a dozen to a couple hundred. Neither was there any doubt in my mind that those suckers were not just out trying to tree a possum -- they wanted to tree me!

I was minutes away, I thought, from an ignominious end, when, heaven-sent, a flat-bed suddenly appeared, slowing down for me, and I never hopped on anything faster in my life.

Another close call was one in Palm Desert some years back, when I was roaming Riverside County as a feature writer for The Press-Enterprise newspaper. It's often occurred to me I should have gotten extra hazardous-duty pay for that job, because, like the mail carrier, I was frequently an intended victim of vicious dogs on the loose at the home I called on.

In Palm Desert I'd gone to interview an eminent businessman of the desert resort town -- a man so eminent, in fact, that he was known as Mister Palm Desert, in part, I suppose, because he owned about half the real estate in sight.

I opened the gate to his front garden, walked up to ring the door bell, and soon as I did heard this huge, deep-throated barking from the back. Then around the corner of the house came either the biggest dog or the smallest horse I'd ever seen -- a Great Dane who came up to my shoulder at least and was just about there when the front door was flung open and Mr. Palm Desert shouted at Deep Throat to knock it off.

Mr. Palm Desert, I remember, looked very worried -- although certainly not as terrified as I was -- because I could imagine his thinking, Well, there goes half the property to this guy's heirs. Fat lot of good it would have done me.

When a few years back, I related the story to a friend in Eureka, he said I'd had nothing to worry about, because Great Danes are the friendliest of dogs. Sure, and pit bulls and Dobermans, are gentle as lambs.

All these dog lovers, I guess, will come out of the cracks now to defend these terrors of the urban landscape, but I wonder how many of them know that in one year, 1985, terrorists in Europe killed only about half as many people as vicious dogs did in the United States.

That's a piece of canine trivia I've picked up in my dogged research of this subject. While I'm at it, though, I want the dog lover to know that I don't have much truck with cats either. I regard them as little more than stunted tigers, and I've know some who tried their claws on me. Besides, I'm allergic to them. There, that ought to get the cat people mad at me, too.

In all fairness to dogs -- which doesn't come easy for me -- I would be remiss in not noting that two of the friendliest dogs I've ever known are Basil and Molly, who are owned by longtime friends, Steve and Lisa Ladd-Wilson, or perhaps vice versa. The last I heard from them (they have moved from Eureka to Portland), Steve told me that Basil had won the silliest pet trick at an outdoor jazz festival.

Steve had been teaching Basil to jump up and walk on ledges, but as there wasn't a ledge on stage, Lisa fell back on Basil's old standby -- three short barks in the cadence of "I love you." It's a trick that has a very short half-life, as Steve wrote, because it can also set Basil off into a flurry of barks sounding nothing like "I love you," but rather "more like the very disturbed and agitated dog" that Basil is. But Basil performed flawlessly, and the crowd went wild with applause. Bravo, Basil!

Also in fairness, I must note that in a lifetime of scary encounters with dogs, perhaps my closest call came with -- you're not going to believe this -- a bunch of turkeys.

Again it was during my teenager hitchhiking days. I was thumbing my way through Wyoming one summer and, in between rides, made my way toward a ranch house in the hope of getting a bite to eat in return for any work I might do for the owner. As I came toward the end of the dirt road leading to the ranch house, I suddenly became aware of this flock of turkeys. More to the point, they were aware of me, and suddenly these 50 or 60 gobblers were stomping their methodical way to surround and presumably peck me to death -- an even more ignominious end, I guess, than at the maw of hound dogs. But, again heaven-sent, the rancher just as suddenly emerged from the house to shoo away those turkeys.

Still, that was just one encounter against dozens with dogs, and I think it highly likely I'll have a lot more with dogs than I ever will again with turkeys.

If you've gotten this far, I think it best to leave you with the comment of another curmudgeon, Wilfrid Sheed, who summed up his own tendentious feeling about dogs thusly: "Reading about dogs is almost as bad as having them stand on your chest and lick you."

Couldn't agree with him more.

George Ringwald is a free-lance writer in Eureka with a former life as investigative reporter for the Press-Enterprise in Riverside and Tokyo bureau chief for Business Week magazine.

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