Dog

By Edwin L. Sabin

The dog we have always with us; if not active in the garden or passive on the best bed, then gracing or disgracing himself in other domestic capacities. For the dog is a curious combination, wherein heredity constantly opposes culture; and therefore though your dog be a woolly dog or a smooth dog, a large dog or a small dog, a house-dog, yard-dog, hunting-dog or farm-dog, he will be ever a delight and a scandal according as he reveals the complexities of his character. Just as soon as you have decided that he is almost human, he will straightway unmistakably indicate that he is still very much dog.

As example, select, if you please, the most pampered and carefully nurtured dog in dog tribe: some lady's dog—beribboned King Charles, bejeweled poodle, befatted pug—and give him the luxury of a half-hour in the nearest genuine alley. Do you think that he turns up his delicate nose at the luscious smells there encountered? Do you think that because of his repeated scented baths he sedulously keeps to the middle of the narrow way? Do you venture to assert that he whose jaded palate has recently declined the breast of chicken is now nauseated by the prodigal waste encountered amidst the garbage cans?

Fie on him, the ingrate! Why, the little rascal fairly revels in the riot of débris, and ten to one he will even proudly return lugging the most unsavoury of bones filched from a particularly odorous repository! His lapse into atavism has been prompt and certain. I agree with Robert Louis Stevenson that every dog is a vagabond at heart; in adapting himself to the companionship of man and woman, and the comforts of board and lodging, he leads a double life.

In this respect the dog is far more servile than the cat, his contemporary. Generations of attempted coercion have little influenced the cat. She (it seems a proper distinction to speak of the cat as "she") steadfastly maintains the distance that shall divide cat life from man life. Without duress, and in spite of duress, she accepts the material favors of civilization and domesticity only to an extent that will not inconvenience her; she has no notion of responsibilities or indebtedness. Having achieved her demands for a warm nap or a full stomach, she then makes no false motions in following her own inclinations entirely. But the dog, occupying a limbo between his natural instincts and his acquired conscience, must always be a master of duplicity.

The dog (as again points out the admirable Stevenson) has become an accomplished actor. Observe his ceremonious approach to other dogs. Mark the mutual dignity, the stiff-leggedness, the self-conscious strut, the rivalrous emulation, all of which plainly says: "I am Mister So-and-So; who in the deuce are you?" No dog so small, and only a few faint-hearts so squalid, that they do not carry a chip on their shoulder. Compare with their progenitors, the wolves in a city park. Here encounters are quick and decisive. The one wolf stands, the other cringes. Rank and character are recognized at once. The pretences of human society have not perverted wolf ethics.

Take a dog at his tricks: not the game of seeking and fetching, which he enjoys when in good humor, but parlor tricks. He has learned through fear of punishment and hope of reward. Having performed, either sheepishly or promptly, with what wrigglings and prancings and waggings, or else with what proud self-appreciation does he court approval. He knows very well that he is assuming not to be a dog, and trusts that you will admit he is smarter than mere dog. On the contrary, the cat tribe, jumping through a hoop, does it with a negligent, spontaneous grace that makes the act a condescension. The cat does not aspire to be human; she is fully content with being cat.

Elevate a dog to a seat in an automobile (any automobile), or even to the box of a rattle-trap farm-wagon. How it affects him, this promotion from walking to riding! It metamorphoses the meekest, humblest of so-called curs into a grandee aristocrat, who by supercilious look and offensive words insults every other dog that he passes. He calls upon the world about to witness that he is of man-kind, not of dog-kind. A dog riding abroad is to me the epitome of satisfied assumption.

It would be interesting to know how much, if any, the dog's brain has been increased by constant efforts to be humanized. The Boston bull is, I should judge, (and of course!) faster in his intellectual activities than is the ordinary English bull. And then I might refer to the truly marvelous feats of the sheep-dog, who will, when told, cut out any one sheep in a thousand; and I might refer to the finely bred setter, or pointer, and his almost human field work; and I can refer to my own dog, whose smartness, both natural and acquired, generally is extraordinary—although at times woefully askew, as when he buries pancakes in the fall expecting, if we may believe that he expects, to dig them up during the winter.

And there are dogs with great souls and dogs with small souls. We are told of dogs noble enough to sit by and let a needy dog gobble the meal from the platter—but I suspect that such dogs are complacent because comfortably fixed. We hear of dogs making valiant defenses of life and property—which perhaps is the development of the animal instinct to guard anything which the animal considers its own. And dogs sometimes effect heroic rescues, by orders or voluntarily—although one may query whether they consider all the consequences.

The dog's brain must be an oddly struggling mass of fact and fancy. We have done our best for him, and as a rule he creditably responds. I love my dog; he appears to love me; and by efforts of me and mine he has been humanized into a very adaptable personage. But I am certain that first principles remain the same with him as when he was a wolf-dog of cave age. He might grab me by the collar and swim ashore with me, but if on the desert island there was only one piece of meat between us and starvation, and he had it, I'd hate to have to risk getting my share without fighting for it.