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The Local Lens: Who Let the Dogs Out?

Who let the dogs out?

 Or, how come there are so many pit bulls in the world? Where did these dogs come from? I have a good neighbor who has three ferocious pit bulls. These dogs are not gentle. They growl in his backyard. They chew and eat everything. One time they ate through a fence. When this good neighbor of mine walks them, three at a time, the dogs storm the street ahead of him, growling, snarling and racing as if possessed by demons.

 I don’t know how my patient neighbor deals with these critters. The dogs are so uncontrollable he has to walk them very late at night. If he walked them too early in the day they would lunge at people passing by the sidewalk. These pits will attack anyone and everyone. At night sometimes I hear them growling and chewing through rubber and wire.  

 These dogs appear in my nightmares. 20 charging pit bulls in a pack  howling like wolves in Germany’s Black Forest. And there’s nowhere to escape, although in these dreams I see people running into their houses. The pits are coming. The pits are coming.

 Moms who have been sitting on stoops reach out and take their babies out of strollers and tell their other toddlers on tricycles to stop everything and get inside.

 “What happened to the wonderful collies of yesterday?!” somebody shouts.

 As an animal lover, I have a hard time with pit bulls. I like my dogs to be graceful and sleek, not barrel-shaped with bulbous round heads and eyes that are always defensively on edge.  

 One of my friends insists that the odd disappearance of feral cats in the neighborhood has something to do with the popularity of pits.

 “Feral cats slip in and out of tiny backyard spaces, the same private backyard spaces where many of the pits linger,” he said. “It’s much like the fly going into the spider’s web. The pit eliminates the feral.”

 My friend may be right. The neighborhoods used to be filled with feral cats. On my own block we used to see two or three a day. Suddenly there’s an absence. There’s only one feral that I know of, an unfriendly little critter who will scratch or bite if you lean down to pet it. Nice, huh?

 Some pretty decent friends of mine adore pit bulls, but I just don’t get it. They keep saying the same thing: “It’s not the breed; it’s the people who raise the dogs. Remember this the next time you read an awful story about a pit attacking a toddler on the way home from school. It’s the fault of the owners, the people who trained the pit, not the pit.” In other words, it’s like a hooligan teenager who bullies people. Blame the parents. The kid wasn’t trained properly.

 “Pits are beautiful and loyal pets,” another friend said. “They are just like any other dog—the regal greyhound, the cute as pie Chihuahua, the hot dog or dachshund or the supremely benevolent collie. Blame the awful person who taught the pit how to be an indiscriminate fighter or growler.”

 I tell these friends it’s a shame that classic, regular dogs are being bred out of existence and that most dogs now seem to have a bit of “pit” in them. This is not a good development.

 I tell my friends about my experiences with bad dogs.

 There was the ferocious German shepherd that would chase me on my bicycle when I was a paperboy. This mammoth shepherd loved to snip at my ankles whenever he saw me riding by. On Fridays, when I’d go door to door to collect the weekly newspaper subscription fees, the shepherd would circle my bicycle, growl and then force me to bypass the house and collect when the shepherd was out of sight. I tried my hardest to process the dog’s nasty demeanor, but couldn’t come up with an answer. I learned very early on that, however endearing a pet may be, on a base level they are still beasts, and that no matter how sweet and lovely they are, every now and then a portion of that beast emerges.

 Growing up, my family’s dog, Lucky, a tan and black dachshund, was a good looker, but he was known to growl illogically and violently whenever any of the males in the family placed a plate of dog food in front of him.    

 “What’s with Lucky?” my brother would ask. “Licking and loving you one moment, then ready to take your head off the next.”

 Lucky had a good life. He loved to roam the corn field behind our home, run down to the creek and sniff the water’s edge for crayfish, and then explore the stacked hay bales inside a nearby barn. He was combed and brushed and given endless treats from the dinner table. One day he even brought home what looked like a monkey’s paw. Where did he find a monkey in Chester County? The paw (or claw) was a topic of conversation in our house for years.

 As loveable as Lucky was, his dangerous habit of running into the street in front of our house at the approach of a car or tractor trailer truck eventually did him in. His insatiable thirst for nipping at wheels going round

and round backfired when he miscalculated and nipped too far underneath a moving vehicle.  “He was hit by a car,” my mother told me the day I walked home from school and found her cuddling Lucky in her lap on the grassy embankment in front of our house. She was weeping terribly.

 I felt bad too, but I could not cry because I never felt that Lucky liked me.

 With Lucky gone, it would be a while before we got another dog. The new dog, Angie, had a bizarre behavior: she liked to “eat” her own tail.

 The tail eating got so bad that Angie’s tail had to be amputated, but instead of correcting anything, the lack of a tail led to other self-eating attempts. The otherwise sweet Angie just wanted to eat herself off the planet. What kind of a suicide design is this?  It occurred to me then that maybe dogs had more neuroses than human beings and were often more trouble than they were worth.  

 Still, nobody had pit bulls in those days. There were, as I said, beautiful  collies, dachshunds, (real) boxers and shepherds, although the term junkyard dog (breed unknown) made the rounds from time to time, referring to ill-mannered ugly dogs who were so nasty they would attack their own shadow. Or anybody who stood in front of them.

 The most infamous dog in my extended family was the black French poodle, Monsieur Faux Pas.   

 Monsieur Faux Pas was an indiscriminate, shameless cad. He loved legs, all sorts of legs – male, female, young and old. He even liked furniture stumps. As a teenager I would walk Monsieur Faux Pas all over the streets of West Chester. Monsieur Faux Pas was well behaved during these walks, but he showed his Mr. Hyde side at family gatherings, all occasions when the adults would be sipping cocktails in the living room.  

 That’s when he would go on a leg romp. There’s nothing in life that brings one down to Earth faster than having a dog greet you with a leg hump.  My venerable grandfather, dressed to the nines, would suddenly be jolted forward on the sofa as Monsieur wrapped his beastly paws around his argyle socks.

 “No, no, no!” my grandmother would interject. At that, Monsieur would disengage as my grandfather would check his trousers for… marks.

 Monsieur, undeterred, would proceed to Aunt Dora—silk stockings always made the grade—then proceed to Grandmother herself, and then after that to each of my siblings, going down the line, sometimes leaving trails and sometimes not, until the group outrage turned into a kind of fascinated, guilty laugh. Monsieur had succeeded in breaking up the stuffy, formal atmosphere.

 “He needs to be locked in a room,” Aunt Dora would say, and so Monsieur would be ushered upstairs until the terrible spell that had possessed him had passed. In an hour or so he could be released into polite company.

 But had Monsieur been a pit bull, he would have eaten his way out of that room for sure.

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