Of Dogs and Men
Chester was my window on the mysterious bond between canines and humans
The way I see it, dogs had this big meeting, oh, maybe 20,000 years ago. A
huge meeting — an international convention with delegates from everywhere.
And that’s when they decided that humans were the up-and-coming species and
dogs were going to throw their lot in with them. The decision was obviously
not unanimous. The wolves and dingoes walked out in protest.
Cats had an even more negative reaction. When they heard the news, they
called their own meeting — in Paris, of course — to denounce canine
subservience to the human hyperpower. (Their manifesto — La Condition Feline
— can still be found in provincial bookstores.)
Cats, it must be said, have not done badly. Using guile and seduction, they
managed to get humans to feed them, thus preserving their superciliousness
without going hungry. A neat trick. Dogs, being guileless, signed and
delivered. It was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
I must admit that I’ve been slow to warm to dogs. I grew up in a
non-pet-friendly home. Dogs do not figure prominently in Jewish-immigrant
households. My father was not very high on pets. He wasn’t hostile. He just
saw them as superfluous, an encumbrance. When the Cossacks are chasing you
around Europe, you need to travel light. (This, by the way, is why Europe
produced far more Jewish violinists than pianists. Try packing a piano.)
My parents did allow a hint of zoological indulgence. I had a pet turtle. My
brother had a parakeet. Both came to unfortunate ends. My turtle fell behind
a radiator and was not discovered until too late. And the parakeet, God
bless him, flew out a window once, never to be seen again. After such
displays of stewardship, we dared not ask for a dog.
My introduction to the wonder of dogs came from my wife Robyn. She’s
Australian. And Australia, as lovingly recounted in Bill Bryson’s In a
Sunburned Country, has the craziest, wildest, deadliest, meanest animals on
the planet. In a place where every spider and squid can take you down faster
than a sucker-punched boxer, you cherish niceness in the animal kingdom. And
they don’t come nicer than dogs.
Robyn started us off slowly. She got us a border collie, Hugo, when our son
was about 6. She knew that would appeal to me because the border collie is
the smartest species on the planet. Hugo could 1) play outfield in our
backyard baseball games, 2) do flawless front-door sentry duty, and 3) play
psychic weatherman, announcing with a wail every coming thunderstorm.
When our son Daniel turned 10, he wanted a dog of his own. I was against it,
using arguments borrowed from seminars on nuclear nonproliferation. It was
hopeless. One giant “Please, Dad,” and I caved completely. Robyn went out to
Winchester, Va., found a litter of black Labs and brought home Chester.
Chester is what psychiatrists mean when they talk about unconditional love.
Unbridled is more like it. Come into our house, and he was so happy to see
you, he would knock you over. (Deliverymen learned to leave things at the
In some respects — Ph.D. potential, for example — I don’t make any great
claims for Chester. When I would arrive home, I fully expected to find Hugo
reading the newspaper. Not Chester. Chester would try to make his way
through a narrow sliding door, find himself stuck halfway and then look at
me with total and quite genuine puzzlement. I don’t think he ever got to
understand that the rear part of him was actually attached to the front.
But it was Chester, who dispensed affection as unreflectively as he
breathed, who got me thinking about this long-ago pact between humans and
dogs. Cat lovers and the pet averse will just roll their eyes at such
dogophilia. I can’t help it. Chester was always at your foot or your hand,
waiting to be petted and stroked, played with and talked to. His beautiful
blocky head, his wonderful overgrown puppy’s body, his baritone bark filled
every corner of house and heart.
Then last month, at the tender age of 8, he died quite suddenly. The long,
slobbering, slothful decline we had been looking forward to was not to be.
When told the news, a young friend who was a regular victim of Chester’s
lunging love-bombs said mournfully, “He was the sweetest creature I ever
saw. He’s the only dog I ever saw kiss a cat.”
Some will protest that in a world with so much human suffering, it is
something between eccentric and obscene to mourn a dog. I think not. After
all, it is perfectly normal, indeed, deeply human to be moved when nature
presents us with a vision of great beauty. Should we not be moved when it
produces a vision — a creature — of the purest sweetness?
By Charles Krauthammer
Tuesday, Jun. 10, 2003
From the Jun. 16, 2003 issue of TIME magazine
On Point host Tom Ashbrook closed his July 16/03 show with the above audio clip.