MAN’S BEST FRIEND
Roger Rosenblatt considers the joys of dog owning.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The psychology of dogs is becoming a major specialty of veterinary medicine and literature and of life. The past couple of years have produced important books about dogs: “The Dog Who Loved Too Much,” by Nicholas Dodman; Elizabeth Marshall Thomas’s “The Hidden Life of Dogs;” “Do Dogs Need Shrinks?” by Peter Neville; and “Dog Love,” by Marjorie Garber. There are summer camps for dog owners, such as Camp Gone to the Dogs in Vermont, which includes such classes as Understanding Your Dog’s Personality. There are subspecialties in dog psychology that deal with blanket sucking and compulsive licking. All such thing are devised to allow us to know our dogs better and to help us understand why we keep them around. People admire dog virtues, we are told, their courage, their loyalty. They give us solace. German dog psychologist Professor Reinhold Berger, author of “Man and Dog,” says, “Dogs possess certain characteristics that are seen to be socially desirable in humans.” Well, maybe, but I have a less exalted view of the subject. I think we love dogs because dogs are ridiculous. I think we keep them around for laughs. To wit, a dog’s barking. No stand-up comedian can come close to the preposterous effect of a barking dog.
STEVE MARTIN: (talking to dog) Well, what is it boy? Are you lost?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Steve Martin made the most of this wonderful feature in “The Jerk” when he interpreted his dog’s pointless yammerings as a warning that he was in danger.
STEVE MARTIN: (talking to dog) Is it an accident, a drowning, a fire? (dog barking) Fire?
ROGER ROSENBLATT: The bit was derived from the old radio show Sergeant Preston of the Yukon in which the Canadian Mountie hero would have long and complex conversations with his dog, King. Lassie, as everyone knows, barked in paragraphs.
ACTOR: Folks, false alarm. There’s no fire.
ROGER ROSENBLATT: What’s funny about a dog’s barking, of course, is that no one has the slightest idea what it’s about. He presents us with his profile and yells at nothing, or more often at some other dog doing the same thing. Does a human being shout because he hears another human being shout a few blocks away? What is it boy? O.J.’s other glove? The stare of a dog is even funnier than the bark, especially when the stare is accompanied by the wagging tail.
No deadpan comic in history, not George Burns, Jack Benny, or Buster Keaton, could compare with the combined effect of a dog’s enthusiastic tail wagging while the animal maintains his absurdly expressionless face. I spend many hours in blissful amusement watching our dog, Hector, wagging and staring, or simply sitting and staring. I’m amused by Hector’s name, Hector. I think we give dogs human names because that’s funny too. Hector is quite funny on his own. He growls like a tiger if I approach his dish of food. I swear to you, I’ve never eaten his food, never even attempted, but that’s Hector. Then there’s that sniffing business, sniffing for hours in total ecstacy.
Nonsense. It’s all quite ridiculous but touching too. We keep dogs around to have something to laugh at, and they probably keep us around for similar reasons. But they are a lot funnier than we are, and they never laugh, themselves, or even smile wryly or otherwise. I’ve told Hector some stories that are hilarious, not a titter, not a chuckle. What is most touching about dogs is they only do about seven things. They sniff; they bark; they lie down; they perk up; they eat; they do the consequences of eating; and, of course, they stare. (talking to Hector) Hector, a man takes a dog into a bar–oh, you’ve heard that one. Hector, a man goes to a psychiatrist, says, “Doc, I think I’m a dog.” The doctor says, “How long have you thought so?”. He says, “Since I was a puppy.” (laugh track) He says, “Since I was a puppy.”
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.
January 27, 1997