It used to be that people were very particular about the kind of dog they wanted. If it was their first dog, they spent months researching the attributes and drawbacks of various breeds. Once they had chosen the breed, depending on their resources, they sought a purebred puppy, with a pedigree if possible. For those who had already had a dog, the next dog was likely to be the same breed as the first.
In my family, growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, we had three successive German Shorthaired Pointers. We were living in West Berlin when we bought the first one in a small, East German village, driving our Peugeot station wagon through Checkpoint Charlie and the empty countryside to the home of a renowned Shorthair breeder. He ushered us around to the back of his farm, where the latest litter of puppies was tearing through troughs filled with cow eyeballs and guts. Gina von Hasenkamp, as her papers identified her, was one of them.
My father was pleased with his choice. Gina was so beautiful, so smart, with perfect markings and a majestic and powerful build, he said. But that was as effusive as he got. She was a dog, and he and the rest of us treated Gina the way dogs were treated back then. She lived in the yard for most of the day, coming in when we got home from school if she felt like it - and sometimes she didn’t. She ate the apples, plums and pears that grew in the yard, and once a day we fed her a bowl of dog food, nothing else. She was an animal, after all.
Gina did her part by behaving the way dogs did back then. She bit the mailman, many times, even somehow jumping over the 5-foot fence once to knock him off his bicycle. She barked raucously at passersby, and occasionally escaped our yard to roam the streets, menacing our neighbors and letting any other dog she encountered know she was boss. My Dad was careful to train her well, but she answered only to him, seeming to regard male humans outside our family as prey. She was big for a German Shorthair. She killed creatures that crossed her path and loved to roll in any carcass she found. She was an expert retriever of everything my father shot while hunting, both in the water and on land. In short, she was fierce and she knew it. She slept in what we called the “dog room”, and regarded it as her territory.
In 1976 we moved back to Rockville, Maryland. A year or so later, when I was 13, my father insisted I take a paper route, delivering 70 copies of the Washington Post each day at 4 a.m. One dark morning I realized a man was following me on the route. Gina was at my side, and began to growl deep in her throat. I picked up my speed and so did the man. When I broke into a run, I heard Gina’s growl wax into a nasty snarl. She left my side and I heard her run towards him. I turned around just in time to see her launch through the air onto his chest. She bit into his throat in mid-air. I ran all the way home and my parents called the police. They were unable to find the man, so Gina must not have killed him. But she turned up almost an hour later, radiant with pride. She seemed to know she had fulfilled her function in accompanying me on my morning rounds.
Gina lived until 1982, a total of 13 years. LeashLocket didn’t exist then, but it wouldn’t have mattered if it did. Gina didn’t wear a leash most of the time. My Dad felt it was unfair to curtail her freedom that way, even though it meant she got hit by cars several times. At the very end, she became so ill that my parents decided there was no choice but to put her to sleep. Back then we either didn’t know or didn’t acknowledge that chocolate was not healthy for dogs, and as Gina’s last supper my mother made her a rare treat – her very own chocolate cake, a present she’d never had before.
The next Pointer to come to us was Lola, bought outside Ellicott City near Baltimore from a breeder who wasn’t anything fancy. We knew we couldn’t expect a breeder of the caliber we encountered in Germany. During Lola’s life, the distinction between human and dog in my family got very blurry. My Dad regularly called her by both my mother’s name and mine, and she slept in the bed with my younger brother. Unlike Gina, she was privileged to enjoy scraps from the table, though she was required to stay out of the dining room during meals.
Lola was smaller than Gina, and sweeter. She didn’t bite anyone, and was wholly indifferent to other dogs. Lola was easily controllable on any kind of a leash, because she didn’t really care about being controlled. She was no good as a hunting dog, crunching up the birds before dropping them at my father’s feet. But rather than hunt or walk, she much preferred to lie in the sawdust in my Dad’s wood shop, just happy to be by his side as he built one piece of shaker furniture after another.
Lola lived 13 years as well, and then my parents got Bridget. Bridget was probably the runt of the litter – tiny, and a total mush. She had no interest whatsoever in the icky sport of hunting. My brother went to college, and when my parents made the concession of getting her a dog bed of her own to go in their room, Bridget made it clear that was unacceptable – she would be sleeping in their bed with them, thank you very much.
It was a good thing my brothers and I were grown and out of the house by this time, because it meant there was now room for Bridget at the table during all meals, complete with her own placemat and Blue Willow pattern china. Bridget also made herself part of the conversation, barking and whining at my parents when she found the tone unpleasant, or when she felt she had been shafted on her portion of the meal.
When it comes to LeashLocket, Bridget was the ideal candidate. She never went anywhere without my Dad, so it always stayed in place right on her collar, keeping my Dad from being fined for not having a leash. LeashLocket is also small and light enough to stay completely out of the way when Bridget was doing what she liked best – lying on top of my Dad in his LazyBoy, watching TV.
Bridget died this year in January, yep, also at the age of 13. Having had three German Shorthaired Pointers named Gina, Lola and Bridget, the joke has always been that my parents would get a fourth – and last – pointer puppy and name it “Uh”, making her the final syllable in the name of Gina Lollobrigida, an Italian actress from the ‘50s my Dad admired. But it was not to be. Now, see, dogs are not the same thing they were when I was a kid. They’re full-fledged members of the family, and if the internet is to be believed, most people in America who send Christmas cards also sign the card for their dog, right next to their names and those of their children.
These days, people no longer need good hunting or guard dogs. What they’re looking for is some doggie to love, and one who loves them in return. Accordingly, people are increasingly turning to shelters to adopt unwanted dogs. My own parents are among them. When my parents get over losing Bridget, they will go to a local shelter in Rockville and choose themselves a new dog. “I don’t want a puppy, I want it to be older because we are too,” my mother says. “And I don’t want a purebred, I want a mutt, something small that I can handle better now on walks.”
In this choice, my parents are bang on trend. According to a recent APPA survey, small dogs under 25 pounds increased from 38% of the dogs owned in 2006 to 47% in 2010. Medium dogs, from 25-40 pounds, are on the decrease, having waned from 33% of dogs owned in 1998 to 26% in 2010. Ownership of large dogs is still increasing, but not as quickly as that of small dogs: Large dogs comprised 45% of those owned in 1998, and 47% in 2010.
Jim Furlong, a real estate agent in Santa Cruz, last week described a recent night out with his buddies: “At a dinner meeting on Tuesday the guys got into this conversation about how most of us no longer have the big Labs and Shepherds . We now have little ‘Pound Dogs’ that we treat like kids. They sleep on the bed, they have toys. (They) can do no wrong. We love these little stinkers.”
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