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by William H. Benson

January 17, 2013

     January is “National Train Your Dog Month,” an activity that can lead to a surprising outcome.

     In 2011 a writer named Susan Orleans published a book on Rin-Tin-Tin. In the book she tells of an American soldier fighting in France during World War I who adopted a German Shepherd pup, brought it back to California, trained it, and the dog appeared in 23 silent films for Warner Brothers, becoming the most famous dog in the world and the number one box office star.

     In the 1960’s another Rin-Tin-Tin had his own television show, as did Rudd Weatherwax’s collie, Lassie, a show that appeared in black and white every Sunday evening at five o’clock.

     The most famous cartoon dog is Charlie Brown’s dog Snoopy, Charles Schultz’s creation. Snoopy dreams he is the Red Baron, flying a World War I biplane and machine-gunning down the enemy. Dogs do dream, and so who is to say that they do not dream of wearing goggles, a scarf, and manning a gun.

     The best dog movie in recent years is “Marley and Me,” a movie based on the book that the newspaper columnist John Grogan wrote. The dog that he and his new bride purchase soon after their marriage is a yellow Labrador, exuberant, incorrigible, neurotic, and terrified of lightning and thunder. Grogan and his wife have three children, and the dog becomes a fixture in the family, despite his faults.

     One critic called the movie “the single most endearing and authentic movie about the human-canine connection in decades. It’s also something more: a disarmingly enjoyable, wholehearted comic vision of the happy messiness of family life.” The movie opened Christmas Day 2008 and grossed $14.75 million that first day, setting a new record. I recommend it.

     Cesar Milan, host of his own television show on dog training, says that “healthy, balanced dogs require strong pack leadership from their owners, in the form of exercise, discipline, and affection, in that order.” It is a mistake, he says “to give a great deal of affection with little discipline or exercise.” In other words take your dog for a walk, command them to heel, and then rub their ears.

     “What’s A Dog For?” is the title of a new book that the writer John Homans recently published. He answers his question with a single word: “convergence.” Because dogs have lived for millennium with human beings, they have become more like humans, and “the two species forged a brotherhood.”

     Homans quotes James Thurber: “Man is troubled by what might be called the Dog Wish, a strange and involved compulsion to be as happy and carefree as a dog.

     Dogs are so dependent upon human beings for their food and shelter. Ages ago, they sacrificed their independence and wildness for human comfort and care. One wonders what they think of their owners. Experts agree that dogs are pack animals, “even when that group consists of other dogs, humans, and cats.” They sort themselves out according to gradations of dominance.

     Their sense of smell overpowers that of humans by a magnitude of tens of thousands. Dogs can detect odors in parts per trillion. Where humans have 6 million olfactory receptors, a dog has 300 million. “The world to a dog is not a visual one but a richly odoriferous one.” It is just a pity that they cannot talk and tell us what their sense of smell is conveying to them.

     And yet, Homans says, a dog has learned to visually recognize human gestures, like pointing, “something that even our primate cousins cannot do.”

     Human beings have harnessed dogs’ unique abilities. There are seeing-eye dogs for the blind, dogs for herding sheep, police dogs for terrifying law-breakers, dogs for sniffing drugs, dogs for tracking lost people, and for those suffering from a peanut allergy, there are peanut-detecting dogs.

     The actor Jimmy Stewart wrote a poem about his dog named Beau, and he read it to Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show on July 28, 1981, causing even Johnny to tear up. You can watch it on YouTube.

     “And there were nights he would crawl upon our bed and I would feel him between us, and I would pat his head. And there were nights when I’d feel his stare and I would look, and he’d be sitting there, and I would reach out to stroke his hair. And sometimes I would feel him sigh, and I think I know the reason why. He’d wake up at night, and he would have this fear of the dark, of life, of lots of things, and he’d be glad to have me near.

     “And now he’s dead, and there are nights when I think I feel him climb upon our bed and lie between us, and I pat his head. And there are nights when I think I feel that stare, and I reach out my hand to stroke his hair, and he’s not there. Oh how I wish that weren’t so. I’ll always love a dog name Beau.”

     Dogs do not understand that this wonderful thing called life will end some day. Homans said, “It’s not that a dog accepts the cards it’s been dealt; it’s not aware that there are cards.” James Thurber said, “If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very very few persons.” It is a pity that dogs live such short lives. So train your dog today.