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Newmann: Dog days

Tom Newmann
Valley Voices

“If you pick up a starving dog and make him prosperous, he will not bite you. This is the principal difference between a dog and a man.” — Mark Twain

Twain, ever the perceptive chronicler of human nature, also had an acute sense of canine nature. He was a dog lover, had three collies (named “I Know,” “You Know” and “Don’t Know”) and remarked that “the dog is a gentleman; I hope to go to his heaven, not man’s.”

Regardless of where one might stand on the former theological aspect, dogs are generally acclaimed as man’s best friend (the acclaim, ironically, coming from man). The lore of their loyalty, protectiveness, and unconditional love coupled with a slew of their other beneficent traits has literally paralleled human existence. We have taught them any number of serious skills along with some pretty frivolous stuff. They are, in many respects, the ideal creature, wanting to please and asking very little, if anything, in return.

They’re also remarkably happy animals. They love, for the most part, to just have fun. Part of the fun is just being acknowledged. A stick, a ball, a walk, or even a pat, will suffice. A ride in the car is an absolute right.

Dogs are territorial. The house, the car, the families, these are theirs. They are the rightful owners and the protectors and their perception of any intrusion is sometimes met with ferocity. So all is not necessarily peace and love. Trespass on their domain, regardless of whether you’re man or beast, and the barking and growling may start to amp up.

There are, of course, the infrequent exceptions to the ideal of the dog. These are the “rogues,” the guys who break the anthropomorphic mold of what constitutes a “good” dog and end up biting someone for no good reason (in human terms) or creating other havoc and/or mischief. For them, a second chance can be very iffy (which definitely differentiates their further treatment from that of the two-legged species).

Dogs generally enjoy seem to each other’s company, especially in areas where no territory (or food) is under threat. Just pop down to a dog park or a beach and watch the festivities. Different breeds, all shapes and sizes, mingling, enjoying one another’s company, cavorting all over the show individually or with one another. It’s fun to watch (and must even be more fun to be a part of).

The irony of dogs is that, given all the different breeds (about 340 at last count and that’s not counting the bulk of the crew, the mutts), they all come from the same ancestor: the gray wolf. But, in large part because of human intervention, these descendants now have a multitude of different colors, hair textures, sizes, shapes, you name it. Look under the hood of any dog, however, and the basic physiological structure is pretty much the same, regardless of size or shape.

Some dogs look very regal, others comical. The speedy — and the speedless. Swimmers, waders, and sunbathers. The irony is that none are at all concerned about what the other guy looks like. They’re all part of the same canine tribe; their differences are, in many respects, only skin deep.

The human condition mirrors the canine condition in that we’re all the same species. Under the hood we’re all the same; any difference is, physiologically, only skin deep. But, unlike the indifference of dogs to the color of their compatriots, our bipedal crew all too often does not have that same indifference. And the ensuing results can be, and often have been, less than amiable.

“I have been studying the traits and dispositions of the ‘lower animals’ (so called) and contrasting them with the traits and dispositions of man,” Twain wrote. “I find the result humiliating to me.”

Maybe, if we bothered to take note, we could learn a thing or two from our “best friends.”

Tom Newmann is a ski instructor at Beaver Creek and at Coronet Peak in Queenstown, New Zealand, who has been going winter-to-winter since 1986. He was also a journalist in Missoula, Montana, at the Missoulian for quite a few years. Email him at tsnmmf@gmail.com.


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