First Catch Your Dog

ROBERT FONTAINE is known for all sorts of light writing, ranging from a successful comedy on Broadway to many books and short articles.

We have been having a lot of trouble with dogs in the city where I live. Dogs have been following their habitual urban practice of biting first and negotiating afterward, and doing it on residential streets and in playgrounds and schoolyards. Cries of anguish have risen, especially from those bitten. On the other hand, a sickening amount of neurotic fury has issued forth from the dog owners and lovers, a special breed of humans who will tolerate almost any injustice, ignore almost any plight, and cross the street at the sight of any misery, but who will defend loudly and at length the character of their dogs.

So organized and so vociferous are dog lovers that dogs have become, so to speak, sacred cows. They stand on an equal basis with Mother and the Flag, just a little higher than clergymen and doctors. A man who would gladly put his mother on a leash or tie her to a tree will burst into weeping oratorical defense of his dog if he is asked to restrain it.

During recent hearings on a leash law, the city council was deafened by the outpourings of dog lovers, who gave the impression that to restrain a dog was to poison the very waters of democracy and to turn our backs on the spirit of Lincoln, Jefferson, and William Howard Taft. To hear these nuts speak about their dogs, one would think they were speaking of some noble and unselfish characters who were being suggested for sainthood, instead of referring to a motley crew of mangy and snarling mongrels whose careers consist mainly of nipping at children and elderly women, jumping in and out of garbage cans, and endangering lives by running in front of automobiles on heavily used highways. Possibly I do mongrels an injustice; the high-bred canines are equally noxious.

I and a small band of teachers and parents staunchly supported a leash law, risking the venom of the unleashed-dog owners. We stated our case with simple dignity: dogs untended were a worse variety of pest than pigeons and starlings. Their alleged loyalty and intelligence were strictly from hunger, and their value as companions and pets could be best served by keeping them as close to those who loved them as possible.

I was willing to grant that dogs could be trained to save little girls from drowning, but this was a situation that rarely found both the little girl and the dog available and in conjunction. I admitted the animals had, infrequently, cheered up stray souls in the Alps, an excellent place for dogs to romp. I went so far as to agree that a few small canines in tutus were passably amusing on the Ed Sullivan Show. Beyond that, euthanasia.

Resting our case, we were all taken home under police protection, surrounded by snarling, barking, and threatening dog owners.

The law was finally passed. Those of us who had had teeth sunk regularly into our thighs, our sleep broken by baleful baying and malignant yapping, and our lovely gardens uprooted at their peak were cheered by the fact that we might now enjoy a little serenity.

The law was adequate. It provided a mild penalty for the recalcitrant dog owner — a small fine. For the dog, the penalty for running around unleashed had a classic simplicity — oblivion.

We who had dared the power of the largest pressure group in the nation, we who had stood against custom, prejudice, and rotten and mawkish sentimentality celebrated in a modestly fitting manner. Our battle, we felt, was done, except for the idiotic poison-pen letters and the anonymous threats we received.

Our joy was premature. Dog owners, being the breed of subhumans they are, ignored the law, as did the law-enforcement agencies. Dogs continued to roam the streets, dragging bloody bones and entrails out of supermarkets, biting the ankles of the elderly, sinking their teeth into fruit-store cantaloupes, yanking up rows of lettuce and marigolds, digging holes in lawns, and wandering the avenues in the small hours of the morning yowling to equally flearidden mates.

Protests were lodged, as usual. And, as in any city you care to name, the mayor’s hands were tied, and the city council, having passed the law, washed its hands of the problem of making it stick.

The police said they were not trained by their superiors or equipped by nature to catch dogs. They were also very busy with flimflam artists, lurid paperbacks, bookies, panhandlers, drunks, and women who wanted them to find out who was under the bed.

A spokesman for the law-enforcement agencies was eventually pinned down.

“Obviously the police come across many stray dogs. Why are they not apprehended?”

“Well, these dogs are often going or coming from someplace and are proceeding in an orderly fashion and not in mobs or anything. These dogs may be just temporarily off their leashes and not regular hardened offenders.”

“I see. But assuming they and their owners are incorrigible, why is nothing done?”

“You mean, if we have some cutand-dried case against some known canine offender?”

“Exactly.”

“Well, if we are sure this dog is a flagrant lawbreaker, we make an attempt to apprehend him. Now, it is easy to drive around in a police car and see dogs who are criminally intent on running around and violating ordinances. It is another thing to grab hold of the dog in question. Several times I have been bit in the course of my duty and forced to leave go of the dog. In other cases the dog just will not stand still to have the arrest made. He will make a break for liberty, and no officer on the force at present can outrun no dog. Furthermore, the moment you try to coax some dog to get arrested quietly, there is dozens of other dogs that spring up from unknown places and create a serious threat to the officer. We have just not got the solution to this situation yet.”

I am told that the same situation prevails in many communities where the police are either reluctant or actually afraid of dogs. The recent widespread use of police dogs, which are trained to attack no one wearing a badge and which are educated to develop a taste for paraders and picketers, have caused many of the officers to develop a soft spot in their hearts for dogs.

I have several suggestions that may help those who are defenseless against arrogant canines. I propose that a watchdog committee be established to investigate the possibilities of putting the police on a piecework basis, thus giving the police some incentive. Now, the rare officer who brings a dog into custody is a fellow who loses status and finds it difficult to sell his quota of tickets to the Policemen’s Ball.

An even finer notion I have is to declare an open season on unleashed dogs, preferably during the dog days of summer. Given several weeks’ opportunity, harassed peace-loving citizens like myself could eliminate large numbers of dangerous animals, especially if there were a decent bounty for their pelts.

Then, of course, there is the idea of appointing a special dogcatcher who could devote all his time to apprehending strays. The problem here, I am told, is that the job would have to offer a salary almost equal to the mayor’s to attract anyone to a position that dog lovers regard as one of inferior status, making the holder something of an outcast.

I doubt this. In fact, if the position is created, I know a fellow they will be unable to prevent from volunteering at the earliest moment. He’s an author, and thus an outcast anyway.