Recently I read Susan Orlean’s interesting biography of Rin Tin Tin (Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend). After finishing the book I had a clear understanding of why German shepherds serve well as guide dogs. They were originally bred, in Germany (of course) in 1899, to reflect those qualities that breed founder Max Emil Friedrich von Stephanitz valued. Orlean quoted from von Stephanitz’s book The German Shepherd Dog that he liked dogs who demonstrated “attentiveness, unshockability, tractability, watchfulness, reliability, and incorruptibility.” The final trait they displayed that assured the shepherd’s suitability as a guide dog was their “unique capacity for bonding with human beings,” in particular with their individual masters. That clincher gave me a clear understanding too of why French bulldogs, including my Phil, would never serve well as guide dogs. At least not the traditional kind, and herein lies the lesson.
My dog fact book accurately describes Frenchies as “brave, active, and alert.” So far so good as guide-dog potential, right? But then it goes on to observe, in fabulous understatement, that a French bulldog “doesn’t care much for submission.” HA! When I adopted Phil as a two-and-a-half-year-old, he was a housebroken, beautifully trained show dog, owned and handled by an experienced breeder, Pat Pearce, who said she was placing him as a pet because in the performance ring he “lacked focus.” I now beg to differ. He has focus, so long as it’s on what he wants. I joke frequently that I take Phil for skids, not walks, because he plants his four meaty bulldog paws, plainly just on non-submission principle, and I end up having to drag him to get him anywhere. Once when my husband was doing the same thing, a woman walked up and threatened to report him for abusing a dog by pulling him. (She did not notice that we use a chest harness on him, not a neck collar, to accommodate his hard-wired stubbornness humanely.) My husband asked her, “Lady, have you ever owned a bulldog?”
I’ve learned to work a little better with him by now, but nonetheless I finally get what the vet exclaimed on Phil’s initial visit to the clinic: “You picked a bulldog as your first dog ever?” Yes, and I am heartsmitten.
The fact book also says that a Frenchy “needs plenty of love.” That’s because a Frenchy gives plenty. When I was getting information about the breed from Pat, she asked if I was looking for a watchdog. “No,” I answered, and she said, “Good, because Phil might try to lick someone to death, but that’s the most he’d do to an intruder!”
Phil loves everyone, not just his master a là the German shepherd. Well, almost everyone. There has been the occasional snub, usually just after I’ve gushed, “Sure, you can pet him! Phil adores people.” Embarrassing. But in the entire four years+ I’ve had him, that’s happened perhaps a half-dozen times. Because he’s generally such a people person, he especially likes to take walks (and the random skid) downtown. We live in a small New Mexico city that attracts many tourists and the town’s central plaza is the locus for sightseeing activities. As many times as Phil has had his photo taken by visitors from all over, I believe he himself is one of those activities. I’m no longer surprised when I hear Phil called by name during an outing. A real dog-about-town, he has made many friends. He is adorable, he is loving, he is kind.
Our city attracts another type of traveler too, by whom Phil has always been intrigued also. Seasonal homeless visitors begin to arrive in springtime for the warm months. I believe they gravitate here because our town is politically liberal, tolerant and generous (not to mention lightly policed), and the word has spread among the transient community in the region. They come, they panhandle at traffic intersections, I agonize over whether or not to hand them money out my car window. Would I be aiding an addiction or providing a hot meal? I don’t know. Sometimes I give, sometimes I don’t. But my husband and I contribute consistently to a local organization for the homeless and their pets–a nice distant sanitized way of assuaging my guilt. I suppose that marks me as charitably ambivalent. Which my dog definitely isn’t.
Phil knows that there’s another way to give. From the beginning of our life together, when we walk during “homeless season” he has approached groups of itinerants (who always seem to hang out in packs) to say hello, to satisfy his curiosity about them, to inhale their often edgy scents, to simply connect. Uncomfortable though I was at the likelihood of having to interact with these people, I didn’t want to be observed forcing him away from them–I’ll always be the product of my Southern upbringing, whereby I must convince the folks I dislike the most that I really don’t dislike them (don’t ask what that’s all about, because I don’t rightly know). So I began to anticipate his veerings toward such a crowd well in advance, steering him discreetly in another direction. His love of homeless people accounts for my learning to handle better his intractability. And my own.
This past summer on a Sunday morning when I wasn’t paying attention on a walk with Phil, he sidled over to two transient youths sitting in a pocket park near downtown. Too late for a tactful change of course. “Can I pet your dog?” one of the boys called to me. “Sure,” I said as he was coming toward me. He was skinny, not too dirty, dark-haired, jittery, hyperalert. We began to talk as Phil stood still and received his attentions. The boy asked me, “Do you live in town?” I answered yes and then asked if he did too. “Naw, I’m just a street kid. My mom died and I’ve been living on my own.”
I told him how sorry I was for his loss and asked how long ago she’d died. “About two weeks ago,” he said. “But she wasn’t a very good mother anyway. She was an addict and finally o.d.’d so no one could save her.” We talked on, about his stepfather (he didn’t know where his birth father was) and about the boy’s having gone to the funeral. I finally asked if he had someone professional to talk to about all this, that I knew of places in town where he could get counseling at no cost. He knew about the center for homeless youth, he said, and the people there had been very helpful.
The next morning I phoned the youth center to volunteer. Something about that kid’s saying he was just a street kid I found devastating. That one little word revealed his opinion of himself, as though he didn’t count for anything, as though “a street kid” is hardly human. Surely people simply showing up would help to convince him–and more like him–otherwise. However, the center was currently without a coordinator to train volunteer prospects, I was told. I left my name and number for when the situation changes. But it hasn’t yet, evidently.
In the meantime I follow Phil’s lead. During our most recent visit with a homeless group, my husband was with us. He stood quietly to the side while Phil and I approached the four people. I talked to them, waiting for breakfast provided at a nearby church, and Phil got an eye-level head rubbing from one of the two teens sitting below on some steps. “He likes to give love,” I told the boy. “Well, I sure need it” he replied. We chatted some more, all four interested in knowing more about Phil. And they told me about the places in town that served them the tastiest meals, confirming that food is more than just nutrition; it’s one of life’s pleasures and should be to them too. At the end, the boy kissed Phil on top of his head and then let him go. As we walked away, I heard him say to the others, “What a cool dog.”
Phil bulldozes his way fearlessly into a community that I’d be too timid (or anxious) to enter on my own. He provides me with an opportunity to be with these people simply as fellow human beings, in a more equal way than a volunteer relates necessarily to a recipient or a benefactor to a panhandler. In his way he’s loyal to the bone to them. His very acceptance is his charity.
He’s my guide dog.