Tuesday, December 22, 2009

There were few takers

H/T to commenter "straybaby" over at the Pet Connection for this article about veterans and homeless dogs.


One of my obscure antiquarian book treasures is this:

History of Dogs for Defense

by Fairfax Downey

Part historical record, part public relations campaign, and part excruciating period piece. Mr. Downey's attempt to affect a breezy gee whiz style provides cringe-inducing passages about "Japs" and "Nips" and lots of references to the dogs as "chum" and "pal" in stilted fictionalized dialogue. The style it most evokes is that of the miserable self-serving hack Albert Payson Terhune.

Nevertheless, it is an original source, and valuable even in the face of a possibly unreliable author. It is sometimes difficult to parse out the difference between a normal absence of foresight and an appalling lack of self-awareness on Mr. Downey's part.

Downey did not grok, for example, that his account of dogs (or more properly, dog ownership) as therapy for "shell shocked" veterans would be one of the saddest things I have ever read:

These Dogs for Convalescents as they came to be called were in effect a revival in a new form of the casualty or ambulance dog, used fairly extensively in the First World War though little in the Second. On the battlefield they ahd searched out the wounded and led parties back to their aid. Now these dogs helped wounded men find themselves. And they led their masters back to health as surely as Seeing Eye dogs guided blind veterans.

Soon after the advent of "Fritz" the Air Forces hospital and its pleasant grounds, formerly a boarding-school, began to resemble a kennel club show, an obedience class in more or less continuous session, and a K-9 training camp. Dogs were everywhere. For a time those that were house-broken were allowed to sleep at the foot of their masters' beds in the wards, but the situation reached a point where it was more than the staff could cope with, and kennels were required.

"Fritz" had created demand. Mrs. Preston and fellow-enthusiasts managed supply. Most calls were for Spaniels, German Shepherds, Boxers, Doberman Pinschers, Fox Terriers (both wirehaired and smooth), Boston Terriers, Collies, Setters, Pointers, Airedales, Scotties, Dalmatians, Beagles, and Retrievers. Aside from breed, patients almost always asked that their dog be a veteran of the K-9 Corps or purebred.

Insistence on purebreds was based on the wounded men's pride in the dogs' appearance, their adaptability to training, and on eagerness for pets to make a good showing in the dog show and exhibitions which commenced to be staged as part of the program. When mongrels were offered or a basket of foundling puppies was left at the gate, there were few takers.

There it is, right there. The post-war conversion of dog from working partner and companion into consumer product and brand-name ego surrogate.

Mrs. Preston, the helpful dog "fancier" who ran dog shows and brought in an AKC judge to appraise the "quality" of the wounded soldiers' kennel-bound pedigree pets -- we can thank Mrs. Preston for jump-starting the degradation of American middle-class dogs into brand-name consumer satisfaction.

Men who had given nearly all, and who had watched their friends die, to fight Nazis and Nazi ideology, now encouraged to cultivate pride in the purity of their living property, and pride in winning a contest of appearances. Taught by The Fancy as part of their government-run therapy what makes a "better" dog. Rassehund uber alles.

What decades of genetic damage and cultural delusions might have been avoided in 1944 if someone had been there to take the veterans coon hunting instead? If fair and open contests of obedience and function had channeled the soldiers' competitive urges?

Might compassion have combated consumerism in post-war America if the men had been encouraged to rehabilitate dogs who needed them, rather than demand dogs with the appearance they had been conditioned to want?

Sixty-five years later, thanks to Pets2Vets, the basket of foundling puppies finally has some takers.

1 comment:

  1. Cripes, how did I miss this on our own blog???

    Must fix.


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