By Gene Lyons
As I write, the love of my life is off to the state penitentiary. I expect her back at the farm in late afternoon. She's a volunteer with Paws in Prison, an organization that matches homeless dogs with inmate trainers.
After 12 weeks of living and working with prisoners, dogs "graduate" and are put up for adoption. Diane's task is to match needy animals with families. An experienced canine diplomat, she's perfect for the job.
It's trickier than you'd think. A 110-pound mastiff that's never seen a child may not know how to act. A dog that's grown accustomed to prison life -- a perfect canine environment, with unlimited attention and an "owner" who never goes away -- may react badly to being left alone. Inexperienced owners sometimes underestimate their needs.
Graduation day can be emotional. Men who have done terrible things in their lives come to feel a strong connection with their dogs. Only the promise of a new student for another three months makes it all right letting them go.
The thing about dogs is they don't know about your rap sheet and they don't care. Some inmates have told Diane how much the animals have helped alleviate their feelings of isolation. A couple have volunteered that having them around has altered the prison environment for the better. Hard shells soften while petting a dog.
Indeed, I wonder if it's possible to fully trust anybody who dislikes dogs, although there are many people who probably shouldn't own one. I'm thinking now of the authors of a recent Slate.com piece called a "Big data dog graph" ranking breeds by "costs and benefits" of owning one. In one chart, they've produced a handsome graphic purporting to distinguish "inexplicably overrated" breeds from "overlooked treasures."
It reads like something Mitt Romney would love. The criteria were "intelligence," "longevity," "appetite," "grooming costs," and a couple of others. The idea being that if you're a clear-thinking, trendy pet owner, your dog of choice will be a border collie, while if you like them short-lived and stupid, you'll show up at the dog park with some unfortunate brute like a mastiff or a boxer.
Except what if you don't have a herd of sheep to keep your border collie busy and the children in your neighborhood resent being herded? What if kids' parents object to their being nipped on the rump to speed them along? In my experience, border collies simply shouldn't live in town. Slate's graph excludes everything about this wonderful breed that makes them unique.
That's true throughout. My point is that breeds of dog are among mankind's oldest and most successful examples of biological engineering. Most were created for specific purposes: beagles to track rabbits and deer, bloodhounds to catch convicts, setters and spaniels to point upland game birds, golden retrievers to fetch ducks, Rottweilers and Great Pyrenees to guard livestock, malamutes to pull sleds, etc.
While many are no longer used for these purposes, most retain breed characteristics it's important to understand. I know an artist who once adopted a Dalmatian because she liked its spotted coat. Alas, as coach dogs, Dalmatians tend to be tireless, aggressive and not very interested in cuddling. Almost any mixed-breed stray at the county shelter would have served her better.
Out here in the boondocks, our needs are so varied we currently keep six dogs of four breeds: three for security, two for comic relief, and one to keep the couch on the floor.
The two Great Pyrenees sometimes intimidate visitors who don't notice that the German shepherd's doing all the growling. People, they're OK with, although nobody comes on the place without a close escort. Strange dogs, however, need to stay away. Indeed, no animal with sharp teeth or talons is permitted, apart from their personal cats, whom they protect.
Great Pyrenees exercise their own judgment, often ignore contrary commands, and appear totally fearless. That can become a problem. Like border collies, they're unsuited for city life. Ours have never shown aggression toward humans, but I suspect if somebody tried to hurt us, they'd wish they hadn't.
Pupska, the German shepherd who got her dopey name because somebody dumped her as a puppy and we weren't going to keep her, is the only dog we own who obeys commands. She's also the only one who's ever nipped a priest's ankle. She kept warning Father Davis not to approach until one of us came outside to OK him, but would he listen?
According to the Big Data Dog Graph, my basset hounds are stupid and eat too much, hence not desirable. It's true they're not great problem solvers. Mainly, they enjoy napping with cats. They're also total sniffaholics. Walking them on a leash would be slow-motion torture.
But they love everybody, they're happy all the time, and they make me laugh six times a day. That's got to be worth something.