For every animal species there is a human advocate, but history records what everyone knows. We share our story with certain animals, mostly dogs and cats. We used to have a tight relationship with horses. Now we have Chevy and Honda and the United States is run by petroleum companies without whom we'd be cooking on bayberry-scented candles and buying really light things from Amazon.com because they'd come by carrier pigeon. So most of our horse experience comes from watching old John Ford movies. Most kids never ride horses. Most kids are afraid of horses. The only people who know horses are kids from Westchester who are driven to riding school by trophy Moms with twenty minutes between kick boxing classes and trips to the jewelery store.
The rest of us don't like the smell.
The Golden Retriever, on the other hand, may as well be the virus of the American middle-class. Get sneezed on by your neighbor at a barbeque, you wind up with "Annie the Wonder Dog" shedding hair sweaters on the good furniture.
The dog is the horse of the new millennium. They provide us with important daily elements: drool, hair, and chewed floor molding. Having rid our lives of the nuisance of horses a void was left in our lives and in classic post-modern style we replaced a perfectly functional human-beast relationship with one that has little quantifiable value beyond feeding a continuous desire to question our own motives.
What the hell was I thinking?--we will ask ourselves at least once in our pet ownership career. While watching the animal eat a tube of toothpaste amid the ruins of your briefcase and your collection of signed first edition Kurt Vonnegut books you'll think--why didn't I eat this beast last night when I had the chance? The answer is not simple but the question is familiar to anyone who has got up on Sunday morning after a Saturday night out and asks himself--why did I drink so much? Why did I say that? Will my wife find out?
We are a compulsive species. We simply must live with these creatures. They don't know why they eat our Nikes. We don't know why we put the Nikes there for them to chew. We are gleeful in our co-dependent inter-species stupidity.
Now, no one knows why dogs are the opposite of cats. Logic dictates dogs could as well be the opposite of grapefruit or sun spots the way bacteria are not llamas and Sicilian girls with long black hair rarely become geologists. But every child knows Lassie had Timmy. Ice people know the crew of The Endurance had Mrs. Chippy, who died with the dogs on an ice floe in the Weddell Sea. Behind every successful human is something that scratches and pees on the furniture.
People love cats and I won't deny I've had occasion to pat the little critters on the head from time to time. But I am a dog person. This is why: Cats are not fundamentally on our side. There's lots of data to support this, not the least of which is evident in the primary difference between cat shows and dog shows: emergency medical support.
Cat shows are like massive sales festivals for hillbilly rifles with broken safeties. People at cat shows are bleeding and bandaged and so high on antibiotics and bacterial toxins they accidentally hand the paramedics the little Coleman camp cooler full of cat food and sodas instead of the one with the detatched fingers.
Bleeding is generally left out of dog shows. At a dog show, a pit bull will return the dog treats you accidentally dropped. A collie will teach you how to bark, "Timmy's in the well," between sessions in the ring. Newfies give rides to babies and Bernese Mountain Dogs will share the brews they stowed under the pooper scooper bags if you know any good jokes about the French.
See, it's patently clear that cats are not entirely connected to the same reality we inhabit. They're in a perpetual hallucinogenic flashback of West Side Story. A permanent multi-dimensional drug circulates in their brains. Cats sit and stare zen-like at blank white walls following eight legged flying octopusses as if everyone could see them. They go out at night, get knocked up or trashed in bar fights and then come home missing eyes mewing, "What's it to ya? You want to wind up like the other guy?"
Your dog will not do this. He lives in your world. If your dog runs away, the first thing he'll do is look for someone to replace you.
Dogs know that all the cats in the world are waiting for the signal. They're preparing. Munching their kibble and Purina Bonz, waiting for the day the UFO appears in the sky and cats hear from feline-central that it's time. Time to eliminate the weak and hairless. Then when Peanut and Mildew sneak into your bedroom at night with their claws bared and teeth at your neck you'll thank God himself for Owen, the Shar Planinetz, who pulls out the super soaker you thought you left at the beach two years ago. Then you'll know you should have had your faith in Dog.
Dogs are on our side. A dog is a duplicitous hedonist. He's in it for the gluttony of life and is quite happy to have you join in. In fact, he's puzzled when you don't. A dog invites you to enjoy the kill. You grab one leg, I'll grab the other, and we'll yank till the guts fall out--thinks a dog. It's a team thing. We're a pack. We have jobs. You are the stick thrower, I'm the stick bringer-backer. Dogs are not in it for the end game. They're in it for the now. The globby messiness. The foodyness. The runningness. Dogs have two-hundred word vocabularies--compared to the maybe ten of a cat, whose brain is so filled with alien culture the idea of fetching a tennis ball may as well be an invitation to genocide.
Which brings me to Akitas.
When I was thinking about acquiring a pet I did a lot of research as I was bound to do in those days. After exhaustive reading, interviews with breeders and owners, hours watching Emergency Vets and Animal Cops and The Pet Psychic I decided that first, I would want a dog over a cat or a newt. And of the species of dogs, the kind that would best fit my lifestyle would be either the Akita, or the Bernese Mountain Dog.
Those of you who know something about dog breeds will immediately conclude this writer is insane. He thinks cats will be contacted by UFOs and he thinks Akitas are like Berners.
No doubt there are few more different dogs in the world than the Akita and the Bernese Mountain Dog, except maybe the Great Dane and the Papillion. But if you browse the web you'll see there's a method to my madness and seemingly wasted human effort. For there is more than one breeder of Akitas that also keep Berners, and visa versa. And lots of people know cats are aliens.
The OJ Simpson murder trial made Akitas infamous, and the only other thing I'll say about that miserable topic is that it's entirely possible the Akita did it...but only slightly, the dog being named after the blonde-haired dim-witted manfriend that lived with OJ, yes, something twisted and Hollywood was going on there--enough.
There are no similarly famous Berners, and the breed is thankful for it. Berners are hard to come by. Of the top 100 breeds, it comes in twenty-second in intelligence as ranked by Dr. Stanley Coren in his book, The Intelligence of Dogs. Out of about one million dogs registered with the American Kennel Club in 2002, about 2600 were Berners, putting it 51st in popularity. By contrast, the most popular dog was the Labrador retriever with over 150,000 registered, and 56,000 purebred golden retrievers registered in the same time frame. (The rarest dog was the Otterhound. Only 17 were registered.)
Stats on OJ's curse, the Akita--he's the George W. Bush of the canine world coming in 54th in intelligence out of 100, and 41st in popularity. (In case you're wondering, the smartest dogs on Dr. Coren's list are the Border Collie and the Standard Poodle, and the dumbest are the Basenji and the Afghan Hound, immediately preceded by the catalog of little rat-sized dogs like the Pekingese, the Papillion, and the Shih Tzu.)
The Akita and the Berner are both big dogs, the bitch typically weighing in at 100+ pounds and the males at 110+. They're both reasonably hairy. The Berner sheds continually, the Akita "blows coat" twice per year. Either way, you have to figure out how to deal with a hairball the size of a Volkswagen Jetta every year. It's just a matter of rate of hair dispersal.
Both breeds are incredibly loyal, reasonably stubborn but not impossible to train if one puts time into it. The Berner looks exactly like the animal you want to come bring you a brew and a couple phenobarbital tabs if you break your leg skiing at Zermatt. All Berners should be named "Happy". Even when they're snarling and barking at you, a Berner seems like he's leading to beer.
The Akita looks like something between a bear and a mountain lion. It's big and fluffy and inviting. All Akitas should be named George or Bob. If an Akita decides he doesn't like you, he transforms into the antichrist and suddenly you realize the fluffness is really the only way it can convince a human to feed it.
When all is said and done, when all the pugs and tibetian terriers and Japanese chins have been eaten and there's nothing left but bones, these are two different dogs. The Akita will be picking his teeth with a beagle's rib bone and the Berner will be sending out mass cards.
Fundamentally, a Berner is bred to pull wagons full of goat's milk and to love everyone in the process. A Bernese Mountain Dog lives nine years, tops. It's the roman candle of dogs, living like Don Juan de Marco, sucking life to the marrow and then leaving behind a trail of teary-eyed humans. The tale of Berner ownership is bittersweet. They're outlived by big rabbits and the rat terrier next door. In the meantime, they dedicate themselves to their humans, providing hair and slobber and chewing essentials whenever necessary. The only people who can't fall in love with a Berner are the child haters and the loveless who have no business living with civilized people, anyway. A Berner will bark gleefully at your arrival. It will bark gleefully at birds that land in the back yard. It will bark gleefully at dust caught in beams of sunlight streaming through the window. And then he goes away.
The Akita seems like the opposite dog. Akitas generally do not bark. The Akita is the vicious pirate parrot of dogs. Eventually, they learn to talk, which is something between a groan and a whine with little mouthy things thrown in between. Though, when you get your baby Akita, you'll notice it will tend to want to watch Sesame Street and won't say much at all. It will want to sit around and be quiet.
No sense barking at birds and squirrels. No sense chasing cars and balls. No sense wasting time on sticks. These things hold no joy to the akita. In fact, your brand new Akita will be so amazingly compliant and quiet you'll think you've been sold a really big hamster instead. In reality, the Akita is saving its energy. All Akitas are born lying in wait. They're waiting for the big cat terrorism attack. Every Akita has in its doggie brain the day of the big kill. Someday, when baby Akita becomes mommy or daddy Akita, and the time is right, he or she will bring down a water buffalo, a Buick, or low flying aircraft.
The first time you hear your Akita bark, you will need to summon your courage to approach it again. Akitas sound like the fifth head of cerberus when they're barking. And they only bark to announce to an intruder that death-by-teeth is coming.
Akitas like the people they live with. They are faithful and will kill for their humans. Akitas tolerate their humans' friends. They hate strangers, and would just as soon see them dead as go back to watching Big Bird. Akitas generally dislike other animals. In their past they were bred to hunt in pairs, so other than its human pack, an Akita will "adopt" or "mate" with one animal of the opposite sex and stay with that being forever. All other living creatures are catagorized as either food or fodder for slavery for the large Akita pyramid that will be built one day in the center of the continent.
Akitas are our best defense against the big cat attack. Akitas hunt like cats. They have cat feet and walk like lions, their hips and tails swaying when walking, and when running, all their feet come off the ground at once. An Akita will crawl on its belly when sneaking up to quarry. It pounces like a lion. When people see an Akita stalking a bird or a wayward tabby, the world becomes one big episode of Wild Kingdom. I've seen people standing with shopping bags full of melting ice cream while my Akita stalked a crow. When the war comes and we need to send in special forces to infiltrate the cat ranks, the Akita will be at the pointy end of the attack.
The breed originates in Japan, and was brought to the United States by emissaries like Helen Keller before World War II, and by U.S. Soldiers after the war. Now a days, the breed has split. The Japanese version is smaller and more compact and muscular. The tend to be white and brown. Their heads are slimmer. They look like really big foxes.
Because in the U.S. bigger is better, we've changed the breed a bit. The American Akita outweighs its Japanese ancestors by 20 pounds. It comes in all known dog colors. Its head is large and resembles a full-sized brown bear. There's a bit of controversy between Akita breeders, whether the breed should remain split and recognized as two separate breeds, or be reconsolidated into one.
How people can like the lovable Captain Kangaroo of dogs and the canine Terminator at the same time must lie in the desire to be around big intense slobbery things. And there's the undivided loyalty. The type of unconditional love you get from an animal who requires your alliance to eat. The joy of knowing you're living with something that can bring down a deer in post apocalyptic San Francisco.
When the rubber hit the road, the Akita breeder had an 8-week old pup for me before the Berner lady's pup was old enough for adoption. I gave the Akita breeder $1500 for my pup. If Ossie had been a "show dog" I would have had to ante up $3500-$5000 for her. The Berner lady would have wanted $2500. Berners are reasonably rare. Berner breeders are particular about where their pups go. The Akita guy was every so slightly less picky, possibly because he realises his dogs will simply abandon their owners and find their way home if they don't like the living conditions.
All big dogs need a whole lot of training if they're to be sociable. I think of it as what MI6 has to go through to bring forth a James Bond. There is a circumstance under which any dog (or cat) will get aggressive toward humans, and the key is to simultaneously desensitize your pet to being cornered by toddlers while keeping your pet out of those situations. No big dog like a Berner or an Akita should be left alone with children in exactly the same way an alcoholic shouldn't be left alone behind a well-stocked bar, or why you shouldn't walk around with your pet cone shell in your hip pocket. It isn't that we don't love them or believe in their willpower. It's not that we don't trust them. It's that we don't trust them.
Besides, it is totally idiotic and irresponsible to trust other species to understand the rules of human society.
The dog isn't able to determine the child is the same species as its owners. To the dog, a kid is just another kind of small uneducated thing roaming around that warrants investigation. We keep Ossie around little kids while supervised as much as we can. We yank on her whiskers and pull her by the tail so she knows this is nominal human behavior. We expect her to be civil if she finds a human hand shoved down her throat. We do this by shoving our hands down her throat and yelling when she tries to remove our fingers. It's the dog owner's duty to be guinea pig for all dog violence testing. And she passes with flying colors, but we don't leave her alone with strangers just like I don't loan loaded guns to my neighbors to shoot rats.
All of this said, we get invited to the big Akitafest in Campbell, California every year. Our breeder holds a yearly "reunion" for his extended family of whored-out animals, who over the years have had the chance to grow into full-blown adulthood. Akitafest is an interesting conglomeration of well meaning, starry-eyed Akita owners who suspend disbelief for an afternoon and pretend their canine Delta Force member is going to behave nice like the black ten-year old displasiac lab down the street. It's like the "atom bomb owner's club" getting together to discuss cool replacements to the standard polonium initiator.
They set up an agility course, give out free samples of dog food, and Akita owners introduce their doggie family member to its long lost brothers or sisters and cousins. Like many humans, dogs care not for bloodline. An Akita is ready to hate all dogs without predjudice, whether or not that dog may have been its mother. And certainly, an Akita father has no association with his offspring. Last year, Ossie met her dad, a 140-lb solid white neutron bomb of a dog. It was a quaint family moment, where Lock wrapped his teeth around his daughter's neck and would have crushed her windpipe were it not for the quick thinking of the breeder, who decided I'd probably not buy another puppy if he got the first one killed.
But after the initial meeting, with the whole alpha male thing worked out, it was an amazingly calm afternoon. The dogs figured out who they could eviscerate and who could kill them, and there was peace in mudville. The dogs even posed for one huge picture, sitting next to each other tacitly, barkless, as if they were actually trained. The owners were all proud. Crowds of children came and yanked the dogs's tails, fed them doggie kibble, hot dogs, and road kill. Non-dog owners marveled at our well-behaved family members.
On a fence at the perimeter of the park we were observed by a group of calicos with binoculars. The lead dogs picked up on the survelliance and notified the others through a series of grunts and howls. They went through the motions of the agility course, gluing their eyes to the felines while keeping the humans at a save distance within a perimeter. They took mental doggie notes, drooling and licking. At one point a scout was sent on a flanking run. The cats scattered.
The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.