When Man's Best Friend Is Not

Buffalo, NY – I live in the Parkside neighborhood of Buffalo, where there have been recent news reports of house break-ins. The Parkside Community Association suggested that a dog may be the best burglar prevention device. My kids really want a dog. I’m not so sure. When I was young, my next door neighbors had a dog...

Beyond our fence on the left was the Dratts' yard, patrolled by a large German shepherd, imaginatively named Duke. Duke was not friendly. He welcomed no visitors in his yard, authorized or unauthorized. If the basketball found its way over the fence, a not uncommon occurrence considering our poor shooting abilities and the small size of the playing area, Duke would pay it no mind. He would, however, quickly leer so rapaciously at the prospective retriever of the ball that no one ever attempted to see if he had a good side to his disposition. His badness was assumed to be a natural and inseparable quality of his being.

We were smart enough to outsmart the beast by walking to Duke's driveway side of the fence and calling Duke's attention there by rattling the gate. Duke would storm madly over to that spot, snarling and spitting all the way at the disturbance. (Why didn't he ever jump over the relatively low fence to capture his prey?) Meanwhile, a mere fifty to sixty feet away, another boy would quickly jump the fence, run to the ball, heave it back into my yard, and run wildly back, dodging Duke's droppings as best as possible and fly back over. Duke would have figured out what was up by this time and would be hurtling back madly, snarling and spitting all the way at the escaping intruder. If the game participants included my friends and me, a rational method was devised for rotating the rattler and retriever roles. If the game included my older brother and me, I somehow got stuck with the retriever role more often, a tribute to my deftness and agility, I was told.

Basketball playing took on a serene quality when Duke was kept in his house and not let out to be a courtside spectator. One time, though, unaware that Duke had learned to open the storm door (by reaching up and hitting the latch), Steve Freeman leisurely hopped the fence and strolled to the ball, even stopping to examine one of the bowling pins that lay about Duke's yard and which he used for gnawing and batting about, only to discover Duke's unwelcoming grimace bearing down upon him. Steve performed a standing broad jump of about ten feet, basketball in his hands, over the fence and accompanying small shrub, and landed on his knees on the driveway. Despite being bruised and bloodied, Steve was happy to have escaped Duke's jaws. He was upset with me for not having informed him that the dog knew how to open the door.

Now if I spy an unshackled dog approaching me on the sidewalk, I cross to the other side of the street. If I confront a leashed but unruly dog, I become petrified, hands at my sides, tight smile on my lips, a silent, profane oath in my thoughts for the owner, as I look around for the hood or roof of a vehicle to escape to, if need be.

My wife, of course, knows the depths of my fear. A warm spring evening in 1989 found us, she then-pregnant, strolling along the streets near our Parkside home, musing over possible names for our imminent addition, when the sound of an unraveling chain accompanied by the snarling, spitting sound of a black Duke-like beast met my ears. Before assuming the position of wooden soldier, I picked up my wife and placed her between the Rotweiler, or whatever it was, and myself, figuring, perhaps, that he might appreciate getting two for the price of one.

In a certain way it might come back to my having always been the shortest kid in my class. There are big dogs and little dogs and I’ve always been a little dog. For a long time, Duke was my size, or even bigger. If I were taller, maybe Steve's hothead wouldn't have been able to reach my arm. Big dogs don't seem to experience the trepidation I do in dog-encounters. Big dogs don't have to watch out.

I could never be a mailman. But I think we’re getting a dog.

Henry Gartner is a Buffalo attorney.