Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Bite or Nip?

Ages ago, when "all us kids" counting cousins were about 12, we were playing on a dirt street in a subdivision of Denver and one of the local curs got peeved with my cousin for bending down to pick up a rock. Well, from the dog's point of view, maybe a little fear aggression was justified, since he'd been a target of rockthrowing before. My cousin, however, was a rock hound (really, he turned into a scout leader as an adult), and nothing like rockthrowing was on his mind. Agate was.

We all ran home yelling about a dog bit Trog! (Names changed, obviously. Tom would never bite a Trog.) Grownups have an interesting habit of tamping down the clearest cause celebe, because instead of Declaring Just War, all we got from my Dad and my Uncle was obfuscation designed to sow doubt in young minds: "Bite?" Followed, incredulously, by, "Are you sure he was bit? Was it a bite, or just a nip?" Whoa, leading question alert!

People like dogs better than their own kids! I wondered for decades what the difference between a bite and a nip was. Tom made peace with his few minor scratches and let it go, but I prefer cats, so the question rankled. Boys have no unearned honor, clearly. Grown men fight wars over girls and their honor (girls are born with honor, scads of it), not boys and their dogs, not even bad boys or mad dogs. Those are problems to be ignored — or settled, mano a mano, in O.K. corrals, neatly contained. No sane alpha male is ever going to take bad news, the kind that might require action, from a pup.

As a kind of working hypothesis, I decided that a nip was a bite in lesser degree, but I could never call that anything like knowledge, still less wisdom. A snarling dog showing its teeth nipped my cousin, but I have generally given those kind of glowing canines more respect than they deserve, if Cesar Millan is to be believed. I have come to realize that people are insane about their own dogs, and the wolf-sized curly-tailed mongrel "puppy" I would cheerfully dropkick to the moon, given a chance, is somebody's surrogate child. Lawks, people will go to war to defend a dog, just like girls and Helen of Troy! We big-brained apes are moonstruck, and even howl outside our own species.

Still, I've felt better about dogs since I learned that some people, such as Comanches and Vietnamese, have a different take on what the phrase "puppy chow" really means than, say, Purina.



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