Let Dogs Be Dogs

June 18, 1991|By DANIEL S. GREENBERG

WASHINGTON. — Washington.-- We have received an abusive inquiry from an acquaintance who experienced an enthusiastic, slobbery-snouted greeting from Ben, the Labrador Retriever member of the family.

At age 3, Ben weighs approximately 90 pounds. He is noticeable. ''Must all submit to an intimate inspection by this detestable beast who dominates your household to a pathological extent?'' the visitor later inquired by mail.

Not all, I wrote in response, explaining that Ben, for reasons we don't understand, is selective in his greetings. His form of hello, I pointed out, may possibly be a subterfuge for investigations that he deems worthy.

I proceeded to observe to my aggrieved friend that some visitors are snouted, others are not. I also noted that many whom Ben contacts appear to accept the experience without upset. No big deal, they seem to say. Others, like the letter writer, recoil at the experience. But in every instance, Ben keeps to himself the findings of his inquiries.

All this brings us to the troublesome topic of basic attitudes to dogs. On this matter, verifiable observations can be introduced for purposes of discussion.

People who don't like dogs tend not to like people and are often narrow in their perceptions and likings. I have often observed that those who dislike dogs are strikingly unadventurous in sampling unfamiliar cuisine. ''I don't like seaweed,'' a dog-disdainer said in response to the suggestion of a Japanese meal.

One of these caniphobes gagged upon seeing me sample a dog biscuit -- a perfectly sanitary, wholesome and nutritious foodstuff. Anything dogs eat, they feel, must be tainted.

Our family dentist put on a frothing protest when I gently inquired whether he might take a look at our dog's teeth. He invoked the law, claiming that it would be illegal for a dog to enter his dental premises.

He ended the discussion by suggesting that I seek a veterinary dentist, but to assure me of his personal interest, he gave me one of those dental scraper tools. It would not be difficult, he assured me, to clean the dog's teeth myself.

Of course, there are some unfortunate failings in man-dog relations, but the evidence supports the existence of a fundamentally harmonious linkage.

Konrad Lorenz shrewdly observed that of all the animals on earth, the dog alone has voluntarily cast his lot with man, coming into camp and remaining as loyal guardian and companion. Cats are crafty exploiters in their relations with people. Dogs are trustworthy comrades.

Where we've gone wrong is in widening the gap between humans and dogs, rather than closing it. Admittedly, some dogs -- actually very few -- are nasty and dangerous and precautions against them are warranted.

The same goes for a much larger group of nasty and dangerous beings -- people. Nonetheless, society proceeds on the assumption that people can get on with people.

The same principle should be applied to dogs. In the United States, a misguided application of public-health principles excludes dogs from restaurants. In France, the family dog at the restaurant table is a common sight. A resident dog is to be found at many pubs in Britain, strolling from table to table for snacks, sipping a lager, affectionately greeting regular customers.

Health in France and Britain does not seem to suffer from the presence of dogs in places where they're banned in the U.S.

So, we're back to Ben and his style of greeting some visitors. There can be no doubt about his affection, enthusiasm and warmth for some arriving guests.

Ben greets joyously or not at all. He's not the kind who says, ''How wonderful to see you,'' when he doesn't mean that at all. There's sincerity in that jabbing snout.

Daniel S. Greenberg publishes the newsletter Science & Government Report.

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