Top Dog

August 13, 1996|By Angie Gaddy | Angie Gaddy,SUN STAFF

You can't walk him. You can't train him. He chews up bills and tennis shoes. He runs through sprinklers. And he eats soap.

In short, Estella Way says, "Life with Max is a pain in the butt." That's his owner's view, of course. But Max does have a certain distinction. The Parkville Labrador retriever is the most popular dog with the most popular canine name in Baltimore County -- and maybe the whole country.

In fact, almost 14 percent of the county's dogs are Labs. And 393 of the county's dogs are named Max. All of which you'll learn if you sic a computer on the county's official database of 32,000 licensed canines, searching for insights into what our dogs say about our tastes, preferences and lifestyles. As Maryland's most demographically "average" jurisdiction, Baltimore County is likely to yield a crop of canines that reflects tastes around the state.

The electronic oracle tells us that we love Labs, German shepherds, mixed-breed mutts, generic terriers and poodles, in that order. And if you walk through the neighborhood, calling out the names Max, Lady, Bear, Ginger, Shadow, Duke or Muffin, there's a good chance at least one dog on the block will come running.

First things first. We understand Lady, Duke and Shadow -- even Muffin. But Max?

"Max is a funny one," says Andrew Rowan, director of Tufts University's Center for Animals and Public Policy.

Rowan, who has studied pet names, says owners generally choose either human names or "nonsense" names. His research shows that 41 percent of owners give their dogs human names. They're split about evenly between popular names like George and old-fashioned or uncommon names like Daisy. But the majority prefer nonhuman names, like Tiddlywinks.

Generally, he found, dogs with common human names enjoy a higher status in their households than the others. But he admits being baffled by the popularity of Max. "People don't call each other Max these days. It's very antiquated," he says.

Not so typical

If anything, our own research shows that stereotypical dog names aren't typical at all. For example, there are only four Rovers in Baltimore County, a handful of Spots, a couple of Lassies and not a single Rin Tin Tin. Today's owners are far more likely to holler for Taco, Elvis, Rambo or Smokey.

But there are patterns in the mountains of data. One is that dogs are subject to ethnic, physical and cultural cliches.

For example, pit bulls, pugs, Rottweilers, boxers and other tough guys' dogs are likely to answer to Rocky, Bear or Duke. On the other end of the scale, the little furballs favored by the lapdog set -- Maltese, poodles, Shih Tzus, Pomeranians -- are given names like Snowball, Muffin and Fluffy.

Chico and Taco are in the top 10 for Chihuahuas. West Highland terriers have names like Thistle and McDuff. Dachshunds go by Heidi, Gretchen and Fritz.

And if that shows a lack of imagination, consider Dalmatians. The traditional firehouse dogs are likely to be called Sparky or Spot. Owners of Chesapeake Bay retrievers don't show much originality either: Chessie is their top pick. Same for the Brittany spaniel (Brittany). And the Jack Russell terrier? Just call it Jack.

But some owners take pains to avoid the mundane.

When Marion Cockey, a criminal justice professor at Towson State University, visited the pound and brought home a black chow mix named Lacey, her next step was to add a crime-fighting partner -- a Shetland sheep dog.

"When I tell my students that I have Cagney and Lacey at home they just let out a groan," she says.

Like Cockey, about a fifth of the county's pet owners have more than one animal, and they often try to make their names match.

Consider Fred and Ginger. He's a Labrador retriever and collie mix, while she's a domestic house cat. They get along fine, says their owner, Janice Mahoney of Owings Mills, but they don't do much dancing "unless you count Ginger shimmying up the archway in the living room."

Looking for more couples? There are two other Fred-and-Ginger combos, four Bonnie and Clydes, four Mickey and Minnies, three Fred and Barneys, two Mutt and Jeffs, a Starsky and Hutch, three Caesars and Cleopatras, an Elvis and Priscilla and a Bartles and James.

Biker dog

Outside John Grasham's house in the heart of Dundalk, there's a motorcycle parked on the front lawn. And there's a Harley inside, too.

This one is Harley the Hog Davidson, a 2-year-old beagle, and Grasham says the dog was born to be wild. He's chasing Grasham's other beagle, named Bagel, in circles.

With so many pets in the neighborhood, Grasham says he tried to find original names: "You've got to be different. You've got to have a name that no one else has."

Sorry, John. There are five other Bagels among the 1,282 registered beagles in Baltimore County. And while Harley is a beagle exclusive, there are 40 dogs of other ancestry that bear the name of the legendary motorcycle.

Is Grasham disappointed?

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