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Why We Love the Dogs We Do | Dog as Machine?
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Why We Love the Dogs We Do

Excerpted from "Why We Love the Dogs We Do":

While I was on a book tour a few years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with Jimmy Stewart. He was no longer the young Charles Linbergh character that I remembered from the film The Spirit of St. Louis, or the easy moving character that became a hero in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. His age had begun to show on him, and he appeared to be almost fragile. He was slow moving and even slower talking than I remember him being in the movies. However, when he started to speak about his dogs his face broke into a smile and the pace of his talking picked up. He told me:

"When I married Gloria she already had a German Shepherd named Bello. He loved her a lot and, after a while, he and I got along. Gloria really loves German Shepherds best of all, but sometime after we lost our second one, she decided that they weren't the breed of dogs that I needed. Anyway, she went out and got me this Golden Retriever named Simba, and its been Goldens ever since for me. "We actually have three dogs now. Kelly and Judy, are Golden Retrievers, and then there is Princess who is some kind of a mixed breed that my daughter found and we sort of rescued. Princess had some behavior problems and I think that Kelly and Judy picked up some of her bad habits--figured that if Princess could get away with it so could they. We had met Matthew Margolis [who co- authored of a number of fine dog training books, such as When Good Dogs Do Bad Things, with Mordecai Siegal] and Gloria liked him. He runs the National Institute of Dog Training. Kelly and Judy were not behaving. They didn't listen to anything we said, and they were always jumping up and barking and pulling on the leash--both were just imitating Princess, I think. Well, anyway, Matthew told us that he would have to take the dogs to his training kennel for six weeks to get them to behave. The reason that he wanted them at the kennel had something to do with 'socialization' and other dog things like that. It was supposed to help their shyness and excitability. Gloria and I didn't like it, but she felt that we had to do something. Well that lasted just one day. You know I love my house, but without any dogs around it feels like some kind of mausoleum. I told Gloria 'Get those dogs back home because I can't put up with them not being here.' Anyway, Matthew tried to set up a training program at the house, but it really didn't work so well. In the end we compromised. We broke the three dogs up into squads, so we could send one or two of them to school for short sessions, and still have one or two at home for company. I still didn't like it, even though we got to visit their school on weekends. Gloria made a lot of phone calls to make sure they were OK--to reassure me I guess. "I suppose the truth is that I'd rather have a happy dog than a trained one. My dogs have never been good at things like 'sit', 'stay' or even 'come'. I think that we've given the tourists a few laughs, especially when the dogs hit the end of their leashes hard enough to drag Gloria down the street. I don't even mind it when the dogs jump up. Matthew showed us how to jerk the leash to correct that kind of thing. I suppose that it does have to be done--you know to keep them from knocking someone down or messing their clothes--but it seems kind of cruel to me. If my dog jumps up on me I figure that he wants to kiss my face and tell me that he thinks that I'm a really nice person. I don't believe that you should punish a dog for saying 'I love you.' When your dog's face is up looking at yours like that I think that you should tell him just how nice you think that he is too. Gloria told me that Matthew says that we mother the dogs too much and that they'll never really be well trained. Well, they're a lot better now than what they were before, so some of the training must be working. The difference between 'trained OK' and 'trained perfectly' doesn't really matter all that much to me. I once did a film with Lassie. When that dog got excited it jumped all over Rudd Weatherwax [Lassie's trainer]. Now that's the smartest dog in the world. If the world's best trained dog can jump around to show he's happy then my dogs should be allowed to do the same. "The truth is that it's just really hard for me to get to sleep without a dog in my bedroom. It's funny about that. I once had a dog named Beau. He used to sleep in a corner of the bedroom. Some nights, though, he would sneak onto the bed and lie right in between Gloria and me. I know that I should have pushed him off the bed, but I didn't. He was up there because he wanted me to pat his head, so that's what I would do. Somehow, my touching his hair made him happier, and just the feeling of him laying against me helped me sleep better. After he died there were a lot of nights when I was certain that I could feel him get into bed beside me and I would reach out and pat his head. The feeling was so real that I wrote a poem about it and about how much it hurt to realize that he wasn't going to there any more."

I later learned just how intense his feelings were for his dog Beau. At the time, Stewart was making a picture which was shooting on location in Arizona. One evening he got a phone call from his veterinarian, a Dr. Keagy. The call was about Beau. Keagy told him that Beau was very sick. He was having trouble breathing and was in considerable pain. The disease had progressed to the point that it was obvious to Keagy that the dog couldn't be saved. He was calling for permission to end Beau's life quickly. Stewart's wife Gloria said that she couldn't make that decision since Beau was Jimmy's dog. "I can't just tell you to put him to sleep like this," Stewart said, "Not over the phone--not without seeing him. You keep him alive and I'll be there." Stewart was always known as an easy actor to work with, who never made excessive demands. So, the director was taken aback when he went to him to ask for a few days off to fly home to see to his dog. The leave was granted and Stewart got to sit with Beau for a long while before making the decision. He later admitted that when he left the veterinarian's office he had to sit in his car for around 10 minutes, just to clear his eyes of tears, so that it would be safe to drive home.

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