The Old Coot remembers self-walking dogs

Culture and social norms are forever evolving. Sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. A change is well under way that I’m not sure is better or worse; it’s the relationship between dogs and humans. 

It was a Mother Goose and Grim comic strip, penned by Brad and Paul Anderson that brought the change into sharp focus for me. It pictured two dogs walking with their owner on a double leash. They spotted a dog ahead of them, wandering alone and un-tethered. One of the leashed dogs said, “Look at that. It’s one of those new self-walking dogs!” It made me think about the dog I had as a kid. Those were different days. Dogs were free to roam. They’ve lost that freedom, so have children, but that’s an issue for another day. We no longer have self-walking dogs; we have self-driving cars.

When I was four-years old, I led a stray sheep dog into our kitchen and said, “Mom! Look what I found. Can I keep him (it turned out to be a her)? I was a lucky kid, not many mothers would let a preschooler keep a stray dog. Especially one that was obviously about to give birth. (To seven pups, as it turned out.) 

The stray, dubbed Lassie, had her pups in our basement. “Topper,” was the first to make the assent up the stairs and into our kitchen, earning him his name and a place in our family. His siblings were dispersed throughout the area; he and his mother stayed on. I was one happy cowboy. 

I roamed the driveway and back yard in my cowboy suit, a pistol on each hip and a pair of happy dogs by my side. Lassie chased cars, and no matter how many contraptions my father rigged up to stop her, she never failed to break free when a sedan came past the house. She was a relentless pursuer, a tire bitter. She eventually was exiled to a farm owned by a friend of the family, put out to pasture. From then on, Topper and I formed a duo that rivaled that of Batman and Robin. We went everywhere together.

As I said, it was a different era. Dogs were dogs; people were people and cars didn’t drive themselves. The confusion we have today about the people – dog pecking order didn’t exist. Dogs were tougher, more self-reliant. 

My friends and I rode our bikes to the movies in downtown Binghamton. We’ d park them in a heap in front of the Press building on Chenango Street. After a quick glance in the window at the evening paper that was speeding across a giant set of rollers, we’d head into the Strand Theater. (The Binghamton Press was an evening paper in those days. The morning paper, the Sun Bulletin, was produced at the other end of the block) Topper would plop down next to the bikes and stand guard. When we came out three hours later, rubbing our eyes and squinting into the bright sunlight, he’d be there, his tail wagging like crazy. 

Truly a different world. Kids played outside and the dogs in the neighborhood played along with them, providing a layer of security that gave our parents a level of comfort when we wandered out of sight and beyond earshot. A stranger wouldn’t dare come after kids with a dog or two around. We were free to spend our days in the woods and creeks that surrounded our neighborhood. Leashes were seldom used back then. Pooper-scoopers didn’t exist. If a dog left his calling card on the lawn, you simply found a flat stone and covered it up. Nature went to work and took care of things. When the stone was removed a week later, there was nothing there. The microbes had done their job. In another week the grass grew back. People who let the stones accumulate ended up with a nice rock garden. Which, I hear, is how the concept got started, just another positive contribution to the human condition from our canine friends. Where would we be without our dogs? Self-walking or not!

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