Dogs are everywhere we want to be

This is not a good time to be in charge of booking guests for shows such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show," "Larry King Live," "The View," or any program that craves splashy interviews with high-profile personalities. I have to believe that a lot of those schedulers are banging their heads against a wall these days and yelling, "Why, why, why can't that dog TALK?!"

The animal in question would be Velvet, the canine mountaineer who recently survived a tumble down Mt. Hood with three human climbing partners and lived to bark about it. Described in news reports as a black Labrador, Velvet has been credited with keeping his trio of biped mates warm during a frigid, blustery night on the mountain before they were rescued.

If Velvet could provide a vocal account of his adventure, he would surely have an agent by now, commitments from every A-list talk show, a book deal, and a line of product endorsements stretching to the horizon.

From a media standpoint, the Lab's inability to be verbose is a tragedy. But plenty of human voices are already filling the void with opinions about safety, responsibility, compassion, and all the other modern buzzwords that are inextricably linked to the subject of dog ownership. I'm not joining that parade.

I admit to experiencing a moment of surprise when I first heard there was a dog traveling with the stranded climbers, but I shook it off quickly. As I've pointed out in previous columns, the American pet population, and especially dogs, now constitute a parallel society. Like the Visa card slogan says, they are everywhere we want to be.

This trend has been gaining momentum for centuries. Meriwether Lewis included a black Newfoundland named Seaman on the Voyage of Discovery. Dogs have sailed on ships, flown in planes, and explored underground. Velvet's team on Mt. Hood slipped off a ledge at about 8,300 feet, and the obvious question to me is: What is the elevation record for mountain climbing dogs? Is anyone keeping track?

My own dogs Lottie (yellow Lab) and Lassiter (black Lab) both believe that indoors is better than out, which is fine with me. In the past, some people have told me that I don't seem like a dog- oriented person, and they wonder what role these animals play in my life. The best explanation I can come up with is "cronyism."

Lassiter came to us when he flunked out of guide-dog school, and likes to swallow socks whenever he can sneak into the laundry room. But he has become my version of Gen. Harry Vaughan, a longtime member of President Truman's inner circle. Historian David McCullough has described General Vaughan as "a big, voluble, easygoing pal" who would often boom out, "I'm still with ya, Chief!"

Politics may, in fact, be the next big romping area for canine companions. It seems inevitable that sooner or later, someone running for president will decide that campaigning with a dog could pull in a huge plurality of votes. So which candidate wants to be the first one to climb that mountain?

Jeffrey Shaffer writes about media, American culture, and personal history.

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