Meet Gentle Ben

BenThose who have been reading for a while may recall that last June we got a chow puppy. In the process of describing the history of dogs in our household, I mentioned our first dog–a standard poodle named Walter. Walter was, to make a long story short, a demon dog, a black bastard from the depths of sheol, possessed of every bad trait a dog can have. When we gave his dark heart away to another owner, there was dancing in the streets and more gunfire than a Palestinian 9-11 celebration. Life was good again, and we have spent our years in peace and prosperity with many other critters–cats, dogs, rabbits, even a horse or two–always looking back on Walter as the Dark Ages of Dogdom. Stories of Walter graced every family get-together, as we relived the horror of our vindictive vexatious pet peeve. There was one doctrinal creed, one unimpeachable Truth in our house: we would never get another poodle. Ever. Not in this life, nor the next. ‘Till death do us part. Amen.

But life moves on, and God’s a funny guy sometimes…

Mimi, our chow puppy, started off life as one of the calmest, most affectionate puppies we’ve ever had. Her hidden demons did not appear until she was four months old, when she began to aggressively attack our older chow Lucy, nearly three times her size, with a tenaciousness which had to be seen to be believed. Food contention was first, followed by chew toys, followed by territory, then simply random, vicious attacks which often injured our older dog–and some pretty close calls with our cats as well, whose 9 lives assets lost substantial credit worthiness. She remained very affectionate with us–but despite intense socialization with strangers, was increasingly fearful and started to be aggressive with people as well.

By seven months the decision was clear, after much discussion with trainers and animal behavioralists: Mimi was a dangerous dog. We had to put her to sleep.

Anyone who’s had to put a pet down–even a troubled one such as Mimi–knows how gut-wrenching an experience it is. It is something you never want to deal with again. So we decided, after the events of last fall, that we would let our old chow live in peace before risking her well-being with another dog.

But the desire to get another dog–like the call of the roulette wheel to a gambler–proved too strong to resist. We researched breeds, went to countless dog shows and kennels, trying to find the perfect dog–unwilling to take a chance on another potentially aggressive animal, but still wanting to have a dog with some heft and personality. My wife loves long walks with the dog, and was also interested in doing therapy work at a nearby children’s hospital. Each breed got measured against a long list of positive and negative attributes: friendly with children; medium to large size; easily trained and housebroken; not overly destructive when bored; not requiring huge amounts of activity to stay sane in the house; not aggressive with other dogs; minimal shedding and “dog smell” (which bothers my wife far more than I).

One dog kept popping to the top of the list, again and again: a standard poodle. Yeah, right.

Each time it did, my wife and I looked at each other, laughed, shook our heads–and went on to other breeds. Each one had some fatal flaw, some Achilles heel which made them unsuitable. We kept coming back to the standards. Are we crazy??

We found an excellent breeder in Montana, and grilled her time and time again by e-mail and phone. She heard–many times over–our travails with Walter, and repeatedly swore that her dogs were nothing like that.

So, yes–we’re crazy, certifiable. Our new friend Ben arrived by plane last week. It was love at first site. A light mocha color, calm, devoted, loyal and very affectionate, this dog has all the potential to be a wonderful companion–one of the most special animals we’ve ever owned. He is truly the anti-Walter.

As I said, God’s a funny guy…

Now, before I wreck my reputation as a manly man and a true patriot, let me say this: Ben is not a French poodle–he is a Freedom poodle. No cheese-eating surrender dog here, no sirree. Glad I could put that notion to rest.

Poodles–especially the miniature and toy varieties–are often considered to be “sissy” dogs. The standard–actually the original breed, the others having been bred down in size from them–still maintains this image in many people’s minds–in no small part because they get clipped and groomed like this:

white poodle

The original poodle clip was a functional one, however–the fur over the joints helped keep them warm when retrieving water foul. The poodle, it turns out, is a very old breed–dogs resembling them appear on Greek and Roman coins, and they were first described in literature in the 16th century. Although the French consider them their national dog, they were in fact first developed in Germany, with some breeding input from Russia and France–the name “poodle” comes from the German word pudel, meaning to “splash in the water.” For they were developed as water retrievers, especially for duck hunting. They were excellent hunting and gun dogs–fast, agile, and easy to train–a fact still widely recognized among the elite:

poodle kerry gun

They excel in agility work and are exceptional athletes:

ski jump

One little-known fact about poodles is their involvement in the U.S. space program. Poodles have been used to help identify the planet Mars. And recently declassified military documents have revealed–to the surprise of many–a pilot program for training poodles for space flight:

kerry poodle NASA

The pilot program was dropped when the poodles proved too intelligent and nuanced for the job–and their French connections posed a security risk. It was also rumored that they opposed space flight before they supported it.

Well, we’re not sure our Ben will live up to the high standards of his canine predecessors–but we’re sure glad he’s part of our family now.


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