I hate the downside of summer as much as anyone. The heat. The humidity. Heat indexes off the charts.
I have also come to have a strong dislike for the meteorologists who stand at their weather maps with the dazzling displays of incoming low fronts or stalled high fronts and wrap up the forecast for another week of high temperatures and oppressive humidity with a dismissive: “It’s the dog days of summer.”
The term goes back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Astrologically attuned to the heavens, the Greeks and Romans noticed that the star Sirius (dog) rose with the sun in the hot days of summer, and linked the star and heat. In Anglo-Saxon times, the “dog days of summer” ran from July 14- September 5. The Old Farmer’s Almanac says July 3-August 11.
And on behalf of Tippy, Topsy, and Taffy, “Honeybubs” (long story), Toby, and Tinker Bell, Tracy, Tuppence, and Mr. Buttons, the dogs that have so enriched my 94 years, not forgetting my current Cocker Spaniel, Winston, I have to protest the calling of the worst days of summer “dog days.”
Dogs deserve better.
All 76,811,305 of them. That’s the number listed by the American Veterinary Medical Foundation, which notes that almost 50 million households own a dog. (That’s 38.4 percent for the statistically minded.) How much we care for (and about) them may be deduced from the $95.7 billion we spent on them in 2019 for food, medicines, supplies, veterinary care, grooming, and boarding, according to the American Pet Products Association. The estimated total for 2020 is $99 billion. If you’re not up on your Department of Defense prices, $75.38 billion will get you two of the new Gerald R. Ford-class nuclear aircraft carriers.
Our love of dogs is truly writ large.
Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States, was clear: “Any man who does not like dogs and want them about does not deserve to be in the White House.”
The great majority of presidents have had dogs. George Washington, in fact, is not only the father of our country but of the American Foxhound. He imported some Foxhounds from England, and then the Marquis de Lafayette gave him some French hounds for breeding.
Theodore Roosevelt had a veritable menagerie, many of them his children’s dogs, but the leader of the Rough Riders, not surprising for such an outsized figure in our history, had a typically outsized dog — a Saint Bernard, named Rollo. (His son Kermit’s Manchester Terrier, Blackjack, is reported to have ripped the pants of a French ambassador.)
Although he, too, met many a dignitary, Fala, the Scottish Terrier that was a gift to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940, apparently was better mannered and became far more famous. Certainly, he was photographed often enough. Today, Fala may still be seen keeping his master company, this time sitting a few feet from him in the National Memorial to President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the nation’s capital — the only pet ever represented in a presidential memorial.
President George W. Bush brought another Scottie to the White House, Barney. Come Christmas time, with the help of an aide who followed with a video camera, Barney gave Americans a tour of the White House, the greens on the mantels, the fruit arrangements in the state rooms, and the big, beautifully decorated Christmas tree.
Had my black Cocker Spaniel Topsy had an aide videotaping her by the Christmas tree in our white clapboard house, it would have gone viral today. For while Topsy, a year old when I bought her with my high school graduation money, had been welcomed into the family by my parents and me, not so by my cat, Blinkee Puss. She spent most of those first summer weeks under the living room daybed. On Christmas Eve, Blinkee Puss was lying on the floor near me when Topsy approached to play … to her, a threatening move. And what does a cat do at a time like that? Look for a tree.
I can tell you, 78 years later, there was never any doubt about when she landed or how high she climbed. It gives new meaning to living Christmas tree. The branches bounced. The lights — the old red, yellow, blue, green Technicolor lights — danced. The tinsel shivered. The ornaments oscillated.
Fast forward five years. My father had been transferred. Topsy and Blinkee Puss had found a new home with a neighbor who would take both of them, because they’d grown so close no one wanted to split them up. Our Christmas tree was in a Chicago apartment. And I, now working for the Chicago Daily News, had used the bonus I received for our student press conference with President Harry S. Truman — the first, and to date, only formal press conference ever granted by a sitting President to student newspaper editors — to buy a three-month-old buff and white Cocker Spaniel puppy. He was named Taffy; understandably, his AKC papers listed him as Cavalier of Caramel.
Charles Schulz, creator of Peanuts, and thereby Snoopy, summed it all up nicely. “Happiness is a warm puppy.” If you prefer the more literary approach, there’s Rudyard Kipling. “Buy a pup and your money will buy love unflinching.” I offer as proof — certifiable, verifiable proof — Taffy’s second Christmas with us.
I’d suffered from pneumonia most of the fall and had only been back to work a few days when I noticed the receptionist coming through the frosted double doors to the Chicago Daily News editorial offices with a tantalizing array of beautifully wrapped Christmas presents. Sometimes his arms were filled with the gifts from people and organizations who’d dealt with the various editors, writers, and columnists during the year and wished to show their gratitude and appreciation. As the week wore on, I became all too aware that not one, as yet, was for me.
I later read that a bout with pneumonia leaves a person not only physically weakened but emotionally sensitive. I like to think that explains it. By week’s end I was on the verge of tears all the way home, and once there let them flow. My mother tried to comfort me. Taffy came over in great concern.
Then … Taffy went to the Christmas tree, surveyed the array of gifts beneath the lower branches, and finding one small enough to pick up, he turned and waddled back, sitting up (one of his best tricks) in front of me with his offering.
Well, I wasn’t that sorry for myself.
I reached down to take it. After a bit, my mother headed for the kitchen to start dinner. Then, the sadness returned, the tears. Taffy went back to the tree, selected another of the gifts and brought it over, sitting up to present it to me.
We had him for almost 16 years, and never before nor during any of the Christmases that followed did he so much as touch a present under the tree.
I still wonder at how he knew.
But he did.
Dogs do. In ways we don’t know or understand, but recognize.
“I have found,” said Doris Day, star of so many lighthearted movie comedies, “that when you are deeply troubled, there are things you get from the silent devoted companionship of a dog that you can get from no other source.”
General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe in World War II — later, the 34th president of the United States — agreed wholeheartedly. He said, “The friendship of a dog is precious. It becomes even more so when one is so far removed from home …. I have a Scottie. In him I find consolation and devotion … he is the one person to whom I can talk without the conversation coming back to war.”
Some are formally called Comfort Dogs. The 23 Golden Retrievers flown to Orlando, Florida, to comfort the victims’ families following the tragedy at the Pulse club June 12, 2016, were part of a larger comfort corps — a program to provide canines for victims.
Some are Service Dogs. Who can forget the yellow Labrador who came into the home of President George Herbert Walker Bush following Barbara’s death to keep the 41st president company, watch over him. And who continued after his passing — photos without end showing him in the rotunda of the Capitol as the former president lay in state, the servicemen in their uniforms at the four corners, and Sully as close as he could still get to his master.
Others are Rescue Dogs. The death of the last surviving dog to work the site of the World Trade Center after 9/11, Bretagne, a Golden Retriever, was widely reported when she died June 6, 2016 — just shy of 17. She was two when she was deployed to Ground Zero as part of the Texas Task Force. She later helped with search and rescue in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
Whatever the category of service, the role that dogs may play in our lives was key to a medical study in a PBS documentary from some years ago. Doctors had noticed that certain patients who survived a heart attack went on to live longer and more productive lives than others. Was there a reason?
Stopping to pick up a friend at the bus station, one of the doctors chanced to notice a man sitting on a bench in the waiting room, his dog seated beside him on the floor, the man stroking the dog’s head, absently, lovingly, clearly for the zillionth time. The doctor realized it was an unusual possibility. But he mentioned it to his colleagues at their next meeting. However taken aback, they’d found nothing else. They decided to check … and found their common denominator: a dog.
So forget “Dog days.” Here’s to dogs every day!
Winston seconds that.s
Featured image: Detail from “Backyard Dog Show” by Amos Sewell, from the July 8, 1950, cover of the Post (© SEPS)
Become a Saturday Evening Post member and enjoy unlimited access. Subscribe now