Every semester at the start of my American literature class, I ask students what they associate with the word “American.” Typical responses include: “diversity,” “melting pot,” “individuality,” “freedom,” “hard work,” and “opportunity.” Then I mention “entitlement.” No one feels a sense of entitlement as strongly as Americans do, and I include myself in that group.
A source of embarrassment for some, this unique cultural trait dates back to our Calvinist roots and the belief in predestination, or the idea that we’re destined for greatness and salvation. We deserve to have what we want. We’re born with “inalienable rights” as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. No one can tell us what to have or, more importantly, what to desire.
These were the thoughts running through my head on a rainy Friday in September when I drove from New Orleans to the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana, to pick up a pure-bred German Shepherd. Could it be that this is the most American thing I’ve done?
“It’s the American Way”
I was born surrounded by dogs. A week before my mother had me, Tootsie, the family mutt, gave birth to nine puppies in the upstairs bathtub. Tootsie had followed my brother home from his paper route. She was a good dog. Unleashed, she stayed in the yard or wandered the neighborhood, never venturing to the main thoroughfare. She did, however, bark furiously and incessantly when no one was home. We knew this because the neighbors complained. Her greatest fear was being left alone.
In one of my earliest pictures, I’m propped up on the 1970s-style floral-patterned couch, wedged between puppies. I was bald. They had fur. There were cats at the house, and then the dog came along, followed by the rooster, pet fish, puppies, and me. Tootsie was good with the other animals. She gently licked the cats and treated them like her babies, oblivious to their lack of reciprocal affection.
For a few years now, my son’s been asking for a dog, a notion we had previously dismissed. “I’m a cat person,” avowed my husband, who must breathe steroids into his lungs daily because we share our small home with two cats, Hijinks and Tomfoolery. We love cats and are accustomed to how little attention they need.
Nonetheless, several months into pandemic life, we gave in to our son’s request. The timing was right, as my son was doing distance learning and would be home all day with one of us. Then there’s the added bonus of a dog being a deterrent to crime. While out walking one night recently, our family of three encountered a man carrying a gun. He didn’t brandish it. He just stopped as we crossed paths. We exchanged awkward words as I moved instinctively in front of our son, ready to take the bullet. Tapping the pistol to his chest, he said, “It’s the American way,” and kept walking. Leaving our son home alone for an hour or two is worrisome enough without the threat of burglars and scam artists, and what about his walking alone in the neighborhood? A well-behaved schutzhund will ensure his safety.
Whenever we take a road trip from New Orleans to more rural Louisiana, we travel through a sea of red, politically speaking. I figured a proper “gun dog” riding in the backseat—like a German Shepherd—would help us blend in. He could disguise our liberal tendencies and cover up my husband’s brown Italian skin, along with other features few people outside of cities below the Mason-Dixon line seem to recognize. We would feel safer driving through the conservative South with such a noble-looking hound.
Virtue and Bureaucracy
Like a good citizen, I first looked into animal rescue and adoption agencies. Little did we know how much paperwork is involved in adopting a pet; there are applications, protocols, and processes. We can no longer scoop up a mutt outside the local Dollar General or wait for a lost member of a feral pack—collarless and hungry—to appear in our backyard. Years ago, we picked up a full-grown German Shepherd who was wandering in and out of traffic on Magazine Street in Uptown, New Orleans. We opened the door, and the dog hopped right into our car. We brought it home and called the number on its tag. In the hour we spent waiting for its human to arrive, we imagined life with a German Shepherd, a large, quiet dog who seemed to understand us.
Adoption agencies have questionnaires to place dogs with the right people; they don’t even release them until they’re house-broken. I wondered about the effects of these processes: would it confuse the animal in its bonding with us? And what about us humans? Where’s the work-reward in that? It only seems right that our species make an effort to help assimilate a new life in the microcosm of our home. We Americans can have anything we want‚ including a well-behaved dog, as long as we’re willing to work for it. Adopting a pre-trained hound seemed to me to violate the American work ethic.
“Don’t get a corgi,” was one bit of unsolicited advice we received. “They’re smart and have a lot of energy.” Another was: “Don’t get a German Shepherd. They’re nuts.” Dog companions offered more directives: “Labs are a lot of work.” “Poodles are crazy.” “Collies need lots of exercise.” Was the underlying suggestion that we get a dumb, lazy dog? Is this the American way? Enjoying the company of a tame imbecile may be relaxing, but where do all the smart and crazy dogs go? Smart and crazy sounds like the company I keep.
I have to admit that I identify with German Shepherds—we’re both prone to hip troubles. I like to remind my husband and close friends that when my hips wear out and I’m in pain, they should take me out back to shoot me. We’ve never owned a gun and probably won’t, which is another reason to have a large dog. Even gun enthusiasts argue that a pistol isn’t enough protection. But a big dog with a loud bark will keep away what you don’t want coming around.
Image matters, though, and I couldn’t help but think about the association of German Shepherds with Nazis—Hitler owned three of them. An internet search reveals images of German Shepherds snarling at and attacking protesters. Still, despite the ways the breed has been used as a tool of state terror, TV shows and films (Rin Tin Tin and K-9) emphasize the breed’s loyal nature and capacity for love. Perhaps that was what I was tapping into when I went looking for a German Shepherd.
We applied to several adoption agencies, but after half a dozen applications, only one responded. There were no puppies available, which would have been ideal because they tend to get along better with cats than adult dogs do. So I took the plunge and went to Craigslist.
I learned that seven German Shepherd puppies would be available soon. Photos showed a beautiful bitch lying on her side, nursing seven puppies, some more black than tan. In another picture, a man and Shepherd stood by a sign that advertised “gun dogs.” Other photos showed the puppies in a barn among goats and young children, and another depicted three full-grown German Shepherds, staring back at the camera with their curious eyes and trademark pointy ears.
I texted the contact on Craigslist and arranged a pick-up date at a suburban enclave about 45 minutes north of New Orleans. The broker of the deal asked that we meet in the parking lot of a gas station near the super Wal-Mart. The shady nature of this exchange added excitement to our pandemic doldrums. “I see paws!” my son exclaimed. We pulled up next to two pups and the man handling them. We picked the one who came to us right away.
Mirth and Chaos
Heiterkeit, which means “mirth” in German, threw up on the bumpy ride home. Our first week together was difficult, but he’s come to like his crate, which we jokingly call “the barracks.” We enjoy the brain training of speaking another language, so we’ve taught Heiterkeit commands in German. Heiterkeit understands sitz (sit), fuss (heel), hopp (jump), varous (go out), and nein (no). He can jump through a hula hoop and offer a paw to shake. He likes to watch our son juggle and wants to be near us almost all the time. He’s also learning the consequences of getting too close to Hijinks and Tomfoolery.
A dog among cats and humans, Heiterkeit investigates the world around him and assimilates to our way of life. During the drudgery of the online school day, my son will turn from his Chromebook to look down at Heiterkeit and chuckle in a new way, a laugh that developed when we got the dog. “Mom, look at him.” I turn my head, and there’s the hound lying on his back, belly exposed with that wiry hair extending from his sheathed penis. Dark circles of fur against the tan of his cheeks appear like beauty marks. I cannot ignore his good looks. The dog groans and emits a puppy fart. We guffaw because we can’t help it.
When folks hear we got a dog, they ask, “Is he a rescue?” They expect an answer that virtue-signals my commitment to not exacerbating the overpopulation of unwanted pets. But despite my general commitment to do no harm, in this case I don’t care. I wanted a trainable dog, not a trauma-stricken mutt who might attack us in our sleep. In buying a pure-bred German Shepherd, I exercised the most sacred rule of American entitlement—to be an asshole of my own choosing.
Heiterkeit prowls the half-paved, half-grassy lot around the corner from my house, searching for remnants of meat from a pop-up barbecue. We strut past a local watering hole where outdoor tables are set up in accordance with pandemic regulations. “Now that’s a canine!” calls a passer-by. Heiterkeit takes the compliment in stride. He doesn’t stop to say hello to every person who regards him. He doesn’t need to. Instead he walks at our side, keeping the family together.
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