Today I met a handsome and exotic stranger. His name was as handsome and exotic as any lathered onto a paperback romance hero: Diego. Though our paths crossed only briefly, I know there was something there. Something magic. It was as if we’d met before, though I’m sure I’d remember if we had. When I walked through that door, there were sparks. It flutters my chest to think of it, and I know the feeling will endure for years. Oh that large muscular physique. Ah those dark eyes and rich, shiny hair. The grand, inviting smile. That adorable, articulate little tail. Yes, you could say I met my match.
We’d been set up on a blind date of sorts. I was a bit anxious. I had a personal bio for him, but it was unusually brief. All I knew before I met him was his name, age, address, and three simple words: “Gentle,” “Giant” and “Rottweiler.” Since the word “Rottweiler” had already activated “giant” in my imagination, I focused on the “gentle” part. My eyes kept referring to this word as I approached his front door, as if to make sure it didn’t disappear, or somehow turn into “savage.” No doubt his owners think he’s gentle, but I had my doubts. I did what any “human, normal and nervous” would do: I referred to my catalogue of stereotypes. Rottweilers are a breed known for being proud and protective of their homes, families, army units and junkyards, and typically not fond, therefore, of strange men coming round to put leashes on them. I know that the environment in which a dog is raised and the manner in which he’s trained and socialized has far more to do with his disposition than any characteristics supposedly typical of a breed. Mean people often times choose pitbulls and choose to raise them poorly, while no pitbull has ever, ever actively chosen to be antisocial or dangerous.
Pitbulls lead the list of breeds with the most fatal attacks in the U.S., but Rottweilers, like Diego, come in second. Rottweilers are actually no more likely than any other breed to bite someone, but if they do bite, that bite is far more likely to be serious or life-threatening. The same with pitbulls. They’re just very effective biters. It’s why people who like scary mean dogs choose those breeds, and an unfair reputation (read stereotype) for breed-wide viciousness is created. It’s an ugly cycle, and it feeds into yet another ugly cycle: people to see rottweilers and pittbulls, refer to their stereotypes and feel duly afraid; the dogs then sense the person’s uneasiness and start to feel uneasy themselves, and a tense situation is born (of folly) in which the dog is much more likely to bite. That bite is much more likely to be serious, and get lots of attention from irrational people who (like all people) like to see their biases confirmed. Knowing all this, and knowing that I knew it, I still felt a little tightness in my gut as I opened the door, far more than if the sheet had said “Golden Retriever, extremely vicious.” It’s stupid and indefensible, but I confess it to be true.
And then the magic happened. I discovered, in short, that Diego’s info sheet was brief because it already contained all the essential information. He was a Rott, he was a Giant, and his name was certainly Diego because as soon as my lips made this sound, his Gentle came gushing out. If someone had walked into the room with their stereotype glasses on, they might have thought I was being mauled. Well I was, but only with kisses and friendship. “Rottweiler” had evoked images of tiny uncaring bloodshot eyes, a short powerful muzzle full of grinding carnivore teeth, and myself, going through life without an arm. Now the word “Diego” evokes images of huge happy smiles, giant prancing teddy bears and rainbows made of candy. Still, I’d recommend adding a “very very” to his description. You could put it anywhere and it would still be true. He is a “very very gentle giant,” just as he is a “very gentle and very giant,” and a “gentle giant (very very).” Nonetheless, we got lots of glares and stares as we rumbled around the block. People pulled their children close, rolled up their car windows, and reached for their rosaries. If we’d walked near a bank, they would have given us sacks of money and taken cover. If a pride of lions had escaped from the zoo, they would have seen us and run back to hide under the elephants. Submerged in the same ignorant fear from which Diego had just heroically hauled me, they could not see past the fabled monster to the big cuddly ragamuffin. If only we nourished, protected and encouraged our dogs as well as we do our stereotypes, the Diegos of the world would be free to be their delightful selves.
Speaking both as a lover and a walker of dogs, I declare Diego to be one formidable beast. I’ve walked a huge St. Bernard, two Great Danes (simultaneously) and a Mastiff that weighed over 200 pounds. I’ve walked a Boxer, Golden Retriever and a German Shepherd, all bad-mannered and all at once. None of this prepared me for Diego’s awesome horsepower. He really was every bit my match. For though other dogs are capable of strong lunges and sudden, surprising projections of mass toward squirrels, scraps or smells, Diego is the strongest dog I’ve ever walked by far. While other dogs can jerk and pull, Diego is more of a tractor: he has one speed (thankfully, slow) and there is very little that can stop his progress. Rottweilers were bred to pull carts. Diego could pull much more than a cart. Take any commercial where they show off a truck’s amazing diesel power by towing a couple yachts or trailers full of lead across the screen, replace the truck with a comparably-sized black and brown dog, and you have some idea. I wanted put a saddle on him and ride him home. I could have, and he’d probably have let me. Good thing I’d forgotten my saddle, because that kind of behavior is against specific company policy.
I don’t recommend anyone go out and randomly pet the nearest Rottweiler, Pitbull, German Shepherd, Doberman Pinscher, Akita, Presa Canario or Malamute. They’re all powerful animals, and devotedly project the will of their masters. If their masters are at all belligerent, it’s safer to assume the dogs will do with teeth what their humans do with harsh words and gestures. If you wouldn’t pet the human, don’t pet the dog. But keep in mind that most people could use a good (proverbial) petting, and the very absence of such affection is likely a cause to their spitefulness. Sure, it’s nice to be pleasantly surprised, and you never know what a person or dog has been through or where they’re coming from (enough to know where you yourself are coming from). This is a lesson I’m happy to learn, again and again and again. I wouldn’t bet my arm on the next Rottwieler I see being as snuggly as Diego-Bear, but you never know. You really never know.