They ate like their dogs, wolfing down the motel mignon, demolishing the dessert, lapping impatiently at the coffee. Then, with battle glints in their eyes and little anticipatory snarls on their lips, they shoved back their chairs and waited for blood. The waiting was brief. Their president, a tiredly permissive young man chosen for his pacifism, made a few announcements, and then a dignified, elderly gentleman delivered a financial report. He was interrupted from the floor—frequently. Innuendos flew like bullets. Their implication was that the elderly gentleman, who exuded conservative wealth and propriety, had stolen $63 from the treasury.
Under any other circumstances in his long and blameless life, the speaker would have been outraged. Here he only shrugged, for this was a meeting of guard dog breeders, and the insults were merely opening pleasantries, growly greetings among devotees of the most ferocious noncontact sport on two or four legs.
All dog breeders fight, but guard dog breeders—be they in bull mastiffs, Dobermans, Bouviers des Flandres, the warlike strains of the German shepherd or half a dozen lesser-known breeds—have more to live up to. They must be worthy of the amiably bloodthirsty beasts they cherish.
This is never easy. The spirit is invariably willing, but the physical equipment is often lacking; for guard dog breeders are rarely in the bloom of youth, and their fighting days (if they ever had any) are far behind them. Mostly, wisely, their violence is verbal; like Pentagon planners, they do combat by proxy. Still, they have their moments. Ever so occasionally something of the wild, fearless nature of their dogs flashes to the surface, and all at once a plump, middle-aged mechanical engineer—or insurance man or stockbroker—will lash out in zestful, protective fury.
Not long ago, on no less hallowed ground than a judge's ring at a dog show, a certain breeder heard—or thought he heard—his dog disparaged by the handler of a rival dog. Naturally he responded in kind, heated words followed, and then he saw—or thought he saw—his dog surreptitiously kicked by the handler. This time no words followed. The breeder belted the handler on the chops. Somewhat complicating the situation was an embarrassing fact; at least it would have been embarrassing in any normal public gathering. The breeder who threw the punch was a man, and the handler who caught it was a woman. Here, no matter. According to the breeder, the lady had it coming, and though he got a temporary American Kennel Club suspension for what many, perhaps even a majority, of the onlookers considered a breach of manners, there was an unmistakable undercurrent of admiration. The man had style.
Of course, the battling breeders, both the verbal and physical kind, are all amateurs. Professionals, owners of large kennels, would no more involve themselves in the day-to-day combat of a breed club than they would join a New Left folk sing-in at Columbia. It is the amateurs who make the noise and do the suffering, and more often than not—because they breed for glory, not profit—produce the best stock.
Take a typical guard dog breeder—a suburbanite with two children and four dogs. Take a typical guard dog—a bull mastiff, a linebacker of an animal, thick-bodied, short-haired, of an appearance that might be created by two boxer dogs being crunched into one. Bull mastiffs expect more from their owners and they damn well get it. Their breeders live dog, think dog, hope dog in an everyday proximity that other animal fanciers—horsemen, for instance—can never approach. There is no isolation in separate kennels for a bull mastiff. In their panting, pawing, oversized omnipresence the dogs are the most visible part of the family. Daytimes they have the run of the house and fenced-in lawn; evenings they join the family circle before retiring for the night, two of them to the master bedroom, the third to sleep with the older boy, the fourth to the living room couch. Company nights, they good-naturedly terrorize the guests. "It's like four Dick Butkuses charging around the living room," says one awed visitor.
Bull mastiff people compete in dog shows, have a litter or two a year on which they pretend to make a little money and slowly go broke. It's not the food bills—a 130-pound dog eats about 200 pounds of horse per year at a cost of about $100. It's the medical care. In breeders' families veterinary bills customarily triple those of the pediatrician. The breeder only glowers and pays. Given his hang-up and his hopes, there is nothing he can do. One woman who has bred six children and 72 dogs sums it all up. "Unlike children," she says, "all puppies are promising."
If the sense of proportion is the first thing to go, conversational decorum is not far behind. Language at a bull mastiff social gathering is enough to make a book publisher blush, being strongly laced with earthy and clinical references to problems of canine breeding and reproduction. For newcomers, the language is difficult to get used to. Sometimes pretty little confusions occur. One lady, attending her first Doberman breed club meeting, was alarmed to hear a remark about her husband's "lovely bitch" and was visibly relieved to learn the reference was to his dog and not his mistress.
But it is only in discussing dog sex that the breeder grows racy. In his own life he is the most moral of animals and, in assessing the breeding habits of others, he is downright puritanical. Indeed, an alleged deviation from ethical behavior, which once completely sundered a certain dog club, has since become known as the Case of the Pup in the Powder Room.