FARGO — I've often been fascinated by the mysterious world of dog communication.
In the human world, dominance is often demonstrated by sheer, physical strength. If a man who weighs 112 pounds gets in a bar fight with an Ultimate Fighting Champion, we pretty much know how it's going to go.
But the canine world seems to have its own elaborate and baffling code for determining hierarchy. And, from what I understand, the battle for dominance among canines is highly elastic, with dogs constantly jockeying for top-dog position as they navigate everything from who enters the doorway first to who can pee higher on the fire hydrant.
For instance, if you were to judge my dog, Wally, by physical size, you would put him in the "112-pound weakling" — or maybe the "12-pound weakling" — category. He is a neutered senior pooch who is smaller than the average cat. He has disc problems and adorably huge anime eyes and his favorite hobby is snuggling.
But when Wally takes me for a walk, he becomes a different dog. I feel like I'm strutting down the sidewalk with Tony Manero. His tail is straight up, his head is held high and he trots with a jaunty bounce to his step. He stops to pee on pretty much everything, like a mob boss declaring his territory. And even though he has the sweetest and most compliant personality at home, he turns into a rebel on the leash — weaving all over the sidewalk, pulling as hard as he can and taking an intense interest in every other dog he sees.
For some reason, his Little Caesar routine is rubbing the neighborhood dogs the wrong way.
On a walk down the same block one evening, he caused a beagle to howl as if tracking a rabbit, a backyard boxer to throw himself against the fence in fierce frustration, and two German shepherds to produce paroxysms of protective barking.
Wally seemed completely impervious to the chaos he caused. In fact, he continued trotting happily down the street as if he were being showered with daisies in a parade held in his honor.
It got worse. As we neared the end of the street, I noticed a large, white bulldog emerge from a garage with the door partially closed. That very week, I had just met a French bulldog who was a therapy animal, and had been impressed by how sweet, gentle and gregarious he was.
This bulldog, however, only had use of his two front legs. He hurled himself forward by pulling his non-functioning back end forward with his powerful "arms." He was strictly front-wheel drive and it didn't seem to slow him down a bit.
Wally and I were so mesmerized by the strange sight that we just stood there, staring at the burly, white biped. It was kind of like a dream, in which you want to move, but realize your feet are buried in quicksand.
Suddenly, two men emerged from the garage and started running toward us. They were yelling the dog's name, which — for storytelling purposes — I will playfully call "Cujo." Cujo ignored them and continued hurtling his beefy form toward us. "Pick your dog up!" one yelled. "Your dog! Pick him up!"
I realized in that moment that Cujo was no therapy dog. He wasn't there to welcome Wally to the neighborhood and offer him free use of his favorite chew toy. He wanted Wally to be his chew toy.
I snatched up Wally, whose tail was still wagging happily, and hurried away, as the men hollered apologies after us: "He loves people," one said, "but he really doesn't like other dogs!"
Although I was shaken, Wally seemed completely unfazed. In fact, he was probably disappointed that he didn't have a chance to make a neat, new friend. It wasn't until we got home again that I felt it was safe to put him back down on the ground. Even then, I was looking over my shoulder for Jack LaMotta, the Raging Bulldog.
The experience hasn't scarred Wally a bit. He still loves to go on walks, he still struts with confidence and he still views every approaching dog as a potential friend.
It's kind of like what Mark Twain said.
It's not the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of denial in the dog.