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Waggy, Shaggy Dog Tales

I HAVE to be careful telling you about this. I'm waiting for our cat to be sound asleep. I think he is now.

It's about my favorite bathroom book.

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It is called ``Dogs Are Better Than Cats.'' There, I've said it.

Unfortunately, this little paperback by Missy Dizick and Mary Bly is out of print. You could try a secondhand bookstore (or our bathroom). Exploring secondhand bookstores is something that some people spend long happy hours doing. But that's another story.

According to the inscription inside, it was our dog who gave me this book a few years ago. This is what it says: ``For ewe frome me, Hapy Birfday, Wolff (oops).'' Wolf even had trouble spelling his own name. He had written two f's and then crossed one of them out. But the drawing of his ears, nose, and eyes, just below his signature, is a masterly self-portrait.

Obviously the cat took no share in this gift. After all, it says things like:

* ``DOGS are sincere. CATS are sneaky.''

* ``DOGS get along well with most other pets. CATS eat other pets.''

* ``DOGS do tricks. CATS play tricks.''

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This is not really what you would call good cat public relations.

My wife and I have even taken over one of the captions from this book as a family saying. It comes in a section called ``DOGS EAT! CATS have catered food.'' It's true: Cats are terribly fussy about their food while dogs eagerly eat just about anything. One of the drawings shows a dog, head in a bowl, licking up the last hint of food and saying, ``Oh, boy, dogfood again!''

When we feed Wolf we yell: ``Dogfood again!''

I wonder if Missy Dizick and Mary Bly have ever thought of doing another book that I'd like to have in our bathroom.

It would be called ``Mutts Are Better Than Breeds.''

I have always been pro-mutt. Well, let me rephrase that. First of all, I am pro-dog. I love all the different shapes and sizes and feels and colors of them: sleek and spotted Dalmatians, woolly poodles, shaggy Old English sheepdogs, the grayest of gray Weimaraners, rough little cairn terriers. I even love them whether they are ridiculously tall, elegant, and beautiful like Salukis or terribly short and ugly like bull terriers. In fact, if I were ever to buy a purebred, it would be a bull terrier for its loveable ugliness.

But I don't buy well-bred pedigree dogs. I like dog-made dogs rather than man-made dogs, if you know what I mean. Mixed-up dogs with a German shepherd tail, the ears of a basenji, the stocky legs of a Jack Russell terrier, the adoring eyes of a retriever, and the general silliness of a spaniel. Something of everything. One dog equals all dogs.

IN our neighborhood, we have all sorts. There are plenty of immaculately groomed pedigree dogs owned by well-groomed pedigree humans. Particularly popular are black Labradors. But they all look identical to me. It's the same with the golden retrievers. How do you tell one from another? And they all seem to be named ``Buster.'' They are good with children. They roll over and are everyone's friends. They have a lot to recommend them. But talk about clones!

Our dog, Wolf, is a mongrel.

People say, ``He's beautiful. Is he a rare breed?''

``He's unique,'' I reply. ``Straight from the gutter.''

``Oh, they are the best!''

They are indeed. No snootiness. No prizes and show-rings for mongrels. No manicures and talcum-powdering. A ragbag is just a ragbag.

We don't really know where Wolf came from. We obtained him from the ``Cat and Dog Home,'' where most strays in our city end up. If we hadn't taken him home, he would probably have never left this dog pound. He didn't cost nearly as much as a pedigree with a traceable ancestry would, but he is just as important and special as any kennel-club aristocrat. In fact, like all mutts, he is a real character.

Wolf is the third mutt I have owned. He is something between a husky, a German shepherd, a corgi, and a wolf. Before him was Tiny, a gypsy dog that looked like a cross between a whippet and what one dog book calls a ``two-fer terrier.'' And before her was Gyp. Gyp had a doubtful background, too. He was like a small brown Weimaraner, but he may have had a setter for a granny. Or a greyhound.

All these mutts have been memorable.

I have to admit that sometimes the reason they have been unforgettable has been because they did bad things. Or at least things that would never occur in a well-regulated household.

Gyp was incredibly disobedient. So I took him to obedience classes. Well, to one class. We arrived a little late at the Village Hall, and from the door we could see that everyone else had already arrived. A tweed-skirted lady with a commanding voice presided. Around her quietly circulated all these orderly people with orderly dogs. The dogs sat when told to. They came to heel on the command ``Heel!'' They ignored the dog in front and the dog behind. They did absolutely everything a good dog could do to please and comply.

Gyp slipped out of his collar and surged, spluttering and yelping and squeeling and yapping, into the hall. Never had he seen such a glorious opportunity to attack so many other dogs all at the same time. Pekingese flew. Bulldogs scattered. A borzoi leapt affrighted onto the stage. A Rhodesian Ridgeback cowered in the doorway to the ladies' room.

Gyp was not popular.

But we went on loving him anyway, and although he never really could take to the idea of listening to his owners' wishes, an affectionate kind of arrangement developed over the years.

Tiny's first notable act, on arrival at the farmhouse I lived in, was to go to the next-door farm and grasp a hapless chicken by the neck. She carried it home triumphantly, obviously expecting nothing but praise for bringing dinner. I'm not certain she ever quite forgave me for being cross with her for doing only what her previous owner, and her own mother, had taught her to do. I rescued the chicken. After a few days, it clucked indignantly and headed back home across the field. Tiny had to learn to tolerate a lot of poultry after that - ducks and bantams and geese abounded in our farmyard - and she did so with a gentle grace that characterized this really lovable canine.

Wolf is a cat chaser. What more can I say? I wonder if he may have landed in the dog pound in the first place because he had chased some poor cat across the city and forgotten where he lived. We have to walk him on a leash. In all other ways, he has slowly grown into the most domesticated and soft-hearted creature, and he easily tolerates his own live-in cat.

But meet another cat outdoors and he goes spontaneously combustive and vociferously volcanic. He becomes a crazy thing, leaping and dashing and howling and screaming. He sounds as though he is being murdered. Some cats run. This makes him entirely out of control. Other cats sit and observe him, unbelieving. This unmoving cool is the final bafflement to Wolf. It makes him hoarse with anguish and embarrassment.

And while I do like dogs better than cats, I do not want cats to live in terror. So I reel in our mutt on his leash like a slithery salmon and walk on pretending that nothing out of the ordinary has occurred. Eventually Wolf calms down and, sticking his nose deep into a pile of autumn leaves, he too makes believe we are just quietly going about our business wishing no ill to anyone in the whole wide world. `Kidspace' is a place on The Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, usually on Tuesdays.

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