Would you excuse me if I hang back in the old century for just a few minutes? I feel that with all the treachery going on both in technology and among humans, I would mention a few dogs I saw over the holidays who embody the loyalty, concern, goodwill toward men and other qualities that are not vastly on display elsewhere in the world.
I speak first of Harry, my cousin Brian's golden retriever, an elegant and amiable creature, with just a dash of con man and pol in his nature to give it spice. He, of course, came with his master to meet me at the airport. My cousin had kindly invited me to a holiday lunch at Boston's incomparable Ritz Cafe. The only hitch was that Brian had to shop for his entire gift list before we could sit down to scrod prepared by a band of angels. This involved my waiting outside with Harry, while Brian raced up and down the aisles grabbing gifts with a bandit's speed. The entryway to Lord & Taylor was unheated and the temperature was 25, and people scurried in, not just desperate but frozen.
Harry had a miraculous effect on them. Everyone spoke to him. The most clouded countenance lifted and broke into a smile at the sight of him. People who obviously did not have time to breathe stopped to scratch his ears and whisper endearments. They wished him a Merry Christmas, often graciously including me in the greeting.
One young woman, who seemed especially stricken by the stress of the season, came out of the store empty-handed. She sank to one knee to kiss him on the forehead. Harry, of course, responded in kind and licked her face. She thanked us both.
Others asked his name, age and sex. An older couple came toiling into view. The man asked, "Boy or girl?" I said, "His name is Harry." "We have a girl," he said. "Her name is Rosie. Would you like to see her picture?" He whipped out his wallet and proudly showed me a dog like Harry.
"She's very smart," he said. "Harry," I replied boldly, "sits down, without being told, the minute he gets to a curbstone and doesn't move until his master tells him to."
I felt we could go on indefinitely extolling our pets' champion qualities. The man's wife, pale in the jaws of the Christmas crunch, towed him away.
Harry had given us all an excuse to be nice to each other; he had brought out the best in everyone, as dogs so often do. I was chilled to the bone by the time Brian reappeared, but my heart was warm.
The next day, it was my feet.
We went to Christmas dinner at Jud and Maryann's stately new mansion. It was garlanded and festooned, and everything was what it ought to be except that I was still cold. People were very kind. They gave me a seat by the fire, a lap robe, a brandy. Happily, the household includes two blond Labradors, and one of them, Murphy, is a humanitarian. He cased the situation, then came over and lay down on my feet--not at them, on them. Instant Palm Beach was the result.
And Murphy stayed there. Samantha, the other lab, started at the sound of cars or sudden sallies by the children. Murphy the Merciful never budged. I told his mistress that it was remarkable that he had sensed a need and filled it with no fuss. "He's that way," she said with understandable pride.
Danny, who belongs to my niece Anne and her husband, Tom, is also a golden, but not yet into social work. He is young. He sits by your chair when you are eating your breakfast, and sometimes he puts his head in your lap. He beams upon you a melting gaze that would make a saint feel guilty. He is all but saying, "It's entirely up to you, but I want you to remember that if you cannot finish that cranberry bread but don't want to hurt Anne's feelings by leaving any, I am here for you. I want to help."
Coming back on the plane, I read a riveting New York Times story about a furor in England over a Yuletide television special, part of a series called "One Man and His Dog." It's about shepherds steering their sheep into pens with the indispensable help of their sheep dogs.
The English keep a tight rein on their emotions, but when it comes to dogs, they just let 'em rip. According to the Times's reporter, Sarah Lyall, the English are riled that some of their countrymen might seek more piquant TV fare. I am with the dog lovers. Marveling at dogs who cope with silly sheep is an excellent corrective for Internet heads who think they know it all.
I also hope somebody makes a documentary about a program called Therapy Dog Training that certifies some specially trained breeds--Rottweilers among them--as caseworkers in nursing homes and mental hospitals. Seems they're born shrinks. People pour out their hearts to them. I think every now and then, it's good to remember that while we train dogs, they can teach us a whole lot about love and devotion as well as just being nice.