In intro journalism class we list the several “news values”—those characteristics of an event that make it news. For example: Celebrity — “Prince Marries Roommate,” because he’s famous, it’s news. Or Proximity, the local angle in the diocesan weekly—“Typhoon Rips Town: Three Catholics Hurt.” Finally, Oddity, the unexpected—Dog bites man is not news, “Man Bites Dog” is.
The Sunday New York Times, in its recent effort to lighten up the front page with soft news, reports that if you are very, very rich, you can buy a German Shepherd specially trained — conditioned — to curl up at your feet and love your children like a cute puppy, but, given the signal, tear someone else to shreds. It’s a story with everything: an international aura — Naval seals took a dog like this to get Bin Laden; high finance — to afford this lovely beast it helps to be top one percent income club; and animal ethics — Is this any way to treat a dog?
Harrison Prather, a dog trainer in South Carolina, who used to supply dogs for the Navy Seals, has switched to a more lucrative market, rich businessmen who want to feel both secure and even more important than they feel already. A costly “protection dog,” which goes for at least $50,000, is both cheaper than a human guard and a status symbol. German shepherds trained for three years in Germany are conditioned to operate with split personalities. What we would call a mental illness, for them is a marketable skill. As one owner said of Julia, who sold for $230,000, “She’s like a little pit bull when she bites. She has that model face, and then opens the gums up and lets you have it.” The secret word to shift into the violent mode is “Packen,” German for “seize,” or “Get him!”
What’s wrong with this? “Nothing,” you might say. “It’s the rich man’s money. He can do what he wants with it.” Three problems.
1. Is this a good thing for a dog? Basically it renders the animal schizophrenic. Nice one minute, wild the next. It’s a dog, you say. You paid $50-$200,000. That’s up to you. And dogs aren’t bound by our moral codes. I know that dogs act by instinct, they don’t reason, they don’t even know conceptually that they are dogs. But my family went through and loved four dogs when I was growing up and my brother usually had three around the house. Part of their charm is that they do seem to develop what we would call a consistent personality.
2. Is this a responsible use of wealth? Call me a communist or socialist, but a basic Christian principle is that the rich have a responsibility to use their wealth for the common good. We are familiar with the arguments that the cost of a fighter-bomber could feed and build homes for lots of starving families. Well, the money spent on Julia could have given summer jobs to 88 ghetto high school students or sent seven young people to college for a year.
3 What does it say about our culture? The same thing the ads for Rolex watches, diamond necklaces, a Mercedes Benz, and multimillion dollar penthouses say in the up-scale magazines. There’s a lot of money in the hands of a few, and they spend — waste — a lot of it showing off.
Maybe that’s what author John Tierney, a well-regarded Times reporter, was trying to say.
Raymond A. Schroth, S.J.