I was unlucky in having a dogless childhood.
My mother belonged to the generation which had just discovered bacteria when most children of well-to-do families contracted rickets because people were so afraid of bacteria that they sterilized all the milk vitamins to death. It was only when I reached years of discretion and enough reliance could be placed on my manly word of honour not to let myself be licked by the animal, that I was finally allowed to have my first dog; and this, unfortunately, was a complete idiot of a dog which, for a long time, deprived me of any further wish to possess
My own children have grown up in the closest companionship with dogs: we had five of them when they were small.
I can still see the little mites crawling on all fours beneath the belly of the big Alsatian, to the indescribable horror of my poor mother. When my son was learning to walk he used to hang on to Tito’s long tail to pull himself up and change over from the four-legged to the two-legged methods of locomotion.
Tito kept still with the patience of a saint but as soon as the child was standing upright and had let go of her sorely tried tail, she would wag it with relief so hard that it generally banged into some part of his anatomy and knocked him off his feet all over again.
approaches him without any shyness, my opinion of the child and of the whole family rises. Unfortunately, the farm children of my own immediate neighbourhood are far too rough for any dealings with dogs. In our neighbourhood, you never see a group of small boys, accompanied by one or more dogs. I know, of course, individual farm children who are kind to their own dogs, but in a larger crowd of boys, there always seems to be at least one bully amongst them who makes the rest follow his example.
At any rate, the average Lower Austrian dog flees at the approach of the average Lower Austrian boy. This need not be the case and is not everywhere so. In White Russia, for example, one regularly sees mixed gangs of boys and dogs wandering through the villages, usually flaxen-headed boys of five to seven years old and innumerable dogs of an uncertain breed. The dogs have no fear of the boys but the greatest confidence in them. And from this confidence, one can draw far-reaching conclusions about the propensities of those boys’ characters.
It is certainly a strong inherent affinity with nature that makes them so gentle with their animals.
The most amazing friendship between a dog and a child that I ever knew—I was, at the time, myself a child—concerned an enormous coal-black Newfoundland and my future brother-in-law, Peter Pflaum, respectively watch-dog and son of the neighbouring mansion, Schloss Altenberg. Lord, as the Newfoundland was called, was a dog of truly ideal temperament, brave to the point of rashness, faithful and intelligent and of amazing integrity of character.
Peter was, as he will boast to this day, not without a certain amount of justifiable pride, a thoroughly naughty boy.
And it was this eleven-year-old boy that the huge creature chose as master when he arrived in Altenberg as a full-grown dog one and a half years old. What made him do this is still not clear to me, for he belonged to that type of dog which commonly attaches itself to a grown-up man, usually to the head of the family. Perhaps chivalrous motives impelled him to it, for Peter was the smallest and weakest not only of four brothers but of the whole wild gang of many boys and a few girls who made the Altenberg woods unsafe by their Red Indian pranks whose cracks and explosions were not only realistic but often real. In the course of our games we each frequently got beaten up by the others, Peter most frequently of all, and, as I contend, deservedly.
But let a boy try hitting another when a dog, massive as a lion and black as the night, at once lays two heavy paws on the shoulder of the offender, bares huge, snow-white teeth under his very nose, and growls threateningly in tones deep as organ pipes.
Peter rewarded this loyalty with heartfelt devotion, and the two were quite inseparable.
This impeded Peter’s education somewhat, for even Herr Niedermaier, the strict house tutor of the fatherless boy dared not so much as raise his voice against Peter, for, should he do so, an ominous rumbling, deep as thunder, would reverberate from a corner and the black lion would stroll up majestically; whereupon Herr Niedermaier would shrug his shoulders helplessly and turn away.
My mother told me of a similar case in her parents’ home where a great, strong Leonberger, likewise a member of one of the largest breeds of dog, adopted as mistress the youngest sister, who, like Peter, was a child ‘sat on’ by many elder brothers and sisters.
I have a prejudice against people, even very small children, who are afraid of dogs. This prejudice is quite unjustified for it is a completely normal reaction for a small person, at the first sight of such a large beast of prey, at first to be anxious and careful. But the contrary standpoint, that I love children that show no fear even of big, strange dogs and know how to handle them properly, has its justification, for this can only be done by someone who possesses a certain understanding of nature and of our fellow beings.
My own children were, long before the end of their first year, such complete ‘doggy people’, that it would never have entered their heads that a dog could harm them. And for this very reason, my daughter Agnes before she had quite reached the age of six years, once gave me a terrible fright.
It happened in this way: She and her brother once came back from a walk accompanied by a large, very good-looking Alsatian which had joined them. I guessed it to be six or seven years old and was later proved to be right. This dog followed the children home, keeping very close to them and walking to heel.
He seemed rather subdued and only let me stroke him under protest, that is by wrinkling his lips slightly, but he clung with a strange persistence to the two children. The whole thing was uncanny to me. The dog seemed slightly unbalanced mentally, and why on earth had he so suddenly attached himself to the children? This found a very natural explanation later on: the dog was a very nervous, gun-shy animal.
He lived in a village about eight miles upstream, and, at the rather noisy celebrations of the local church festival, he had taken fright at the shooting in the sideshows, and run away so far that he had been unable to find his way home.
His owner had two children whom he adored and who were not unlike mine in age and appearance. This was obviously why he had attached himself to my two when he met them.
At the time, however, I did not know all this and it was with mixed feelings that I consented when the children begged me to let them keep him should the owner not turn up.
They were, of course, flattered by this big and beautiful dog that clung to them so tenaciously.
The matter was further complicated by the fact that our own dog, Wolf I, was also extremely attached to the children in the more independent and self-sufficient manner of a male Lupus dog.
It was understandable that this obsequious slave, this confounded interloper, who usurped his place in the favours of the children, injured Wolf’s pride horribly. My meaning threats, directed equally at both dogs, and the still subdued and timorous aspect of the newcomer was sufficient at first to prevent a battle, but on the whole, I was not enthusiastic about this new acquisition.
The eruption was inevitable. I had retired to a small room beyond the bathroom at the top of the house. Presently my peaceful meditations were disturbed by the sounds of a terrible dogfight and in the midst of it—oh, horror!—piercing cries for help from my little Agnes!
I precipitated myself down the stairs, hanging on to my trousers with one hand, and saw in front of the house the hair-raising spectacle of the two dogs locked in a bitter fight and protruding from beneath them—the legs of my little daughter.
I rushed up like a madman, seized the neck of a dog in either hand and tore them apart with superhuman strength, thereby revealing the little girl. She was lying on her back and she too had one hand firmly fixed on each of the dogs’ necks, in the attempt to wrest them apart.
She now told me that, sitting on the ground between them, she had begun to stroke both dogs together with the object, as she thought, of reconciling them.
Naturally, this had the opposite effect and the two animals flew at each other’s throats. Agnes had tried to hold them apart and had not let go even when she was thrown on the ground and trampled underfoot. It had never for a second occurred to her that either of them could harm her!