When You Lie Down with Dogs, You Get Up with Fleas

We all know why dogs lick themselves - it's the setup to a ubiquitous punchline. It's their other actions that make them the world's most bi-polar animals.

Jean Harlow was a sultry blonde American actress who, after years of appearing mostly in movie shorts, caught her big break in Howard Hughes' 1930 World War I box office hit Hell's Angels. Although she died tragically from uremic poisoning in 1937, she is credited with the quote "when you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas."

There is little doubt she meant it metaphorically — she was an early-period Hollywood sexpot, after all — but when you think about both the flea and head-scratching evoked by the world's furriest mystery, it fits. Dogs are nature's equivalent of Goofus and Gallant, rolled into one hole-digging, garbage-eating, tail-wagging species. The following are the major traits of each, bracketed by semi-well known random quotes.

First, their Goofus characteristics:

'Meow' means 'woof' in cat

Cats can certainly overdo vocalization now and then, but the amount of imaginary foes the dog tries to ward off with his barking might number in the millions. In his ratty little dog brain, he probably sees this, when in reality it's just a little girl skipping down the street. For an animal so docile and tolerant that it will let you use him as a pillow while you watch television on the couch, he'll turn into Cerberus in a split second by leaping off the furniture, tearing across the room and unleashing a volley of barks at sunlight or a wispy cloud in the sky — all while wagging his tail.

Calling a tail a leg doesn't make it a leg

Dogs are unabashed, unapologetic sniffers. According to Psychology Today, they sniff one another to not only meet and greet, but since at least 33% of their brains are devoted to processing olfactory data, it's a major part of their perception of the world. The fact that they nasally explore nether regions is open to debate, but the bottom line is this: in their world, it is perfectly normal behavior. In our world — Marv Albert notwithstanding — it's deviant.

Likewise, the amorous behavior dogs exhibit toward legs, pillows and Coco, your favorite teddy bear, is also within their definition of normalcy. According to Gary Landsberg, DVM, a veterinary behaviorist in Ontario, Canada, it can also be an effort to establish dominance, or even a part of normal play. It's unlikely Coco will care much about the distinction.

The only thing I like better than talking about food is eating

If only dogs would limit themselves to imitating gulping, snorting pigs in their own dog bowl. Oh no, they won't. Instead, they'll fish for seconds out of the trash, quench their thirst out of the toilet, and for dessert, feast on kitty roca out of the cat box.

This is where dogs are at their most disgusting. They'll eat, drink and lick anything. And I do mean anything. Think ubiquitous punchline.

Head-scratching as that behavior may be, all is forgiven due to their Gallant heart:

You had me at hello

You come home from work, worn out after mindlessly servicing the shambling drones at Wal-Mart or doing your part to contribute to the fattening of America by frying greasy burgers at McDonald's. The wife shoots you a quick glance that represents the non-verbal equivalent of the middle finger, then goes back to her book. The kids are glued to one hand-held electronic device or another, deigning only to acknowledge your presence if you pay them. You trudge despondently toward the refrigerator, reasoning that the barley in the beer you're going to drink for dinner is probably a vegetable, when you notice athump-thump-thump sound emanating from the corner of the room. There's your Golden Retriever buddy "Buddy", wagging his tail and acting as if he hasn't seen you since you were released from prison.

The symbiotic relationship between humans and dogs is unmatched by any other on the planet. Cats couldn't care less about you. Birds secretly want to peck your eyes out. Fish would love to hold your head underneath the water in their tank until the bubbles stop. And yet, there's "Buddy", always happy to see you, virtually oozing with the desire to please. A single touch of your palm to the top of his head will cause him to squirm with delight.

I left the ending ambiguous, because that's the way life is

Your dog is your devoted pal. But like all compatriots, he's got both good and bad traits, the difference being he doesn't know one from the other. Whether he's herfing on the rug, ripping up your favorite sweater or happily wagging his tail, he's your friend forever. Unfortunately for him, "forever" only lasts about fifteen years, but they'll be fifteen really good ones.


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