Under the Lyons Plan for domestic tranquility and world peace, every household would be required to own at least one basset hound. Walking the stubborn little brutes daily on a 6-foot leash would be mandatory, along with compulsory ear fondling and regular belly rubs.
Little? Our late basset hound Fred weighed 85 pounds, a large dog with short legs. A certified nap-therapist, there are photos of Fred snoozing with every species on our farm except the horses (which sleep standing up). Fred particularly enjoyed snuggling in the hay with calves. Their mothers treated him as an honorary cow.
But I digress. Possibly because they are a French breed, basset hounds are lovers — not fighters. A bold kitten could bluff Fred away from his supper dish. Not one basset has ever been implicated in a fatal human attack, a distinction they share with beagles alone. As scent hounds bred to track game, they can be stubborn and almost un-trainable. Almost like cats in that regard, actually.
And yes, bassets are definitely prone to climbing on the furniture as soon as you’re out of sight. So what? Show me somebody who’s obsessed with hair on the upholstery, and I’ll show you somebody who probably lacks enthusiasm for certain other activities conducive to human happiness.
Also because every basset hound is a natural comedian, under the Lyons Plan, laughter would be everywhere and the national blood pressure would plummet. So would that make America great again?
Anyway, I was moved to make these observations by a recent Washington Post article discussing the efforts of academic scientists to study the efficacy of animals as walking anti-anxiety agents. Apparently, “the popular embrace of pets as furry therapists” — golden retrievers in nursing homes, pigs at airports, even bears on college campuses — has caused “growing discomfort among some researchers in the field, who say it has raced far ahead of scientific evidence.”
Academic studies are under way at places like the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society (University of Pennsylvania) and the Center of the Human-Animal Bond (Purdue University) on such critical topics as whether or not puppies make children happy, or whether providing wounded war veterans with service dogs helps treat post-traumatic stress disorder.
(Believe it or not, the Veterans Administration has declined to pay for such animals. The Pentagon can make dogs go to war, but comforting wounded soldiers is deemed too expensive.)
Raillery aside, such experiments are certainly more useful than what passes for scholarship in much of academia.
The issue seems to be that most evidence in the field is anecdotal at best. A Yale doctoral candidate named Molly Crossman who published a critical review of the literature found it pretty thin stuff. Among other flaws, “studies . . . tend to generalize across animals, she noted: If participants are measurably soothed by one golden retriever, that doesn’t mean another dog — or another species — will evoke the same response.”
True, and maybe kids are made happier and more confident by owning dogs, or maybe by having the kinds of parents who give them puppies. It’s impossible to say.
Human stupidity can also play a big part. Try to imagine the thought process that went into somebody’s bringing a two-month-old bear cub to the Washington University campus in St. Louis to help students deal with the stress of taking final exams. The frightened animal bit 14 students and almost had to be euthanized due to rabies fears — sentimentality turning to unreasoning fear, as it tends to do.
You can name a bear “Boo Boo,” but it’s still a wild animal only recently stolen from its mother’s den. Which should definitely be illegal.
U-Penn researcher James Serpell also cautioned the Post’s Karin Brulliard that the notion that pets make you happier “is not a harmless distortion . . . If the public believes that getting an animal is going to be good for them, many times an unsuitable person will get an unsuitable animal, and it doesn’t work out well for either.”
Serpell’s no doubt correct. Not all pets are good for all people, and an awful lot of people, in my experience, are no good for pets. Many American cities are overrun with unsuitable people doing a bad job caring for unsuitable animals. Animal shelters are bursting with them.
However, although every one we’ve owned has been a rescue dog, you won’t find many basset hounds languishing in little cages. We had to drive 150 miles to adopt Fred, an incorrigible escape artist in his youth. Mostly, people who adopt bassets can’t bear to let them go.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of “The Hunting of the President.” You can email Lyons at email@example.com.
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