The Dog That Bit People
Probably no one mem should have as many dogs in his life as I have had, but there was more pleasure than distress in them for me
except in the case of an Airedale named Muggs. He gave me more trouble than all the other fifty-four or -five put together, although my moment of keenest embarrassment was the time a Scotch terrier named Jeannie, who had just had six puppies in the clothes closet of a fourth floor apartment in New York, had the unexpected seventh and last at the corner of Eleventh Street and Fifth Avenue during a walk she had insisted on taking.
Then, too, there was the prize-winning French poodle, a great big black poodle—none of your little, un-troublesome white miniatures—who got sick riding in the rumble seat of a car with me on her way to the Greenwich Dog Show. She had a red rubber bib tucked around her throat and, since a rain storm came up when we were half way through the Bronx, I had to hold over her a small green umbrella, really more of a parasol. The rain beat down fearfully and suddenly the driver of the car drove into a big garage, filled with mechanics.
It happened so quickly that I forgot to put the umbrella down and I will always remember, with sickening distress, the look of incredulity mixed with hatred that came over the face of the articular hardened garage man that came over to see what we wanted, when he took a look at me and the poodle. All garage men, and people of that intolerant stripe, hate poodles with their curious hair cut, especially the pom-poms that you got to leave on their hips if you expect the dogs to win a prize.
But the Airedale, as I have said, was the worst of all my dogs. He really wasn’t my dog, as a matter of fact: I came home from a vacation one summer to find that my brother Roy had bought him while I was away. A big, burly, choleric dog, he always acted as if he thought I wasn’t one of the family. There was a slight advantage in being one of the family, for he didn’t bite the family as often as he bit strangers. Still, in the years that we had him he bit everybody but mother, and he made a pass at her once but missed.
That was during the month when we suddenly had mice, and Muggs refused to do anything about them. Nobody ever had mice exactly
like the mice we had that month. They acted like pet mice, almost like mice somebody had trained. They were so friendly that one
night when mother entertained at dinner the Friraliras, a club she and my father had belonged to for twenty years, she put down a lot of little dishes with food in them on the pantry floor so that the mice would be satisfied with that and wouldn’t come into the dining room.
Muggs stayed out in the pantry with the mice, lying on the floor, growling to himself—not at the mice, but about all the people in the next room that he would have liked to get at. Mother slipped out into the pantry once to see how everything was going. Everything was going fine. It made her so mad to see Muggs lying there, oblivious of the mice—they came running up to her—that she slapped him and he slashed at her, but didn’t make it. He was sorry immediately, mother said. He was always sorry, she said, after he bit someone, but we could not understand how she figured this out. He didn’t act sorry.
Mother used to send a box of candy every Christmas to the people the Airedale bit. The list finally contained forty or more names. Nobody could understand why we didn’t get rid of the dog. I didn’t understand it very well myself, but we didn’t get rid of him. I think that one or two people tried to poison Muggs—he acted poisoned once in a while—and old Major Moberly fired at him once with his service revolver near the Seneca Hotel in East Broad Street—but Muggs lived to be almost eleven years old and even when he could hardly get around he bit a Congressman who had called to see my father on business.
My mother had never liked the Congressman—she said the signs of his horoscope showed he couldn’t be trusted (he was Saturn with the moon in Virgo)—but she sent him a box of candy that Christmas. He sent it right back, probably because he suspected it was trick candy. Mother persuaded herself it was all for the best that the dog had bitten him, even though father lost an important business association because of it. “I wouldn’t be associated with such a man,” mother said, “Muggs could read him like a book.”
We used to take turns feeding Muggs to be on his good side, but that didn’t always work. He was never in a very good humor, even after a meal. Nobody knew exactly what was the matter with him, but whatever it was it made him irascible, especially in the mornings. Roy never felt very well in the morning, either, especially before breakfast, and once when he came downstairs and found that Muggs had moodily chewed up the morning paper he hit him in the face with a grapefruit and then jumped up on the dining-room table, scattering dishes and silverware and spilling the coffee.
Muggs’ first free leap carried him all the way across the table and into a brass fire screen in front of the gas grate but he was back on his feet in a moment and in the end he got Roy and gave him a pretty vicious bite in the leg. Then he was all over it; he never bit anyone more than once at a time. Mother always mentioned that as an argument in his favor; she said he had a quick temper
but that he didn’t hold a grudge. She was forever defending him. I think she liked him because he wasn’t well. “He’s not strong,” she would say, pityingly, but that was inaccurate; he may not have been well but he was terribly strong.
One time my mother went to the Chittenden Hotel to call on a woman mental healer who was lecturing in Columbus on the subject of “Harmonious Vibrations.” She wanted to find out if it was possible to get harmonious vibrations into a dog. “He’s a large tan-colored Airedale,” mother explained. The woman said that she had never treated a dog but she advised my mother to hold the thought that he did not bite and would not bite. Mother was holding the thought the very next morning when Muggs got the iceman but she blamed that slip-up on the iceman. “If you didn’t think he would bite you, he wouldn’t,” mother told him. He stomped out of the house in a terrible jangle of vibrations.
One morning when Muggs bit me slightly, more or less in passing, I reached down and grabbed his short stumpy tail and hoisted him into the air. It was a foolhardy thing to do and the last time I saw my mother, about six months ago, she said she didn’t know what possessed me. I don’t either, except that I was pretty mad. As long as I held the dog off the floor by his tail he couldn’t get at me, but he twisted and jerked so, snarling all the time, that I realized I couldn’t hold him that way very long. I carried him to the kitchen and flung him onto the floor and shut the door on him just as he crashed against it.
But I forgot about the backstairs. Muggs went up the backstairs and down the front stairs and had me cornered in the living room. I managed to get up onto the mantelpiece above the fireplace, but it gave way and came down with a tremendous crash throwing a large marble clock, several vases, and myself heavily to the floor. Muggs was so alarmed by the racket that when I picked myself up he had disappeared. We couldn’t find him anywhere, although we whistled and shouted, until old Mrs. Detweiler called after dinner that night. Muggs had bitten her once, in the leg, and she came into the living room only after we assured her that Muggs had run away. She had just seated herself when, with a great growling and scratching of claws, Muggs emerged from under a davenport where he
had been quietly hiding all the time, and bit her again.
Mother examined the bite and put arnica on it and told Mrs. Detweiler that it was only a bruise. “He just bumped you,” she said. But
Mrs. Detweiler left the house in a nasty state of mind.
Lots of people reported our Airedale to the police but my father held a municipal office at the time and was on friendly terms with the police. Even so, the cops had been out a couple of times—once when Muggs bit Mrs. Rufus Sturtevant and again when he bit Lieutenant-Governor Malloy—but mother told them that it hadn’t been Muggs’ fault but the fault of the people who were bitten. “When he starts for them, they scream,” she explained, “and that excites him.” The cops suggested that it might be a good idea to tie the dog up, but mother said that it mortified him to be tied up and that he
wouldn’t eat when he was tied up.
Muggs at his meals was an unusual sight. Because of the fact that if you reached toward the floor he would bite you, we usually put his food plate on top of an old kitchen table with a bench alongside the table. Muggs would stand on the bench and eat. I remember that my mother’s Uncle Horatio, who boasted that he was the third man up Missionary Ridge, was spluttering indignant when he found out that we fed the dog on a table because we were afraid to put his plate on the floor.
He said he wasn’t afraid of any dog that ever lived and that he would put the dog’s plate on the floor if we would give it to him. Roy said that if Uncle Horatio had fed Muggs on the ground just before the battle he would have been the first man up Missionary Ridge. Uncle Horatio was furious. “Bring him in! Bring him in now!” he shouted. “I’ll feed the – on the floor!” Roy was all for giving him a chance, but my father wouldn’t hear of it. He said that Muggs had already been fed. “I’ll feed him again!” bawled Uncle Horatio. We had quite a time quieting him.
In his last year Muggs used to spend practically all of his time outdoors. He didn’t like to stay in the house for some reason or other—perhaps it held too many unpleasant memories for him. Anyway, it was hard to get him to come in and as a result the garbage man, the iceman, and the laundryman wouldn’t come near the house. We had to haul the garbage down to the corner, take the laundry out and bring it back, and meet the iceman a block from home. After this had gone on for some time we hit on an ingenious arrangement for getting the dog in the house so that we could lock him up while the gas meter was read, and so on.
Muggs was afraid of only one thing, an electrical storm. Thunder and lightning frightened him out of his senses (I think he thought a storm had broken the day the mantelpiece fell). He would rush into the house and hide under a bed or in a clothes closet. So we fixed up a thunder machine out of a long narrow piece of sheet iron with a wooden handle on one end. Mother would shake this
vigorously when she wanted to get Muggs into the house. It made an excellent imitation of thunder, but I suppose it was the most round-about system for running a household that was ever devised. It took a lot out of mother.
A few months before Muggs died, he got to “seeing things.” He would rise slowly from the floor, growling low, and stalk stiff-legged and menacing toward nothing at all. Sometimes the Thing would be just a little to the right or left of a visitor. Once a Fuller Brush salesman got hysterics. Muggs came wandering into the room like Hamlet following his father’s ghost. His eyes were fixed on a spot just to the left of the Fuller Brush man, who stood it until Muggs was about three slow, creeping paces from him. Then he shouted. Muggs wavered on past him into the hallway grumbling to himself but the Fuller man went on shouting.
I think mother had to throw a pan of cold water on him before he stopped. That was the way she used to stop us boys when we got into fights. Muggs died quite suddenly one night. Mother wanted to bury him in the family lot under a marble stone with some such inscription as “Flights of angels sing thee to thy rest” but we persuaded her it was against the law. In the end we just put up a smooth board above his grave along a lonely road. On the board I wrote with an indelible pencil “Cave Canem.” Mother was quite pleased with the simple classic dignity of the old Latin epitaph.
The Dog That Bit People by James Thurber in My Life and Hard Times
Thurber is one of my favorite authors of all time. I still remember the delight I felt as a young boy at reading “My Life and Hard Times” (which this story is from) for the first time.
I remember reading this as a young girl, it was recommended by my mother. At the veterinarian’s today I was seated next to an Airedale and inspired to look it up again. It is, if anything, even funnier than I remember.
Thurber stories have always been on my list of things I have to read at least once a year. I can relate to the stories very well because my family is also very “unusual”…
One I especially like that is not available here is “What Do You Mean T’WAS Brillig?”
The story you are requesting is copyrighted.
However you can read it here.
A masterpiece. This and Snapshot of a Dog are quintessentially Thurber