The Dogs of War

          ANCIENT EUROPEANS GUARDED against demons by erecting gargoyles, the theory being that the gargoyles would out-scare the demons. That same premise led Herr Ludwig Dobermann to develop, through crossbreeding, the Doberman Pinscher; the fiercest looking, pointiest eared, demon-eyed guard dog there could be. And they do look scary--very scary. Somehow, though, 900 of them together in a ballroom look a lot less scary. Maybe it was the chandeliers, or maybe it was the way they didn't bark at each other. Maybe it was because the dogs were more on display than on the attack last week as part of the 71st Annual National Show of the Doberman Pinscher Society of America at the Bloomington Radisson South.

          Bizarre scenes played out constantly; elevator doors swooshed open and five Dobermans stepped out like perfectly choreographed dancers. Dogs were bound by wire-thin choke collars that looked as though they could slice their heads off at a single mis-step. Handlers in three-piece, double-breasted wool sprinted around a green, rubber-floored ring, a leash in one hand, fresh liver glistening in the other. Folk in head to toe shiny black leather who looked very S&M hugged dumpy fellows in Doberman sweatshirts and Dockers. Women in bright-colored, gold-buttoned power suits swimming with gold jewelry demanded: "When are black bitches?" "Did you see Joan's new bitch?"

          The air is full of language that sounds problematic. "The DPCA must prevent the breeders of 'white' Dobermans from further contaminating our gene pool... the danger lies in the colored littermates. The prospect of having to cull 'whites' from our litters has been unheard of in the history of our breed. When the novelty has worn off, DPCA members will be left to clean up the yet unpredictable genetic problems..." warns a pamphlet, directed at albino Doberman owners who might be tempted to crossbreed and create new species. Between the shades of eugenics and the sleek, sinister dogs, the hotel brims with danger.

          But Peggy Adamson says it's all an illusion. "Dobermans have gotten a very bad reputation over the years from the movies and television, because when they want to show a dog that is what they call a 'killer dog,' that will strike terror into everybody, they always use a big black Doberman showing his teeth." With that, Peggy bares her own teeth--which are small, and perfect, and peek out between the coral lipstick that is particular to women of a certain age and a certain class who held court at country-clubs since World War II. Which is when Peggy fell in love with the dogs.

          "My husband was a Marine Captain, and I watched some of the first platoons of Dobermans being trained to go overseas to the Pacific. They used them to search out land mines, and search caves and forests. The amount of things they were able to teach them was just amazing." Soon Peggy and her husband drove from California to Ohio to get a purebred red Doberman, Dictator, who won the club show in 1943. Peggy's been professionally judging, and in love with, Dobermans ever since. However, whether this fondness is despite or due to their reputation is unclear.

          "Macy's used them in their store in New York," says Peggy enthusiastically, her face lighting up with the mischief of the idea. "At night they let Dobermans loose in the building, so nobody dared to come in. Then a movie came out called 'They Only Kill Their Masters' [in which a Doberman is unjustly accused of murder]. Unfortunately they showed a black Doberman showing his teeth and that's how this reputation of fierceness got established and why, whenever, even today, in the movies or TV they want to show a dog that will strike fear in everybody, they always use a black Doberman. And this is so crazy, but it's also very useful." She whispers conspiratorially: "The Doberman people don't feel too badly about it because we can afford to have nice, sweet, wonderful dogs and even my postman, who has never been inside my house and can only hear my Dobermans when he comes up, is terrified. In fact, I don't even lock my door at night." Peggy raises her voice again: "In the Marine Corps they called them Devil Dogs."

          This military history is treasured by Doberman lovers. They say they still crop ears--cutting off the lower part of an ear that would otherwise be long and floppy--and train them to stand upright in order to maintain the dogs' "working" history. However, during war times the dogs' ears were almost entirely trimmed off, to prevent the enemy from grabbing them, so today's very long croppings appear to be as much for fashion as anything. Near the judging arena, sculptor Susan Baharay Wilner sells reproductions of a statue commissioned by the Pentagon to honor World War II's "Devil Dogs." A life-sized bronze Doberman rests on a black marble base inscribed: "25 Marine war dogs gave their lives liberating Guam in 1944. They served as sentries, messengers, scouts. They explored caves, detected mines and booby traps. Semper fidelis." Like the Washington Vietnam memorial, the names of the lost dogs are engraved in stone. Some--Blitz, Duke, Ludwig, Max--are testament to the dogs' ferocity. Others--Bunkie, Missy, Tubby, Koko--show their sweeter side.

          Sweet, babyish and attention mongering. Lester Cannon has been showing Dobermans for nearly twenty years. "The Doberman is a dog that's going to be continuously under your foot," he says. "They're like an appendage. They attach themselves to you. If you go into the shower, and you forget to close the bathroom door, you've got a Doberman in the shower." Other owners say that the dogs understand people so well they recognize fashion--whimpering at the sight of lipstick, knowing that their owner is about to go out--and that they grasp the concept of loopholes, taking a "no sitting on the couch" directive as not including sitting on the couch with two feet on the floor.

          Peggy says that the dogs were intended to be smart and intimate from the beginning. "The whole idea of the Doberman breed was to have a companion and protector to the family. It was the idea of the Germans to have a dog that could be with the children and friendly, but would protect them if anyone tried to come into the home." Or if they encountered anyone who didn't want to pay their taxes.

          Ludwig Dobermann, the 19th-century German tax collector and animal shelter-keeper who developed the dogs to protect him on his rounds, would no doubt be delighted to see the success with which the Doberman satisfies Americans' craving for loyalty, style, and menace. He might be puzzled, however, by the site of these once-working animals sitting elegantly on carpets in a cocktail lounge. And heaven knows if he'd understand the vast amount of cultural implication that these shiny beasts unknowingly convey.

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