Ages eight and nine are when boys are most likely to try dog food. For the most part, it’s a guy thing. But a few girls at that age go for it as well. When kids before age seven try dog food, it’s more about imitating the dog than curiosity. Seven-year-olds are generally too interested in dogs to be curious about their dog’s food. As for ten-year-olds, they are morphing into a pre-sophisticated phase. They have a budding sense of dignity and are less inclined to be gross. I am not saying that there aren't exceptions. No doubt, there are.
However, ages eight and nine are golden years. These years begin with a brief Cro-Magnon phase, and they evolve into a hunting and gathering stage, which prepares the brain for further refinement in 5th grade. In other words, kids in their golden age must get dirty and stinky. They have a primeval rationality and an instinct for adventure and discovery. Of course, this presumes that we preserve their innocence. Moreover, golden age kids should not be hampered by adults who demand too much sophistication and sanitation. It’s an age when kids have a right to enjoy unscientific experiments, and parents have a right and duty to enjoy and laugh at their kids. Unseriousness is the essence of the golden age. It’s about humor. The world is a playground. Life is a frontier. It’s an age of wonder, which is the beginning of wisdom. Too much seriousness is a sin against the golden age. At that time, everything should seem romantic, enchanted, and free. If it were up to me, I’d lower the Confirmation age to eight, or to whenever a child first decides to try dog food.
During my golden age, we had two dogs. Braniff was half German Shepherd and half Something Else. Woodstock was a peekapoo by my sister’s reckoning. Dad said she was an Australian Frump. In any case, she looked like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The vet told us not to spoil the dogs with expensive or tasty dog food because all brands meet federal nutrition requirements. So dad bought fifty-pound sacks of Field Trial, the cheapest brand at the local Winn-Dixie, a southern supermarket chain. The top of the gigantic bag had a dangling string for pulling open the sack. Wafts of doggish smelling cornmeal floated out from the opened bag. Dad put a plastic scoop in it, so as to economize on rations. Not a nickel of this stuff was to be wasted. Braniff could wolf down a bowl full with ease. Sometimes she waited until it rained for her food became soggy. Perhaps she liked the easy chew.
But Woodstock was an indoor specimen and quite small. One chunk of Field Trial was about all she could fit in her mouth at once. Listening to her chew was painful. I could hear the crunch all the way in the living room, halfway across the house. It sounded as if her skull might crack. Every now and then dad poured a little meat gravy on Woodstock’s chow, and she would noticeably pick up the pace of crunching. Of course, like all healthy dogs, she would always come to our dinner table and sit up straight and erect, in noble pose, in order to earn a sliver of real meat. When tossed a piece – even a curve ball – she would snatch it like catcher for the Yankees. It would go down her pipes in a single gulp, like a hole-in-one. If I held the meat up between my fingers, slightly out of range, she we would leap from her hind legs and snap for it. Sometimes I raised the meat an inch or two as Woodstock launched herself, so she just missed the meat, and her jaws would clamp shut like a tooth trap. Sometimes I would move it slightly behind her head, and she would do the peekapoo-twist in mid-air. I was told not to do this too often, lest Woodstock become spoiled and not eat her less appetizing Field Trial from Winn-Dixie. Meanwhile, Braniff ate outside in her pen from large bowl, occasionally getting the big bone from a roast.
One hot, steamy, dank summer day, my friend Timmy and I decided to try the dog chow. We were in the golden age. The chunks were brown mixed with little grits of cornmeal. Crunching a chunk, I apprehensively swallowed it, and I then felt brave enough to try just one more. But that was it. At the same time, Timmy was staring at me as he crunched his, both curious about my reaction and concealing his doubts, as if he just ate from the “tree of knowledge of good and evil.” He contrived a look on his face that said, “I’m a man.” I don’t think this was Timmy’s first go round with dog food. If he was telling the truth, he snacked on it all the time. This was a guy who spurned the hot lunches at the St. Joseph Elementary School cafeteria. Catholic and public schools in Louisiana were well supplied with USDA surplus by the state ever since Huey Long was governor. It was the program that provoked one legislator to solemnly proclaim from the House chamber of the State Capitol, “Louisiana’s got the best bussed, best fed, dumbest kids in the country.” As a side note, I must say that Timmy was no fool. Like Copernicus, he was the first person I knew who manfully suggested that Santa Clause doesn’t exist.
As I said, third and fourth graders tend to be curious about dog food. But not so much about cat food. Cat food stinks. In the line-up of canned pet foods, the dogs have an edge. Alpo was big in the 1970s. It was the Ruth’s Chris of dog food. Vets didn’t recommend it because it was bad for doggy teeth and worse for doggy breath. Though I could not bring myself to try Alpo, I knew a girl who did. Perhaps girls prefer Alpo and boys prefer dry mix. But I don’t know anyone who tried any kind of cat food. To me, dry cat food looked boring, like Alpha Bits cereal. But canned cat food was downright repugnant. It had a blend of toxic aromas that alternated between the smells of salted-but-rotten fish, chicken, and liver. In my reckoning, there wasn’t much difference between the smell of what went in the cat and what went in the kitty litter. In contrast, Alpo gave off hints of Underwood Deviled Ham and pureed Spam. I actually remember feeling hungry, and my mouth watering, while watching an Alpo TV commercial showing vigorous dogs wolfing it down. I never had that feeling during a cat food commercial. Moreover, TV cats always looked apprehensive, even when eating Fancy Feast Classic Pate. They ate it as if they had nothing better to do, as if they would have preferred a mouse. On the other hand, TV dogs scarfed down their Alpo in earnest. They reminded me of myself at Burger King.
I did try two other dog foods. I ate part of a Milk Bone once, but without witnesses. Not even Woodstock saw me do it because she never cared for Milk Bones. She wouldn’t stick around to watch or bark as I tried out her snack. But she loved Liv-a-Snaps, “made with real liver.” In fact, when running around the back yard, she didn’t always come back inside when I yelled “Woodstock!” But if I yelled “Liv-a-Snap!” she would beeline for the house. I could get her to sit, speak, howl, sing, stay, and come – all for a Liv-a-Snap. One day I wanted to know why these gray stale-smelling little crackers had so much sway over an otherwise independent peekapoo. I tried a piece myself. The experience resolved nothing. It was slightly nasty, but more anti-climatic. I felt disappointed, as if I just performed a failed science experiment.
No matter how much we try to pamper our dogs and sheen up their fur with luxuriant meals like Science Diet, dogs will be dogs. My sister once had a kitten that lasted not more than a couple of weeks before Miller, our neighbor’s Irish Setter, ate it. If dogs go to heaven, then Miller is doing time in purgatory. Woodstock once proudly came out into the ditch from the culvert beneath our street with a snake. Forget gourmet dog food. Dogs will be dogs.
When my sister was a baby, dad put a plastic garbage bag full of her poopy diapers on top of our trash cans to keep the dogs out. There was a mangy pack of rovers that tore into neighborhood trash, and sometimes they were caught in the act. That night, some dogs tore into the diaper bag, leaving poopy diapers strewn across the street. I recall dad saying, “Do you know how hungry you’ve gotta be?” These days, dogs that are fed Organix Chicken & Brown Rice Recipe Dry Food would be just as happy eating rancid ravioli and rotting roast beef from your neighbor’s trash – and perhaps even ripping into a bag of diapers. And if you caught them in the act, they would eye you with contempt, like a two-year-old with his hand in the peppermint jar.
Even though I’m now 57 years old, the curiosities of my golden years still linger. They’re just more refined. I occasionally feel a bit appetized by the thought of trying Newman's Own Organics Beef Grain-Free Dog Food with a glass of Merlot. I like that brand. Nature's Variety Instinct Duck Meal and Turkey Meal sounds like something you could get at Chez Francois in Great Falls. However, I’d really be sold on trying dog food all over again if they came up with “Barking at the Moon Oyster Meal with Duck and Rabbit Cassoulet Soft Chunks.”
A Sobering Afterthought
A few years ago, my dad took a business trip to San Francisco, and the cab driver said that his city has more dogs than children. Pope Francis lamented this slothful habit of wealthy societies. He said, “A society with a greedy generation, that doesn’t want to surround itself with children, that considers them above all worrisome, a weight, a risk, is a depressed society. The choice to not have children is selfish. Life rejuvenates and acquires energy when it multiplies: It is enriched, not impoverished.” He went on to say: “You love your child because he is a child, not because he is beautiful, healthy, and good; not because he thinks like me, or embodies my desires. A child is a child: a life created by us but destined for Him.” Every child is a wanted child. We don’t need more dogs that eat dog food. We need more children who want to give it a try.