The dog news is unsettling. Factionalism has broken out in the Labrador retriever family, with devotees of the shorter-legged members of the breed challenging the American Kennel Club's decision to recalibrate championship standards in favor of long-legged hounds.
The protesters say that the change rules them out of lucrative show competition. They've filed a class-action suit. The Justice Department is looking into the antitrust angle -- ironic, since the Lab is the most trusting and trustworthy of dogs.
It is also the most popular breed in the country, justly renowned for intelligence and loyalty, though these qualities are often accompanied by a penchant for fraternity-house pranks, such as snitching underwear from guests' suitcases or turning doorknobs to enter intentionally closed rooms.
Incredible feats of canine food thievery are routine in Labrador households. These range from prying open the refrigerator and removing choice items to ambling off with an unguarded Sunday roast. If caught in time, the bandits usually relinquish their loot with good grace, leaving the cook with a choice: a last-minute menu change or a salvage operation concealed from the guests -- who really are better off not knowing. I recall one occasion in which the flavor and tenderness of a rescued roast were genuinely praised, and modestly acknowledged without comment.
Misinformation has it that the shorter, chunkier Labs are cuddlier and quieter, while the taller members of the breed are more athletic and jumpier. That's no more true about Labs than it is about people.
Ben, our Lab housemate, has responded to the folly of Labrador litigation with his customary equanimity. He meets the AKC's new male height minimum of 22.5 inches. But his attitude on this matter is plain: who cares?
Ben is a canine egalitarian. He greets all dogs up to his size with uninhibited, friendly gusto. Understandably, he is prudently cautious when first approaching the occasional bigger dog. But unless rebuffed by a canine grump, overtly or through signals readable only by dogs, he's for friendly relations.
If the Labrador antitrust case goes to trial, perhaps some forensic wizardry could be enlisted to obtain canine testimony. Summoned as an expert witness, Ben would do his civic duty, but would require a translator -- hardly a novelty in courtroom proceedings.
On the issue of whether the true merit of the Labrador is measurable in leg length, I feel confident he would express deep contempt. Length of legs and other dimensions may enter into the way people judge each other, but dogs are too smart to fall for simple physical measurements as an index of worth. In judging each other, and people, as well, they've got better, surer methods.
Ben, for example, recognizes people who dislike dogs, even when they try to mask it. They're the ones who get the drooly snout in the crotch. Dog haters often express puzzlement over the close attention that dogs lavish on them. There's no mystery; anti-dog attitudes never can be hidden from a dog. In a roomful of people, Ben, like any other dog, infallibly homes in on the right person and delivers a payoff for hostility.
It is difficult to say how he would perform on the witness stand. I think he would be attentive and responsive to questions about long legs versus short legs. And the interest of the mighty U.S. Department of Justice in this matter would strike him as a kind of homage to the role of Labradors in our society.
Labradors know they are important, and one sign of this is their abundance in Washington. In fact, in the nation's capital, there's an bit of advice often given to newcomers: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."
Daniel S. Greenberg is editor and publisher of the newsletter Science & Government Report.