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Change of spirits soothes a cantankerous basset


Now that there is a lull in the O.J. Simpson affair, people have a chance to calmly consider what they have seen, heard and read. They can put aside bias and try to calmly and rationally look at the facts of the case without rushing to judgment.

For example, there is this suggestion that came to me from Nina Rubie of New Port Richie, Fla., who wrote:

"My husband and I watch murder mysteries on television whenever we can. In one, maybe 'Matlock' or 'Perry Mason' -- I can't remember which -- they had a tough crime to solve.

"They knew that there was a much loved family dog. Would the dog growl at the murderer?

"They brought the dog to court and brought him to the suspect. The dog snarled and would have attacked the suspect were he not restrained.

"Case closed, murderer caught! Perhaps the Simpson dog knows all! I wish you would suggest it."

An interesting idea, but with due respect to 'Matlock' or 'Perry Mason,' I'm not sure if there is legal precedent for using a dog's growl to determine the guilt or innocence of an accused killer. Since the trial is in California, though, anything is possible.

But what if they brought the Simpson dog into the courtroom and he growled at the judge's bailiff instead of at Simpson? Would this mean that the cringing bailiff should be hauled off to prison?

I say, from my experience, you can never be sure what a dog will do.

I once picked up a basset hound named Pierre at a shelter for abandoned animals.

During the drive home, he seemed overjoyed at having been freed from his cage. And all that evening, he wagged his tail and happily burped and snored, as bassets are inclined to do.

But the next evening, when I returned from work and came through the front door, expecting cheerful yips of canine adoration, he underwent a shocking change in personality. He flew into a rage and scuttled across the floor as if to take a chunk out of my leg.

Fortunately, basset hounds have large bodies, but tiny legs about the size of thread spools, which prevent them from running very fast.

That is one of the reasons I like bassets. They are the perfect lazy man's dog. You can flop on your couch and bounce a ball across the living room and the basset has to take a thousand tiny frantic steps to fetch it. After two or three runs, he has had his day's allotment of exercise and will collapse from fatigue.

So I was able to dash from room to room and outrun Pierre until the family subdued him. But he spent the rest of the evening growling and giving me menacing looks.

This went on for several weeks. If I tried to quietly sneak into the house, he'd come charging with teeth bared. If I walked in while clucking and whistling in a friendly way, he'd get just as outraged. After a while, I'd open the door a crack, yell, "Pierre, I'm home," and the chase would be on.

Finally I asked the veterinarian if he knew why the dog was friendly to everyone else, but hated me. It was puzzling, since dogs and little children have always liked me, probably because they can't read.

The veterinarian came up with a theory. "It is possible that in his previous home, he was abused by a man who looked like you and carried the same distinctive scent of single-malt Scotch whisky."

4 "But I can't change the way I look," I told him.

"True, but you might try changing the scent from single-malt Scotch to something else. Maybe gin. That's what I use, and I deal with animals all the time."

I gave it a try, and to our amazement, gin did the trick. From that day on, the dog was friendly and cheerful, and so was I.

But it shows why a dog's behavior is not a reliable gauge of guilt or innocence. Had I been unjustly accused of a foul crime in the days when I favored single-malt Scotch, that basset could have sent me to death row.

So what worked for Matlock or Perry Mason won't do in the Simpson case. We'll have to rely on the lawyers, the judge, TV commentators, talk-show hosts, and -- who knows? -- maybe even a jury.

When old age finally took Pierre the basset, I went and found another. But this time I took the precaution of taking him to the corner tavern and having the bartender run several brands past his nose to make sure we were compatible.

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