Excerpted from Travels With Casey: My Journey Through Our Dog-Crazy Country.
I kept on trucking down I-91 and pulled over for gas near New Haven, home to Yale University.
The school had been in the news recently for its decision to rent out a hypoallergenic Border Terrier mix named Monty to stressed-out law students. Yale professor Blair Kauffman told the Yale Daily News that Monty was "extremely well qualified" and had graduated "summa cum laude" from his therapy dog course. Yale officials had at first worried that the rent-a-dog program would make the school seem "foolish," but it turned out to be a huge hit. Several students said the dog reminded them of home, and there was a long waiting list for the chance to spend thirty minutes playing with Monty.
As popular as he was, there was little chance Monty could dethrone Yale's top dog—its beloved bulldog mascot, Handsome Dan XVII. Dogs are the most common live animal mascot, probably because they're the only species that we regularly divide into personality types, allowing us a plethora of anthropomorphic possibilities. Dogs are also cheap. By contrast Louisiana State University boosters spent $4 million on the 15,000-square- foot habitat for their prized tiger, Mike, causing some to wonder if the cash might have been better spent on, say, scholarships for needy students.
I'd met Handsome Dan (nicknamed Sherman) the previous year, when he was the "guest speaker" at Yale's Trumbull residential college. His human, an investment manager and Yale graduate named Chris Getman, had offered to let me tag along.
My most vivid memory of that day was the sight of Sherman—a brown and white bulldog with a large, droopy mouth—defecating on a cement walkway outside Trumbull, a picturesque granite building with gothic arches, Jacobean chimneys, and, ironically enough, a "Potty Court" featuring a statue of a man sitting on a toilet. (It's a whimsical rendition of Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.)
The walkway wasn't the most discreet place to go to the bathroom, and when Sherman chose it I wondered if he was punishing us for taking him outside in the rain. Sherman hates water, and he'd endured a full five minutes of it on our walk from the car to Trumbull. But Getman assured me that his dog wasn't smart enough, or "catlike" enough, to orchestrate such retaliation.
"He's not the sharpest knife in the drawer," Chris told me, though that can safely be said of most Bulldogs, who rank 77th out of 79 in dog intelligence, according to psychologist and dog intelligence expert Stanley Coren. Only the Basenji and the Afghan Hound are dumber.
As Chris fumbled through his coat pocket for a plastic bag, his wife looked at the bright side. "At least he didn't do it inside," she said.
Among the breed's many health problems, Bulldogs have hyper-sensitive stomachs and are the most relentless farters in the canine world. But gassy mascots also have their upside. Handsome Dan XIII, who served from 1984 until 1995, famously pooped on the commandant's lawn at Army and threw up after chasing the Princeton Tiger. Both incidents were promptly anthropomorphized as proof that the dog knew the enemy when he saw it.
Sherman was in his third season as Yale's mascot when I visited, and he had taken to his job "with great enthusiasm," Chris told me. He loved people, loved crowds. Inside Trumbull House, Yale students practically hurled themselves at the dog, who eagerly licked their faces in return. When it was time to get started, Chris sat on a red antique chair next to a black grand piano and regaled the students with the history of Handsome Dan, believed to be the country's first live mascot. Sherman relaxed on the carpet next to him, occasionally poking his head into a plastic bag of treats.
Four of the last five Handsome Dans have belonged to Chris, a longtime dog lover who illegally kept a sheepdog in his dorm room during his senior year at Yale. Proud of his school's mascot tradition, Chris enjoys poking fun at his rival for mascot supremacy—Georgia's Bulldog mascot, Uga (pronounced UGH-uh).
"As you probably know," he told the Yale students, "Georgia has a mascot named Uga." (Whenever Chris says the word "Uga," it sounds as if he's been punched in the stomach.) "Uga is pretty high-maintenance. He flies first class to all the away games. He lives in an air-conditioned doghouse. I don't think he's ever been touched by an undergraduate. He certainly hasn't been walked by an undergraduate! Handsome Dan is a very different kind of mascot. He's a mascot for the people."
I'd first become interested in Bulldog mascots back in 2009, shortly before attending a football game between the universities of Georgia and South Carolina in Athens, Georgia. I spent much of that game on the sideline next to the air-conditioned doghouse of Uga VII, the school's Bulldog mascot. The dog wore a red Georgia jersey and spiked red leather collar, and every once in a while he would be led onto the field to pose for pictures and model his wrinkly, smooshed Bulldog face for ESPN's cameras.
At the game I met Sonny Seiler, a lawyer and the mercurial owner of the Georgia Bulldog mascot dynasty. Sonny bore a striking resemblance to the mascots—all called Uga—he has cared for since 1956. He had a round, droopy face and wide, slumping shoulders, and his courtroom antics have often been described in words associated with Bulldogs: Georgia Magazine said he possessed a "barrel-chested bravura," while John Berendt wrote that Sonny "thunders and growls" in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, in which Sonny is a character. (He defended a wealthy antiques dealer charged with the murder of a young hustler.)
Sonny wasn't in the best mood during my visit to Athens; he was tired of journalists asking him about the health of the Bulldog breed. Earlier that year, Adam Goldfarb of the Humane Society of the United States had told The Augusta Chronicle that Bulldogs were the "poster child for breeding gone awry." Goldfarb's quote came in response to a scathing British documentary, Pedigree Dogs Exposed, which highlighted the health and welfare problems of purebred dogs and claimed that breeders and the Kennel Club (the British equivalent of the American Kennel Club) were in denial about the extent of the problem.
Broadcast on the BBC, Exposed spawned three independent reports into purebred breeding, each finding that some modern breeding practices—including inbreeding and breeding for "extreme traits," like the massive and short-faced head of the Bulldog—are detrimental to the health and welfare of dogs. All three reports called the modern Bulldog a breed in need of an intervention.
"Many would question whether the breed's quality of life is so compromised that its breeding should be banned," Dr. Nicola Rooney and Dr. David Sargan concluded in one of the reports, "Pedigree Dog Breeding in the U.K.: A Major Welfare Concern?"
Despite their health problems, Bulldogs have skyrocketed up the AKC's most popular breed list, from No. 41 in 1973 to No. 5 in 2013. James Serpell, the director of the Center for the Interaction of Animals and Society at the University of Pennsylvania, partly blames the breed's fame on a phenomenon called "anthropomorphic selection." He argues that we've bred dogs like the Bulldog (and other short-faced brachycephalic breeds, including the Pug and the French Bulldog) in ways that "facilitate the attribution of human mental states to animals."
"We have, to some extent, accentuated physical characteristics of the breed to make it look more human, although essentially more like caricatures of humans, and specifically of children," he told me."We've bred Bulldogs for their flat face, big eyes, huge mouth in relation to head size, and huge smiling face."
Advertisers and animators have long recognized that giving an animal big eyes and a big head is a surefire way to endear it to humans. When Walt Disney created Bambi, the studio wanted the character to be an accurate depiction of a deer. But when the original Bambi sketches were deemed not cute enough, Disney shortened Bambi's muzzle and made his head and eyes bigger.
In an essay in the anthology Thinking with Animals: New Perspectives on Anthropomorphism, Serpell wrote that "if bulldogs were the product of genetic engineering by agripharmaceutical corporations, there would be protest demonstrations throughout the Western world, and rightly so. But because they have been generated by anthropomorphic selection, their handicaps are not only overlooked but even, in some quarters, applauded."
Sonny dismisses any talk of changing Bulldog breeding practices, and he insisted that Uga VII was a vigorous animal who enjoyed his mascot duties. I wasn't so sure. During my visit, the dog seemed most comfortable in the back corner of his doghouse—or, better yet, outside the stadium entirely. A few minutes before halftime, Seiler's adult son, Charles, led Uga VII off the field by a leash to a waiting golf cart. The dog hopped on, and a young woman drove us out the stadium's back service entrance, up a hill, around some bends, to an unspectacular patch of grass that doubled as his game day bathroom.When the cart came to a stop, Uga VII bounded off it and spent the next few minutes happily sniffing the grass, urinating on a tree, and defecating behind a bush.
When the dog was done, Charles ordered us all back on the cart. "All right, let's go," he said, and before I knew it, we were speeding back toward Sanford Stadium, Uga VII's droppings (Charles didn't pick up after him) a reminder to all that the world's most famous mascot was here—and that celebrity dogs, like their human counterparts, get to play by different rules.
But Uga VII's celebrity life would be short-lived. Six months later, while lounging at home, he died of heart failure. He was four years old. When I returned to Georgia the following year to meet the school's newest mascot, Uga VIII, Sonny insisted that the 11-month-old was "a damn good dog. He's healthy, and he has all the attributes we look for in a Georgia mascot." But by the time he turned 2, Uga VIII came down with lymphoma. Two months before I embarked on my cross-country journey with my dog, he died.
The above is excerpted from New York Times Magazine writer (and Deadspin Northwestern basketball correspondent) Benoit Denizet-Lewis's Travels With Casey, in which he drives around the country in an RV with his dog and hangs out with dog mascots, police dogs, Michael Vick's former fighting dogs, pet psychics, dog-wielding hitchhikers, dog yoga (Doga) enthusiasts, "Dog Whisperer" Cesar Millan, and his former middle-school English teacher who now works part-time as a "dog masseur." Portions of the story first appeared in The New York Times Magazine.
Image by Sam Woolley, photo via Getty.