How Much Do Dogs Scare You?

An HBO special follows up on my Philly Mag article on a Haddonfield doctor, his Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and America's complicated relationship with man's best friend.

At a lunch I recently shared with some old friends from high school, one woman excitedly told the rest of us how she and her husband had paid to have a DNA test run on their mixed-breed dog, to find out … well, I’m not really sure what. The test results showed Dodi was—duh—a mutt, a mix of several identified breeds and some that couldn’t be ID’d. “It wasn’t cheap,” my friend admitted, but she considered the money well spent—just like the 60 percent of Americans who own dogs don’t begrudge the dough they shell out for pet-sitters and organ transplants and doggy day-care and special pet-bakery treats. Hey, I’m not pointing fingers. Until my German Shepherd/collie died a few years back, I was one of the worst offenders, with my kids constantly accusing me of loving Homer more than I loved them. (They were right.) Counting cats—and I suppose we must—Americans spent more than $50 billion on our pets in 2011. Think about it. That’s more than the GNP of entire nations, going to keep our furry friends fed and wormed and warm.

My friend’s anecdote reminded me of a phone call I got a little more than two years ago. It was from a woman named Susanne LaFrankie Principato, a Haddonfield resident and former TV news reporter. She was concerned—upset—about some dogs that lived across the street from her and her husband and children and small dog. The dogs were Rhodesian Ridgebacks, and they belonged to an orthopedic surgeon named Bob Taffet. Dr. Taffet let his dogs run loose through the neighborhood, Susanne told me. The dogs were aggressive, she said; they’d already bitten several people. It was only a matter of time, she was sure, before somebody got seriously hurt.

I listened to her story, and I came away feeling that her concerns were valid, that she was a loving mom and civic-minded neighbor trying to prevent a catastrophe.

In the months that followed, I investigated some more. And I reached out to Dr. Taffet, explaining that I was writing a story about his dogs and would like to speak to him.

For a long time, he said no. But at just about the last possible moment before my deadline, he invited me to a farm he owns in South Jersey. I spend hours there talking to him and his wife Michele, and I met his dogs, including one of the bite-offenders, Rocky. Bob and Michele told me they couldn’t for the life of them figure out why Susanne was so worried about their Ridgebacks. After all, she was a dog owner herself! They showed me photos of their dogs at public outings, behaving perfectly respectably, nuzzling strangers, making nice with babies. Their dogs were beautiful, sleek and under control. I came away convinced the Taffets were responsible, loving dog-owners who were being picked on by neighbors who wouldn’t be satisfied with anything less than the destruction of the dogs Bob and Michele and their children loved.

Then, right before I filed my story, one of the Taffets’ dogs, Duke, ripped the ear off a three-year-old child.

In the piece that finally appeared in the magazine, “A Dogfight in Haddonfield,” I was honest about my ambivalence. I like big dogs. I used to walk mine off the leash at times. I thought it was silly that people were afraid of him. This was a dog who once sat in a classroom and patiently lifted his foreleg 28 times as 28 first-graders, one after another, said “Paw!” to him and then gave him a treat. And yet I also remember the terror I felt when my kids were very young and we were visiting a beach, and a young woman brought two pit bulls down to the water, off the leash. My heart was in my throat as they romped and reeled around my babies. “Don’t worry!” the woman said cheerily. “They don’t bite!”

They haven’t bitten yet, I thought furiously, gathering my kids in close.

Where you stand on dogs—on pets—depends on what your experiences with them have been. Which is why I’m excited about the HBO special “One Nation Under Dog: Stories of Fear, Loss and Betrayal,” that aired last Monday night. It tells, among other stories, that of the Taffets and Duke and Rocky and their neighbors in Haddonfield as it examines the weird contradictions of dog ownership in America. Why do we pay big bucks for organic dog feed and still allow puppy mills to exist? How can a nation that loves dogs so much stand by as two million of them are euthanized in shelters each year? Would you pay to have your dog’s DNA tested? Do you buy her doggy cupcakes? The Taffets’ story is just a small part of our tangled relationship with man’s best friend.