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  By: A.J. Mistretta

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Dogs, the AKC, and Rock ‘n’ Roll

They are the epitome of an “odd couple.” In 2004, one of our country’s least known and earliest advocates of the purebred dog shared an anniversary with a New York disc jockey whose name is synonymous with the 20th century’s most significant music genre. Major James M. Taylor, the first president of the American Kennel Club, and deejay Alan Freed, who coined the phrase “rock ‘n’ roll,” came from different times and followed vastly different paths. In 2004, the institutions that these two gentlemen helped establish will each passed a significant milestone. In 2004 the American Kennel Club celebrated its 120th anniversary, while rock ‘n’ roll turned 50, the big five-oh. The common denominator? Dogs.

It goes without saying that the AKC’s history revolves around dogs, the organization’s raison d’ętre. Curiously enough, dogs have also played an ongoing role in the evolution of rock ‘n’ roll. (Coincidentally, Alan Freed called himself “Moondog” early in his career.) However, let us point out that the dogs of rock ‘n’ roll are more likely to be of the mutt or pooch or “Spot” variety, unlike the AKC’s elite, Ch. Best Dog on the Block roster of purebreds. Not that it matters. For those of us who are truly dog obsessed, reading how Bonzo, the pudgy black and white pup of the 1920s, wiggled his way into rock ‘n’ roll gives just as much pleasure as hearing about Adonis, the English Setter who was the first dog registered in the AKC Stud Book.

The AKC grew from humble beginnings in New York in 1884 when a group of 12 dog club representatives held their first meeting. It was another three years before the organization, which today houses more than 450 employees located in Manhattan and Raleigh, North Carolina, finally rented a room, furnished with a desk, a filing cabinet and a couple of chairs. Another five years passed before the AKC installed its first telephone in 1902. Even today, some staff members claim this is the worst mistake the organization ever made.

Seventy years after the AKC left its first paw print on the dog world, rock ‘n’ roll began to emerge as a new music genre and a cultural phenomenon. Dogs appeared early on. In 1955 a band called The Singing Dogs released a record that featured dogs barking “in tune” to perform songs that included Jingle Bells, Pat A Cake, and Three Blind Mice. A year later, Elvis Presley was on NBC-TV’s “Steve Allen Show,” crooning his soon-to-be-famous Hound Dog to a live basset hound. The Everly Brothers released Bird Dog in 1958.

Back in its own early history, the AKC had begun publishing The American Kennel Gazette, which sold for 20˘ a copy. Today the Gazette is the country’s oldest dog magazine and sells for a whopping $2.50 per issue. A 1915 ad in the Gazette for Spratt’s Dog Cakes features “Improved Mollicoddles” (“invaluable for puppies, dainty feeders, lap dogs, Pekinese, etc.”) and “Cod Liver Oil Cakes” (“invaluable for keeping the coat in condition”).

In 1926 the AKC put on the dog, so to speak, by holding its first dog show. Intended to showcase the impressive selective breeding results members had achieved through the club’s registration and pedigree system, the event, known as the Sesquicentennial Show, was a huge success that brought purebred dogs and dog shows to the attention of the American public. Years later, the purebred dog utilized a somewhat different channel — rock ‘n’ roll music — to gain visibility. For unknown reasons, the bulldog was an especially popular breed with rock bands, showing up in 1950s songs like Bulldog Bop, performed by Junior Declovet, and Bulldog, recorded by the Fireballs in 1959. George Tomsco, the Fireballs musician who wrote Bulldog, says the song’s name came about when a friend stopped by the recording studio, heard the piece and remarked, “That sounds like a great big bulldog comin’ attcha!” The Beatles, too, got their bulldog licks in, recording Hey Bulldog in 1968.

Another active player in the rock ‘n’ roll scene has been the poodle (who can forget poodle skirts?). Let Me Play With Your Poodle has been recorded by various artists. The term “Poodle Rock” was used to depict the soundtrack of the 1980s — described as “big, dumb and joyous.” Any dog aficionado knows, of course, that this description is the antithesis of the poodle (except for “joyous” — no argument there). In reality, the phrase “Poodle Rock” came from a hairstyle popular among bands at that time: a huge, frizzy mullet that resembled an over-styled poodle. Rude Poodle (from Finland) and Digital Poodle (Toronto) are (were?) a couple of rock bands that may have hoped affiliating themselves with one of the nation’s most popular dog breeds (ranked #8 in AKC breed registration) would bump them up to big dog status (doesn’t look like this happened). And, the most recent evidence of the poodle’s ongoing contribution to rock ‘n’ roll can be found in Weird Al Yankovic’s album, Poodle Hat, released in May 2003. The album’s cover features a conservatively gray-suited Al Yankovic, standing among other passengers in a subway car, with a charming, perky gray poodle perched on his head.

For the AKC, the 1930s were busy years. Early in the decade the club’s visibility notched up when “The Kennel Murder Case,” a murder mystery featuring a Scottish Terrier named Miss MacTavish, was published. The novel’s male protagonist, Philip Vance, was able to find clues leading to the killer by tracking Miss MacTavish through the meticulous records maintained by the AKC. Speaking of books, in 1934 the AKC Library was established. Today the Madison Avenue facility houses more than 17,000 volumes. Looking for your favorite British dog fancier’s magazine? Information on the Treeing Tennessee Brindle? Tips about how to train your pooch to be an Earthdog? The AKC Library’s a good place to start.

As the 1930s continued, the AKC achieved a notable milestone: registration of its one-millionth dog, a Shetland Sheepdog named Sheltieland Alice Grey Gown. Particularly significant was the implementation of the AKC’s first obedience trial, held in 1936. This event marked the beginning of the concept that dogs should be “good citizens.” Although hundreds of obedience trials were held in the decades that followed, more than 50 years passed before the AKC established its Canine Good Citizen program. The program rewards dogs who have good manners at home and in the community by evaluating basic skills such as sit, stay, down, come, etc., and the dog’s acceptance of handling (ears, feet, mouth, general grooming, etc.).

When it comes to dogs, rockers are apparently less concerned with promoting good citizenship and more interested in creating funky titles for record labels and production companies. By and large, the results are user friendly - names like Blind Dog Records, Drunk Dog Records, Barking Dog Records, Happydog Records, Little Dog Records, Lucky Dog Records, Doghouse Records, Family Dog Productions and Blue Dalmatian Productions. These are all surprisingly traditional, given the rock industry’s rebellious reputation. A bit edgier — and sometimes downright obscure - are labels the likes of Dogbreath Records, DogBite Records, Mule Dog Records and Scooch Pooch Records. Clearly the dog as an important member of our society has left his mark on this aspect of rock’s development.

Dogs have also sniffed out and marked their territories on the names bands bestow on themselves. One of the most famous, of course, is Three Dog Night. Formed in 1968, the now-famous name came from a story about Australian aborigines who, on cold nights in the outback, would sleep with their dogs for warmth. The coldest nights were called “three dog nights.” A somewhat more curious explanation lies behind The Bonzo Dog Dada Band. The British group picked up “Bonzo Dog” from a famous 1920s/30s postcard puppy drawn by illustrator George Studdy, and tacked on “Dada,” an anti-art movement that flourished in the early twentieth century. Other dog-driven rock band names include Regal Beagle, The Beagle Boys, and of course Rude Poodle and Digital Poodle, mentioned earlier.

Honoring dogs in its own inimitable way — vastly different from rock ‘n’ roll’s sometimes irreverent behavior — the AKC has continued to offer up new programs and services. In 1980 the Museum of the Dog was founded and located in St. Louis, Missouri. The Museum is open to the public and home to the world’s finest collection of art devoted to the dog. For those more interested in the real thing, the Museum hosts a Guest Dog of the Week program, giving visitors the opportunity to meet live dogs, with their handlers, and learn about the care and history of different breeds. In the early 1990s, the AKC Canine Health Foundation was established, a non-profit organization dedicated to advancing the study of canine genetics to improve the quality of life for dogs and their owners. By mid-decade, the club had founded the AKC’s Companion Animal Recovery (CAR) program, designed to help reunite lost pets with their owners. CAR’s database of micro-chipped and tattooed pets encompasses more than 2 million dogs, cats, horses and other pets — and as of November 1, 2003, 168,211 lost animals have been returned to their owners.

Dogs have played starring roles in the development of both the American Kennel Club and rock ‘n’ roll, and each has had a profound impact on the American lifestyle and culture.

Photographs by Cami Johnson,