You can take the dog out of Alsace...

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The Independent Online

The other day I fell into conversation about dogs with an elderly man on a train. We started talking about dogs because we were watching a slightly hippy family who had brought a dog on the train with them, and I said that in my experience dogs belonging to hippies or travellers were always long-haired dogs, like their owners.

The other day I fell into conversation about dogs with an elderly man on a train. We started talking about dogs because we were watching a slightly hippy family who had brought a dog on the train with them, and I said that in my experience dogs belonging to hippies or travellers were always long-haired dogs, like their owners.

"Nothing very surprising about that," said the man. "I am sure we always get dogs which reflect ourselves in appearance or behaviour. People say that dogs grow to look like their owners. Nonsense! People choose dogs like themselves in the first place. What kind of dog have you got?"

"A springer spaniel," I said, a touch defensively.

"Are you a tidy kind of person?" he said.

"Not at all," I said. "Most untidy."

"Thought so," he said with satisfaction. "Springers are a bit wild and uncontrollable. You'd never get a little old lady with a springer. Or if you did, they should be divorced immediately. Little old ladies should always have little old dogs, and they normally do. Whereas people with springers..."

"What kind of dog do you have?" I said, counter-attacking.

"I don't," he said. "Actually, the last dog I ever had was a poodle."

"A poodle?!" I said, looking at him. He was tall and thin and ascetic.

"My wife's dog," he said. "She was fluffy and silly."

"Ah," I said. "The wife or the dog?"

"Both," he said. "The thing is that when we choose a dog, we are choosing a soul mate. You can never select your relations. Nor your friends, not really. It's only pets we have complete power of choice over, because they never change."

"Ah," I said.

"Though I did once know a total exception to that rule. I knew a dog which changed personality completely - twice. It was... well, it was before the war, to begin with. I am old enough to remember pre-war days, just. And in the late 1930s we had a family dog which was a lovely, sprawly dog. It flopped around all day and played games, and chased after other dogs, and was a bit mad, and irresponsible. Until..."

"Until...?"

"Until the war started. In about 1940, it changed character utterly. It had been messy and it stopped being messy. It had loved playing games and became very serious. It also became a bit of a hazard outside our house, because once it attacked a British soldier in uniform walking past. He had never attacked anyone before! After that we had to keep him in. And then...

"And then...?"

"As soon as the war ended, he utterly changed again. He went back to his good old ways. He became messy, and easy-going, and never bit anyone, and got a bit fussy about food, as he had been before.

"Well," I said, "I suppose he was affected by the war. The bombs and the shortages and everything."

"Possibly," said the man. "But there was an even better explanation. You see, the dog was an Alsatian."

"I am afraid I don't see."

"What you have to remember is that Alsatian dogs come from Alsace. So, until 1940 our dog's homeland was French. And until l940 it behaved in a typically French way. But as soon as the Germans took over Alsace it started behaving in a strictly German way. Serious, well-behaved, organised. And, I might add, attacking anyone in British uniform. But when the French regained Alsace, it went back to behaving in a French way again. Extraordinary, especially when you think it had no idea who was actually running its homeland. Oh - here's my station ! Must dash..."

And that was the last I saw of him. I can't make up my mind if there was anything in what he said.

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