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“Lord, help me to be the man my dog thinks I am.” — A Bumper Sticker Prayer

Between the ages of four and ten I lived in the Golden Age of TV Dog Worship. TV heroes in my 1950’s childhood included Neil, the lovable St. Bernard in the quirky series Topper, feisty little Asta, The Thin Man’s mascot, and Roy Roger’s Bullet. The unquestioned monarchs of TV dogdom, however, had their own shows. Lassie and Rin Tin Tin each had a series from 1954 until the end of the decade when Kennedy out-cheated Nixon and snatched the White House from the Republicans.

I liked Lassie. But she looked high-maintenance to me. She was a dog I thought a girl would like. A critter that needed a lot of brushing … a pooch that would look good with ribbons tied to it. And I never believed little Timmy and his mom needed all that much protection out on the farm. That farm wasn’t dangerous, particularly if you discounted Timmy’s chances of falling into a combine. And I never saw him do any farming.

Rin Tin Tin, on the other hand, was a no-nonsense, unsentimental German Shepherd. He and his master lived in a boy’s fantasy paradise, a cavalry fort on the Western Frontier. Now that was dangerous. They lived in a fort, for crying out loud. They probably didn’t even allow girls to visit, never mind living there with a handwringer like Timmy’s mom.

Rin Tin Tin’s master, a kid just my age, got to wear his own way-cool double-breasted cavalry uniform and snappy yellow neckerchief. He had an honorary rank, Corporal Rusty. Rock steady Lieutenant Rip Masters and hilarious Sgt. Biff O’Hara looked after him. They didn’t let Rusty carry anything like the two chrome plated Fanner Fifty revolvers that I sported around my neighborhood. But Rusty didn’t need weapons. He had Rinny.

TV drama didn’t get much better than the scenes where some brainless cowpoke would draw down on Rusty. With the immortal command “Yeoooo Rinny,” the little corporal would launch his canine like a Patriot Missile. Before you could say “nice doggy” the bad guy would have 130 pounds of muscle, fur and fangs standing on his chest with a familiar looking forearm in its mouth. I loved that dog.

I still do. That’s why it’s not just the 8-year old Rin Tin Tin fan in me that is appalled to see Rinny patrolling our local airport. It would be fine if he were just looking for bombs, using his mysterious canine powers to protect us, but that’s not his main job.

They’ve got him doing olfactory strip searches in the ever more squalid War on Drugs. What kind of job is that for a proud pooch like Rinny? He’s a fighter of savages, a biter of bad guys, a defender of the defenseless, not a snoop and a snitch. For drug warriors Rinny is just a tool to get around the laws that protect us from being searched at every stop light. His dignity, like ours, means nothing to them. Exposing and punishing our bad habits is the path to career advancement.

Scenes from old movies flash through my mind. German dog handlers dressed in Village People saddle caps, aviator shades, jodhpurs and shiny black leather check “papers” in a WWII train station. Others patrol the perimeter of nasty, barbed-wire-wrapped labor camps. They are not the good guys.

Modern drug warriors use dogs to get around the necessity of probable cause for a search. They stop you and ask to search your car. You say no. They call for a dog and stall for a while writing your ticket. The dog arrives. What do you know; he signals drugs in your car. That’s probable cause. They search your car.

I don’t doubt that dogs can be trained to detect the smell of drugs and signal their find. German Shepherds are at least as smart as Congressmen. And like Congressmen, they aim to please. Properly trained, they will, on command, signal whatever you want them to. I don’t doubt their integrity (the dog’s) but a subtle hand signal can be the same to Rinny as a whiff of pot. You, the searchee, will be none the wiser.

If we allow a trained dog’s signal to determine probable cause, the world is wide open for searching, with or without any real cause, to anyone with a trained dog and a badge.

Dogs like the immortal Rin Tin Tin represent the best of our relationship with other creatures on this earth. Dogs like Rinny help people in ways too numerous to list. They see for the blind. They rescue the lost. They comfort and protect the weak. They show traits of character that we strive for in ourselves and admire in our friends — courage, loyalty, strength, intelligence, nobility of soul.

In the past, tyrants have shamed our unique bond with these gallant creatures by using them to terrorize the innocent. Power mad world improvers have shamed us with dogs in places as distant as Berlin and Moscow and as close as Montgomery. Our government’s use of dogs in its assault on harmless people with bad habits abuses the rights of every American. But even worse, it dishonors man’s best friend by turning him into an informer. It’s like tricking kids into ratting out their parents. Corporal Rusty would never treat Rinny that way.