Cartoon of Thurber’s dog Muggs–“No one knew quite what was wrong with him”

The writer and cartoonist James Thurber once said “Dogs represent balance, serenity, and is a sound creature in a crazy world.” Last night my dog made me doubt this statement when she jumped straight in the air from her slumber and started doing laps in our living room, banking off chairs, circling with hind end tucked–until finally soaring over the sofa in one seemingly impossible epic leap. I wondered how Thurber would represent her antics–one of my favorite things being Thurber’s “The Pet Department”, a fictional help column from the book “The Thurber Carnival”.

Thurbers dog Muggs

Muggs got the unhappy title of Thurber’s worst dog. Made famous by the story “The dog who bit people”, Thurber’s mother would send candy each year to the people he bit–but regardless if he was in fact the worst dog Thurber owned he was undoubtedly comic gold. I was a bit taken aback when I found a photo of Muggs–  the spitting image of my Irish terrier and couch jumper, Ella.

My dog Ella–looking like Mugg’s in repose in the back. Her friend Pinto in front looking a bit possessed

Before I was old enough to read “The Thurber Carnival”, my dad would quote lines from it with no context whatsoever. I would walk in from school and he would say “If you’re a police dog, where is your badge?” which would then crack him up (see below). As I was fairly certain I wasn’t a dog and had no interest in being part of the police, I was understandably confused.

I keep the tradition going with my sons–although now they understand the police dog thing as we have spent many idle hours reading “The Thurber Carnival”, tears  streaming down our faces and gasping for breath from laughing. I am always impressed by how much Thurber can express with such economy of line.


The book “The Thurber Carnival” also went on to become a Tony award winning Broadway play that ran for 223 performances, many of which he starred in himself.

Cartoonist James Thurber, wearing magnification glasses, at work on one of his cartoons.

Born in Ohio, Thurber’s lost an eye to an arrow his brother shot at him during a game of William Tell. His ability to do sports and other childhood activities was limited by this injury and consequentially he developed his creative side through writing and drawing.


Thurber’s childhood home

As an adult he moved to New York and achieved success, notably while working at The New Yorker. In addition to his cartoons and cover art, he wrote a wildly successful play with Elliott Nugent called “The Male Animal” that was adapted into a film along with his short story”The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” which was adapted twice. Thurber once said about his drawing, “Some people thought my drawings were done under water; others that they were done by moonlight. But mothers thought that I was a little child or that my drawings were done by my granddaughter. So they sent in their own children’s drawings to The New Yorker, and I was told to write these ladies, and I would write them all the same letter: ‘Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”


We have cats the way most people have mice

The whole Pet Department is so funny, but I will conclude with one of my favorites–“ba-ad Scotties!”–and leave the last word to the beloved Mr. Thurber.

Q. I have three Scotch terriers which take things out of closets and down from shelves, etc. My veterinarian advised me to gather together all the wreckage, set them down in the midst of it, and say “ba-ad Scotties!” This, however, merely seems to give them a kind of pleasure. If I spank one, the other two jump me — playfully, but they jump me.
A. To begin with, I question the advisability of having three Scotch terriers. They are bound to get you down. However, it seems to me that you are needlessly complicating your own problem. The Scotties probably think that you are trying to enter into the spirit of their play. Their inability to comprehend what you are trying to get at will in the end make them melancholy, and you and the dogs will begin to drift farther and farther apart. I’d deal with each terrier, and each object, separately, beginning with the telephone, the disconnection of which must inconvenience you sorely.