How a Hound Dog Named Elvis Made Us Famous in South Philly

How could I ever forget Elvis, the weird-sounding former lab dog who stole hearts in South Philly in the ’80s?

We moved to Philadelphia in the 1980s. My husband got a job at Bryn Mawr College, in the ritzy suburbs referred to as the Main Line. I said I would go under one condition: that we did not live in the suburbs.

My husband said, “Okay. We don’t have a dog yet, so we can live in the city.”

Now that I spend so much time in New York City, I have to laugh because everybody has a dog in a teeny apartment much smaller than those in Philadelphia. I guess we thought dog walking, no backyard, landlord-not-allowing, etc. meant we’d own the city life and go dogless for a while longer. So, two cats and a bird moved to South Philly with us.

My hatred of “suburbs” stemmed from the New York suburbs I hated: Hicksville, Levittown, New Hyde Park — all towns I considered early death. I was so glad my parents didn’t have enough money to leave Queens and move “out to the island” when I was growing up.

What I really wished was that we had stayed poor enough to stay in Brooklyn. I loved Brooklyn, way before Brooklyn was cool. My cousin was still poor and lived in Flatbush. Loved visiting her. Hated Hicksville. There was no subway in Hicksville. How could you live there?

Surprise! Twins. And one very large baby stroller.

Living in Philadelphia was a trip. One of the best places we ever lived.

After renting an apartment for a year, we bought the cheapest and smallest house in the world. In South Philly. Nine feet wide. It made Betsy Ross’s house look palatial. The month we moved in, I got pregnant. By mistake. With twins. And when the boys were 7 months old, I got accepted into vet school at Penn.

So for now, the smallest house in the world would have to suffice for a family that would be doubling in size very shortly and going into severe and debilitating debt for vet school. Glad it was the cheapest house in the world now!

Flash-forward to my second year at Penn. Everything is going fine. Twins are now 14 months old, and we luck out and find a bigger house, a foreclosure with a low mortgage. Only 11%! In South Philly. How good could it get?!

Elvis after bloat surgery with an IV hanging from the front door

Enter Elvis

At Penn that year, in my physiology course, we had a laboratory that required using two dogs. Nothing bad happened to them. We gave them a placebo, took blood samples and measured drug clearance times. That was it. After four weeks, the little odd man that took care of the lab animals whispered in a barely audible voice that the two dogs were up for adoption. I figured there would be a clamor among my classmates to adopt these dogs. After all, some of my classmates lived in the suburbs!

On the last day of the lab, the little man said that nobody had shown an interest in the dogs. He had taken a shine to the big black hound and was adopting him. But nobody wanted the old blue tick. I had named the blue tick Elvis because he was nothin’ but a hound dog and he took drugs. Elvis seemed very old and had been de-barked at a previous lab, so his bark was pitiful. He leaned on me, and I rubbed his ears between drug clearance times.

I brought Elvis home to South Philly to the not-the-smallest-house in the world. My husband was not pleased, and rightfully so. This would be the first in a long line of my rescues. I learned to ask and discuss in the future. (This is a good save-your-marriage-technique.)

“But he would have been euthanized,” I said.

“I can’t believe nobody wanted him,” I said.

“He doesn’t really bark,” I said.

Angry husband.

“He’s really old,” I said. “He’s gonna die soon. We’re just letting him live out his life.”

Elvis did die — 12 years later. I think my husband forgave me around that time. Seriously, I think that “hang dog” look, that woeful and strangled bark, and the goofy gait made Elvis look older than his years. Oh, and there was another thing: In the lab, Elvis just hung around and slept on the floor all day. What I didn’t realize was that he had been tranquilized for all his “laboratory” days. I had never spent a moment with Elvis when he hadn’t been “tranked.”

Without tranks, Elvis wasn’t so tranquil. He was a goof. He had never been leash-trained. He was housetrained (thank the gods who save marriages), and I have to say he was pretty good with two maniac twin toddlers. He didn’t care about the cats or birds (by now there were four cats, two nectar spewing lories and a parakeet). The husband was putting up with a lot. I was studying 24/7, there were two kids in diapers and now there was a dog to walk if I was late at school. Plus, Elvis had colitis from time to time — dog poop on 1970s harvest gold shag wall-to-wall carpeting. Nice.

Elvis Has Left the Building Er, Park

We lived half a block from a little gritty city park, which became my (and Elvis’s) salvation. I suppose there was a leash law, but it wasn’t enforced. (These are the days before dog runs.) This park was frequented by three people with dogs and a homeless man who once had been a stock trader. Elvis somehow remained in the park even though every corner had an open gate… until one day. I was sitting on the homeless man’s bench hearing his life story and seriously contemplating inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner when a voice yelled out, “Hey lady, your dog left the park!” Holy pepperoni.

Elvis was headed for the Italian Market, running as if he had caught the scent of a hundred raccoons, barking with those maimed vocal cords all the way. Sweating bullets and terrified he was going to be hit, thanking God I had left the twins at home, I was relieved to discover he had finally stopped to sniff some trash. Some people had tried to help me, but most yahoos were not leaving their street corner, hanging over the mailbox (this is Rocky country), saying, “Yo, lady, whut’s wrong wit’ your dawg’s voice?” “Hey yo, that dawg don’t bark.”

Finally, Elvis stopped to sniff through a trash can, and I caught him. This had been the second happiest day of his life — the first being the day I sprang him from the lab. He smiled at me and seemed to say, “Come on, you knew I’d break out of that stupid park one of these days.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” I told him. “But you played in traffic and that’s just stupid. Don’t do it again.”

“Okay,” he said. “Let’s get a cheesesteak at Pat’s.” He never left the park again. He just flirted at the gate.

De-barking: Pitiful Procedure

Now a word about de-barking, a hotbed of controversy. This procedure is done infrequently and not by most veterinarians. Elvis was my introduction to what a poorly de-barked dog sounded like. He had a hoarse, half-volume bark. It was very obvious because he tried to bay like a hunting hound dog. This de-barking was done to him at some point to keep noise down in a laboratory setting. He sounded pitiful, but he was a happy dog. He never suffered from complications of the procedure, like scarring in the larynx.

I have been asked only two or three times to de-bark a dog because of uncontrolled barking. I referred these owners to behavior specialists. One owner was  threatening to euthanize her sheltie. I gave her the name of a surgeon who might perform the procedure. Breeders are also known for requesting de-barking surgery, largely because they have too many dogs in confined areas.

Unfortunately, some of these controversial procedures are done without anesthesia in the hands of unskilled people. Some states are trying to pass legislation to criminalize backyard de-barkings, tail docking, ear crops and, yes, declawing (speaking of controversial). The de-barkings are apparently done at the worst of the puppy mills by pushing a PCV pipe down the throat of the breeding dogs. Sorry to share this sick and sad information.

‘That’s a Funny Dog Yougot!’

Elvis with Quincy Jones’s cat that I rescued! (She had litterbox issues… NOT declawed.)

Back to Elvis. He actually did make us famous in our neighborhood. To understand South Philly, just think of Tony Soprano’s hangouts and move them south about 100 miles. We lived in wiseguy heaven.

There was a great restaurant on our block owned by… somebody very important in the neighborhood. My husband treated me for my birthday to a dinner at this fancy place. The check came. Andy put our almost-maxed-out-on-Pampers credit card down on the table.

“We don’t take no cards.”

Holy pepperoni. Cash only? We’re sweating. We’re embarrassed. Not an ATM on every corner in those days. My husband began to explain that we just lived four doors —

“I know youse,” the owner said. “You have the hound dog wit’ no throat. You can pay me tomorrow. Donworryaboudit.”

Andy was on the doorstep when they unlocked the restaurant at 10 the next morning. Cash in hand.

Elvis remained a regular in the neighborhood. He was allowed into the tiny Italian deli at my corner. I couldn’t fit the largest twin stroller in the world in the store, so an old man would leave his wooden folding chair inside and “watch the boys” while I picked up a few things.

Elvis liked to wag his tail and bark at the same time. Everybody asked about the bark. When I explained de-barking to them, it was always the same response: “How could they do that? That ain’t right.”

The day we drove away for good, I thought my legs would give out from under me I was so sad. As I walked toward the Ford Escort that held my husband, the twins, Elvis and the four cats, I looked across the street and waved goodbye one last time to Vinnie, the bag man, who was leaning on the storefront.

“Take care of yourselves now. That’s a funny dog yougot. I’m gonna miss youse.”

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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